Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22 + Psalm 139:13-16 + Acts 17:22-28 + John 3:1-16
Preparing to preach on a morning like this one has been like trying to tell the trees from the forest. On a day like today there is so much going on, how do you narrow it down? How do you focus on one thing? One tree in the forest?
For months, preachers, their colleagues and their friends, have been asking each other, “What do you say on the 10th anniversary of September 11th?” The fact that this particular date falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day, which many churches (including our own) traditionally set aside as “Rally Sunday” just complicates things. On the very day that we’re trying to welcome people back from a summer filled with travel and Sunday morning diversions, the nation (and its news outlets) is consumed with the festering wound of a tragedy ten years old. How do we do both things? How do we focus on a single tree in the forest of our individual and collective preoccupations?
Then there is the fact that today we are not only welcoming each other home from the summer; we are not only marking the decade’s passing since 9/11; we are also entering into a new season in the liturgical life of the church – the Season of Creation – which we will observe for five weeks in worship, beginning with today’s recognition of forests as a vital part of God’s Creation, a part groaning under the weight of environmental degradation and human sin. How do we, literally, focus on the tree in the middle of this forest of competing claims on our attention?
Martin Luther, a man not unfamiliar with the anxiety brought on by the crumbling of institutions, the horrors of war, and the terror of threats against one’s life, is famously remembered as saying, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
It’s in that spirit that I want to leave behind, for the moment, talk of 9/11 and summer vacations and Rally Sunday, and talk about trees. A tree planted today will take years to grow to maturity and, depending on where it’s planted and how it’s cared for, may well outlive everyone in this room. A tree planted today is a sign of hope in the very existence of the future.
Which is precisely why we should be horrified by the destruction of God’s forests, the fragile ecosystems they shelter, and the web of interdependence of which we ourselves are a part.
In the century from 1850 to 1950, half of the world’s forests were destroyed. They were torn out of the ground along the world’s riverbanks to facilitate riverboat shipping. They were clear cut from the central plains of the Midwest to make way for farms. They were eliminated throughout South America, Africa and Asia to make way for the emerging global food system. Some environmental scientists now project that in twenty years only 10% of the forests that covered the earth two hundred years ago will remain.
This one devastation, among the many being wreaked upon the earth, has far-reaching consequences. Tropical deforestation produces more global-warming pollution than the total emissions of every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth. It is changing the air we breathe, as water that would normally be released into the atmosphere through the roots and trunks and leaves of trees is taken out of circulation in a pattern that quickly leads to soil erosion and flooding. Worst of all, our destruction of the world’s forests has eliminated the natural habitats of tens of thousands of species which are now extinct from the Earth and can never be recovered.
When Christians and Jews tell our creation stories, we begin by remembering that we were made after the sun and moon, the skies and seas, the flora and the fauna. They are rightly remembered as our sisters and brothers every bit as much as we, who were washed in God’s creative waters at baptism, call each other “brother” and “sister.”
Genesis 2 says, “then the LORD God formed [humanity] from the dust of the ground,” a fact we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday as we’re marked with the cremains of burnt palm leaves, tree leaves waved as we sung hosannas to Christ making his way to the suffering tree where they hung him.
Psalm 139 say, “My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth,” and we’re reminded of that Norwegian hymn sung during the season of Lent, “Seed that in earth is dying rises to bear much fruit. Christ, as we meet at your table, give us the bread of life.”[i] Our life comes from the ground, and the new life we find as we follow Jesus into the broken, hurting places of God’s Creation follows as naturally as new growth breaks through ground burnt by fire or frozen by winter.
In recent history, and I use recent here thinking of the grand scope of human history stretching back thousands and thousands of years, so in last few hundred years our imaginations have contracted a bit with reference to God’s Creation, even in the church. When we preach and teach healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration we too often speak only of our relationship to other people, our families, or sometimes really only with reference to ourselves. We take the grand story of the trinitarian God – the one who created the world and everything in it, who took on earthy substance in Jesus to identify with and redeem the suffering of every part of Creation, whose Holy Spirit blows like the wind and burns like tongues of fire – and we domesticate it, make it all about us, our needs, our hurts, our sufferings.
Martin Luther had a saying about this as well. He described sin as the state of being “turned in on one’s self.” Imagine being bent over so thoroughly that your eyes couldn’t see past your belly button and you’ll understand what he was talking about. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to convey a sense of the grandeur of God’s Creation when he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…” Instead “[God] is not far from each one of us. For in [God] we live and move and have our being…. ‘For we too are [God’s] offspring.’”
It’s for our sake, not God’s, that we build sanctuaries like the beautiful one that shelters us this morning. God, who formed the mountains, doesn’t need our terrazzo marble floors. God, who planted the ancient redwoods, doesn’t need our wormy chestnut rafters. But we need the rivers from which we drink, the skies that shelter our planet, the land that feeds us.
And the trees. The trees that produce fruit for us to eat, wood for us to build, pulp for us to write, shade for us to rest, and air. Air for us to breathe.
The whole world is God’s sanctuary, a word that means both “safe” and “holy.” When we treat Creation, of which we are a part and not the whole, as if it exists for our benefit, for our pleasure, then we reject the role God gave humanity in the garden, to till it and keep it – not to plunder and destroy it. We make our world neither safe nor holy.
Liberation theology listens to scripture with the ears of the oppressed. In this Season of Creation we are invited to listen to scripture with the ears of the earth and all its creatures. Listen to the creation story from the point of view of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. God brought them before the first human, and we named them, the way we might name a child, the way God named us. Created in the image and likeness of God, we were created to be family with all of earth.
When we deny our interconnection with any part of the web of creation, we tear at the whole of it. This is why, ultimately, we cannot separate the forest from the tree, they are all part of one another, even as we are all part of one another. The suffering of the tree is not compared to the suffering of the human being, it is inseparable. Jesus Christ, God wrapped in earth and flesh is nailed to the tree, for both the tree and the human being. The gospel of John says, “for God so loved the world.”
The fragile balance of earth and sea and sky that sustains human life is no more fragile than God wrapped in the fragile flesh of an infant born in the shadow of the Roman Empire, or the American one. The horrors of September 11th are the most visible manifestations of a state of being upon this earth in which we cannot tell that we are all connected to each other. The clear cutting of rainforests in Brazil, Canada, Thailand and Tanzania and the genocides of Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Germany are interconnected as well.
Appreciating this can feel like learning a new language, like regaining the sense of sight. In truth, appreciating the extent to which we are all connected – the earth and sky and sea and all their creatures, including us – will take something like being born again. A new way of living we struggle to understand every bit as much as Nicodemus. A way of living connected to our baptism, where the waters that surrounded us in utero are replaced with the waters of the world, expanding our family tree to include all of Creation.
We celebrate the Season of Creation, we don’t commemorate it, because by faith Creation is always and already. It has happened, and it is happening again, and it will keep happening until all of Creation is healed and reconciled to itself. To plant a tree is a sign of hope for a future none of us will live to see, but is as certain as our next breath.
The world is always shouting the horrors of the past at us with full throat, always trying to terrify us into paralysis. But the promise of the gospel, on full display at Christ’s hanging tree, is that God has reconciled us to God’s self, to each other, and to all of Creation, precisely so that our past cannot define our future.
So I am with Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”