“Social Creatures”

I delivered this sermon on trees to LaSalle Street Church on 7/11/21. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.

Today we begin a new series we’re calling “Our Maker’s World: Lessons from Creation.” We’ll be listening to the ways God the Creator speaks through the natural world. We’ll start by drawing our gaze upward. Not to the stars, not to the sky, but to the branches of trees stretching over our heads.

More than two decades ago, an ecologist named Suzanne Simard published research that fundamentally changed our vocabulary for trees. By observing and experimenting with paper birches and Douglas firs outside the laboratory, in nature, she discovered that trees are “social creatures” that use complex systems of roots and fungi to share resources like carbon and nitrogen but also to share information like warnings about incoming predators.

She describes this powerful moment of discovery: “I knew I had found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact in forests, from not just competitors but to cooperators.” And eventually, trees repaid Suzanne for all the work she’s done on their behalf. Suzanne was diagnosed with breast cancer, possibly related to toxic herbicides and radioactive isotopes she used in her research. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, Suzanne learned that one of the medicines she received was a chemical produced by the yew tree for its own self-defense.

Her language describing trees as “social creatures” has taken root, no pun intended, and every day we learn more and more about how trees cooperate with each other, and with other plants, and with other creatures. Even in their death they are cooperating. Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who wrote a book called The Hidden Life of Trees. He describes things like the nutritional value of dead wood, how fully one fifth of all animal and plant species depend on dead wood for sustenance. Some dead trees even directly benefit their own young: in his words, “Young spruce sprout particularly well in the dead bodies of their parents. This is known as ‘nurse-log reproduction.’” Listen to that phrase: nurse-log reproduction. The trunk of the dead tree becomes a cradle to nurture its descendants.

All this research and observation challenges our perceptions that trees are isolated, unchanging monoliths.

I grew up in the piney woods of east Texas outside of Houston. Our neighborhoods were connected by miles and miles of greenbelt trails weaving in and out of forests filled with pine trees and magnolias. As a child the sweetgum trees in our front yard composed a backdrop that felt comfortably stable and static, as permanent as our house on Sweetgum Hill Lane. As far as I knew the trees had always been there and always would be. My hometown, called Kingwood, was a relatively new planned community built in the 1970s, and as I grew up, more and more subdivisions were carved out of the forest. I began to observe, at a very small scale, how easily we humans could alter these forests that had seemed so permanent.

Now the reality of just how much we alter the forests is painfully clear to all of us. Last August you may have heard about the Castle Fire, a wildfire that tore through ancient growth forests in California. Wildfires are getting worse due, in part, to the effects of climate change and aggressive fire suppression efforts in the early twentieth century. A few weeks ago we learned that this one fire may have destroyed ten percent of the world’s mature giant sequoia trees. Ten percent. Some of them were more than 2,000 years old.

We also know that the intentional kind of deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, and the damage is threefold: First, destroying forests means they no longer remove carbon from the air; second, fallen or burned trees release the carbon they’re storing into the air, and third, the vast majority of tropical deforestation makes room for agriculture, including animal agriculture, which generates more carbon emissions. 

Our relationship to trees doesn’t only reflect our habits of consumption. It can even reflect unjust and racist policies, like housing policies. Last August, the New York Times published a report about summer temperatures and historic redlining. They found that in many major cities, neighborhoods that had been historically redlined, largely along racial lines, now had temperatures 5 to 20 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods in the same city that had not been redlined. You can imagine the effects of this intense heat on residents’ health and mobility. Why would temperatures be so different? The short answer is that those neighborhoods that were redlined, which now typically have less wealth and still tend to have majority residents of color, had fewer trees to offer shade and more pavement to collect heat. Over the decades, local and federal policies directly affected things like where cities built parks and where they built highways.

Trees grow slowly enough that their growth is imperceptible to our naked eyes. But the more we pay attention to trees, the harder it is to assume that the way things are now is the way things have always been. It’s harder to pretend that we had nothing to do with the way things are now. And it’s harder to imagine that things will always necessarily be the way they are today.

Open a Bible, and you can’t make it very far into the story without coming across trees. Generally speaking, you rarely go more than a few pages without a reference to a fig tree, or an olive branch, or a mustard seed (though evidently mustard is actually classified as a shrub!).

In the grand forest that makes up the Old Testament, one of the most common trees is the cedar of Lebanon, an evergreen conifer that grows east of the Mediterranean and sprouts up all throughout ancient literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humanity’s earliest books. It’s no surprise why: For ancient peoples cedars were a valuable resource, fragrant and durable for construction. In the Song of Solomon, the male voice tells his lover that the fragrance of her garments is like “the scent of Lebanon” (4:11). And she compares his physical appearance and strength to “Lebanon, choice as the cedars” (5:15).

2 Samuel describes how King David used cedars in the construction of his palace. 1 Kings tells us that King Solomon used cedars in the construction of the temple. And after the destruction of the temple and the exile, Ezra 3 describes how Joshua and Zerubbabel and the other leaders used cedar to rebuild the temple.

Imagine with me the ancient temple in Israel, this massive and impressive structure. I wonder if young children ever saw the temple and assumed it had always been there. In spite of all the stories their parents and ancestors taught them, I wondered if they had the luxury of believing it was permanent, inherent, as constant as the mount it was built upon. Maybe even some of the adults would let themselves believe it from time to time.

As if the writers of Scripture knew that Israelites might begin to take those cedars—and the temple—for granted, Hebrew wisdom literature is full of reminders that those very cedar trees are a gift from God. In Jeremiah 22, God sends Jeremiah to prophesy against the king of Judah, and he asks a striking question: “Are you a king because you compete in cedar?” (Jeremiah 22:15a) In other words, he’s asking: Do you think that access to wealth and tradition guarantee your claim to the throne? Do you think that these wood-panelled walls are all that I care about? So Jeremiah’s warning to the same king a few verses later really stings: “O inhabitant of ‘Lebanon,’ nested among the cedars, how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain as of a woman in labor!” (v. 23).

Similarly, in Ezekiel 17, Ezekiel prophesies to the nation of Israel with a long, extended metaphor about a Lebanon cedar. Again, the cedar seems to serve as a metaphor for political and economic flourishing. The chapter ends with this profound statement: “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.” 

If cedar trees are a sign of wealth and prosperity, the prophets are full of reminders that cedars—and the power they represent—are merely one of the many plants in God’s garden, the garden that God created and tends to with love and presence.

A few months ago I preached about climate stewardship. I talked about how the way that we exercise dominion over our corner of creation can reflect the way God exercises dominion over all of creation. The Psalms are full of depictions of this. One of my favorites—Psalm 104—is not so much telling the story of creation as it is the story of ongoing re-creation, the way God actively tends to the created order. Here’s how the trees are treated under God’s dominion: “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that [God] planted.” (Psalm 104:16)

God is faithful to created things. When God plants a seed, that seed is carefully, faithfully tended.

Five weeks ago, we heard the news that Pastor Laura will step down as our Senior Pastor. When Larry Reed, the moderator of our elder board, made the announcement, he described how much LaSalle Street Church has changed under her leadership, and it surprised me. I’ll quote a few of his words verbatim:

“Those of us who have been attending LaSalle since before Laura came remember the turbulent times we went through before she became our senior pastor. Our leadership, finances, and trust had all frayed to the breaking point. Our creditors were ready to claim Cornerstone Center. Laura’s faith, energy, and vision have set a new course for our church….” 

I have to tell you, when he described that, it really surprised me. The last few weeks I’ve been asking a lot of you what LaSalle was like 10, or 20, or 30 years ago. I have no memory of the chapter Larry was describing. I started attending services at LaSalle in 2018. I arrived at a church that was thriving. One of my first Sundays here, there was a congregational meeting, and I decided to listen in. I was trying to evaluate whether LaSalle could be a church home for me, and I thought that observing how the church made decisions together would tell me much more than an official membership class ever could. What I saw impressed me: One of the topics up for discussion—you might remember this—was whether the church should add a full hour of community hour programming in between the two worship services that occurred on Sunday mornings. People had very strong feelings about it! And over the course of that meeting, people expressed their very strong feelings and listened to each other. I remember thinking: “This seems like a church that has worked through conflicts and has learned how to do conflict well.”

One of my earliest impressions of LaSalle was that it was a community where my sexual orientation was not particularly interesting to people. And I mean that as praise—I had visited so many churches where being gay meant people either received me warily as a sort of threat or menace, OR where being gay meant people received me with enthusiasm, almost as a big win for their church. But at LaSalle, it was nothing special. Do you know how many LGBTQ people, in so many places, can’t find a church like that?

I was so taken with this sanctuary, this worship space, these beautiful yellow and blue walls, these gorgeous windows. And when I started attending services here, some part of me thought: “I guess it’s always been this way. I guess the building has always been here, I guess the church has always met here, I guess this robust community has always existed.”

“I guess it’s always been this way!” I had the luxury of believing that! But of course that isn’t true. I observed that LaSalle was able to handle conflict—even conflict about worship service schedules—with maturity and patience, and that was only true because they had worked through many difficult conflicts through the years. LaSalle was able to welcome me as a gay person with no anxiety or fanfare because the church went through a long, complex, and even very painful and imperfect process of working out its theology of sex and marriage. 

Maybe that change and growth happened so slowly that it was imperceptible to our naked eyes. But when I showed up in 2018, I encountered a forest of flourishing trees that offered shade from the scorching sun of spiritual wilderness. They offered ripe fruit that nourished me. They held the soil together under my feet, giving me a solid place to stand. But remember: trees are not isolated, unchanging monoliths, and so much of the richness I received here was the result of seeds that had been planted many years ago. Seeds that God cultivated and nourished over so much time—through Laura’s leadership, yes, but also through the faithful participation and work and conflict and ministry and worship of this LaSalle community, now a global community.

I don’t mean to say that LaSalle was or is a perfect church, that when I arrived it was already fully developed and resolved. No, of course not. But LaSalle is warm and good, a community of grace. And God has faithfully made LaSalle into what it is today.

Ever since we heard Pastor Laura is stepping down, I’ve been talking to many different people. Many of you feel scared. You’ve seen leadership transitions go poorly here. You may remember what it was like years ago, what Larry described, when our “leadership, finances, and trust had all frayed to the breaking point.” That sounds pretty scary! I’m scared, too. Because I love this church. I love this exact, precise moment in time with this church, with you people. I want to crystallize it in amber. It’s like I’m reading a book I love and realizing there’s only a few chapters left. I don’t want this to change because I know that what comes next will be different, and frankly, some part of me is afraid of all the ways that what comes next could go wrong.

Many of you feel a lot of excitement, too. I feel it myself. After Easter we preached a long series about the book of Acts, about the Spirit of God moving in and among the early church. We began to wonder and explore if God’s Spirit is moving in and through us, today, in the same way. Whether God is doing something new. So when Pastor Laura decided to step down—and especially when she described it as following the movement of God’s Spirit—I think some of us felt inspired to do the same thing. To look for God’s work in our lives. To join in. We wondered if this enormous loss for our community might become fertile soil in which new saplings could begin to spring up and grow, a cradle to nurture new life.

There’s another tree that gets a lot of attention in Scripture: the oak. If the cedar of Lebanon stands for wealth and prosperity, the oak tree in its stout hardiness is a perfect image of righteousness and faithfulness. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram, and as Abram moves from his homeland to Canaan, God guides him to a tree. The Hebrew is fuzzy, but many scholars agree the best translation is “oak.” God makes a promise to Abram there, and Abram builds an altar to God.

Much later in the Bible, in Luke 4, Jesus emerges from the wilderness of temptation, full of the Spirit, to begin his ministry. He enters a synagogue and reads from the book of Isaiah. You probably know this passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18-19).

This is the breathtaking promise that describes and initiates the work of Jesus on earth. He’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 61. If Jesus would have read just a few more verses ahead, here’s what the audience would have heard: “They will be called oak of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display [God’s] glory.”

They will be called oaks of righteousness. All these people who have suffered and grieved, who have been oppressed and excluded—they are a planting of the Lord for the display of God’s glory. They are the garden that God is cultivating. We are the garden that God is cultivating.

None of us knows what is ahead for LaSalle Street Church. It’s exciting. And it’s scary. Here is what we do know: we know that the way things are now is not the way they have always been, and we know that the way things are now is not necessarily the way things will be. We know that the garden belongs to God, that God “[dries] up the green tree and [makes] the dry tree flourish.” We know that “the trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,” and that the trees were planted by God, and that they were planted to display God’s glory.

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