Look to the Trees

[Homily delivered at Eucharist for Vancouver School of Theology]

Gospel Reading

Luke 21:25-36

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

A recent headline: “South Florida scientists say we must act now on sea level rise.” According to the IPCC at warming of 2 degrees Celsius, sea level rise could be expected to reach a global average of 4 meters, affecting millions of people. Is Christ coming soon?

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Another recent headline: “Ecological grief among mental health effects of climate change in Canada.” There is mounting grief at the loss of habitat and species, the rise in carbon in the heavens, if you will, and ecological refugees. There is anxiety about the future, or, Solastalgia, a neologism coined to describe the mental distress of a rapidly changing environment. Is the Parousia near?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Despite current events, predicting the literal second coming of Christ is a losing enterprise. Many Christians have attempted to do so, and all have been wrong. Even Paul and the early Church were wrong about a literal earthly return. In today’s Gradual Psalm we sense what the Church must have felt after their humiliation at the crucifixion:

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust;

do not let me be put to shame;

do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

They no doubt believed that Christ’s return was imminent—within a generation it was said. That Christ would humiliate their enemies and carry the faithful up into God’s kingdom perched at the pinnacle of the dome of the flat-earth’s heaven. Things didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but who could deny the sincerity of their hope as they watched the Romans mercilessly massacre and punish the community at Jerusalem. Jewish rebels held the city for nearly five years. And at the end of it, the temple was destroyed and nearly 30,000 zealots and Jewish civilians died in the siege of the city. The tiny Church must have looked to the sky until their necks ached. And yet, Christ did not descend in a cloud in power and glory.

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

What is God’s power anyway? A cross. What is God’s Glory anyhow? Creation. During the season of Advent, we marvel that while God’s power and glory are eventually headed for the throne of the cross, they are first on display in a helpless infant lying in a manger.

When is the kingdom of God near? When there were stars to observe, and trouble in the world. Always. Earth and heaven are always connected. Our current ecological crises and their effects on the earth point to the coming of God’s Kingdom because they reflect our civilization’s brokenness. The kingdom of God is near, because the Kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy kingdom of outcasts and sinners, lilies and sparrows. Jesus said, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is like cooking yeast. The Kingdom of God is within; it fits within the bounds of a single human heart.

And even in a world that is always on the brink, we can find that Kingdom in unlikeliest of places: the bud break of a fig tree. When everything around us seems to be falling to pieces, with Jesus, we look to the trees. Silent givers of life, they announce the Kingdom of God with their own silent liturgy, vested in the colors of the earth. Yet, summer leaves also point to winter branches. In the Kingdom of God there is room for growth and decay, joy and pain. God’s Kingdom, at least here on earth, is always filled with both.

It should not strike us as strange then that at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of the Church year, we are reading about the end things. Before the story begins, we are reading its conclusion. But in the topsy-turvy Kingdom, the beginning is the end; incarnation is salvation. Growing up, I always found the term “Second Coming” to be curious. Like a sequel to a classic film. But there can be no numeration to the Advent of the Word of God, who is eternally birthed from the Womb of the Father. He is always here, yet always on his way.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

The term Holy Waiting is paradoxical, because we are always waiting, and Christ’s Kingdom is always already here. But our liturgical seasons are the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. They are the inhaling and exhaling of the Church. The summer foliage, and the winter branches. Advent is a season of inhaling. A season of pruning. Of letting leaves die. Of waiting for green shoots. Advent is a season of asceticism and spiritual training. A time to refocus. A time for stillness. A time for quiet. A time for sinking into the dark night of the soul. In a world that threatens so much pain, whether or not we win should not be the factor that determines our commitment to right action. We must continue to live lives of beauty and hope even through the dark seasons of civilization. That is why there are dark seasons in the liturgy. We must not look away from the world. We must look to the trees, especially that tree that is both an instrument of torture and a tree of life. A tree whose seed was planted not in power and great glory, but in the humble soil of the Judean countryside.

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting. Amen.

Sacred Groves

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Prelude

Imagine the most common of trees, the Christmas (or Solstice) tree, decorated with globes, lights and a star on top. Allow that tree to grow in your mind so that it fills the sky.

The bright star at the very top of the tree merges with the North Star, Polaris.

Now imagine that the gold and silver globes become the sun, the phases of the moon, and the other planets moving through the sky, appearing to pivot around the North Star.

Imagine that the twinkling lights are billions and billions of stars.

The Christmas tree is a microcosm of the macrocosm.

The Norse pagans placed the ash tree at the center of their cosmology.

Its sprawling roots descended into the underworld; its trunk and branches passed through the mortal realm, ascending to heavenly.

The Maya imaged the cosmos as a great Ceiba tree, which also descended to the underworld and ascended through thirteen levels of heaven, each level with its own god.

The sun and moon made their way along the Ceiba’s trunk, and the spirits of the dead moved along its rough bark.

The naturalist and pantheist John Muir used to climb to the top of large pine trees during rain storms. About trees and the universe he mused:

We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and [humans]; but it never occurred to me until th[at] stormy day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.

The Tree of Life

In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling.

Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, trees, animals.

The seeds of humans germinated in the trees.

Our mammalian and primate ancestors made their homes in their bows.

Eventually, our curiosity compelled us down from the safety of their branches and out onto the savanna.

Yet, the trees never left us;

They continued to provision us with gifts on our long walks.

They gave food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine and stories.

They appeared in our dreams.

It was here, in a forest, that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants would grow.

It was here that Yahweh, Semitic sky god, came to earth and planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food.

It was here that Inanna, Babylonian goddess of beauty and love, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.

It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree and led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.

It was here that the sacred tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, before Sky Woman fell through a hole in the island in the sky, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.

It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that hold the sky in place and mark the cardinal directions.

First Visions

It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to human consciousness.

It was here that Jacob wrestled with angels and beheld visions.

It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.

It was here, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.

It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.

It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.

It was here that Guru Nanak experienced the Oneness of God.

It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.

First Temples

It was here, in a forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods.

It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was worshipped.

It was here, as Sycamore fig, that Isis of Egypt was lavished praise.

It was here, in grove of sacred oak, that the Druids passed on their knowledge, and sacrificed human flesh to the gods.

It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration—

Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches were all made to resemble the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God.

And yet, it would seem that these temples of stone confined God to one place, one people, one faith.

Fall

It was here that we fell from grace.

It was here that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of a misunderstood tree.

It was here that civilization bloomed.

It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.

It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written;

Stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, subjective.

Return

In an age of climate chaos and heart breaking extinction, it is here, to the forest, that we must return.

Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.

Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm, where we get our bearings.

It is here that creation awes.

It is here that we experience the divine.

It is here that we can bring our questions.

It is here that we can dwell in mystical solitude.

It is here that we are now—The global forest.

Call

To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it.

I invite you to go to a mountain grove or a city park and take off your shoes.

When you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes.

Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes and on your skin.

If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.

Imagine drinking in the caramel rays of the sun as nourishment.

Focus on your breath by letting the air pass through your nostrils and fill the arboreal-patterned branches in your lungs.

Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.

Feel them slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.

Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.

In and out.

As you breathe in, imagine that the oxygen, conceived in the leaves of trees, is gently birthed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through space, and entering your lungs.

As you breathe out, imagine that the CO2, re-born in your lungs, is gently wafting through the air and entering the receptive stomata of the leaves.

In and out.

The air becomes us, becomes them.

It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.

As we breathe in, the trees breathe out.

As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.

We are their lungs and they are ours.

In and out.

This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.

May we dwell in this reality!

The mystic monk and (one time monastery forester) Thomas Merton said:

We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

What we are is not all that different from trees.

And so I offer you this prayer for your walks and sits among the trees.

Forest, Trees. May we sustain you as you sustain us.