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For the Healing of the Nations 1: Apostles of the Living Light

April 30, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2012

 

FOR THE HEALING OF THE NATIONS I:

Apostles of the Living Light and the Communio Sanctorum

Psalm 1

 

A few weeks ago the choir introduced us to a poem by Wendell Berry, Great Trees, singing it to a haunting and powerful melody. The first stanza read:

Slowly, slowly they return

To the small woodland let alone:

Great trees, out spreading and upright,

Apostles of the living light.[1]

I (immediately) decided to take the line describing trees as “Apostles of the living light” as the title of my sermon for today because I wanted to push the idea even further.

This past Autumn, just after the first meeting of the planning team for today’s Wangari Maathai Memorial Tree Planting, I attended a panel discussion reviewing a new book by Belden Lane, a Presbyterian minister, author and university professor. Lane’s book is called Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. The surprise, in the title, is our long legacy of what can only be called “green theology” and Christian love of creation.

Near the center of the book, Lane entertains the idea of including trees within the communion of saints. Aware of what we were planning for today, I immediately wanted to share this idea with our congregation, and I’ve entertained this idea for six months.

Since Lane has said it so well, what I would like to do this morning, as we prepare to plant a tree in memory of a beloved friend, Wangari Maathai, is share selections from this book with you, in hopes that you experience some of what I experienced in reading it for the first time.

[Here I read selections from Chapter “Open the Kingdom for the Cottonwood Tree,” pp. 124-133.]

For obvious copyright issues, I cannot reproduce the chapter here. In brief, Lane introduces us to the importance of trees to the history of Christian spirituality. He includes Saints Gerlach, Bavo and Vulmar who lived in hollowed-out trees, St. Victorinus and St. Gulda who caused trees to blossom upon their death, and St. Hermeland who drove Caterpillars from the forest she loved, even Martin of Tours who bound himself to a stake in the path of a threatened sacred pine. He also describes medieval visual and Puritan arboreal traditions of love of nature, including the traditions of nature sympathizing with the suffering of Christ. But most helpfully he demonstrates the biblical love of creation as the theater of the divine.

According to the author, to include trees in the communion of saints, the communion of holy things, would mean first, to recognize “trees as sharing an intimate, even sacramental relation with us in the Body of Christ”; second, to “extend justice to creatures that sustain human life, using their products with gratitude and respect,;’ third, “to honor wood, whether cut or uncut”; and fourth, to attend to “the distribution of gifts within the community of living beings, recognizing the unjust advantages enjoyed for so long by First-World humans.”[2]

I also made sure to reference the timbered history of salvation that Lynn Dunn, our Director of Christian Education and our children presented to us on Palm Sunday.

On Friday evening, Vinodh Vivekananda shared with me a story which I think affirms and illustrates the case for including trees among the saints. Vinodh’s grandfather cared for a particular tree in his yard every day, watering it and loving it, having a special relationship with it, for as long as Vinodh could remember. When his grandfather died, the tree immediately began to mourn. It dried up, withered, and in less than a month was dead, crumbling at the touch.

Vinodh’s grandfather is not the only one to have a special relationship with trees. I’ve heard several stories in the last forty-eight hours as I have spoken with others about this idea of including trees in the communio sanctorum. (and I have continued to hear them since this sermon was preached).

We will plant a tree today, in memory of a Wangari Maathai, in hopes that our relationship with it may serve the healing of our world, and the healing of ourselves.

 

Great Trees

By Wendell Berry

 

Slowly, Slowly, they return                                                 They stand in waiting all around,

To the small woodland let alone:                                      Uprisings of their native ground,

Great trees, out spreading and upright,                          Down-comings of the distant light

Apostles of the living light.                                                 They are the advent they await.

 

Patient as stars, they build in air                                       Receiving sun and giving shade,

Tier after tier a timbered choir,                                        Their life’s a benefaction made,

Stout beams upholding weightless grace                        And is a benediction said

Of song, a blessing on this place                                       Over the living and the dead.

 

In fall their brightened leaves, released,

Fly down the wind and we are pleased

To walk on radiance, amazed

Oh light come down to earth, be praised!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] The full poem is posted on my blog at https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/sabbath-day-35/ .

[2] Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. Oxford University Press, 2011.

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