From Smokey Bear to Scripture

Reading for Series A—2013-2014
Care for Creation Sermon for the Season of Creation, by Jeff Wild

The First Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year A: Forest Sunday
Genesis 2:4b-22
Psalm 139:13-16
Acts 17:22-28
John 3:1-16

The Season of Creation Lectionary designates today as Forest Sunday. Our awareness, appreciation, and knowledge of forests are informed by science, media and movies, the stories of explorers, personal adventures and cultural icons. Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you are familiar with Smokey Bear? Smokey turned 70 years old last month and the US Forest Service hosted a birthday party attended by many Smokey fans.  If you know Smokey, you know the message. Four or five decades ago the message was, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In recent years Smokey has a more inclusive message. “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

With all due respect, Smokey Bear is not the only one who has a message to share about forests. This day provides us with an opportunity to identify several biblical messages by connecting forests and faith using passages from Scripture. It is interesting to note that although the word “forest” appears throughout the Old Testament, the only reference in the New Testament is in the book of James. We did not hear the word “forest” in any of the four lectionary readings. Yet, there are meaningful connections to be discovered.

Smokey Bear’s message has helped reduce the number of acres burned annually from about 22 million in 1944 to an average of 6 to 7 million acres today. This is good news, of course: animals have not lost their habitats, families have not lost their homes, and forests have been preserved. But it is important to appreciate that fire does have a value to the life cycle of a forest. Before human intervention, most forest fires were caused by lightning. Today, fire-management programs maintain and restore the natural forest system. In the Gospel reading, Nicodemus and Jesus have a memorable discussion about the presence of God’s kingdom. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is perplexed. Jesus lays it out to him, but he still doesn’t get it. Perhaps if Jesus explained the relationship between fire and the life cycle of a forest, Nicodemus would have had a chance to grasp the meaning of being born again.

Forest fires vary in type (crown fires, surface fires, and ground fires-fires in deeper surface organic matter and in peat) and intensity. “The type and intensity control mortality of trees, shrubs, herbs, mosses, and lichens; opening of closed cones and seed dispersal, kill of stored seeds and vegetative reproductive structures in organic and mineral soils; release of carbon and nutrients from vegetation and organic layers.” (The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem, by Miron Heinselman, p. 75). Fire sparks a whole new life-cycle of a forest, just as God’s Spirit brings rebirth to humans, orienting them into new life as sons and daughters of God. Just as fire rejuvenates a forest, God’s Spirit rejuvenates humans.

The relationship between forests and Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus stretches our imaginations. The relationship between forests and the creation account in Genesis 2 is more subtle. God’s creative juices are really flowing.  God forms the man out of dust and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Without taking a day of rest or maternity leave, God goes out and plants a garden in Eden and places the human there. What comes next is surprising and confusing; “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.”  What’s going on here? Aren’t gardens for vegetables and fruit producing vines?  Don’t trees constitute a forest?  Does it matter?

These questions are open to interpretation. And there are at least two interpretations. The first and simplest is that we do not need to take “trees” literally. Of course, there are vegetables in the garden! But there is more value to one tree than say, one carrot. Trees speak for the entire garden. End of story. A second interpretation is not as dismissive. In our mind’s eye we have a picture of what a garden looks like. Vegetable seeds are planted in straight rows, and seedlings are appropriately spaced. Vegetables thrive, not under the shade of a tree’s branches, but in full sun. Forests and gardens are not compatible. It is one or the other. Yet, we learn that the tree of life is smack day in the middle of the garden!

The second interpretation is that the garden in Eden is a forest garden. Forest gardens actually have a long history. Early anthropologist carrying out research in the tropics assumed that the small plots of manioc, beans, or grain near African, Asian, and South American houses provided most of the inhabitant’s food. The surrounding tangle of vegetation was assumed to be untamed jungle, and these people were branded as practicing only primitive agriculture.

Only after prolonged and unprejudiced observation did anthropologists comprehend that virtually every plant near the dwellings was useful in some way. The tall trees were timber and firewood producers or nitrogen fixers, while the shorter ones bore mangoes, papayas, avocados, and other marvelous fruits. Beneath these trees were shrubs for food, fiber, and wood products. The herb layer was filled with medicinal, edible, and ornamental plants. (Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway, p. 212) 

Perhaps the first human being in the garden in Eden was a forest gardener. The forest gardener’s call is less about working in the garden as a field hand, and more about paying attention and tending to the natural systems as they exist in relation to one another. God’s call to serve and keep the garden may be understood as caring for the forests and the layers of plant life under the canopy of trees. A diverse forest provides a habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife, all of which the first human was given the privilege of naming. God calls us to be guardians as much as gardeners.

When the United States was rapidly expanding, clear-cutting forests for constructing dwellings and other buildings in rural and urban areas was big business. Forests with unlimited supplies of trees were regarded as a commodity to be cut, transported, and sold. Forests were followed by farms. Unfortunately, the soil conditions and other environmental factors were not always conducive for supporting farm crops for more than a few years. Many farms that followed forests failed; and the damage to virgin forests was irreversible. Many of these deforested areas were eventually planted with seedlings, and most of the forests we visit today are the results of reforesting by work crews and the forestry service.

Countries around the world continue to struggle with the effects of environmental degradation due to deforestation. Fortunately, we hear wonderful stories about individual and congregations of people planting hundreds of thousands of seedlings to reforest vast deforested areas to bring healing to the environment. (To learn more, see the websites referenced)

There is so much going on in this account from Genesis that it is easy to overlook one detail about the trees. Listen again to the first part of verse nine. “Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Trees are pleasing to the sight, and forests are pleasing to all the senses. Have you ever heard the call of a loon as you relax at a campsite after a long day of paddling a canoe across lakes and portaging through forest trails? The loon’s call is pleasing to the ear. Have you ever stumbled upon a patch of blueberries on the edge of a forest path? The berries are pleasing to our taste. Have you ever knelt down, put your nose near the ground to smell a wild rose? The odor is pleasing. Have you ever picked up a pine cone and used it as a comb or to scratch your back? The feeling is pleasing. Forests are pleasing in sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

In 1949, Stuart Hine responded to all of this pleasing to the senses of forests by writing the following:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made…    When through the woods and forest glades I wander, I hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze; Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art!

One of the reasons we gather for worship is to praise God. We praise God by praying and singing. Nature also praises God the Creator, for endowing life with splendor. Forests are called upon to praise God. We read in Isaiah 42:23:

Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest and every tree in it! For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel.

Forests provide more than habitats for wild animals and wood to build our homes. Forests have a vital role in sustaining creation. Through photosynthesis, trees remove CO2 from the air, produce oxygen, and store carbon as wood. Forests have been referred to as the lungs of the earth. Forests preserve water, soils, plants, and wildlife. Tropical forests contain at least one-half of Earth’s species. Forests are natural dams that catch rainwater in their canopies and in leaves and litter on the forest floor, retaining and purifying rainwater. Just as the Psalmist prayed and sang, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well,” we praise God for the ecosystems of forests. They too, are fearfully and wonderfully made!

This sermon ends with suggestions for further action. National forests are located in forty of fifty states in the US. Consider spending time at a forest near you. Pick up a forest guide. Carry it in one hand and hold a Bible in the other hand. Read the creation accounts from Genesis 1 and 2. Remember the garden in Eden, the forest garden and the God-charged responsibility for humanity to serve as guardians of the forests. Take a walk and notice all that is pleasing to your sight, sense of smell, touch of your hand. Check the forest guide before picking and tasting any berries! You will be moved by the forest to praise God for not only the forests of the earth, but all of creation and your life to witness its goodness and abundance. You might be rejuvenated by the flame of the Holy Spirit and motivated to take actions that protect and sustain forests. Let this be the message you carry along with Smokey Bear’s.