A Sermon with Trees in View

Here’s a sermon I gave a few weeks ago in a retreat setting. I was asked to speak about how the Bible might help us appreciate nature. It was a very warm southern Ontario morning, but great to be with the group under some wonderful old maples.

* * *

My assignment is to talk to you about how the bible helps us appreciate nature. However, I must be honest and start by saying that I do not think we need the bible to appreciate nature. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Many people report that they feel most calm and most satisfied when they are outdoors. People flock to beaches and trails on days like today.

As a kid, I was introduced to nature conservation, not through the bible but through local farmers and hunters who loved the land. These people got to know the flora and fauna; they cared about the well-being of plants and animals. You can’t watch a whitetail doe and her fawn walk into an alfalfa field on a misty morning and not think there is something special in our world worth caring for.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that people who believe the bible has authority over their life have even more reason to appreciate nature.

We appreciate it—maple trees and thistles, loons and warblers, lakes and rivers—because it’s not just nature. It is not just the ‘environment’ in which we do our thing. What surrounds us is God’s good creation. And so, we actively seek to love God by caring for that which God has made.

This morning I would like us to go for a walk, a metaphorical walk through the bible. Last Saturday I led some folks on a walk through a landscape in the Ottawa valley. Today we’ll go on a metaphorical walk through holy scripture. Just as if we were walking a trail, there is more to see and discuss than we have time for. So, I intend to draw our attention to just four passages: one each from Matthew, Psalms, Genesis and Colossians.

Let’s begin at the heart of our Christian Bible, with a passage from the gospel according to Matthew—Matthew 6. This is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gave this sermon on a mountain (a hill really) because physical landscapes were key to understanding what God was up to in the bible that Jesus read. Jesus was attuned to this. Here, near the end of Matthew 6, Jesus is speaking about something familiar to many of us: worry. Listen to this:

Matt: 6:27-29

And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

What does worry do for us? Not much that’s good. And yet it can be very hard not to worry. There are so many things that can go wrong. Jesus knew this. I wonder what worries you carry.

Notice what Jesus tells the worrier to do: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin . . . .” This is a familiar passage, so familiar that I think we sometimes skip that first word. We tend to sum up Jesus’ teaching by simply saying that we should not worry. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if maybe the process here is important. Maybe we can’t jump right to the goal of worrying less. Maybe we need to start by . . . considering. I doubt whether we need to limit ourselves to lilies.

From my own pastoral work, I know that anxiety and worry are a plague. So, I invite us all to listen to Jesus’ words and do a little more ‘considering’. What native plants are in bloom now? Why do some plants bloom before trees even have leaves? Why are so many of our native plants referred to as ‘weeds’? What if we allowed ourselves to be filled with wonder by the lilies and their cousins? Maybe it’s worth digging out that old magnifying glass and taking a closer look—considering, beholding, really seeing. Noticing the intricacy of leaves, the impressive structure of a seed pod.

Consider the lilies and the sumac: blessed gifts of the creator. God’s grace growing all around us!

Jesus’ ministry engaged nature quite a bit. Consider that Jesus and his disciples often withdrew to wild and lonely places. Think about how Jesus says that God notices when a sparrow dies (Matt. 10). Or think about all the ways Jesus used plants and animals in his teaching: sheep, goats, mustard seeds, fig trees, storms . . . the list goes on. Jesus had an appreciation for God’s creation. 

That’s one stop on our walking tour of the Bible. Let’s move on to another. This time let’s think about the worship book that Jesus and the disciples would have known: the book of Psalms. Many (most?) of the psalms use imagery from nature. Think of Psalm 1, where the wise person is compared to a tree planted near water. Or Psalm 19, which tells us that the “heavens are telling the glory of God.”

Or, or, think of Psalm 148, that’s where I’d like us to stop next. Here are the first ten verses:

Psalm 148:1-10

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
    he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
    stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds!

And then the end of verse 14: “Praise the Lord!”

What wonderful poetry! We tend to think of much of what makes up the earth as “inanimate objects.” After all mountains and hills can’t speak like we can. Fruit trees and cedars don’t sing.

Moose and monarchs are alive, but we hardly think of them as having a relationship with God. And yet, throughout the scriptures, there are hints that more is going on in the non-human world that we think.

Here in Psalm 148, the biblical poet suggests that it isn’t just the angels and humans who are capable of praising God. Somehow, in a way that we can’t quite recognize, the stars praise God. The mountains and the hills praise God. The sea monsters praise God. The storm praises God. Isn’t this amazing? We are surrounded by worship!

Near the end of Luke 19 Jesus tells people that if his disciples don’t bless him and praise God, the rocks will do it!

What if we aren’t the only beings that have a relationship with God? What if we don’t just worship in creation at a place like this, but we worship with creation? What if God’s good creation isn’t just something to be used and consumed by us, what if it is a choir that we join?

Several weeks ago, in partnership with some local pastors from Hamilton, we welcomed people to a worship service on a farm. The idea of the event was not just to worship in creation but to join creation’s worship.  

What was interesting to me, was that a number of young people who had grown up in the church and drifted away, said there was something about this that felt right to them. The sense was that for those who had deep questions about the church’s past, connecting to God alongside plants and animals made sense. The psalmist would relate to that.

Let’s continue our walk through the Bible. Next stop, the book of Genesis.

This might be where you thought we’d start. I don’t start with Genesis because I think Jesus is the center of our faith and because I think we often forget that other parts of the Bible have lots to say about creation. That said, Genesis offers a rich description of how we might appreciate nature.

Hear these words from Genesis chapter two:

Genesis 2:4-9;15 

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 vegetation 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 [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man [earthling] became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man [earthling] 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.

15 The Lord God took the man [earthling] and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Well, you know part of what I want to say here already. The book of Genesis depicts human beings as coming from the ground, just like the trees. We are of earth and divine breath. We can and must appreciate nature because we are a part of it. We depend on ecosystems for clean water and air, for nutrients in our food. A scientist can tell you that. But it’s interesting that this ancient text, knowing little of biology, suggests something similar.

Now, the second thing I would like to point out to you is this: “till” and “keep.”  In Hebrew it’s ‘avad’ and ‘shamar’. In the old KJV ‘avad’ was translated as “dress” instead of “till.” In other places in the Hebrew Bible the word is translated as ‘serve’ or ‘work’. “Shamar” can also be translated as ‘observe’ or ‘protect’.

Those nuances aside, the implication is clear. According to the biblical writer here a part of the vocation/job/role of human beings is to work with and protect; to keep an eye on; to improve and watch. One way to say it is that we were created to be gardeners . . . in one form or another!

Some of my colleagues work in northern BC. There one of the chief concerns is the salmon.

What I find interesting is that the concern for salmon in that part of the country isn’t just something a few radical lefties are interested in. Lots of local people want to protect and sustain salmon populations. As a Christian, I see this interest as an expression of Genesis 2. We are people of the land, created to till and keep, to watch over and to protect.

We have one final stop on our walk this morning. We’re back in the New Testament, this time in the book of Colossians. Colossians chapter 1. Hear this:

Colossians: 1:15-20

15 He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Let me point out two things in this passage. First, notice how Paul (and the early church) saw Jesus as connected to creation. We can’t have a Jesus-centered faith without appreciating creation. “In him,” Paul says, “all things” were created, “created through him and for him.” All things were not created for us or by us but for Christ and through Christ.

I recently had a wonderful exchange with a friend of A Rocha from Toronto. We discussed an article she had written in which she described the God-given “mission” of the monarch butterfly. The monarch brings glory to God through its beauty and through its essential role as a pollinator. Sadly, monarchs are in trouble. The risk is that this animal’s mission will be snuffed out.  

Here in Ontario the A Rocha community has been participating in the widespread effort to build nest sites for bluebirds. The eastern bluebird has made a wonderful comeback since the 1960s. It’s neat to be a part of that story. Hopefully the same will be true of the monarch butterfly. We want the God-given, Christ-honoring mission of this butterfly to continue just like that of the bluebird.

We can’t leave Colossians 1 without taking note of verse 20: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” To reconcile all things . . ! When we think of reconciliation we tend to focus on human relationships. There’s good reason for that. We see a lot of broken relationships between people. I imagine just as I say that line some examples come to mind. We need Christ’s reconciling power.

And yet, let’s not think too modestly about the power of God’s reconciling work in Jesus. Paul tells us that it involves “all things.” “. . . all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” In the death of Christ God expresses solidarity with all creatures, all created life.

One of the big environmental arguments of the 1980s was the debate about which was more important, the rare spotted owl or the livelihood of a logger. We still often think that the flourishing of the human community and the flourishing of nature’s community are in tension. If one is to win, we think the other must lose. We feel we must choose one or the other.

Yet the New Testament would have us see things differently. In Christ, God is reconciling “all things.” To reconcile means to bring us back into right relationship. It is possible! Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is possible! If God’s Spirit can break the grip of death, surely we humans can be reconciled to our neighbours in creation—the rich, rambling diversity of life.  

Flourishing communities and flourishing landscapes. Isn’t that a hopeful vision? I think it’s the biblical vision.

Well, this has been a quick walk. There is much more in scripture we could have looked at. There are some challenging texts we might want to grapple with at some point. However, I think these four passages (Matthew 6, Psalm 148, Genesis 2, Colossians 1) give us a pretty good sense of the territory.

So, as we spend time in God’s good creation, now and in our week to come, let’s notice, let’s appreciate, and let’s care for—this blessed earth with all it’s marvelous leaf and beak.

In the many different forms of life that surround us, we see God’s loving creativity and faithful provision.

—If you’re interesting in learning more about my work with A Rocha or supporting the work of our Ontario team look here.

1 thought on “A Sermon with Trees in View”

  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for sending this sermon. I like how you bring the Bible to today. I hope you don’t mind, I posted it on Facebook.

    Hope you, Sarah, Amos, Elias, and Isaac are doing well.

    Your friend from afar, Eric

    Ps. Go Guardians!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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