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Like Trees Planted by Streams of Water

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: Psalm 1

There’s a version of the psalms I turn to when I’m feeling particularly low, when I’m feeling unworthy or unlovable. Nan Merrill’s “Psalms for Praying” are a bit extreme, but in the softest, most lovely way.

Where our Psalm today says:

Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand when judgment comes: *

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

Nan Merrill says:

Turning from the Heart of Love

they will know suffering and pain.

There is a graciousness in her interpretation, a hopefulness. She doesn’t call people “wicked,” she says that they have “turned from the Heart of Love.” Sin isn’t inherent to who people are but is a choice. It is not God who sends suffering as judgment, but suffering comes as a consequence of that choice to turn away from Love.

Love. Or Beloved. That is how Nan Merrill names God in her interpretation of the Psalms. “O my Beloved, you are my shepherd, I shall not want,” her version of Psalm 23 goes.

I think this goes well with our gospel today. As most of you know by now, today’s gospel contains the scripture I reference more than any other in the Bible:

’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This is Jesus explicitly telling us what our hermeneutic, what the root of our faith, needs to be: Love. When we read the Bible, we must read it through the lens of love. When we pray, we must give our prayers over to love. When we interact with our boss or our sibling or the guy driving really slow in front of us, we must be guided by love. When we read the news of the world, we must interpret it through love.

Love is what roots us.

Nan Merrill’s version of today’s Psalm goes,

They are like trees planted by streams of water

That yield fruit in due season

And their leaves flourish;

And in all that they do, they give life.

We are like trees planted by streams of water. Love, Jesus tells us, is our root. But what is it that nourishes that love, that makes it grow deeper and stronger, anchoring us when the winds and storms of our lives blow through?

What is the stream of water that nurtures Love in us?

This is the question I’ve been holding as I’ve been preparing for the sanctuary refresh conversation we’ll be having after worship. Because in one way, I think the answer is pretty simple: church and worship is one of the main ways we nurture God’s Love in us.

But it’s actually not that simple. Because church and worship nourish each of us in different ways. While I don’t think it’s just one thing for any of us, some of you have told me that it’s the music that really builds you up on Sundays. Others have said that it’s the sermon. For me, it’s communion that really grounds me in the Body of Christ, which for me is God’s love.

In fact, since the beginning of the Jesus movement, the Christian Church, it’s never been just one thing. The way Christians have worshiped, the way God’s love has been nurtured in them, has shifted and changed through time, through schisms, through an evolving understand of who God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit is. Or as our 1928 Book of Common Prayer says, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer. Or, as St. Augustine interpreted in the 4th century and Nan Merrill later took up, God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love.

Our understanding of God has never been just one thing. And neither has our worship or the places we’ve gathered to worship.

The earliest Christian communities, the ones Paul wrote to and others of course, didn’t have a building with a steeple or stained glass windows or even an altar. They gathered in homes, often homes of wealthy women who had converted to following Jesus: in the Book of Acts we hear of Lydia, Priscilla and Aquila. When they gathered, they heard scriptures and prayed together, and then they took communion, which was for them eating a meal together, sitting around tables. Artifacts from second century Rome show that Christians there ate bread and wine at this communion, and also fish—a reminder of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Fish helped those early Christians to nourish God’s Love.

Communion was an altogether different thing in the medieval Western church. Whether you attended worship at a cathedral in London or a simple wooden church in the English countryside, worshipers were separated either by a high see-through screen or a fence and gate from the priest or bishop who presided over communion. In fact, most worshipers rarely took communion. In cathedrals or larger churches, worshipers often couldn’t even hear the priest say the eucharistic prayer. It’s not like they had sound systems. And even if they could hear, they couldn’t understand. The liturgy was in Latin. For them, it was seeing the priest elevate and consecrate the bread that was the main event. Seeing, not eating.

And the majority of those worshipers would be standing. There was no sitting in worship. Pews weren’t widely introduced to churches until after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Standing and seeing the liturgy in action was how those Christians nourished God’s Love.

Even 60 years ago in this very building, this community nourished God’s love in ways that looked very different than we do now. First, they only took communion one Sunday a month. The other Sundays they would pray Morning Prayer together. And on those Sundays when they did take communion, the altar would be pushed against that east wall, and the priest would preside with his back to the congregation. And it would always be a he in that time, of course: many people couldn’t fathom a woman in a stole and chasuble, wouldn’t feel nourished by a woman in a stole and chasuble. (This is a stole, by the way, and a chasuble is the garment I wear over my robe during communion.)

And right now I’m only referring to the more Anglican history of worship. I could name a thousand other ways different traditions and denominations nurture God’s love that would be completely foreign to us: in the Orthodox Church, the bread soaked in the wine and served as communion with a spoon; the Quakers’ unplanned liturgy where anyone can spontaneously share how God is moving in them that day; the light show and praise music and spectacle of many megachurches.

They are all like trees planted by streams of water—different kinds of streams nourishing the same Love.

Even within our St. Luke’s community, we are all nourished at least slightly differently. For some of you, lighting prayer candles is an essential part of your nourishment here. Others of you have maybe never even noticed the candles. Some of us love passing the peace, greeting one another with joy, and others of us sneak out because it’s overwhelming. It’s the quiet of church that some of us most cherish.

So how do we think about updating or changing this worship space, knowing that nothing about church or worship has ever been set in stone, knowing that nothing has ever really been sacrosanct, knowing that we’re each nurtured by different currents and eddies in this St. Luke’s stream of water. How do we proceed? How do we discern?

I don’t know. We’re going to find out. What I do know is that Love is nourished here, no matter what. I see it in the way you greet each other, hug each other, gather together, worship together. And I trust that however we decide to move forward, we will do so guided by that Love.

I want to close with Nan Merrill’s translation of today’s Psalm. Let us hear it as a prayer:

Blessed are those

who walk hand in hand with goodness,

who stand beside virtue,

who sit in the seat of truth;

For their delight is in the Spirit of Love,

and in Love's heart they dwell day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

that yield fruit in due season

and their leaves flourish;

And in all that they do, they give life.

The unloving are not so;

they are like dandelions which the wind blows away.

Turning from the Heart of Love

they will know suffering and pain.

They will be isolated from wisdom;

for Love knows the way of truth,

the way of ignorance will perish

as Love's penetrating Light

breaks through hearts filled with illusions:

forgiveness is the way.


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