Sermon for July 10,
Outdoor Worship Service
When our worship service is held outdoors, I like to stray from the scheduled liturgy and scripture readings for that Sunday. It always seems more fitting that when we are worshiping God outside in the midst of God’s creation that I should talk about something that pertains to God’s creation. In past outdoor service’s I have talked about God’s gift of birds, God’s gift of flowers and gardens, and God’s desire for us to relax, especially during the summer months. One of the topics I have not yet covered is God’s gift of trees. Trees are used throughout scripture to teach us about our lives, about our God and about our relationship with God. Perhaps sitting among the trees, and under the trees (and perhaps a few of you in the trees) this morning will make the topic of trees more meaningful to you, as we learn about the importance of trees to us as people of faith.
The Christian church hasn’t spent much time talking about nature, or creation until recent years. Our ancestors in the faith wanted to avoid too much emphasis on nature for fear that Christianity would be confused with pagan religions that often focused on the worship of nature. And so, although the bible is full of references to nature we seldom spend much time looking at how important it is to us as people of faith. I believe that God understood just that many people would relate to nature and therefore used nature to inspire us and to teach us the lessons we needed to learn in our lives. There are many people, perhaps some of you, who relate to God in the outdoors in a way you cannot inside a sanctuary. Many people consider a forest a sanctuary much holier than a church building.
Trees hold a special place in the bible partly because the Holy Land is mostly dry and without many trees. When I visited Israel a number of years ago we were told by our guide that Israel at one time had many trees. But the country had been deforested by the Turks at some point in history. Trees are most often used to depict nature in the bible. The bible mentions trees in general 250 times although it does at time mention specific kinds of tree most often the olive tree. Other trees that are mentioned by name are the oak, cypress, willow, and myrtle. Because trees were so scarce during biblical times, it made the mention of them more significant. Genesis 21:33 tells us that “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and worshiped the eternal Lord God.” A tamarisk tree is a tall shade tree that has deep roots and needs little water. Israel continues to plant trees today. To this date 240 million trees have been planted by hand in the holy land.
Because there have traditionally been few tress in Israel, buildings made of wood were considered a luxury. If a person had a house with just a wooden beam of cedar and rafters made of pine they were considered special. If someone was buried beneath a tree special mention was made of what kind of tree. Genesis 35:8 tells us that “While they were there, Rebekah’s personal servant Deborah died. They buried her under an oak tree and called it “Weeping Oak.”
In the creation story from Genesis trees are mentioned eight times. They are described as “pleasing to the eye.” They are physical examples of the great life force of God in the creation story. The Tree of Life and the tree of knowledge found in the Garden of Eden is part of that story. Each of those two trees represent both blessings and curses, life or death. The tree of life is found again in the book of Revelation that says “On each side of the river are trees that grow a different kind of fruit each month of the year. The fruit gives life, and the leaves are used as medicine to heal the nations.” It is a description of trees so abundant that they monthly produce a different kind of fruit, whose leaves heal. The tree of life was depicted in the Temple by a golden lamp stand that looked like a blossoming almond tree.
Between the first and last book of the bible is a tree that perhaps we don’t think of as a tree, the cross of Jesus. The Old Testament talks about how an executed person was hung on a tree. The spiritual we sing during Holy Week “Were You There” says, “Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?” That tree, the cross of Jesus, was the place where both curses and blessings occurred as well as judgment and healing. The cursing of Jesus hung on a tree brought about the end of death and the renewal of life through immortality. A tree was the witness.
The bible uses trees as symbols of God’s abundance and how God provides for us. That image of trees representing abundance and life is found in books of the bible such as in Psalm 1:3 which says “They are like trees growing beside a stream, trees that produce fruit in season and always have leaves. Those people succeed in everything they do.” And in Jer. 17:8 “They will be like trees growing beside a stream, trees with roots that reach down to the water, and with leaves that are always green. They bear fruit every year and are never worried by a lack of rain.” Psalm 104 tells us that “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly.” Trees are used by God to provide for us and the animals as well. Psalm 104 tells us that “birds build their nest’s, the stork has her home in the fir trees.” Fig trees are mentioned thirty six times in the bible and olive trees twenty times. Both of these trees provided foods that were staples during biblical times. The shade of a tree provides protection and a place to rest.
Daniel’s interpretation of the king’s vision described Nebuchadnezzar as an enormous tree, whose branches had beautiful leaves and which bore abundant fruit and gave shelter to the beasts of the field and nesting places for the birds. The Kingdom of Heaven is described in Mathew as a tiny mustard seed that quickly grows into a large tree that provides shelter for the birds.
The book of Proverbs mentions the tree of life four times. A tree of life represents happiness and well-being. Proverbs tells us that wisdom is a life giving tree. Live right and you will eat from the life-giving tree. A wish that comes true is a life giving tree. A gentle tongue is a tree of life. A long and indestructible life are characteristics of a tree. Isaiah tells us that “As the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people.”
People who continue to believe despite every circumstance of their lives are described in Jeremiah as a tree that continues to thrive even in a season of drought because of its deep roots. The writer of one of the psalms compares himself a godly person, as a tree “I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God. I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.
God is also described as a tree. Hosea has God saying “I am like a green pine tree your fruitfulness comes from me.”
The end times are also described with trees. “Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy…before the Lord, for he comes…to judge the earth.” “The desert will be replanted with the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, the olive, the pine, the fir and the cypress.” “All the trees of the field will clap their hands when the thorns and brambles are replaced by the pine trees and the myrtle.” The bible uses trees as symbolic of how we should respond to this new age.
Although Christians don’t put so much emphasis on nature the Jewish people do. In fact they have a special celebration at the beginning of each year call Tu B’Shevat, The New Year for Trees. The celebration is on the 15th of either January or February because that is the time that the almond trees begin to form blossoms and produce fruit. It takes four months of rain that begins in the fall and winter to saturate the ground enough to coax the trees into producing fruit. The Jewish people celebrate by eating fruit, especially fruit from Israel. It is also a time for planting trees. It is a time for the Jewish people to express their faith in God. For planting a tree requires faith in God.
In Judaism trees are regarded as extremely precious and important. There are blessings for the first buds of spring and also when the fruit of the tree is eaten for the first time that season. “Praised are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who creates the fruit of the tree.”
There is an old Jewish saying that if the Messiah is coming while you are planting a tree, first finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah.
There is an old Jewish story that goes like this. An old man was observed planting a fig tree. When asked if he really expected to live long enough to consume the fruit of his labor, he replied. “I was born into a world flourishing with ready pleasures. My ancestor planted them for me and now I plant for my children and grandchildren.”
One of the traditions of Judaism was to plant a cedar tree at the birth of a boy, and a pine tree at the birth of a girl. When two people are married branches from those trees were used to make poles for their wedding canopy. The custom of planting a marriage tree at the birth of a child is called a “joyous planting.”
The Torah says that human life is like the tree of the field. Some picture the world as a great tree with people as its fruit. Hear the words of Rabbi Freeman. “We are like leaves extending from twigs branching out from larger twigs on branches of larger branches until we reach the trunk and roots of us all. Each of us has our place on this tree of life, each its source of nurture and on this the tree relies for its very survival. None of us walks alone. Each carries the experiences of our ancestors wherever he or she roams, along with their troubles, their traumas, their victories, their hopes and aspirations. Our thoughts grow out from their thoughts, our destiny shaped by their goals. At the highest peak we ever get to, there they are, holding our hand, pushing us upward, providing the shoulders on which to stand. And we share those shoulders, that consciousness, that heritage with all the brothers and sisters of our people.
“That’s why your own people are so important: If you want to find peace with any other person in the world, you’ve got to start with your own brothers and sisters. Until then, you haven’t found peace within your own self. And only when you’ve found peace within yourself can you help us find peace for the entire world.”
Every Jew, [every Christian] is a brother or sister of a great family of many thousands of years. Where a Jew [or a Christian] walks, there walks sages and martyrs, heroes and heroines, legends and miracles…”
“When one Jew [or Christian] does an act of kindness, all our hands extend [like the branches of a tree] with his or hers. When one rejoices, we are all uplifted. In our oneness we will find our destiny and our destiny is to be one. For we are a single body, breathing with a single set of lungs, pulsating with a single heart, drawing from a single well of consciousness.”