Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
January 7, 2018
Texts: Psalm 1; Matthew 7:15-20
The image of fruit trees has a long history in Palestine, either as ancient Judea or the modern occupied West Bank. Although the tree we most associate with the land is the olive tree, Palestinian farmers also grow lemons, oranges, figs, pomegranates, and apricots. Most trees generally take three to four years to bear fruit, although in some cases apricot trees may yield their fruit within two years.
Because the land is primarily arid, trees need to be planted by flowing streams or by irrigated channels, so you can just imagine the battle over the access to water that occurs not only in Palestine but in other parts of arid portions of the world. Indeed, there is no question that one of the impacts of climate change is an increase in arid or dry lands including the expansion of desert like conditions in Africa and India, not to mention areas of our own Western United States.
In this new world of expanding warmth and dryness, water access becomes even more serious leading to battles over water rights. When a river encompasses two countries, such as the Rio Bravo, known as the Rio Grande to us North Americans, the issue can become even more contentious. The headwaters find their origin in the mountains of Colorado, flowing through three U.S. states and five Mexican states to create the fourth longest river on this continent.
Without the water of either the Rio Bravo or of the Dead Sea there would be no agriculture. While the waters of the Rio Bravo are governed by a binational compact from 1944, Palestinian water is controlled by Israel which shares the Dead Sea with Jordan. Under the recent agreement between an occupying power and the occupied, Israel proper and the West Bank settlements get 80% of the water, leaving Palestinians only 70 liters of water per day for all purposes, including agriculture; the United Nations states that 100 liters per day per capita is the minimum that any people should have.
And to make matters worse for Palestinian farmers trying to grow fruit, the occupying army regularly uproots fruit and olive trees, the latest being in Tulkarem near the Palestinian city of Nablus so that a roundabout and highway could be constructed for the illegal West Bank settlement of Einav. Bad trees cannot bear good fruit are the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel; and the fruit that will be borne from the willful destruction of good fruit trees is only more anger and hatred.
The Psalmist speaks to this very issue in our reading from Psalm 1: Those who follow the law of the Lord are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield fruit in their season. Now, there are a whole host of questions that can be raised by this psalm, only one of which is whether those who follow the law of the Lord do indeed prosper. The writer of Job was not as sanguine as was the Psalmist in this instance.
One commentator on the Psalms suggests that the real challenge of this incredible collection of poetry is how to interpret them theologically in our own age while being faithful to the variety of meanings these sung or chanted poems intended to convey to their ancient listeners. This Psalm as well as the others we will read and listen to should not be seen through a traditional Christian lens but in the historical context of their attempt to lament and cry aloud to God as well as to sing praises with integrity to their own theological convictions.
This is not an easy task, to be sure, for we do not inhabit the world of the ancient Hebrews. The power and beauty of the Psalms are found in the fact that even though we may not share the worldview of the composer, they speak to us in the most human of terms. One commentator noted that in the greater part of Scripture one hears God speaking to us through events, prophets, and writers, but in the Psalms, we speak to God.
This Psalm, as have others, lends itself to many translations, from the King James which uses the word blessed where the RSV/NSRV uses the word happy. “O, the joys of those” is another way to translate this opening line. The imagery of the Psalm reflects much of the language and literature of the ancient Near East, such as the use of the word “walk,” a traditional metaphor for pursuing a set of moral choices in life. In the ancient world, people were taught that the right choices led to good lives, Job notwithstanding.
We think of the word “meditate” as one of silent contemplation; however, the Hebrew word hagah, according to Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, and a translator of much of Hebrew Scripture, actually means to murmur, speaking low to oneself, silent contemplation not being part of Hebrew culture. Alter was one of the commentators on the Psalms at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in November, where all 150 psalms were sung to the music of 150 composers.
As Alter noted, we know virtually nothing about how Hebrew music sounded and can only guess through listening to other ancient music from Near Eastern cultures. We are not sure whether the sung psalm was accompanied by an instrument except in those psalms where there is a clear reference to one.
The imagery of the righteous as being like trees planted by streams of water is an old one and used by Jeremiah as he recounts the words of the Lord:
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
Sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
And its leaves shall stay green.
In the year of the drought it is not anxious,
And it does not cease to bear fruit.
These words transmigrated to our time with the American folk song, “I shall not be moved,” sung as a hymn and used with a few lyric changes by unions and civil rights workers.
That image is contrasted by the description of the wicked as chaff driven away by the wind and facing judgment for their actions. Those who scoff the law of the Lord will not have a leg to stand on but will simply blow away. The question for us in our day is whether we can really believe that although the arc of the moral universe may be long that it does bend toward justice as the Psalm says.
That is one of the major questions we face as we look at the world about us. We are in a new year, but it seems like the old year, 2017, has not let go. We are still vexed over many of the changes that occurred in 2017 and some of us are very concerned about what will come in 2018. It looks like we will continue to have stop-gap government, with votes on the debt ceiling and budget issues with threats to shut down the government not to mention officially sanctioned racism and hate from the highest officials in government.
And when I hear the words “sitting in the seat of scoffers” I honestly think of Congress. Remember the words that John Adams sings to God in 1776, “I do believe you’ve laid a curse on North America … A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere … but no, you sent us Congress!”
The Hallmark type quotes one can find on the internet do not assuage us. Yes, it’s true that one cannot return to make a new start, but simply saying that one can start now and make a new ending does little more than make us wonder if it’s that easy. Will the ways of the wicked perish?
Look carefully at the words of this psalm. It does not say that the wicked themselves will perish or that the righteous themselves will prosper; it says that the ways of the wicked will perish and that God watches over the way of the righteous. There’s no guarantee that God will solve the problems only that we can find our strength in God as we work for righteousness.
As we move forward in 2018, we need to move beyond the things, ideas, feelings that left us stuck in 2017. In this way, we will be like trees planted by streams of water. We then can bear good fruit as Jesus calls us to do. Not easy, but, oh, so necessary for our individual spiritual well-being and the world.
Let us pray: Resourceful God, help us move beyond what it was that held us down in 2017 in order to bring your kingdom into fruition in 2018. In the name of him who showed us how to bear good fruit, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.