A sermon preached b the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 13 January 2022 [Epiphany 6]: Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. [Jeremiah 7:7-8] Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful … They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. [Psalm 1:1, 3] At the turn of the 1980’s, at the beginning of our marriage, Bev and I lived in faculty housing. Situated on a small hill, our house was separated from the gray-stone chapel where we were married by a small wood that contained a grove of large oak trees. Even though we were on the school’s main campus, these trees afforded us with a lovely privacy and solitude in a boarding school community that was by definition exposed.
When our first child, Clare, was born, we received the gift of a painting from an artist who was also a faculty wife. As a painting that contains the depiction of a place and time that hold special memories for us – Clare’s birth --, it has ever since hung in our bedroom. The painting captures the serene place where, between two giant oaks, I had hung a hammock for Bev, as she awaited her final ripening in what was a sweltering late July. (Nothing like a pregnant lady in her last weeks and days when the summer temperature and humidity flirt with imitating hell!). But to their everlasting credit, the great oaks provided quiet company and shade, and occasionally, their lofted leaves would register the hope of a much-needed breeze.
It was a year or so after Clare’s birth that the remnants of a hurricane raced over Long Island and into Connecticut. We hunkered down in our home, holding our baby, and listening to the grand oaks fighting the lacing wind. Nervously, we went to bed that night, amidst the sound of trees groaning and cracking and popping in the darkness. Not until the dawning did we understand what those sounds meant.
In the morning I went outside to the back edge of our yard, where I saw the damage. Fortunately, our house had been spared, but the wind had taken its full wrath out on the trees. Most dramatically, it had snapped and uprooted about a half dozen of the largest oaks. Lying on their sides, all in a row, blown over and up the hill, away from the house, they looked like fallen soldiers in battle. I was stunned by the sight. These stalwarts of the grove were lost. They would not easily or swiftly be replaced, and no one in my generation or the one after would ever see their likes on that hill again.
After the day’s teaching was over, I returned home to stand among the fallen and began to mourn the loss of these huge sentinels. I approached the fallen trunks with a kind of sacred silence, marveling at their two-and three-foot diameters. I stroked their unblemished bark, as if to verify for myself the reality of their sudden loss. Then, for some unknown reason, I found myself straddling one of the fallen tree trunks, my feet dangling in air, as if I were a small child on an oversized play horse. And then it hit me. I had a sense of deep connection with these fallen guardians, as if in mutuality we were saying “goodbye” to one another. For my part, I sadly also said “thank you”.
At the beginning of World War I, the well-known American poet, Joyce Kilmer, wrote his signature poem, “Trees”. Killed by a sniper’s bullet at the closing stages of that horrific turmoil, high school English classes kept his memory alive; and through the poem, many of us were exposed to Kilmer’s appreciation and understanding of the trees. Some of us even memorized his poem. Kilmer wrote:
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
While history’s critics easily roll their eyes at the simple rhyming scheme and the seemingly “schmaltzy” text, Kilmer’s sentiment, nonetheless, speaks to the need for humanity to celebrate the world God created, the wonder of nature’s complexity, and our place in creation. Interestingly, it is an attitude that lies at the heart of today’s ecology movement both in terms of a rising creation theology and climate change. Kilmer’s sentiments touch upon the reminders to us of what it means and what it takes to be God’s stewarding people in a world that is so often painfully challenged by its own obliqueness.
Recently, you and I have had an encounter with a tree. Its demise caused many of us to re-open our eyes to God’s creation and our part in it, especially our part as caretakers of God’s creation. In late December, we were forced to cut down a sugar maple tree that had stood at the Main Street entrance of our church for longer than anyone of us can remember. The remnants of its trunk were ceremoniously stacked in a neat pile by the edge of the parking lot, free for the taking as firewood. Only a few cut logs now remain from our giant. But as I said in a mid-Advent sermon and as our former deacon, Jason Burns, also pointed out before he left us, that tree significantly mirrors a good deal about our life as a parish church and as individual followers of Jesus. Considering the insights from the Prophet Jeremiah’s admonitions about trees, along with the psalmist’s discernment, I am reminded of a saying that stems from a tree’s image and applies to us.
That saying goes like this: The greatest gift we can give our children is roots and wings. Of course, as significant as the saying’s truth is, what is implied is that we can’t give what we do not have. The questions I want to pose to you are: In what life-giving reality are you and I rooted? And are we using this rootedness to grow, to blossom, to fly?
I am always amazed by the fact that for a tree what we see above the ground in its branches and leafy stems is mirrored below the ground in its roots. The root system of a tree produces its leafing, its “wings” (if you will), but the soaring part of the tree also nourishes and sustains the roots. Symbiotically, the roots provide stability and strength; the leaves absorb and share the nourishment. Thus, the tree lives and grows in a mutual relationship.
When this relationship, this botanical mutuality is broken, the tree’s life is weakened and endangered. So, without nurturing new growth, all the tree has are roots, which may destine the entire tree to become nothing more than a stump. Conversely, without deep roots, new growth only acts as a sail in the wind, by which the tree is easily toppled. The analogy for us as people and as a church equally applies.
The roots of our lives and the roots of this church are seen in terms of baptism, where we pledge to say “yes” to God-in-Christ’s “YES!” to us. And to carry the tree image one step further, our roots are set and established and nourished by the cross of Christ, which demonstrates that God’s love and life are stronger than all fear and death. In an effort to convey the cross’s meaning, it is often referred to as a tree -- a new tree of life, redemption, and hope. From its roots and from its fruit that is Jesus, we receive the life we need and cannot make for ourselves.
Are we tending our roots? Do our roots cause new life to blossom in us and among us? Are we celebrating God’s life, manifest in the cross and resurrection, to the extent that the triumph and confidence of Jesus’ tree is seen in us because we are grafted on to him? Dare we make a more distinct connection between these holy roots and the life we are promised and need?
Roots and Wings. How are we doing? Amen.