May 12, 2019

Luke 19:1-10

 Notable trees bear great fruit, not simply crates of apples and peaches, but also great tales of courage and drama. If trees could talk, as they do in C. Lewis’ tales about Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien’s tales about Middle Earth, if our notable trees could talk, they could tell some great stories.

We citizens of Connecticut are heirs of a great story about one such notable tree. Back ages ago, in the 1660s, some thirty years or so after the first English settled along the banks of what we call the Connecticut River, these settlers sought written permission from the king of England to govern themselves, similar to the ways their neighbors did to the north in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1662 King Charles II granted to the settlers, living near what we now call Hartford, a very liberal minded royal charter guaranteeing such freedoms and rights.

Some twenty five years later a new king, King James II took a more hard line approach. He wanted to consolidate all the English colonies under more strict and closer royal supervision. He wanted to revoke all the charters and appoint in all the colonies new leaders who would keep law and order, law and order as the king saw fit. The king sent his tough minded agent, Sir Edmund Andros, to be the new governor of a united New England strictly controlled under royal dominion.

Andros requested that the leaders of the Connecticut assembly hand over their precious Charter so that the king could issue a new one. If they refused, Andros would hand over all of the colony’s land east of the Connecticut River to Massachusetts and all of the land west of the river to New York. The Connecticut officials refused. Andros, leading an impressive parade of armed soldiers, demanded that the Connecticut Governor and Assembly meet him at Moses Butler’s tavern on the evening of October 26, 1687 to hand over their precious Charter or else!

In the presence of such force, Connecticut’s leaders reconsidered their stance. That evening, when the shades of foreboding darkness descended on the tavern, Andros delivered his ultimatum. While the Connecticut representatives debated their options, the Governor sent Captain Joseph Wadsworth to fetch the Charter from its hiding place in the nearby home of Samuel Wyllys. Shortly after Wadsworth returned and handed the Charter to the Governor, suddenly the candles in the dimly lit room went out, whether by accident or by sleuth, no one knows.  In the darkness, someone grabbed the Charter and handed it through the open window to Captain Wadsworth, who raced back to the Wyllys house. Hiding the Charter inside the house would be useless, since Andros’ entourage would certainly search the house where everyone knew the Charter had been stored. Mistress Ruth Wyllys suggested instead that Captain Wadsworth hide the Charter inside the hollow trunk of an ancient white oak on the hillside. Wadsworth quickly wrapped the Charter in his cloak and stuffed it inside the cavity in the tree.

Wadsworth’s daring sleight of hand rescued the Charter from being confiscated, but his courage did not rescue the colony from Andros. The king’s strong man took over governing the colony, even without destroying the cherished document. Meanwhile, the Charter was safe within the ancient oak tree and one hundred years later served as Connecticut’s Constitution during and after the Revolutionary War. For years thereafter residents of Connecticut cherished the Charter Oak Tree as a symbol of their independence and their resistance against oppressive government. Crowds of admirers came to visit the legendary tree, an immense tree, measuring more than 33 feet in circumference, estimated to be from 800 to 1,000 years old.

On August 21, 1856 a great storm toppled the magnificent tree. On the day it fell, a military honor guard stood guard around the tree until nightfall, when all the church bells in Hartford tolled a funeral tribute to the tree. The Charter Oak was carefully cut up and its lumber was used to fashion keepsakes: goblets, bureaus, stools, jewelry, pianos, and chairs used in the Connecticut State Assembly. Acorns, which had been gathered during the previous years while the tree was alive, were planted, producing first, second and third generation offspring from Connecticut’s most notable tree, thus keeping alive in visible ways the historic story of courage and defiance.

Our Christian Bible keeps alive remarkable stories about some notable trees. Some stories warn us, some stories inspire us. One story comes near the beginning of the Bible, the story from the arbor of Eden.

A long, long time ago God had designed a home in paradise for the newlywed couple, a gentleman farmer Adam and his wife Eve. Surrounding their residence was a magnificent park, a private botanical garden showcasing orchards, groves, and exotic trees. Among the most prized trees were two unique specimens: one called the tree of life and the other called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The garden was a cornucopia—all kinds of luscious fruits and fresh vegetables, beautiful to adore and ready for easy picking. But God had set one type of fruit off limits. He warned that the fruit of the tree all about knowing good and evil was toxic. As my mother warned me, so Eve warned her husband: “You can look, but don’t touch.”

As you can rightly guess, in case you don’t know the story, being told what they could not do only stirred up the impulse in Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit. They soon showed that they could resist everything except temptation. They tasted the fruit of guilt and lived to regret it.

God was so incensed that his tenants had broken the house rules that he evicted them. They lost paradise and never regained it. A notable tree, long fallen down, marked the spot of their downfall, yet kept alive the story that sometimes we likewise reach too far, take what is not ours, go out too far on a limb, and lose all afterwards. Legendary trees can bespeak danger and warning, as well as courage and defiance.

Our Christian Bible keeps alive remarkable stories about some notable trees. Some stories, such as the tragic story about the tree in paradise warn us, some stories inspire us. For Zaccheus climbing a tree became the story of his salvation.

Zaccheus was a crook, the white collar type. He ran an extortion ring. He had a legitimate front. He worked for the Roman IRS, which meant he collected taxes, passed along enough to keep the Roman revenue collectors happy, and then pocketed the rest. As long as the Roman Treasury received their projected revenues, they did not audit local tax collectors’ records. Zaccheus had a lucrative racket.

Everyone in town knew it, which was why everyone in town avoided him. To be honest, his Jewish neighbors actually despised him. Beyond selling out his soul to raking money off his neighbors, he had sold out his soul to those despicable foreign Romans whose armed soldiers occupied the Jews’ neighborhoods, flaunting their weapons, and shoving insults down the throats of the native Jews. In his neighbors’ eyes, Zaccheus was a lowly traitor, aiding the vile Romans by stealing money from his own kind.

One day Zaccheus heard that a charismatic faith healer was coming to town, a new celebrity preacher. Zaccheus was curious to see this luminary. As he approached the parade route, he realized that he couldn’t see over the crowds that were lined up on the sidewalks. Since he had no friends whom he could ask to offer him a spot beside the curb, he turned to go home, which was when he saw that tree, a sycamore whose branches offered him a bird’s eye view of the parade. Recalling his boyhood reflexes, he shimmied up the trunk and perched onto a branch and waited.

         Before long his efforts paid off. At the head of the parade came Jesus, strolling, smiling at the onlookers, waving at his fans. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus stopped, glanced up into the tree and made eye contact with Zaccheus. When Jesus opened his mouth to speak, the crowds expectantly hushed, waiting for Jesus to chew out Zaccheus, expose him for being a crook and the traitor everyone knew him to be.

No one can believe it when instead Jesus says, “Come down out of that tree right away, for I want to join you for lunch at your home today.” The crowd was shocked, to say the least. They started grumbling that Jesus was offering favors to a public villain. Jesus meanwhile stands and waits, watching Zaccheus barely avoid falling on his face as he flops down out of the tree. Zaccheus is beside himself, blurting out that he was sorry for whatever he did and promises to pay back in spades everyone he had cheated.

For years afterwards people walking down that street pointed to that tree and told the story of how once a good-for-nothing thief climbed that same sycamore tree and came down a saint. Trees can tell some memorable stories.

Back some sixty years ago our church building was open all day long. Because an on-site daycare did not start until 1969, no need to guard the hallways from intruders, instead the church leaders wanted to leave the doors unlocked so that people from Glenbrook could walk in any time during the day to visit or connect with the staff. On most weekdays Pastor Thorpe Bauer or one of the staff was in the office to welcome walk-ins. But when Thorpe went away on vacation in the summer, members of the congregation volunteered to sit in the office and greet guests. One day Charlene Holmes was on duty, offering a friendly welcome to anyone who walked through the door.

She was surprised to hear a knock, go to the door, and see a delivery truck parked outside. The courier explained that he had a special delivery to the Union Memorial Church, postmarked from Japan and addressed to the Rev. Thorpe Bauer. Charlene offered to receive any packages on behalf of the vacationing pastor. The driver pulled out from the back of the truck four oblong packages wrapped in bamboo and burlap. Charlene signed for the four packages and read the labels stating that the contents were live trees. She was puzzled to have received a shipment of trees from of all places, Japan. Charlene’s husband, Joe, had served in the Pacific theatre during World War II, when Japan was our country’s sworn enemy. Japan conjured up memories of members of this congregation who had died fighting to destroy that nation.

The Rev. Thorpe Bauer had entered the United States Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a chaplain in the military for three and one-half years. He served in the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific arena. Thorpe was among the first American troops to occupy Japan after their surrender. Some years ago when the late Joe Holmes and I visited Thorpe and his wife Edna at their home in Washington, Connecticut, he told us about that stirring experience. He was among a group of American officers reviewing Japanese soldiers who had laid down their arms. As Thorpe walked before a long line of former Japanese soldiers, he and his colleagues were startled when a Japanese soldier stepped out of formation and approached Thorpe. The Americans quickly raised their weapons to fend off any surprise confrontation. Thorpe stood his ground, sensing no harm was intended. He was shocked when the Japanese soldier spoke in English, wondering if he could ask Thorpe a question. Thorpe braced himself for a tête-à-tête.

The soldier explained that he had lived in the United States for a time long before the war. Since he had not been permitted to listen to news from the United States during the war, he was anxious to hear how his favorite team, the New York Yankees, were doing. Thorpe recalled with glee his chance to update one Japanese fan on the sports news from the Bronx.

Thorpe met with Christians as he traveled through Japan. Christianity was a foreign religion in Japan and Christian churches were scarce. He conducted Communion services for some congregations who had not observed Communion during the war. Thorpe evidently gained a commitment for promoting peace and reconciliation because he was elected sometime prior to 1960 onto the Board of Directors for the Japanese International Christian University Foundation.

The Foundation was founded in June of 1949 for the purpose of establishing a top quality international university of distinctive Christian character in Japan that would educate leaders committed to promoting cooperation and international understanding. With support from mission agencies in North America and civic leaders in Japan, the Foundation secured funding, purchased land, constructed buildings, and welcomed its first students in March of 1953.

Thorpe served as Pastor of the Union Memorial Church from 1946 until his retirement in 1968. One day during that tenure a shipment of four Japanese cherry trees arrived at the Union Memorial Church in honor of Thorpe’s service for Christians in Japan. Folks in this congregation planted those four trees, three along Kirkham Place and one in the playground. Although the three remaining trees are showing their age, they still managed to sprout their beautiful pink blossoms a few weeks ago to adorn our grounds. Three notable trees remain, among the 81 other trees on our property.

Trees can tell some memorable stories. The story of the Charter Oak tells a story of defiance in support of freedom. The story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil tells a story of regret. The story of the sycamore trees along Jericho way tells a story of repentance and saving Mr. Zaccheus. The story of our aging cherry blossom trees tells a story of promoting peace and understanding. We would do well to pay attention to the stories as well as to the trees, who have more to teach us than we realize.