Note: This is a reworking of a sermon I preached in 2014.
Note 2: We had two baptisms at St. John’s this morning.
Genesis 2:4b-22 & John 3:1-16
When I was a little girl, we lived for about 4 years in a town in New Hampshire called Keene. It’s a town of about 25,000 people, and it’s a town where nothing really ever changes. I remember returning there to visit after the events of September 11 and feeling comforted that this town remained almost exactly as I had remembered it, even as the outside world was in uproar. In this town is a public park which has a small pond which is surrounded by a forest. And in the forest, there are trails where you can walk around the pond and then deeper into the forest. In my mind, I can still smell the scent of the leaves, and feel the quietness of the place as I walk further away from the noise of children playing on the playground. I used to imagine that the trails through the forest would lead me to a different world, or perhaps a portal that would take me to a different period of time. There was something special and magical about that forest, as well as something peaceful. When my family moved back to Keene when I was a student in college, I would return to those forest trails when I needed to gain some quiet and to think about things.
Trees are some of the first things that God created, according to today’s account in Genesis. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Before animals were created, trees were there. God made human beings to be creatures who need relationships, even relationships with trees. Science tells us that the trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and in return, the trees produce oxygen that we need to take in. Since we know that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, we know that having more trees is good, since they will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus keep the earth from becoming too warm. Psychologically, we need trees as well. Just think: each year, in the depths of winter, we bring in a pine tree from outside or put up a replica of a pine tree and decorate it with ornaments. Did you ever think about why we do that, aside from the fact that it’s a tradition to do at Christmas time? I believe that it feeds a need we have to continue to see something growing even when snow is blowing deep and nothing much seems to be alive.
Today marks the first of four Sundays where we as a congregation will focus on God the Creator and God’s creation, the gifts that God gives us through creation and the challenge that God gives us to care for the creation. The first commission that God gives human beings when he puts Adam in the garden is to till and keep the earth. The Hebrew word translated “till” here can also mean “to serve”. So, what would it look like for human beings to “serve” the earth as we keep it? Let’s look at this in relationship to the two trees specifically mentioned in this chapter, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Noted theologian Brian McLaren suggests that each of these trees represents different things. The Tree of Life, he says, suggests, “health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness.” In contrast, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil.” The danger, McLaren says, is that, while “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative,” our judging is “frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.” McLaren asks what gives us the right, as part of creation itself, to judge what parts of creation are good and worthy of preservation, and what parts are bad and worthy of destruction? Even though I and many other people question God’s creation of the mosquito, for example, and would be very happy to wipe it off of the face of the earth, the mosquito does serve a purpose in God’s good creation: it serves as food for birds and for reptiles, for example. If we were to take away the mosquito, other species that we judge to be good might go extinct.
So, the questions we ask are: How do we choose the Tree of Life, choose health, strength, and aliveness, rather than choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, judging parts of creation to be good and parts to be evil, despite the fact that we ourselves are a part of creation? How do we properly till and keep the earth, especially as regards forests and trees, in an age where our need for tree products is growing, but also in an age that is seeing an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that having more fully-grown, mature trees would help to alleviate?
Let’s first start in our own yards. I don’t know about you, but most of the time I generally don’t notice the trees until they either cause a problem or there is some change about them. Since I rent an apartment, it is the landlord’s responsibility to care for the trees, so I don’t have too much say over what happens with them, unless they cause a problem for me. But for those of you who own your homes, what are the trees in your yard? Do you notice some more than others? How do you care for them? If you have to remove a tree because it is growing in the wrong place and getting into your plumbing, do you plant a new one to replace it? If you don’t plant a new tree in your yard to replace the one you removed, or are not able to plant a new tree in your yard, do you make the effort to plant a tree somewhere else?
Moving from our own backyards, we need to look and see how trees and forests around the world are being treated, and how we can best advocate for people to care for them. All around the world, forests are being harvested for various reasons: burning for fuel, use of wood in furniture, use of the trees for paper products, etc. This is the point where you might expect me to say, “Save the rain forests!” I’m not going to do that, although that is a very good thing to work towards and advocate for. What I’m going to talk about is something a little closer to home, across the Canadian border: Save the boreal forest! The boreal forest is a large swath of forest in Canada that is being clear cut so that oil companies can access tar sands and extract oil from them. The timber is also being used to feed our demand for paper products, even toilet paper. The boreal forest supports a large variety of animal life, and it is a source of clean water for many people of Canada. It is home to many of the people of the First Nations, who we would call Native Americans, and these peoples have been just as marginalized and ill-treated throughout history as our tribes have been. The First Nations depend on the boreal forest for their lives and their livelihoods. But, of greatest importance in preserving this forest is this: it is a vast storehouse of carbon dioxide. Cutting down these trees would release about 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. And the cutting has already begun.
In just a little while, we will have the great privilege of baptizing two people into the Christian faith. Our Gospel reading from John talks about how no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Being born from above, or born anew, which is another way to translate the Greek, is what happens in baptism. It is a new birth into the kingdom of God, and it is a new birth into eternal life. And for the author of this Gospel, eternal life is not something that starts when you die and go to heaven. Eternal life starts here on earth, from the moment that you are born anew into the kingdom of God. That is the promise that God makes to you in the moment of baptism. This entry into the new life that God promises starts with our baptism.
Jesus also tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. The Greek word used for world here is kosmos, which we have taken over in English to mean the whole universe, not just the world. And that is one of the meanings of this Greek word, yes. But to get a more complete idea of what the kosmos is, it means God loves the entire world—down to each blade of grass, each flower, each wolf, each bear, each human being, and yes, even each mosquito. We human beings are just one part of this beautiful and fragile creation that God loves, and yet, we are having an outsize effect on it. So what this means is that, when we are baptized and born anew into this wonderful, eternal life God gives us, we are called upon to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation, and to serve that creation, not to use it for our own selfish gain.
A derogatory word that is often used in place of the word “environmentalist” is “tree-hugger”. I propose that we, as stewards of God’s good creation baptized into eternal life, turn that word from a derogatory usage to one that we proudly own. After all, our Genesis reading today speaks of trees as one of the first things that God created and commanded us to care for. Without the trees, we and most other life on this earth could not exist. So, why wouldn’t we want to “hug” the trees and care for them as the precious resources they are instead of as something we can dispose of at will? Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Let us go, then, to plant trees, to care for them, to walk and to rest in their shade, to wonder at their awesomeness, beauty and mystery, and most of all, to thank God for providing them for us. Let us choose the Tree of Life. Amen.