Play Service

I would plant a tree – 16 October 2022

I have ultimate frisbee to thank – specifically the Trans-Tasman Competition – for the fact that twice now I have been in New Zealand right before the Blessing of the Animals service.

I say thank because in New Zealand I have picked up – on both occasions – some very useful sermon material for this service.

Back in 2015 it was about fur seals… I discovered then that New Zealand fur seals were hunted for food and skins by European settlers until 1894 at which point, they had almost been hunted to extinction. Today their numbers are estimated to be about 10 to 20 per cent of their original population.

We had hoped to go swimming with the seals near Kaikoura, but the snow was still melting off the mountains and our tour operator rang us to say that it was so cold the seals weren’t even prepared to swim – so the tour wasn’t running. I thought this sounded quite sensible, but Grace was very disappointed.

This time I picked up some very useful material about trees.

Picking up Very Useful Material

Now my children love to tell stories about terrorising me on rollercoasters, so on this trip they insisted on doing the ultimate ziplining course (the one that goes higher, longer and is apparently more spectacular than all the others – a 50-metre-high cliff walkway, three suspended swing bridges and 1200 metres total of ziplines) but – to their disappointment – it turns out that I quite like ziplining!

Enjoying Zip Lining

And I was fascinated by the rundown that our guides gave us on trees. Here we were ziplining in a rare pocket of virgin forest near Rotorua. Rare because – as they explained to us – the north island was once covered by 85% forest and woodland (areas where crown cover is greater than 20%), but after European settlement this was dramatically reduced to 5%. Reforestation is now a priority, and they are currently siting at 15%.

I was relaying this to my dad when we saw him last Sunday morning and he told us about staying with an old farmer on the South Island many years ago who told him, “Trees were just the enemy. Our instinctive reaction was to cut them all down.”

Here in an Australia the instinctive reaction was the same. We had much less forest. Only 30% of Australia’s land mass was covered by ‘forest’ at the time of European settlement, but because of largescale land clearing, by the 1980s, 38% of that forest had been drastically modified. And much of the remaining forest has been severely degraded and fragmented into small patches, particularly in south-eastern Australia, which means that much of this forest’s biodiversity potential is severely compromised.

These kinds of statistics are staggering. If you think about this pattern being replicated all over our earth, and the levels of greenhouse gases that are released when land is cleared, the loss of forests that stored (sequestered) carbon and helped control extremes of temperature, it is no mystery at all how we have got ourselves and our planet into such a mess.

We have discovered that trees matter. That trees matter to other living things. That trees matter to people.

But did you know how much trees matter to God?

  • Did you know, for example, that in the Bible the most mentioned living thing, after God and people, is trees?
  • Did you know that trees are mentioned in the first chapters of the Bible – and in the last?
  • Did you know that trees are continuously described in the Bible as things which communicate – which clap their hands (Isiah 55:12), which shout for joy (1 Chronicles 16:33) which even argue (Judges 9:7-15) – while creatures that do make noise are virtually mute in the Bible. It’s curious because we are only now discovering how much trees do communicate.
  • Did you know that trees are established as models of what God’s people should be? In Jeremiah 17:7-8, as in Pslam 1, it says, “the one who trusts in the Lord…should be/will be like a tree…” Did you know that one of the only physical descriptions of Jesus in the Bible is that he resembles a tender shoot growing up out of the dry ground?
  • Did you know that the second thing God creates with Gods’ own hands – after human beings – is a garden and that in that garden God puts human beings and trees with a mutual responsibility to each other? The humans are to till and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15) and the trees are to keep humans alive (Genesis 1:29), give them a place to live (Genesis 2:8) and provide them with food (Genesis 2:16).

Trees matter to God.

I did wonder on Friday morning if I could preach this sermon this Sunday just after my dad had died, but then I remembered that quote attributed to Martin Luther, when he’s asked what he would do if he knew the world was ending tomorrow.

And how he says that he would plant a tree.

So I thought I could, even at this moment, still preach about how important trees are to us and to this world and to God and encourage us perhaps to think about planting a tree or supporting tree planting or continuing to care for trees (and every other living thing) because our hope is based on this – that we and all living things still matter to God and that as we care for this world and for each other – we are in God’s care.