Lessons of the Trees

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Lessons of the Trees

Scriptures: Jeremiah 17:7-8 Matthew 13:31-32

The symbolism of trees in the Bible is breathtaking, covering Christian scriptures from the first book to the last.

In Genesis 2 we have the planting of trees in the Garden of Eden, particularly the tree of Life and the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Only the second tree was forbidden and eating from it led to humans being banned from eating from the first, so the prospect of eternal life was denied and humans were ejected from paradise.

Then in Revelation 22 we are given the vision of the New Jerusalem with the tree of life planted on both sides of the river of the water of life with its fresh fruit produced each month and its leaves growing for the healing of the nations.

And in-between these two book-ends we have lots of examples of trees, from the cedars of Lebanon, through our two lessons today of the flourishing tree planted by the stream, and the tree that grows from the mustard seed.

There is a grim dimension to this too: Deuteronomy pronounces a curse on anyone who hangs on a tree. This was a prohibition against displaying the body of someone subjected to capital punishment that was a common practise for centuries in many lands. It was considered a warning for others to see someone’s body decay and be picked at by the carrion birds and it punished the families who were not permitted to give their loved ones the dignity of a burial. This practise was finally discontinued in England in 1832, a mere 190 years ago.

The book of Acts on three separate occasions describes Jesus’ crucifixion as him hanging on a tree, perhaps as a reminder of the shame he endured, even though he was buried promptly.

Despite these dark images, the tree is a wonderful image of faith, especially if you consider that these texts come from a land surrounded by desert and wilderness. A tree in a waste place can be seen for miles; it can be beacon for someone seeking water.

A tree grows strong, it reaches to heaven which was considered both literal and symbolic when these texts were written and it gives us a great image for ourselves, as humans: firmly rooted and strong against the storm, reaching ever higher every year.

It is not a perfect image: the Knox neighbourhood knows that trees fall in storms although it is a wonder how many remained standing after the tornado and of course, trees can’t travel but it’s still an inspiring image for us.

Trees provide a place of life where birds can nest and be safe from predators, where cool shade is offered in the hot sun. Growing trees help resist the encroachment of the desert and anyone with a farm background knows the value of a windbreak: a line of trees that prevents strong wind from removing the topsoil or otherwise damaging delicate crops.

You’d think that with all this weight of historical knowledge the idea of clearcutting whole forests would be unthinkable, especially in those places where there is no plan to re-plant the sections cut, where they will be converted into pasture land or simply stripped of their profitable wood and be abandoned, possibly to see their soil run off into local waterways as the soil-binding tree roots break down and the canopy is no longer there to be an umbrella.

I’ve learned a few things about this simply by living in the Ottawa Valley. The valley has been thoroughly logged in past centuries and yet there is a healthy tree cover in most places because people made a point of planting after cutting. You might not even be able to tell it was thoroughly logged until you visit Gillies Grove in Arnprior where there are still old-growth red pines: trees so massive that if you wanted to hold hands around some of them you’d need a lot of people. I grew up with pine trees as part of my world and I had no idea they could grow that big or that old.

This plot was preserved by the Gillies family outside their grand house. The Gillies were local lumber barons and I guess they appreciated the glory of these old trees.

The sense of awe this kind of tree provides really does make you feel more closely connected to God. It’s not just the reaching upward, it’s the sense of something that goes so far beyond a mere human lifespan that represents something ancient. Pictures just don’t convey the sense that these ancient living things carry in their physical presence.

A grove of these trees gives you a natural example of what architects are trying to reproduce when they build a cathedral. The architecture can be magnificent, and those buildings are wonderful to sing in, but God does it better.

We even catch a bit of that feeling here, at Knox as we worship in this cedar building. The look and the smell remind us of God’s hand at work in all living and growing things.

The planting of a tree really is an act of faith. The person who plants a tree will never see the full height it achieves. There are exceptions, of course, fruit trees are kept short for practical reasons: it’s hard to pick apples too high in the air and waiting for them to fall just gives you a bruised apple. But the wild versions of some of these trees can surprise us.

My childhood experience of mulberry trees was the sculpted weeping mulberry my grandmother had. We would scoot under its bowing limbs and eat the berries in this hidden place which grown-ups could never enter. As an adult, when we moved to Chatham, we found a park where the mulberry trees grew straight and tall, certainly over 60 feet (20 meters) tall. It was a wonderful place for birds, but parking there in the fall could leave you with a purple car after the birds had been feasting. Trees, when left to their own devices, can astound us.

To plant a tree is to express faith in the future; to believe that something will go on beyond our own brief lives.

A tree is a gift to future generations; something to take very seriously now as Millennials worry about surviving in the world which older generations are leaving behind.

And it is an investment in the future as deforestation becomes part of global warming, as we start to remember that trees are made of carbon and are wonderful ways to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

Let us re-discover the things our ancestors knew: that these beautiful, grand, magnificent plants reaching towards the heavens are a symbol of faith, growing from the smallest seed into the tallest of trees. Trees are a reminder of God’s creative power and a bridge of love between generations.

I pray we never become so disconnected from nature that we forget the lessons of the trees.


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