Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Genesis 2:4b-22

 Scripture can be found here...

I was born in a beach-town, a suburb of Atlantic City, the daughter of parents who were born and raised in Philadelphia. We didn’t spend a lot of time in forests. In fact, my mother considered forests to be kind of sinister. Maybe she read too many spooky fairy tales in the Philadelphia Public Library, but when it was time for me to go to Camp Acagisca, mom sent dad to drive me, saying “Put me between two trees, and I’ll get lost. Put me between two trees, and you’ll never see me again!”

That said, I’ve had a kind of gentle initiation into forests all the same. My parents took me to California when I was seven, and we spent a day among the giant redwoods. I’ve been camping on Cape Cod. I’ve roamed through the beautiful and well-marked trails at the Waterman Center, inhaling the sweet smell of pine and cedar. I’ve read J. R. R. Tolkien! These are my limited credentials, as we start our four-week “Season of Creation” series with “Forest Sunday.”

But trees: ah. Trees are another matter. Trees, I know. I have fallen in love with trees, individual trees, in my life. Let me tell you about one such tree.

There is a weeping copper beech outside the parish house of West Presbyterian Church. When I went there to work as director of Christian Education almost fifteen years ago, I parked near the tree on my first day in the office, and was very nearly late because I was so taken by it. For those of you who have never seen this tree up close, it is very like the image of a woman with extraordinarily long hair, flowing right down to the ground, which she can completely hide beneath. Think Cousin Itt, only not weird and creepy. You usually can’t see the trunk of a weeping copper beach. But the sight of such a tree makes you want to part those cascading boughs and walk into the fragrant darkness of its canopy. It’s mysterious, you want to step inside. I did. On warm days I took my lunch and picnicked there. I can truthfully say that not one day of my tenure at that church passed without me stopping and taking grateful notice of that extraordinary, stunning tree.

On Forest Sunday we are offered a creation story, and it features no forests, but a number of trees, some trees with names. The tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And then more ordinary trees— let’s say apple trees, and peach trees. Since Eden as it is described is probably somewhere in modern day Iraq, or Turkey, or even Israel, let’s be sure to include orange trees, and also date, plum, apricot, and olive trees. Lemon trees, very pretty. Fig trees, powerful biblical symbols of wisdom and peace.

And there, folded into the stories of the creation of trees and forests and food-crops and animals, is the creation of man and woman. And do you notice how connected everything is? The earth is created, and later man is created from the earth. The man is created, and woman is created from the man’s own body, “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” as he will call her, right after our passage ends.

And all the parts of creation—all of them—are in some sense made for one another. The man and woman to “till and keep” the trees and forests and food-crops, and the trees and food-crops to provide the humans with food and even, science tells us, air. When we exhale, we provide carbon dioxide for the plants and trees, and the plants and trees, in turn, provide oxygen for us.

Everything is so connected, so intimately connected, that, a theory emerged in the 1960’s that the earth is, in fact, one complex organism. Think of the remarkable photographs of the earth taken from space by the Apollo astronauts. There are no borders. Everything is connected. God has created it all in such a way that we have real impact on one another—for good or for ill.

And that is the story of the man and the woman. They will have an impact on one another. Their fates are inextricably entwined, and not simply because the woman is described as the man’s “helper.” [By the way, if you do a search for the word “helper” in scripture, roughly a third of the references are to God. God is our helper. It’s a good word.] The fates of the first humans are connected, and so, I believe, are the fates of all humans today, sometimes in ways we can’t see or predict in advance. This is how we were created: we were made to be a part of one another.

Recently I saw an illustration of a stand of redwood trees, with a written description that went like this:

Redwood trees are among some of the most majestic trees. They grow to be over 300 feet tall, and can live thousands of years, and their wood has special properties that make it resistant to mold, insects, and rot. Also, despite growing so old and so high, they have relatively shallow roots – around 6 to 12 feet deep. This root system could not hold up the tree by itself if it were not for a unique interaction between the trees. Redwoods get their stability and strength from growing up together with other redwoods in groves, and then intertwining their roots. In essence, they hold onto each other, and this enables them to grow incredibly tall, strong, and live long lives.[i]

We are like those redwoods, we people of faith. This is how we were created. We come together in a community of believers and seekers and people who are looking for a better way to live. We seek to put down roots here, roots that stretch out broadly, connecting us, not so much to the place, as to one another. What holds us up is what holds us together. We intertwine our roots, we hold on to each other. This is what enables us to grow strong, in our faith and in our lives.

Everything is connected. This is how everything was created. Trees in forests. Men and women in gardens. People to plants, plants to animals, animals to people, in an endless round-robin of creation, one that was designed by God to give us delight and abundance of life. We find that abundance by noticing that some fruits are delicious and nourishing. We delight by pausing to notice its sheer deliciousness and beauty and mystery. We find trees that take our breath away, and make us want to sit in their shade for peace and solitude. We see late summer flowers that make us want to take pictures so that we share them with our friends. We hold on to each other, like the stands of redwood trees.  And all this connection—to nature and to one another—points us back, again and again, to the One who fashioned all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful. The Lord God made them all. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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