June 16, 2019

Deuteronomy 20:19-20

God loves and protects trees. In the ancient Middle East, when kings conducted wars, they often followed a scorched earth policy. When they attacked a city, they entrapped the inhabitants behind siege works, spoiled their water supplies, and ruined the surrounding farmland. They also chopped down all the nearby trees, so that the enemy would not have a source of fuel, lumber, or food (compare the campaigns in 2 Kings 3:16-19; Isaiah 10:18-19; Jeremiah 6:6, 46:22).

However the Lord cautioned the Hebrews about conducting the scorched earth policy. According to the battle strategies that the Lord devised for the Hebrews when they invaded Palestine, they were to protect trees from becoming collateral damage. The Hebrew troops were specifically told to protect fruit trees. The troops could cut down other trees for constructing ramps and siege machines, but not cut down the fruit trees. For someday in the future, assumedly after capturing the city, the Hebrews could readily eat the fruit from the trees, rather than wait years for new fruit trees to mature and bear fruit. Warfare was to be directed against people, not trees, as the Lord warned in Deuteronomy 20:19 (New Living Translation): “Are the trees your enemies that you should attack them?”

On the contrary, trees are assets that people should protect and preserve. For God loves trees and so should we.

Alan Sonfist loves trees. Back in 1965 he proposed an idea for planting trees in New York City. He wanted to plant the same types of trees that had grown on Manhattan Island long before it became a city, back before Americans turned the island into a metropolis, back before the English settlers built a town on the site, back even before the Dutch settled the island in the early 1600s. He wanted to plant the same types of trees that had grown on marshland dotted with sandy hills, the land that the Canarsie Indians had once called Sapokanican. He wanted to recreate the type of forest that four hundred years ago had covered Manhattan Island.

Alan went to great lengths researching the botany, geology, and history of the Island, then collecting trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and even soils. In 1978 he obtained permission to transform a 25’ x 40’ plot of land on the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in Greenwich Village. With help from volunteers in the community, they planted and recreated a landscape from a long ago bygone time, calling it a “Time Landscape.”

He sculpted a living monument to pre-colonial times, while also showing three stages of how such old forests grew. The youngest stage of his living monument grows on the southern part of the plot, where there are birch trees, beaked hazelnut shrubs, and a carpet of wildflowers. The next stage, in the middle of the plot, showcases beech trees, red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel with a groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed. The mature stage, in the northern end of the plot, contains oaks, white ash, and American elm trees. Spurred by his love for trees, Alan Sonfist has on a small, and admittedly artificial, scale created a carefully sculpted ancient forest living in lower Manhattan.

God loves trees and wants to protect them. So do Mbarouk Mussa Omar and Jeff Schnurr. When they met in 2007, Omar worked for a Tanzanian conservation NGO and Schnurr worked for a Canadian agency planting trees in Africa. They shared a vision for planting trees on the islands of Pemba and Kokota. The residents on Kokota Island faced an environmental crisis. Over the years they had exhausted their natural resources, cut down their forests, and depleted their fisheries. They could no longer sustain themselves. On top of their self-imposed troubles, repercussions of climate change were threatening their island. Salty sea levels were rising and their normal patterns of rainfall were becoming erratic. 

Omar and Schnurr had a vision for restoring the environment and economic sustainability on both islands. They created a non-profit NGO, known as the Community Forest International, through which they recruited Canadians to plant trees. Since water was abundant on Pemba Island, they first planted the trees on Pemba and then transplanted them during the rainy season on Kokota. Water was so scarce on Kokota that residents sailed, sometimes for hours, to buy drinking water on Pemba. Over the next ten years, the agency planted more than 2 million trees on the two islands. Taking advantage of their resources and funding, they also constructed on Kokota a school and two water reservoirs for collecting and storing rainwater. Omar’s and Schnurr’s love for planting trees has proved to be a god-send, saving the Kokota’s future.

God loves trees and so did Wangari Maathai. Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940, when Kenya was still a British colony. Although girls at that time did not usually attend public school, her parents enrolled her in a local primary school when she turned eight years old. She did so well that she continued through high school. In 1960 she received a scholarship, one of 300 Kenyan youth who came to America for college studies under a Joseph Kennedy scholarship program. Maathai attended college in Kansas, where in 1964 she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. She went on to earn a master’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and seven years later a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in veterinary anatomy, becoming the first woman in either East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

She taught at the University of Nairobi for the next few years, during which time she became active in campaigning for women’s rights in Kenya. She gradually realized that for women to make progress in civil rights, they needed to develop their own economic power. She also realized that for Kenya’s economy as a whole to advance something had to done to reverse the country’s environmental ruin.

She devised a plan, known as the Green Belt Movement, to address both problems simultaneously. She encouraged women to collect tree seeds from forests, then plant and grow the seeds into tree nurseries. She promised to pay the women wages for planting and cultivating the saplings.

Some opponents ridiculed Maathai, claiming that she, a highly educated professor, was humiliating herself by often getting on her hands and knees beside rural, uneducated women planting trees. But, as Maathai wrote, “As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

With funding from the United Nations, the Green Belt Movement expanded operations beyond Kenya to fifteen other African countries, who wanted to set up similar programs in their homeland to combat soil erosion, hunger, deforestation, and clean water supplies.

Maathai admitted that nobody would have bothered her if all she did was to encourage women to plant trees, but she realized that the problems for the country’s environment and for impoverished women in Kenya could not be overcome simply by planting even millions of trees. Although she had been instrumental in planting over  50 million trees, she realized that at the root of the environmental problem was a political problem. The corruption in Kenya’s ruling government thwarted efforts to protect their country’s cherished natural resources.

Maathai became a popular and vocal opponent of Kenya’s governing party, for which she endured arrest, imprisonment and beatings. To her relief, the ruling party lost control in the 2004 elections, in which Maathai was elected to the country’s parliament and was soon appointed assistant minister of environment and natural resources. For her longstanding and devoted pursuit of “sustainable development, democracy, and peace,” she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize.

God loves trees and so does Dr. Matthew Sleeth. Fifteen or so years ago Sleeth was an emergency room physician and chief of staff at his hospital. He had a successful career, a loving family, a beautiful house on the coast of Maine. Then a series of personal tragedies tore apart how he viewed the world as a scientist: a close relative drowned in front of his children, a violent patient stalked him, a friend died in the 9/11 attacks. Sleeth could not find a scientific explanation for such evil events, so he turned to religion for some clues. He researched a variety of religious experiences until one day he noticed a Bible placed on a table in a waiting room. Since he had never read the Bible before, he decided to take it and read it.

As he read the Gospel stories about Jesus, he was so moved through what he read that he committed his life to Jesus as his Lord. His wife and two children likewise read and likewise believed in Jesus wholeheartedly. Sleeth developed a growing sense of frustration with his work as a physician. He sensed that, while he was saving patients one by one in the hospital, the earth was dying around him. It was as if he was straightening chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the whole ship, meaning the earth, was sinking. He wanted to save the world from destroying itself from pollution, raising temperatures, elevated sea levels, melting ice polar caps, and climate change.

Sleeth and his wife decided that he would quit his job as chief of staff and head of the emergency department and devote the rest of his life to saving the planet by teaching and preaching about how an informed evangelical version of the Christian faith should protect the environment.

Because he wanted to encourage others to act out convictions about caring for the environment, Sleeth resolved to be more than a teacher; he resolved to be a model. He and his family took to heart Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:2-4: "In the same way you judge others, you will be judged…How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?'" They resolved to practice their convictions about conservation.

They sold their large house and downsized to a smaller house, the size of their old garage. They cut down their use of fossil fuels by two thirds and use of electricity by ninety percent. After removing the plank from their own lifestyle, they could point the specks, or more accurately the similar planks, on others’ eyes.

Sleeth founded the Blessed Earth Foundation, which promotes the biblical demand for Christians to care for the earth. He has spoken out for Christians to protect the environment at more than one thousand events, campuses, and churches. I admire him for bringing his biblically based advocacy for the environment to evangelicals, who, rightly or wrongly, are often stereotyped as being dismissive toward climate change and protecting the environment. 

I openly admit my indebtedness to Dr. Sleeth for his recently published book, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us. Reading a review of this book was the inspiration for my composing this series of sermons about trees. I have frequently consulted his book during my reflections about trees.

It took me much too long to realize how much God loves trees. God immensely loves trees, and so does Alan Sonfist, Mbarouk Mussa Omar, Jeff Schnurr, the late Wangari Maathai, and Matthew Sleeth. So should we. When we protect and care for trees, we keep good company for we walk in step with God’s heartbeat for trees.