AWAKE!

Text: Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; Mark 15:21-24; Revelation 22:1-4


For all those mothers, grandmothers, aunts, special women who have shaped and still shape our lives, we give thanks today. May the Lord rise up and call you blessed for indeed you are. The focus of the sermon, though, is on another woman both real and metaphorical, Mother Earth. Even more, it is an occasion to celebrate Mother Earth’s gift to us of trees and forests.

Robert Frost got it right in his poem, Birches:

Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better. I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven...

I did not grow up in a rural area, but fortunately I did grow up in a semi-urban area that was surrounded by woods. I spent hours climbing trees, making tree forts, and using trees as targets for my Robin Hood rubber arrows. Though I am hardly an arborist, I have never lost my childhood fascination with trees.

Cove’s own, Susan Tyler Hitchcock, writes in her magical new book, Into the Forest: The Secret Language of Trees, “Science is confirming what humans have intuited all along: The trees and the forest have wisdom to share, grace to impart, and a profound healing effect on the human body, mind, and spirit. A greener world is a better world . . . For millennia, a tree has flourished at the center of our universe, speaking wisdom to us. It is time to listen again” (pp 17-18).

Author and poet, the late David Rosenthal puts Susan’s conviction into marvelous poetic cadence in his poem, Trees need not walk the earth. He writes:


Trees need not walk the earth


For beauty or for bread;

Beauty will come to them

Where they stand.

Here among the children of the sap

Is no pride of ancestry:

A birch may wear no less the morning

Than an oak.

Here are no heirlooms

Save those of loveliness,

In which each tree

Is kingly in its heritage of grace.

Here is but beauty’s wisdom

In which all trees are wise.

Trees need not walk the earth

For beauty or for bread;

Beauty will come to them

In the rainbow—

The sunlight—

And the lilac-haunted rain;

And bread will come to them

As beauty came:

In the rainbow—

In the sunlight—

In the rain.


Now, if you are wondering whether you came to the right place today, a place to worship God, not nature, well, indeed, you did. For Mother Earth is another way of speaking about the creative gifts of earth, air, and sea entrusted to our care by God from the first pages of the Bible until the last.

As you open the Bible, Genesis offers up two consecutive and distinctive stories of God’s good creation. Early in the second creation story, we are told, “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).

As Susan writes about and is illustrated so stunningly in her new book, there is a majesty to trees that exceeds my ability to describe in words. And, as we learn in Genesis, trees are given to us by God for both beauty and sustenance. After all, how diminished my life would be without eating fruits from my favorite trees, without eating that first peach that is perfectly ripened.

And yet, our human track record of tending to God’s good gift of trees and forests is poor at best. In an attempt to explain why humans have a such an amazing capacity to despoil much of God’s good creation, the second Genesis creation story speaks of God’s abundance, providing the man and woman with an entire forest of trees for beauty and sustenance, only one of which is restricted from humans harvesting its fruit. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Harvest and eat its fruit, says God to the woman and man, and you will die.

Now, we know how the story goes. The serpent tells the woman that God is only kidding and the woman says to the man, “You first” and the man says, “Why not?” and suddenly the whole world goes awry. In great Hebrew irony, when humans eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they do not become wise and despite God’s stern warning, they do not immediately die. No, for refusing to abide by one tree restriction in a forest of absolute abundance, they find themselves living east of Eden, cast out of the biodiverse forest of sheer delight.

Trees continue to play a major role as Scripture unfolds. When the prophet Isaiah imagines the joyful return from exile of a demoralized people, he uses the image of trees clapping their hands in delight (Isa. 55:12). I imagine it was Isaiah who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien who had no use for the poet’s trees that need not walk. For Tolkien includes talking and walking trees called Ents in his Hobbit and triology, The Lord of the Rings.

It took a late evening call from Susan a week or so ago, though, that shed light on the most obvious and yet the most ignored tree in all of Scripture. At the close of Holy Week, Simon of Cyrene is enlisted to carry the crossbeam on which Jesus will be crucified. Before Jesus died, a tree, what kind we do not know, had to die to then be used as a killing stick, surely the last purpose God ever envisioned for such an instrument of life and life-giving.

The enchantment of Scripture with trees continues through to the final pages of the final book of the Bible, Revelation. In it, John describes a vision of a diverse and plush garden that is no longer despoiled by greed or left barren by the careless disregard of humanity. Recounting his vision, John writes, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:1-4).

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nation,” is John’s vision. Those leaves cannot fall soon enough upon this warring world. Maybe they already have fallen, maybe they are falling even now. Maybe you and I are surrounded by those healing leaves as we take up Susan’s invitation toward the end of her book, “Step into the forest experience—a walk in the woods, a stroll through the park, even a few minutes tending houseplants—and immerse yourself in a world of otherness. Poets, philosophers, and now psychologists are telling us: Nature imbues us with compassion—for others, and for ourselves” (p. 313).

As those leaves fall, may our compassion for creation soar. May we think twice before we ignore a forest of trees being destroyed for no good reason, before we fell an ailing tree that could have been saved, before we watch fire consume thousands of trees because we have taken a pass—or worse—on our job as stewards of God’s beloved creation.

Some will hear or read this sermon and say that all this Mother Earth, nature, tree talk, is more of Gary’s liberal “woke” talk. I sure hope so. I hope that you and I will awaken to the good gifts of trees and forests that God has entrusted to our care from Genesis to Revelation. I hope you and I will awaken to the joy of long walks in the woods and in parks. I hope you and I will awaken to pray daily for the leaves of the tree of life to bring healing to our broken and breaking world.

Awake.

Wide awake.

Thankfully awake.

Joyfully awake.

Awake!

AMEN

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