Sermon: Sunday, September 7, 2014: Forest Sunday, Season of Creation

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

GivingTreeIt’s been 50 years since the publication of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree back in 1964.  How many of you have read it?  Did you know that Shel Silverstein grew up here in Logan Square?  Went to high school at Roosevelt, attended the University of Illinois.

The Giving Tree had a hard time making it to print.  Publishers thought it was too sad for kids and too simple for adults. Fifty years later it remains something of an enigma. Some people see in the story a parable about a mother’s self-sacrificing love for her child. Some see a story of narcissistic consumption. Some have called it a story of friendship, others a parable of Christ’s love. One reviewer called it a sado-masochistic fairy tale in which abuse is elevated to a virtue.

As we enter into the Season of Creation once again this year, a season in which we are encouraged to read scripture with a hermeneutic of creation or through the lens of God’s pronouncement at the end of each day that all that was made was “good,” I’m inclined to give the story a more straight forward reading as the tale of humanity and its relationship to trees.

The very fact that we might be inclined to read the story as an allegory for human relationships with one another, mother to child or friend to friend, shows how disconnected we have become from our sense of intimate interdependence with all of the rest of creation. The book of Genesis describes humanity and trees as coming from the same place,

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being … Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… (Gen. 2:7,9)

Like twins born of the same mother, humanity and the trees (which seem to stand in for all plant life) are fashioned from the same stuff. Furthermore, the author of this creation myth imagines that man was placed in the garden “to till and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15)  This sounds a little different than the creation myth that precedes this one, in which humanity is given dominion over the earth. Perhaps that’s why we give that other story precedence. Perhaps we prefer the idea of dominion over the more modest proposal that we simply take our place within creation as caregivers.


Shel seemed to retain that memory of common origins. At the beginning of his book the boy and the tree take delight in one another’s company. They play with one another, rest with one another, love one another. Anyone who uses these features as evidence of some deeper allegory really ought to spend more time watching children play outside. If you have, then you know that it’s perfectly normal to observe children taking deep delight in a tree, even loving one.

As the boy grows older, he loses interest in his first love and becomes preoccupied with other concerns. He needs to earn a living, so he takes the tree’s fruit.  He needs to build a house, so he takes the tree’s branches. Then, somewhere in the middle of his life, he finds that he has become deeply unhappy and he wants to escape, so he takes the tree’s trunk and builds a boat to get away. Stripped to a stump the tree is as unhappy as the boy.

McLaren_WeMakeTheRoadByWalking_smIn his new book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren discusses the tangled roots at the heart of our environmental crisis. He reminds us that billions of dollars are spent every year making us unhappy, which is the first step in getting us to spend our money on the solutions being proposed. “Wish you had a brighter smile? Ask your dentist about Zoom teeth whitening!” Well, I didn’t realize I wanted a brighter smile, but now that you mention it… Over and over again, in a million little ways, we’re being told to find fault with ourselves and to spend our time and our money chasing after the new and improved.

But it’s not just our pocketbooks or our time with family that takes the hit when we spend long hours slaving away as we sell those apples to buy that house, or that boat. It’s the forests, and the land, and the air, and the oceans that suffer right along with us. There is no way to address the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves without addressing the addictive and exhausting cycles of mass consumption that degrade not only our souls but the planet as well.

I should say, by way of a plug for some of our fall programming, that McLaren also believes that one of the great gifts of our Christian faith is that it offers us practices, daily and weekly and seasonal and annual disciplines, that are meant to re-humanize us, to fortify us in the face of so many destructive messages that push us toward consumption as the answer to all our problems. If that’s a conversation you’d like to dive into more deeply, I can offer you two options.  One is to join the adult forum for the next six weeks from 9am to 10am, where we’ll be using a series of short video clips based on Brian’s book to structure our conversations about Christian faith, practice and identity. The other is to head to the bulletin board in the back of the sanctuary after worship and sign up to be part of a small group that will be reading We Make the Road by Walking together. But more on that later…

I suppose I read The Giving Tree as both descriptive and cautionary. To the extent that it describes humanity’s relationship with trees and the rest of God’s creation pretty accurately, it is descriptive.  Like partners in a crumbling marriage, we have grown apart from the rest of God’s creation which we were given to love and to cherish, to honor and respect. But it’s a children’s book as well, which suggests that Shel was aware that a new generation might make a new choice. That the boys and girls we seat on our laps as we flip the pages might notice how sad that man grew to be, how lonely he looked as he sat slumped over on his amputated friend’s stump. That our children are strong enough and sophisticated enough to handle a story that doesn’t resolve neatly. That its haunting images might linger with them, they way they’ve lingered with you and me for fifty years now. That we might remember how much we have loved the trees in our back yard, on the trail, in the forests, around the world. That we might repent of our rampant consumption and return to our roots, that place where we remember that we and all the rest of God’s creation come from the same ground.

It’s been a number of years now since our friend Sally Levin had her funeral service here at St. Luke’s. I thought of her as I read Paul’s words to the Athenians from Acts,

The God who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24-25)

As her body gave way to the pancreatic cancer within her, Sally and I talked about how she would have wished that her funeral could have taken place outside, among the trees, where she loved to spend her days. She knew that the God who made her and loved her wasn’t locked behind the doors of the church, but in and throughout everything that grows up from the ground. She believed there was nothing we could build that could improve on what the Creator had already planted. Even as her body released its hold on life, her mind was already being renewed. She had a sense of that second birth that Jesus was trying to describe to Nicodemus, the being born that happens after we have grown old.

Since we could not hold her funeral outdoors, we decided to bring the trees inside, and as her friends entered the sanctuary on the day of her funeral they processed carrying fallen branches from the trees all around this neighborhood where she had raised her children, the same neighborhood where Shel Silverstein grew up. Who knows? Maybe even the same trees they had both loved.

As we move through this season of creation; as we chart the journey of creation, alienation, passion and new creation that is our story as Christians; as we reconnect and reconcile with our siblings — the forests, the land, the wilderness, and the rivers — we are invited to open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, which is always reaching out, working its tendrils into the spaces between our past and our future to renew and restore us here and now.



Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2011– First Sunday in Season of Creation, Forests

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?

apple treeMartin 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.”


[i] “Seed That in Earth Is Dying,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 330.