Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, rcl yr b, 2021
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8A; Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37

they are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season

Ellen Charry says of Psalm 1—the Psalm we just read together, and the first Psalm of the whole book of Psalms—she calls Psalm 1 “a warning label.”

But what kind of warning label does she mean? What does Psalm 1 warn us about the rest of the Psalms? “Keep out of the reach of children”? That doesn’t sound right. That the Psalms “May cause drowsiness”? Accurate, but still not what she meant. “Do not drink alcoholic beverages” while reading the Psalms? No comment. “Do not operate heavy equipment” while reading the Psalms? Now that is actually good advice. But still not what she meant.

No, what Charry means is that Psalm 1 gives you a sense of the whole Psalter, a Psalter that “is exquisitely ambiguous, offering comfort and encouragement with one hand and challenge and threat with the other.”

Psalm 1 is a warning label because it tells you what you get in the rest of the bottle: good medicine. But take it wrong, and it might not turn out all that well for you.

So let’s talk about the threat. Let’s get this talk about the wicked out of the way. The wicked “are like chaff which the wind blows away.” And if the wicked are like chaff which the wind blows away, they “shall not stand upright when judgement comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.”

Let’s be clear: being wicked is not, here in Psalm 1, about “being a bad person.” The wicked here are not evil, they are not criminals, they are not psychopaths. The wicked are weak, above all else. So this isn’t about the criminally wicked, the psychologically wicked, the economically wicked. Not in the first place (though perhaps in the second place). Nope—the wicked, in the first place, “are like chaff which the wind blows away.”

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself saying that being like chaff is like being weak. And first part of the Psalm will help us understand why to be like chaff is to be weak.

“Happy are they who trust in the Lord,” begins the Psalm. Ok. “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.” Ok. But here’s the centre of the Psalm. Here’s what will help us understand a bit more. The ones who trust in the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Here now is the central image. So let’s pause a bit on this image.

The trees planted by streams of living water always have their roots in what sustains them. And if the trees planted by streams of living water have their roots in what sustains them they will bear fruit, and not wither. Ok, up until now it sounds like common sense.

But let’s look closely. What this is saying is not that the tree can bear fruit all the time, but in due season. And it can bear fruit in due season because it can survive the drought. It can bear fruit later, because it can survive the season when life is difficult to sustain. Because it is been planted by the living waters, the living waters that help survive the drought.

This is why the wicked are like chaff. They aren’t planted like trees by living water, and so they are weak and dry and brittle, and the wind will blow them away.

I imagine I’ve said this before …but the life of Israel, from the time of King David through to the time of Jesus, was rarely one of uninterrupted, clear evidence of God’s favour. From the slow breakdown of David’s Kingdom, to exile, to occupation—the singers of the Psalms will suffer over and over.

They will feel God’s absence. The singers of the Psalms will be taunted by the scoffers. The singers of the Psalms will be neglected by those they thought were their friends.

So we are in good company, as we read the Psalms, too. We too are a people who will sing the Psalms in good times and in bad. In times of political stability and political instability; in times when we can enjoy the pleasures of home and when those pleasures are taken away; in times when the rulers of the land are good and when they don’t take us into account; in times of good health and in long pandemics.

The way one remains hopeful, and trusting that the Lord is indeed taking this long desert drought into account and still somehow leading us into his kingdom: we are planted by living water.

So continue to stay close to God, read the Bible, continue to pray, come and worship, and so grow in trust and love of God even if it feels like you’re in a drought and there’s no water to be seen; because even when times are hard, when you feel like the world is crumbling and God is hard to find: know that you will indeed bear fruit in good season, because you are already planted by streams of living water.

So, Psalm 1 as a warning label? Don’t be like the wicked, who are weak because they lose trust in the living God. These are the ones that fall into many other vices, as the Psalmists will enumerate over the next 149.

But rather, know you are already planted by living water, so that in the dry season, in times of hardship when it feels like God may be so hard to see, you will pass through it because you will be drawing sustenance the whole time. And when the dry season ends, you won’t have blown away like chaff. Instead, you will be ready to bear fruit.