May 26, 2019 

Genesis 21:22-34

People plant trees for many reasons. Ten or so years ago the Trustees of our church noticed that four massive oak trees on the north side of the driveway were showing their age. Limbs were rotting. Parts of the trunks were decaying. Our neighbor notified us how concerned he was that one old tree might fall onto his house. By notifying us in writing, any liability for damage from fallen trees thereafter rested on our insurance coverage, not his homeowner’s policy. At that point the Trustees decided to cut down the oak trees.

When the trees and stumps were gone, that side of our property looked barren. The Trustees thought that planting new trees would (if you will excuse the pun) “spruce” up the yard. They decided to plant a grove of trees and came up with the idea that members of the congregation could give donations in memory of loved ones to cover the cost. Paul Wicht selected the plants and designed the layout for what became our Memorial Grove, which included Emerald Green arborvitae, Eastern redbuds plus variegated dogwood shrubs. John Simpson planted the trees and shrubs.

Since planting the first trees in 2011, members of the church have given repeatedly over the past few years toward the Memorial Grove. Three plaques mounted on the wall of the library list the names of loved ones in whose memory those trees were planted; among the first persons memorialized were Douglas Fleming, Edwin Williams, Phyllis Campbell, and over the years more than fifty more names were inscribed.

Last year the Trustees decided to plant another Memorial Grove. This time Paul Wicht, Orlando Montalvo, Jr. and yours truly planted a row of sixteen arborvitae trees on the parsonage property on the north side of the fence outlining the parking lot. One reason for planting the rows of trees was to provide some privacy for the occupants of the parsonage from the prying eyes of those who park their cars in our lot. Last year more names were added to the plaques in the library as members gave donations in memory of loved ones. The most recent names to be inscribed were Lenore Close, Carol Liberty, and William Grega.

This past spring the Trustees hired arborists to cut down the huge maple tree between the playground and Church Street. The tree, after living more than 110 years, posed a danger due to its limbs falling, possibly on children on the playground as well as on our church building. After removing the tree and grinding the stump, Paul Wicht recommended and the Trustees agreed to plant a row of thirteen arborvitae trees beside the fence and one spruce in the middle of the now empty space. Paul again did the service of planting the trees. The purposes for planting more trees were to provide some protection for preschool children playing inside the fence, as well as adorn our grounds.

Over the past decade the Trustees have planted trees on our grounds for many reasons: to define borders of our property, to memorialize loved ones, to provide privacy, and to enhance the attractiveness of our property. People plant trees for many reasons, hoping they will last for a long time, for as the Scottish poet Alexander Smith (1830-1867) wrote, “A man does not plant a tree for himself; he plants it for posterity.”

A few years ago this congregation presented to Lisa and me a present. You kindly donated money for the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 100 native pine, fir, and cedar trees in the Plumas National Forest. The new trees will help prevent soil erosion, reestablish vital habitat, and protect the watershed. The card, which you gave us at the time, reads: “The trees planted for you are an act of optimism and kindness, a labor of love, and a commitment to stewardship.” Printed on the card is a quote from Thomas Fuller, a British clergyman (1654-1734): “He that plants trees loves others beside himself.”

By paying to plant those one hundred trees you showed love for Lisa and me, as well as love for the environment. People plant trees for many reasons.

More than three thousand years ago, according to Genesis 21:33, the great patriarch Abraham planted a tamarisk tree. He is the first person mentioned in the Bible to have planted a tree. Abraham had recently settled a property dispute over water rights with a very prosperous neighbor and influential landowner, Abimelek. After Abraham and Abimelek negotiated a settlement giving Abraham unrestricted use of a coveted water supply, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree. Tamarisk trees have a high water requirement and may cause desert water resources to dry up. Thus, in planting a tamarisk tree, Abraham was making a bold statement that he was confident his precious water supply would last a long time. Maybe Abraham was also making a statement that he expected his negotiated settlement to last a long time, thus insuring peace for generations to come. For as the Roman sage Caecilius Statius (220-186 B.C.) once wrote: “One plants trees to benefit another generation.”  People plant trees for many reasons, hoping they will bear many types of fruit for generations to come.

As we heard from Luke 13:6-9, Jesus once told a story about a gentleman farmer who planted a fig tree. He planted it as an investment, expecting a fruitful return of luscious figs. As well as being a means of income, sitting in the shade of one’s own fig tree and plucking its delicious fruits were signs of success among ancient Hebrew farmers (see Micah 4:4). But for three years in a row the farmer had not found a single fig on the tree. Since his investment had shown no return, he was ready to scuttle the tree. His gardener, however, protested and bargained for one more season in hopes that he could nurse the barren tree back to health.

We don’t know how the story ended. Maybe the tree blossomed, maybe it withered. The farmer could not wait much longer. His reasons for planting the tree was straightforward economics: he wanted a return on his investment. Maybe he should have been looking for long-term rather than short term gains, for as the Greek proverb notes: “A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.” People plant trees for many reasons, hoping, but never sure that they will come to pass.

During the Revolutionary War, patriots erected and decorated Liberty Poles as symbols of their pursuit of independence from British tyranny. They also planted poplar trees as growing symbols of growing freedoms. People plant trees for many reasons, hoping they will grow.

Shortly before the Revolutionary War, John Chapman was born on September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, the second child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth. Some thirty years later, after Elizabeth had died in childbirth and Nathaniel remarried, the family moved to Ohio. By then John had branched out from farming and had learned about cultivating orchards.

At that time laws in Ohio permitted squatters to claim ownership of a piece of land if they could construct a permanent homestead on the property. One way to demonstrate permanency on a parcel of land was by planting at least fifty apple trees. Chapman saw this homesteading law as a great business opportunity. He traveled through parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois planting rows of seeds, cultivating apple trees, and then selling the established orchards to new settlers.

The apples that Chapman sowed and cultivated were not the types of apples you see in the produce department of local grocery stores. They tasted too tart for eating, but they were ideal for making cider, especially hard cider and brandy distilled from hard cider. In those regions and at those times growing apples for cider was more profitable and popular than growing apples for eating. Whereas drinking water was potentially hazardous, drinking cider was safe and much tastier. Growing small tart apples for cider was a more valuable commodity than growing apples to eat.

Chapman became an industrious land baron. By the time he died in 1845, at the age of 70, he owned more than 1,200 acres of land. But a healthy profit margin was not his only reason for planting thousands of apple trees. He was a devout Christian, a member of the Church of Swedenborg, also known as the New Church. As he traveled he promoted apple orchards and preached a message about Jesus, often to Native American Indians, many of whom he converted.

Chapman strongly believed that, as one who followed Jesus and loved God, he had a responsibility to care for and protect God’s creation. He spoke out strongly for protecting animals and eventually became a vegetarian. He took so seriously his God-given mandate to protect nature that he refused to use grafting to cultivate his apple trees, believing that taking cuttings from trees hurt them. His resolve to use only seeds for growing apple trees, instead of grafting clones, inadvertently helped to create the variety of apples we see on display in the grocers’ shelves today.

Obituaries printed shortly after his death in 1845 noted that John Chapman had become better known as Johnny Appleseed. Some of us heard of him from watching the Walt Disney animated short cartoon, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed. We know him also for the chorus he taught to thousands, and which we sang earlier in worship: “Oh, the Lord is good to me, for this I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me.”

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, planted trees to make a living, to make a profit, and as an opportunity to preach the Christian message. People plant trees for many reasons, hoping the trees will someday bear all kinds of fruit.

Through the northeast corner of India flows the Brahmaputra River. Every spring, when the snow pack on the Himalayan mountain range melts, floodwaters rush the length of the river, flooding the river banks. In recent years, the effects of climate change have intensified the force and danger of this mighty river, creating monstrous soil erosion and destruction of houses and livelihood along the riverbanks. Located in the midst of the Brahmaputra River is a large island, Majuli, where more than 170,000 people reside. For the past 100 years the island has lost more than 70 percent of its landmass, due to the tremendous erosive power of the river, and the rate of erosion has accelerated in the past few years due to the effects of climate change.

Back in the 1970s a teenager on the island noticed how many dead animals were washed ashore during the spring floods and how erosion was killing acres and acres of vegetation along the island’s sandbars, destroying habits of native animals. Jadav Payeng was so alarmed that he decided to save his island home single-handedly by planting trees.

In 1979 Payeng started. He walked from his house, crossed on a ferry and traversed sand dunes to a forsaken piece of land where he tossed seeds into small holes that he made by jabbing the sandy ground with a stick, thus giving a protected start to the future roots of the delicate saplings. He kept planting and sowing, planting and sowing for thirty years.

As the trees began to grow and forests revived, he became increasingly worried about predators, human predators. He feared that developers would cut down the trees, destroy the forest and put the ecosystem he had created back in peril. Over the course of thirty years, his reforestation has stabilized the soil and reestablished wildlife in what had become a dense forest. He had spotted rhinoceroses, deer, tiger, and as many as 115 elephants, not to mention the return of vultures, which had not been seed on the island since before Payeng had been born. Single-handedly Payeng, who became known as the “Forest Man of India,” had created a forest covering 1,400 acres—an immense forest when you realize that Central Park in New York City covers 843 acres! Imagine planting by hand enough trees to cover nearly two Central Parks.

Payeng planted trees to save his homeland, to save the animals, to save the soil, to save the people. People plant trees for many reasons, sometimes they live long enough to see them bear fruit.

An ancient Jewish folktale tells the story of a Roman emperor who was one day traveling toward the city of Tiberias on the shore of the Lake of Galilee in the northern region of Israel. The emperor saw an old man planting trees. “Old man,” the emperor shouted, “Surely you don’t expect to live long enough to eat any fruit from the trees you are planting.”

“I have not given up hope,” replied the old man. “While I have strength I will do my duty.”

“How old are you?” the emperor asked.

“I am 100 years old,” the gardener said. “God may let me live long enough to enjoy the fruit of these trees. In any case when I plant trees I am imitating God, for the scripture says that when God created the world, he ordered that the earth bring forth fruit-bearing trees” (Genesis 1:11).

The emperor, taken aback, said to the old man, “Promise me that if you live long enough to see these trees bear fruit, you will let me know.”

Several years later, the very old man picked enough figs from the trees to fill a basket and headed off to the emperor’s palace. The guards shooed him away, until he insisted again and again that the emperor had invited him to come. Impressed with his persistence, the guards relented and escorted him into the emperor’s court.

Holding out the basket, the old man said, “I am the old man you saw years ago planting fig trees outside Tiberias. You told me to let you know if I lived long enough to eat fruit from those trees. I have brought a basket of those figs as a gift for you.”

The emperor accepted the basket, tasted the figs and ordered that his attendants fill the man’s basket with gold coins. Then, before he dismissed the elderly man, he said, “Go home, my friend, and continue to plant trees as did God at creation.”

People plant trees for many reasons: to raise money, to memorialize loved ones, to sculpt the landscape, to provide privacy, to protect children, to express love, to celebrate contracts, to reap an investment, to promote liberty, to secure homesteads, to produce food and drink, to preach the Gospel, to save one’s homeland, to guard wildlife, to protect an ecosystem, and to safeguard the future. Whatever may be the motivation, the effect is that whoever plants a tree imitates God.

Allegedly someone once asked Martin Luther, the great German founder of Protestantism, what he would do if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow. Martin Luther replied, “Go out and plant a tree.” When you feel frightened about the future, do yourself and the world some good by planting a tree.