Date: March 24, 2019 Third Sunday of Lent – All Things New
Scripture Lessons: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: Taking Time
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In the book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, tells us much about the life of trees and there are many surprises along the way! Here’s one. Think of a pencil. Very narrow in diameter. Think of a tree with a trunk that narrow. How old might that tree be? We would think, very young. But in the forests of beech trees in Germany, a tree no thicker than a pencil and 3-7 feet tall is actually about 80-120 years old. And it is just a thin little thing.
The growth of the young trees is prevented by the shade of the larger trees around it. Young trees get very little light on the bottom of the forest floor with the thick tree canopy above. So, they grow slowly. This means that the inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. This makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking. It also has greater resistance to harmful fungi. Young trees will continue to grow slowly until a mature tree near them goes down. Then there is a break in the tree canopy and more light gets through to the young trees. They will grow more quickly for about 20 years. Then the other surrounding trees will extend their canopies, again blocking out much of the light. The midsize tree must then wait for another nearby tree to go down, and it will get more light and grow to maturity. A beech tree reaches maturity at about 200 years old. And the old trees, with an extensive root system and access to great amounts of sunlight, are full of energy and highly productive. They grow more quickly than young trees. What Wohlleben and others have observed is that the slower the growth when young, the greater the longevity and productivity of the tree. So trees are intended to be slow growing so that they grow to be strong and stable. As healthy mature trees, they provide oxygen, bear fruit, provide shade, enrich the soil, prevent erosion, provide homes for other animals, and countless other functions. But the process of growth and fruiting in a healthy tree, let alone a forest, can be very slow.
In the reading we heard this morning from Luke, we heard the story of a tree, a fig tree. And evidently this fig tree is not doing very well. It is not bearing fruit. For three years it has not borne any fruit. This tree was needed to bear fruit. Figs were a staple in the diet of the time not an exotic holiday item like they are for us today. They were an important part of everyday eating and daily nutrition. But this tree is not giving any fruit. It is wasting space, soil, water, and resources that could be used by other trees and plants. So, the owner wants to cut it down. But the gardener has other thoughts. Give the tree another year. The gardener will loosen the soil, feed it with manure. Maybe give it some more water and compost and mulch. But the gardener wants to give the tree some help, some support, some nurturing so that is has every chance to be healthy and to bear fruit. The owner agrees to a year of remedial treatment.
A year. To a people who like things fast, and the faster the better, a year is a long time. We don’t want to wait for a whole year, 365 long days, to see some evidence of change or remediation. Imagine if your lawn service told you, we are going to fertilize your lawn and it will look better in a year. Or if you went to your hairstylist and he recommended a new style, and if you come back for regular trims, it will look great in a year. A year? Or if you took your car in for a repair and they told you it would take a year to properly remedy the problem. We want service work done yesterday! We want fast results. Whether it is weight loss or learning a new language. Whether it’s repairing the plumbing or improving our golf game. And don’t talk to us about waiting in line. That is considered torture. Just ask the people who waited several hours to get out of a parking garage here in St. Pete after a soccer game recently. It’s even led to law suits. We don’t like to wait.
We value speed. We want fast transportation, fast internet, fast service, fast results, fast healing, fast, well, everything. “Presto chango,” that’s how we like to see change. the snap of the fingers, the wave of the hand, and it’s all done. Remember the scene in the first Mary Poppins movie when they are tidying up the nursery. That’s how we like our transformation and change, swift and painless.
But true change, lasting growth, takes time and effort as the gardener in the story from Luke knew; as we learn from the trees that make it possible for us to live on this planet. Lent is a season for repentance, for re-turning to God. This is a process of conversion, of transformation, of change, and that takes time. Once the need for change is identified and the commitment made to address the situation, often a long, slow process of conversion ensues. The thoughts, attitudes, and assumptions, that go with our ingrained behaviors take time to identify and change.
When we think about the world, our culture, the state of our society, our community, ourselves as human beings, the condition of Creation, we see the need for change on many fronts. Our faith calls us beyond our default cultural programming to think about meaning and purpose, service and living for others, being part of a larger reality as an embodiment of love. Embracing these alternative values doesn’t happen at the touch of a button. It takes time for these counter cultural attitudes to take root and become established and secure. It takes time for us to see the transformation. It can take a long time to bear fruit and to see the results of our efforts.
People who seek recovery from addiction know of the long process involved. Maybe you stop using in one drastic, swift step, but living into a new reality, new behaviors, new ways of engaging with others and the world, new approaches to facing challenges, these things take time and effort. Twelve step groups can be a life line in this process of transformation. And it is a journey that lasts throughout life, because the twelfth step involves helping others along the path. Bearing fruit. For the good of others. This is an example of a life long process of renewal and growth.
When we think about the ways we need to change, the commitment and intent may come quickly, but often the road to fulfillment is long. In our society in which we are captive to speed, we can become disillusioned and discouraged at the slow pace of transformation. We may backslide or give up. And that is why we need each other so that we don’t give up.
In the story from Luke, we see that the fig tree is not left to its own devices. The gardener agrees to tend to the revitalization of the languishing fig tree. The gardener will aerate the soil and provide nutrition and tending. The tree will receive support and encouragement in its restoration process.
Believe it or not, for a forest to be healthy and fruitful, the trees need each other. Living trees depend on each other for protection and support. To be long lived and healthy, trees benefit from the other trees around them, from the messages and chemicals that ward off danger and share scarce resources. Trees send messages to each other through smell, electrical signals, chemical signals, pheromones, and scent compounds, about threats and attacks. It is thought that trees even communicate through sound vibrations. And the fungi on the roots of the trees also communicate among the intertwining root systems to protect the health of the forest. Trees share not only information but nutrients. They are actually quite social life forms.
Individual trees working together to create a healthy forest have a big impact on the world around them. Together, they can create an ecosystem, moderate heat and cold, store water, and generate humidity. These are things that trees do together as a community. They need each other to be healthy and thrive.
From the story about the fig tree and from the actual trees of the forests of Earth, we learn that being healthy and fruitful requires community. The Bible, our faith tradition, and experience teach us that true change, conversion, and transformation, of heart, mind, and behavior, takes a community of encouragement, cooperation and accountability. We need each other in our efforts to change the world and ourselves. We need to band together for mutual support, nurture, tending, and care. We may see a need or make a commitment but then we need others to help us live into our restoration so that we can bear fruit in our society and in the lives of those around us. But this is not solitary work. It takes a communal effort. We need each other, we need the faith community.
The faith community helps us to see the Divine dreams for us and our world. Then we see where we are, as a society and as individuals. Our faith encourages honesty about our situation. Who we are. Who we are called to be. And the gap in between; sometimes quite large. Then the faith community provides encouragement and support as we work to close that gap, to become our best selves, to live into our highest good, to bear fruit for the good of others and the world, a lifelong journey.
As the Civil Rights movement was ramping up in the 1960’s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a book entitled, Why We Can’t Wait. In it he tells us, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” King knew that the moment for decision, the moment to commit to ending racism, was long overdue. He also knew that once the commitment was made, the process would be long and slow. He knew it would not happen overnight. He knew that attitudes and behaviors ingrained over generations would not be easily changed. He knew that the process of becoming an anti racist society would be arduous and take time. A lot of time. Because he knew that eradicating racism from our society would be a long, challenging, but ultimately rewarding journey, he was adamant that we get underway. He was anxious to embark; to see the commitments made so that the process of transformation and conversion would proceed.
Maybe King would not be surprised that we haven’t come further on this journey. He knew how deeply entrenched racism is in American culture and he knew that cultural programming is slow to adapt.
So, let’s take a moment to think about the kinds of changes that we want to see, in the world, in our culture, in our communities, in our relationships, in our individual lives. How do you want to bear fruit for the good of the world and those around you? What kinds of changes would you like to see? In this season of thinking about All Things New, what would you like to see made new?
These are beautiful visions and dreams and commitments. And because they represent significant transformation and change, we know that they will take time. Maybe a really long time. Maybe beyond our lifetime. May we encourage and support one another along the way. May we care for each other and tend each other, as we engage in the process of growth and renewal so that we may bear fruit that feeds the needs of the world. There is no time to lose.
Alexander Smith, a 19th century Scottish poet, reminds us, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity.” Amen.
The technical information about trees in this sermon comes from The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. It is well worth reading though Wohlleben does have a fondness for anthropomorphizing trees.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.