Like a Tree

Carla J. Bailey, April 23, 2017

Scriptures Psalm 1:1–3; Deuteronomy 20:19–20

When I was in seminary and taking Bible classes, most especially Old Testament, the professor painstakingly impressed upon us soon-to-be-preachers that, when we are preparing a sermon, we should always begin with a text—a Bible passage—and see where it takes us, rather than starting with what we already think and then trying to find a Bible story to buttress our opinions. He was rather insistent, my Old Testament professor, that the worst preaching out there is bad because it has no grounding in Scripture but is, rather, the preacher’s own made-up religious perspective. Remembering that admonition puts me in mind of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons (don’t we all have one or two?), drawn by Lee Lorenz. A well-heeled older couple are leaving a highbrow church, shaking the minister’s hand on their way out the door. The caption: “I’m afraid this is auf Wiedersehen, Padre. Estelle and I are setting up our own little religion.”

Well today I’m not exactly setting up my own little religion, but I am most definitely violating the principle of beginning with the text. We are in the season of Eastertide, which goes on now for a couple of weeks. And today is Legacy Sunday, when we honor and thank those who have chosen to remember Plymouth in their estate planning, intending to leave a gift to the church after their death. And it is Earth Sunday—the day after Earth Day, as Tom Haigh reminded us earlier in the service. And it is the last Sunday for the trees exhibit in our art gallery—paintings by Hazel Belvo, Marcia Cushmore and Carolyn Brunelle. While on a walk last Sunday afternoon, I pondered about something that could tie all these things together today, but I kept getting distracted by the newly budding trees in my neighborhood, until I finally just thought—well that’s it. I’m going to preach about trees, after which I set about looking for scripture passages to go along with my sermon. There are at least a hundred to choose from. I limited my choice to these two.

First from Psalm 1, the first few verses:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread,       or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in God’s law, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season,       and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

And from Deuteronomy 20:19–20:

“If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.”

Biologist David George Haskell studies the sounds of trees and wrote a book about his findings called The Songs of Trees. In a recent interview on CBC’s As It Happens, Professor Haskell said: “The most obvious voice of a tree is when the wind blows through its branches, and, of course, the tree then responds by vibrating, and shaking, and tearing apart the air as it passes through the twigs and the leaves. And each tree has its own architecture. Each leaf has its own degree of stiffness and floppiness and shape. Just as a cello sounds very different from a violin, because of the scale and tautness of the strings and how large the wood is, so too do the leaves and branches on trees. And those voices change through the seasons as well.”

Whether or not trees can be distinguished one from another by their songs I cannot tell, but they are, nonetheless, miracles of the natural world. Trees cleanse the air we breathe. In Los Angeles, arguably one of the most polluted cities in the United States, trees remove nearly 2,000 tons of air pollution each year. In Chicago—18,000 tons. Trees make a verifiable contribution to human health. Office workers with a view of trees report significantly less stress and more job satisfaction. One large tree can provide a full day’s oxygen for up to four people, and more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest. Forested watersheds provide drinking water to more than 180 million Americans. Trees lower surface and air temperatures in hottest climates. During just one year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange. Trees are masters of both self-defense and communication. Scientists have found that, when attacked by insects, trees can flood their leaves with chemicals called phenols. These noxious compounds are distasteful to tree pests and can even impede their growth. Once a tree is attacked, it will “signal” to other nearby trees to also start their self-defense. Methods of communication include releasing chemicals into the wind and possibly even sending chemical or electric signals through the network of roots. (All these facts and more can be found at arborday.org and landarchs.com.)

Now, isn’t it obvious to you how all this ties together—naming Plymouth in your wills, Easter and Earth Day?

In a week some months ago when I was feeling sorry for my sorry self, a dear Plymouth member sent me a card, seemingly out of the blue. It is a block print of pine trees—my favorite type—with a Chinese proverb beneath: “When the root is deep there is no reason to fear the wind.” The card has floated around my desk, buried occasionally in stacks of budget reports, board minutes, old position descriptions and correspondence, but then it surfaces and I read it again and think for a few minutes of its message. When the root is deep there is no reason to fear the wind. In this challenging time in which we live in the United States, in which fact-based and replicable science needs to be defended, military threats are bandied about as if by 10-year old bullies, the arts are in danger of going dark, there are more guns than there are people in this nation and personal responsibility is in short supply, the message of deep roots helping us withstand the storm-force winds is reassuring. And yet, I wonder, how deep are our roots, really?

Many of the Old Testament’s references to trees speak of them as mighty and steadfast; planted by water; they shall not be moved. In fact, they are to be revered, even above humans, as in the verses I read a moment ago from Deuteronomy. The 20th chapter of Deuteronomy provides instructions for war, both moral and strategic. Israel was to be ruthless and unafraid. If a town should not yield to the Israelites’ terms then the town was to be besieged, all the men killed by the sword. “You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. . . . You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.” And this is all okay, perfectly acceptable, because this is the land the Lord your God promised should be yours. We must not shake our heads as if this story is confined to ancient history and Middle Eastern sensibilities. How deep into our own American history do we need to dig to find nearly identical language in our white European drive to conquer and claim this land from its Native peoples?

But then, even after those most horrific instructions to the Israelites, comes the counsel to save the trees that bear food. Chop down the ones that don’t give food and use the wood for what you may need for tools to besiege the city, but otherwise, save the trees.

How did things get so messed up in the world? Do you ever wonder that? I do. I wonder about institutions and systems, governments and governance. I wonder about loyalties and the seemingly endless drive to hurt others. I wonder how to reassure people, you, for instance, that religion is, at its best, only a framework, a scaffold that gives us a way to think about how to live as if love is God’s sole intent for all her children. I wonder, like George Bernard Shaw in his play Saint Joan, “Must then a Christ die in every generation to save those that have no imagination?” I wonder how we could possibly think—we supposedly sophisticated, smart human beings—that spewing poison into the air, emptying it into waterways, producing toxic products that end up in landfills and in our children’s food and bottles that can take hundreds of years to biodegrade is all right? How could we continue to live as if it’s just perfectly fine with us that earth could die when we die, because when we die we cease to owe anything to anyone and we relinquish all responsibility for ourselves and others? How did we come to be so sure we are God’s crowning achievement, each of us, individually, a little more sparkly than anyone else and a lot more deserving than most? How have we come to assume our roots are deep enough to withstand the storm when we have not nourished them with stories about courageous acts and songs of God’s insistent grace and watered them with love and gratitude and affection and advocacy? Is there nothing to have been learned from the past? Do we owe nothing to the future? To children yet unborn—ours, others’, the children of strangers, the children of mortal enemies, raised in far-off places, cradled beneath the branches of other trees, hearing the music of the wind through leaves that rustle, branches that click, trunks that groan with life, everlasting, deep, long life? I wonder about these things.

But then, I think of those early disciples, hunted and executed by Rome, despised by their fellows who blamed them for bringing Rome’s killing attention upon them, yet still, incredibly, they persevered because they felt that their Savior was still with them. I think of all those now-deceased Plymouth members—some who sat right where you are sitting this morning—who left some of the money they accumulated in life so that long after they were gone, we would benefit from the stability their foresight has given us. They now make it possible for us to take the most massive risk of all—to bear witness to the love that changes the world in a world so hell-bent on hate.

And I think about trees, planted generations ago, trees that sing and warn one another of danger, trees that cleanse the air of the poisons we spew and give us life-saving oxygen in return, trees with deep roots, and I remember that one Bible verse about trees from the Book of Revelation: On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And I have hope again, hope that others gave me before I was born and hope that will live on long after I am gone and so, today, I give God my deepest thanks for trees. Amen.