Roots of our Faith
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 23, 2018
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37
In our gospel reading, Jesus attempts to quietly move through Galilee, while preparing his disciples for what is ahead. And what is ahead? His death, which he predicts to the disciples for the 2nd time. Failing to understand, the disciples turn their attention to “more important” matters—like who is the greatest among them. Aware of their antics, Jesus calls them on their behavior. “What were you arguing about on the way?”
Recognizing the need for a teaching moment, Jesus calls the disciples to him to provide an object lesson through a child. While embracing the child, the one considered least in society, Jesus points to the greatest, his Abba Father, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” A little child will lead the disciples to new understanding—whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. That’s the upside-down gospel Jesus proclaims.
Although, in our culture, a homeless person might be a better metaphor of the lowest and least because things have changed drastically in 2000 years. No longer are children held in such low regard. These days, parents and grandparents-to-be prepare for months for a new born baby to arrive. Our daughter, Sarah, is an artist and the baby room she created for Harper six years ago would have put Leonardo da Vinci to shame. One painting read: “With your first breath you took ours away!” Truly, children are far from the bottom of the totem pole in most families. But as much as we want them to have a full life—with love and happiness and vast opportunities—we fail them if we do not help them understand that greatness comes through serving God and serving others. To help children grow in Christian faith, to help them develop deep, spiritual roots, that will carry them through wind and rain and sun and storm—that is of the utmost importance. It is of eternal importance. Children need to be rooted in their faith—rooted like a tree planted by streams of water.
One of my favorite spiritual practices is to read and meditate on the Psalms. Generally, I prefer the Book of Common Prayer that divides the psalms into morning readings and evening readings and allows for the entire Psalter to be covered each month. Often, when the first day of the month rolls around, I sit with my coffee, open the Psalter and feel lightness in my heart because I know it is time to reflect on Psalm 1 again. I know it is time to ask myself, “What kind of tree am I?”
Hear these words again: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of the scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do they prosper.”
If I am a tree planted by streams of water—what sort of tree might it be? There are days when I feel like an oak—sturdy, strong and true. Other days I long to be a dogwood tree—with a floral display in the spring, green foliage in the summer, scarlet berries in the fall, textured bark contrasting against the new-fallen East Tennessee snow. Some days I feel a bit droopy—my head bows low and my arms hang at my side—on these days, I must be a weeping willow. A tree planted by streams of water—today, what sort of tree might you be?
The righteous are said to be like fruitful trees nourished by streams of water. But what about those who choose to live in other places besides God’s streams of water? Let’s continue reading from Psalm 1, “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
While the righteous may be like rooted trees, the wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. This simile from the world of farming offers the image of thrashing time, when a farmer scoops up the grain and lets it fall to the ground, allowing the wind to blow the scrap—the chaff—away. Unlike the righteous, the wicked are not nourished. They have no roots to hold them steady; therefore, they’re scattered about to and fro.[i]
In God’s creation, are we trees or are we chaff? Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.” To live the Christian life is not to pretend to be somebody else. The tree doesn’t try to be a peacock or a jack hammer. A tree is content to be a tree. You and I, however, tend to struggle with our identity—our true self. We find it hard to embrace the person God intends for us to be. It’s difficult for us to accept the truth that our lives are not our own, that we are dependent on God for sun and rain and breath.
Maybe we feel that God has created us, and we are left on our own to be the best that we can be. But do we really have that much power? Without God’s grace, the best we can muster doesn’t amount to much! Even with our best intentions, we are incapable of “getting it all together” on our own. As one commentator notes, “A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”[ii] While being transformed by the Holy Spirit, we begin to feel our arms stretched upward giving glory to God, our roots growing deeper, watered by the grace of our baptism, and swayed only by the wind of the Spirit.[iii]
“Happy (or blessed) are those who delight and meditate on the law of the Lord….” This is the beginning of Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the entire Psalter, inviting us to use the book as a guide to a blessed life. The instruction to delight in the law will seem odd to us if it brings up images of legal rules and prohibitions. But, ultimately, the way of God’s law (or the Torah) is the way of love. The law is our instruction book for wise living—so that we may learn the way and will of the Lord and allow God to shape our hearts and minds. That’s why the law is a cause for delight.
But God’s law of love won’t be a delight for everyone. Some will reject it and take the path that leads to sinfulness and cynicism. Their way is an illusion—with no more depth than the chaff that the wind blows away—because they aren’t connected to the source of life.[iv]
In America, it’s common for preachers to preach the “cotton candy gospel.” Promises are made that if you have enough faith and do A and B and C—you’ll have everything your little heart desires. Since this false teaching is so prevalent in our culture, it’s important to stress Psalm 1 is not a recipe for prosperity. We know wickedness sometimes prevails. But in the grand scheme of God’s love story for humanity, those who delight in the Lord, know theirs is a God who acts in history to free people from the bondage of sin. In the words of one commentator: “God is genuinely concerned about the way real people spend their precious God-given years on this earth. God cares. God provides. We can choose to take to heart God’s gracious will for humanity and allow God to use us in the grand unfolding of God’s [plan]. Or we can choose to live as if God were not actively caring and providing for God’s people—which is to say, we can opt out. God’s blessing belongs to those who opt in, centering their lives on Gods law (torah).[v]
Still, sometimes bad things happen to good people. That’s true! That’s true because sometimes bad things happen to ALL people. And when they happens, we may go to the Psalter in search of other songs that need to be sung—songs that give us words for lament and fear and loss. But Psalm 1 captures the wisdom needed for us and for our children and for our children’s children: How we choose to live our lives matters, and a life lived in relationship with a good and loving God is a life that bears fruit.[vi]
[i] Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Feasting on the Word, 85.
[ii] Galatians 5:22
[iv] James L. Mays, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Psalms, 40-44.
[v] Ruth L. Boling, Feasting, 82.
*Cover Art © Jan Richardson Images, “Between Heaven and Earth”; used by subscription