Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 7, 2014

2014.09.07 “Season of Creation: Forest” – Genesis 2: 4 – 9, 15 – 22

Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Forest
Pastor David L. Haley
Genesis 2: 4 – 9, 15 – 22
September 7th, 2014


In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb 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; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 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. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” – Genesis 2: 4 – 9, 15 – 22, the New Revised Standard Version


As I have prepared for our four Sunday celebration of the Season of Creation, and especially for today’s sermon on forests, I have been surprised. I discovered it is like getting a letter (or for those of you under 50, a Facebook post) from an old friend, saying: “Where have you been; so good to hear from you again!” So the trees of the forests might say – not only to me – but to many, if not all of us.

See if your experience is like mine?  I grew up in the woodlands – what is left of the forests – of western Kentucky. I once read in a history book, before we settled this country, the forest was so extensive that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. In those woodlands, I spent a lot of my childhood playing cowbows and Indians, pretending to be Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. In fact, on my mother’s side, one of my Skaggs ancestors is supposed to have crossed the Appalachians with Daniel Boone, one of the earliest explorers of Kentucky. So – with such people as my legends – I grew up climbing trees and hiking and camping and swimming and hunting and fishing. In many ways I didn’t know how special it was to grow up in woodlands; I took it for granted.

Until I moved up here to Northern Illinois.  As you leave I-24 and merge onto I-57 out of the Ohio River valley, you leave behind the rolling wooded hills of Kentucky and southern Illinois and enter the flat prairie of Illinois, just like Abe Lincoln did when he moved from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois. On the flat prairie, now mostly converted to some of the richest farmfields in the world, most of the trees are gone, if they were ever there. Of course, in Illinois, I did gain a new appreciation of land and prairie and sky, which we will talk about next week.

Then I came to Chicago, city of broad shoulders and crooked politicians, but also Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the many parks and forest preserves that make Chicago’s motto “urbs in horto” (city in a garden).  I also discovered that from here, it takes about an hour and a half in any direction (except east!) to get to anything that looks like forests or wilderness.  And even then, you find that about a thousand other people – also seeking nature and solitude – got there before you.

So in many ways, I have to say what many of us might say, that I often feel alienated from nature, especially nature in the form I grew up.  I wonder if many of us might also feel that way, growing up amidst forests and trees, now far, far away.

Through the years, through travel, I have had occasion to experience some of earth’s most spectacular woodlands and forests.  Tropical forests, such as Hawaii, where the foilage and trees are alive with birds and flowers. In New Zealand, I visited a 2,000 year old kauri tree, rightly called “The Lord of the Forest.”  That was about as close as I have ever come to worshiping a tree.  In Africa, in the Congo (at that time, Zaire), I visited the forest home of mountain gorilla, an unforgetable experience. And some of our incredibly beautiful American wildernesses, the Appalachians, the Rockies, the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Even now, I am trying to find ways to re-establish that connection with nature and trees and forests. I adjust my walking and running routes to include the most trees near; either north around the Evanston Golf Club or south to the Emily Oaks Nature Center.

If this has been your experience, that you grew up close to nature but now feel alienated from it, we have to ask: how did this happen?

Well, a couple of things: life, and work, and families, and distance, to name a few. That’s why so many live for the weekend: we may be white collar or blue collar during the week, but we can be no collar or flannel shirt on the weekend, out there in our SUV or RV.

For another thing, nature – including forests – can be daunting. Let’s not be romantics; anybody who has spent time in nature, in any form, also has gained respect for it.  In the forest, there are poisonous snakes and plants, not to mention bears, trees that fall, rocks that roll, and weather that can change quickly. In nature, there is little margin for error. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you discover to your surprise, the forest doesn’t care. No tree will bend over to say, “Excuse me, you need to go that way.” If you break your leg on a rock or fall over a cliff or freeze to death, nature does not care.

But it is not only for these practical reasons that we are at the same time drawn to and alienated from nature, it is also because nature is a part of our story, the human story: not only our personal stories, but our big Story – the Story we Jews and Christians share.  For us moderns, even that story is not singular, but plural, bits and pieces of several stories woven together that inform the way we think about the nature in general and forests in particular.

What I’m talking about is the Biblical story of creation, as found in Genesis, part of which we read today.  It comes from ancient times, when people’s understanding of the world and their place in it was shaped not by science, but by myth and story.  What that means is not that these stories are not true, as we often use the word myth; but rather that they are not literal or historical.  But they are true, in that they still help understand our place in the world.

In the Genesis story of creation (there are really two, Genesis 1 & Genesis 2), what we find is that God created all things.  Among those things God brought forth from the earth were vegetation and trees, forming a beautiful garden. A few verses later, again formed from the earth and seas, came all living creatures.  And yet a few verses later, in chapter 2, man (Adam) is created from the dust of the ground (admah.)  According to the Genesis story, women, you are the only being created not from the dust of the ground, but from Adam’s side. (Maybe that’s why you are different – I mean special!)  And then God blew into man and woman – the breath of life.

So there are two important points here:  First, all living things – including trees and  humans – come from the earth.  We might say, if God is our Creator or Father, the earth is our mother, of whose dust we are formed, and therefore all living creatures – including plants and trees – are our brothers and sisters, our family, our kin.

Secondly, we are born of earth and the spirit. When we die our body returns to the earth; our spirit returns to God. Maybe that’s why, in the Gospel of John, Jesus used earthly things to talk to Nicodemus about spiritual things, saying, “You must be born of water and spirit.”  Neither earth and spirit nor water and spirit excludes the other; they are all inter-related, just as earth and plants and animals and humanity. God created a world that was interdependent, and a world that was beautiful and good.

After having created earth as a garden, according to this story – yes, with snakes and spiders and mosquitos, but no clothes (go figure) – God put humanity into the garden with a purpose: “to till and to tend it.” In other words, to “serve and preserve it.” Not – as we have often understood it – to “use and abuse it.”  It has been true too often that we have treated earth’s natural resources as a pipeline: putting the resources in one end, extracting what we need, and spewing trash out the other end.  Pope John XXIII, even before he was elected Pope, once said: “We are not on earth as museum keepers but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future.”

Of course, as we know, that is not the end of the story.  There were rules, even in the garden; there was a tree – specifically the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – that was not to be touched. But, for one reason or another, whether snakes or Adam or Eve, we disobeyed God and did touch it; and thus were banished from the garden. Thus began, says this story, our alienation from God, from each other, and from nature – this very thing that we still feel. But what the story never says, is that God reversed God’s original opinion, that the world God created is beautiful and good.

That’s one story.  But as moderns, our understanding of the world we live in and especially our relation to nature is informed by another story, a more recent story, the scientific story.  It is a story formed not through imagination, but through theory, experimentation, and confirmation. If the Genesis story is a story of “why” the universe began, the story according to science is a story of “how” the universe began, through The Big Bang, the formation of the cosmos and stars and planets, the origin of life and the evolution of species.  Teaching us over and again, what we first learned from the Genesis story: our inter-relatedness and interdependence with Mother Earth and all living things.

As one example, what the scientific story tells us that the Biblical story did not, is that we need the forests not only as gardens and playgrounds, but to keep us alive. We are biologically complimentary: we breathe in oxygen, we breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants and trees and forests, on the other hand, breathe in carbon dioxide, and breathe out oxygen. Do you see any correlation here? So why are we not only cutting the rainforests, but burning them afterwards, producing more carbon dioxide, which leads to global warning. We know; at first it was for firewood; then it was fields to farm, but now, most often, it is big business.  Here’s a few key facts about forests:

  • Forests cover about 31 percent of Earth’s land surface.
  • Rainforests cover less than 2% of all the land worldwide but produce 40% of the world’s oxygen and house half of life on earth. Over 80% of the world’s biodiversity is thought to be in rainforests.
  • More than a quarter of modern medicines originate from tropical forest plants and healthcare benefits from forest plants is valued at $108 billion a year.
  • Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the Earth’s forested area has shrunk from 50 million square kilometers to 40 million square kilometers. In the last 50 years, the Amazon has lost at least 17% of its forest cover and Sumatra has lost 85% of its forest (mainly to palm oil plantations).
  • Deforestation and forest degradation releases about 1.7 billion tons of carbon annually, between 10 and 30% of global carbon emissions.
  • The biggest causes of deforestation are ranching and agriculture, road and urban infrastructure development, commercial logging, mining, subsistence farming and firewood collection, and use of wood and other biomass as a biofuel.  Many of these factors are driven by increasing populations.

[Sources: Centre for International Forestry Research, Global Canopy Programme, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), The World Bank, WWF, Eliasch Review, IPCC, World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, World Rainforest Movement, The Nature Conservancy, Global Forest Coalition, Biomass Magazine]

I’m not sure how much we can make of this, as a church, one/third of whose buildings consists of logs that once were trees. I only hope they planted more trees where those came from. (Maybe this is something we should check into?)

For those of us grew up more connected to nature in general and forests in particular – if we have this longing to re-connect, if we have heard from both the stories that inform our understanding of the world, the Biblical story and the scientific story, about our inter-relatedness and interdependence, then perhaps it is time for us to begin to re-connect.

I would encourage us to do this in some small way. Let’s start with a tree, and in establish a “hands on” connection: climb a tree, plant a tree, learn the kinds of trees, take a hike in a forest preserve or national forest.

But secondly, let’s also establish a planetary connection – let’s find a way to connect with the forests and de-forestation. One place to begin might be to watch Showtimes’s Emmy-awarding winning series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” which is now available for those without cable.

What we may discover is the same surprise with which we began: a renewed appreciation for our friends of the forest, the trees. May God, Creator of all, open our hearts and minds to understand our interconnectedness and interdependence, not only for our sake but the sake of the planet.  When we do, surely – together – we and all the trees of the forest will sing for joy. Amen.


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