Nature Series: Trees
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 15, 2020
3rd Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 20:19-20; Psalm 1; Luke 13:6-9
From my point-of-view as a child, the most astounding thing about my grandparent’s small farm in Western North Carolina was the vistas from the front lawn. Wonderful views of the mountains were even more spectacular when seen from the branches of my grandmother’s cherry tree. From there I could perch for hours, compete with the blackbirds for the fruit of the tree, and gaze out over the valley into the great beyond. Nearby stood a grand oak tree, with limbs too high for a little girl to master; nonetheless, I welcomed the shade and the breeze its branches provided to cool the skin and warm the heart.
Some years later, I learned to appreciate the plants and trees of the mountains even more, when, during my undergraduate studies at Carson-Newman College, I took a May-term class entitled “Appalachian Flora.” It was one of the most fun classes I have ever taken. In my mind’s eye I can still see Dr. Chapman (God rest his soul) walking along naming every plant and tree in sight. Even things that I had previously recognized only as weeds had such interesting names. Two of my favorites were Jack-in-the-Pulpit and the Tree of Heaven—so called, Dr. Chapman joked, because it stinks like, well, you know, that other place.
Regarding plants and trees, the Botanical Society of America offers these wise words: Imagine a world where the plants of the planet are harnessed to help its inhabitants find sustainable solutions for some of their most pressing needs—clothing, food, housing, jobs, clean air, and clean water. Welcome to planet earth!
Trees provide for us and they fascinate us. We climb them, we use them, we meditate under them, and we write poems about them. Poet Joyce Kilmer wrote the following entitled simply “Trees.”
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
In our little-known reading from Deuteronomy this morning, we catch a glimpse of the respect that should be paid to trees—even in a time of war. One Bible commentary points out that sparing fruit trees during wartime is consistent with the general ecological concern of Deuteronomy.[i] I daresay if such respect had continued down through the ages, our planet would be much healthier today.
Psalm 1 compares a healthy spiritual life to fruit-bearing trees, planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in their season. If we have eyes to see, trees show us what can be accomplished through time, persistence, and patience. Take the mighty oak tree, for example. It begins as a decaying acorn from which sprouts a tiny twig. The sun shines, the rain pours, the wind blows, and in a great many years, the tree becomes a giant oak—sturdy, strong, brimming with life. The great giants of our faith are a bit like that. Though storms came against them, instead of being uprooted, they dug in deep, held on tight to God, and gained the strength they needed to endure. Spiritually speaking, trees remind us of God’s love, for if God’s special care encompasses trees, how much more so does God care for us?
As a community, a nation, and a planet—there is no doubt we are in unchartered territory. Information about the spread of the coronavirus and expected outcomes are changing by the moment. We watch social media and news feeds and see people hoarding food, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper. We witness price-gouging so that a bottle of 88¢ rubbing alcohol costs over $20. We watch countries like Italy that have been forced to go into total lockdown due to rapid spread of COVID-19. And, to keep similar circumstances at bay in our own country, a national emergency has been declared. With fear swarming like a dark cloud around us, what are we to do?
In a recent Facebook post, a clergy colleague shared something Martin Luther wrote when the Bubonic Plague struck Wittenberg in 1527:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely…”[ii]
Jesus came to the earth to show us how to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves—but how can we care for our neighbor in such a time as this? Well, we must look for new ways to be neighbors in order to keep ourselves and our community as healthy as possible—while taking whatever steps we can to care for the most vulnerable among us.
As Rabbi Rav Yosef put it:
Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.
Indeed, we are in new territory. But that is not to say that God is unable to bring good from it. Perhaps now, we may pause to realize that, like the root system of an old oak tree, we are deeply connected as brothers and sisters around the globe. Perhaps now, we may ask the Spirit of Christ to come—dig around the soil of our lives and help us bear good fruit in such a time as this—for love of Christ and love of neighbor. In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 104.
[ii] Luther’s Works Volume 43, pg. 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague”
*Cover Art by Unsplash, used by permission