Flourishing Creation: Forests

Flourishing Creation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  20:19
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Genesis 2:4b–9 NRSV
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 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.
In the yard of my childhood home, there stood a healthy Japanese maple tree. Every day when I came home from school, it would greet me at the back door of the house. I would climb its branches at a young age, sometimes getting high enough to see into the yards of the neighbors, sometimes high enough into the bright green leaves to hide and contemplate life as an elementary schooler.
My parents transplanted the tree, quite a feat, about 25 feet away to the center of our backyard fence and it grew taller and stronger. We could look out the kitchen window and watch the seasons change as the year went on. I would still climb the tree, now able to see down our alley and even catch glimpses of the Puget Sound.
The story of God begins in a garden, planted with marvelous trees. From these trees come life and knowledge. And the story of God ends with a new tree, planted in the center of the city of God, the New Jerusalem. From this tree, which grows strong beside the river of God, the leaves which grow upon the branches bring healing to all the nations, a sign of welcome, hospitality, and restoration for all creation.
From now until the Day of Pentecost, we are going to be looking at aspects of the created world, attending to the beauty of God’s handiwork and celebrating humanity’s belonging with and for and among creation.
This month, we celebrate Earth Day — a day that our world marks out to remember and cultivate this relationship between humanity and the created world. As the church, we participate in Earth Day as a natural outpouring of our calling to steward and care for God’s created world.
One clear way that Christians think about the natural world is to remember this calling, this mandate, to care for Creation and help it to flourish. This is what we understand from the creation accounts in Genesis. While this is an honorable and necessary pursuit, I want to reflect for a moment on something else about our relationship with Creation in these weeks to come. Many of us look at this call to stewardship as something we “should” do, it’s a rule to follow or an act to live out. While that is all well and good, I wonder if there is another way to look at things that moves us beyond the “shoulds” of our existence and questions more of the why. Why creation? Or perhaps a way to ask the question is: “what is creation and why do we care for it, praise God for it, bear witness to it in the ways we do?”
Thankfully, there is plenty of helpful theological reflection in our tradition that moves us out of the “shoulds” of creation care and into a realm of understanding the intimate connection all creation has to God. All creation bears witness to God.
The Psalmist writes
The New Revised Standard Version God’s Glory in Creation and the Law

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2 Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

3 There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

Thomas Aquinas, whose writings and systems of theology undergird so much of Christian philosophical thought, reflected upon creation with a sense of it being a “whole” picture of God. He said, “The immense diversity and pluriformity of this creation more perfectly represents God than any one creature alone or by itself.”
The universe, in this line of thought, is the whole picture of God’s self — declaring the glory of God, proclaiming God’s handiwork.
Natural theologian Sally McFague argues that “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.”
She is arguing the creation itself is the very site of God’s work of making all things whole.
I am so grateful to have encountered McFague’s writings in seminary, because she has given me an imagination for the why of Creation and how it relates to God.
There has long been a caution in Christianity around looking at creation and saying: “Everything is God.” Or, a slight variation, “All things are IN God.” Many folks get hung up in these conversations because they feel pagan or pantheistic, not differentiating Creation and Creator enough.
McFague’s writings, though, helped me understand Creation as the body of God. Physical creation, the whole of the universe, can be thought of as the physical body of God, the creator made manifest through Creation. The word through is key here, because it is God’s creative handiwork “lived out” or breathed in as we witness forests, land, oceans, streams, and the like.
Like a painting tells you so much about a painter, so creation, the body of God, tells us about God and shows us how God is. The tree is not God, the tree is God’s body expressed.
I hope you find this subtle clarifying as helpful as I do. Because when we begin to realize Creation as the Body of God, we start to move past questions of should we care for the earth to a perspective of participating in the restoration and flourishing of creation because it is the site where we encounter God’s self.
You want to see God? See God through God’s handiwork of creation.
This will be the central thrust of our studies over the next few weeks. To see and witness and celebrate aspects of the Body of God which call us into service and care and praise.
It is fitting that we begin this series in the weeks following Easter, as well. We are a people who proclaim resurrection from the dead, life from death. And the work of resurrection comes into such focus when we think about how we care for the Body of God, the universe and created order. We are all familiar with the threats of climate change and how much of the created world aches with pains of desecration. We lament the pollution of our forests, streams, oceans, and landscapes. And yet, it is also in these places that we can see resurrection happen so clearly.
The first major environmental disaster I remember was the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Dozens of animals, plants, and marine habitats were injured by this 11 million gallon spill. It was horrible! And yet, over the course of the last 30+ years, recovery has begun. Marine animals like the harbor seal and salmon are recovering. Habitats are being restored and continue to come back to life. The spill was horrible and the spill is a site where we can witness resurrection. Not only do we witness resurrection — in creation, in places of such disaster, God’s people get to actually participate in resurrection!
Let’s turn back to our text from Genesis, because when we talk about the flourishing of creation, it makes perfect sense to start by talking about trees and forests.
The text says that God “planted” the garden and placed humanity there. Like trees, humanity was planted in the rich soil of the garden. And in that garden, in that place of fertile soil where humans were planted to bear witness to the body of God, 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.”
These trees are the foundation of life in the garden. We don’t hear as much detail about anything else in the created order, save for humanity, as we do about trees in the opening story of Genesis. In fact, trees are mentioned more in the Bible than any living thing other than humanity and God. Not wanting to be too punny, but trees are the roots of our journey into the Body of God.
And trees and forests — they’re everywhere all through the Scriptures.
In Chronicles, the trees of the forest sing for joy before God, who judges the earth.
The Cedars of Lebanon, renowned for their beauty and strength, are used as materials to construct Solomon’s temple. God’s people utilize the created world to make beauty and sacred spaces in which to worship and remember God.
In the Psalms, we are reminded that those who put their trust in God are like trees planted by streams of water. We know this means they are healthy and full of life because of the sustaining power of the streams.
The trees sing in the Psalms as well, telling of God’s goodness.
In Isaiah, we hear of the promised destruction and desolation of the forests as God’s people are carried off into exile. Forests being cut down and destroyed speak of the lament of wickedness, desecration coming to creation because of humanity turning from God.
We place a great deal of importance on the tree on which Christ was crucified. The tree, the cross, is the site of God’s salvation and restoration. It is on a tree that Christ died and it is that tree which no longer holds the power of death, but now we remember as the place where death is defeated.
I’m hoping that you’re getting a sense for how we can witness God as we reflect upon the created world. Specifically, this week, that as we consider the trees of the field, that they are a part of God’s body that provides strength, roots, foundation, and life.
With each of these studies, I’d like to turn us from the Scriptures to something very practical. We have an opportunity to witness the Body of God, the presence of God in the created world, when we attend to creation all around us.
So, each week, I’m going to encourage us to practice participating in the created world so we can bear witness to God as God is manifest.
But first, back to my Japanese maple tree.
Remember that I climbed that tree a lot as a kid. But when my parents moved away from my childhood home a few years ago, I couldn’t go out and climb that tree any more. I can’t just wander into the new owner’s yard to gaze at its leaves, either. That wouldn’t be ok.
However, now, anytime I see a Japanese maple tree, I am reminded of a place where I encountered the created world in my earliest years. When I see those trees, I remember a part of myself that was connected to God’s creation in a unique way.
I feel this with other trees, as well. The enormous cedar trees that hem in my parent’s new home and the one that overshadows my back yard. The trees of Whatcom Falls Park, where I teach my son about being in creation. The dense thickets of the logging lands of Galbraith Mountain, areas cultivated and cared for by our community to be a place of recreation.
Touching the bark of these trees, sitting under their shade in the summer, hearing the rustle of their branches in the fall breeze — all of these are, for me, opportunities to see God’s handiwork and practice recognizing God’s presence.
This is why we care for creation — not because we should, but because in it, we see God’s goodness.
So, this week, I’d like to encourage you to practice seeing God in the created world.
Specifically, I want you to go outside and be among the trees. Take a walk in your favorite Bellingham park. Go stand under a tree on the campus of Western. Listen to the branches in the wind. Smell the scent of the bark and needles and leaves and pine cones. If you’re having trouble thinking of a place to come, come sit at the church in our small prayer space on 14th street, the bench which sits under the trees just outside the south end of the church building.
In these spaces — pray, listen, and find nourishment.
What would it be like to see the trees, the forest, as a part of God’s body? Not that they are God, but that God is seen through them.
How does your care for these places, these trees and forests and thickets, invite you to praise God? How does your attention to these places invite you to pay attention to God’s still, small voice?
Perhaps, as you visit the trees, you can spend time with a Psalm. Start with Psalm 1, remembering that like a tree planted by the waters, those who stay in God’s presence and way find blessings and life.
We’re going to keep exploring other aspects of the created world these next few weeks. My hope is that you feel a renewed sense of connection with God’s created goodness and that it will invite you to know God’s love more deeply and our participation in the resurrection life more fully through it.
As the trees of the field clap their hands, so we praise God today. Amen.
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