Sermon Sept 11 2022: Listen to the Voice of the Woodlands Rev. Betsy Hogan
Eagle eyes will have noted that the last photo was of the Public Gardens. Which may seem like a strange choice as emblematic of the forest or the woodlands.
And especially so in juxtaposition with this quotation from American author Alice Walker, who lifts up nature’s magnificent capacity to locate breathtaking beauty… in imperfection.
Because the Public Gardens is perfect. It has staff. They sweep and they tidy, and they plant in neat beds, and they keep the weeds at bay. They make shapes and trim branches and deadhead the flowers – the Public Gardens is perfect.
It has none of the wildness and anarchy we associate with the forest. You can’t get lost in the Public Gardens, there’s nowhere to hide.
But it does have this. And I don’t know how it works. I don’t know what kind of magic insulation or mystical absorption hovers over and around it like an iridescent cloud of pale green –
But if you take yourself into the Public Gardens, you suddenly can’t hear the city. There’s traffic on South Park, there’s busses on Spring Garden Road – but you enter the gates, thanks giving, and it all falls away. Like we’re suddenly out in the woods.
We can’t all of us go out into the wildness of the actual forest. We’re lucky to have Point Pleasant, which is reasonably accessible, Shubie Park and Hemlock Ravine somewhat less so –
But right in the middle of our city, and beautifully gloriously flat -- even despite its manicured perfection, we can in fact go “into the woods”. The Public Gardens does mysteriously lift us out of the city and into that green green stillness that Psalm 23 reminds us “restores our soul”.
It should probably not surprise us that our Bible isn’t exactly rife with references to woodlands and forests, either as revealing to us the nature of Godness or speaking to us of meaning and faithfulness.
For the ancients of the Biblical Near East, the best they could come up with if they wanted to imagine a forest was the Cedars of Lebanon. Which are real, and breathtaking, and unsurprisingly not what they once were, but they’re protected as a UNESCO heritage site.
Because they were monumental, for that climate. Are they the redwoods of California or the colossal cedars of British Columbia? No they are not. But when the prophet Isaiah wants to offer his listeners the ultimate example of God’s creative power manifest in woods and forests and trees?
He calls it “the glory of Lebanon”. He can’t imagine anything more vast, more huge, and alive than those cedars. In fact, NO ONE in the Bible can. Just like the Bible always says “forty days and forty nights” or “forty years” and it’s just shorthand for “a really long time” –
The shorthand for trees, lots of trees, big trees, a FOREST, in the Bible is just “Lebanon”. What we take for granted here in Nova Scotia, a landscape my tired-on-a-long-drive niece once described as “soooo many trees” – that’s hallowed in specialness in our scriptures.
It’s “Lebanon”. Not a country or a place but a phenomenon. Trees like a cathedral, stretching themselves to heaven, sheltering all the life below. All shimmering light and holy stillness and soft green and alive.
In the bible, trees speak to us of God’s majesty – the glory of Lebanon – but it isn’t just about majesty. It isn’t just about huge, it isn’t just about vast.
Because trees are alive. The oceans and mountains and skies – they’re majestic and vast and they’re FILLED with life – but the trees, the woodlands, the forests, they themselves are alive.
I think we know that in our bodies when we’re in the woods. Whether or not we register it intellectually. I remember the first time I ever saw a clearcut, it was when I moved to BC, and it felt like a wound.
People felt pain when Hurricane Juan took out most of the trees at Point Pleasant Park. It hurt. We felt not only anger but pain when those trees were viciously girdled in the Public Gardens, it hurts when trees come down.
And I think that’s because there IS a strange sense of kinship, we recognize that the woods and the forests live and breathe as we do. Or in fact live and breathe the OPPOSITE of “as we do”, in this kind of perfect exchange back and forth of carbon dioxide and oxygen – we’re literally made to be kin to one another.
And I think that translates, when we listen to the voice of the woods. I often joke that people are always saying to me that they feel FAR closer to God when they’re out in the woods, and yes of course they do because there aren’t any pesky PEOPLE getting in the way.
But I do think it’s more than that. Alice Walker also wrote “I understood at a very early age that in nature, I felt everything I should feel in church but never did. Walking in the woods, I felt in touch with the universe and with the spirit of the universe.”
That’s real. I think it’s the aliveness, the movement, the breathing, the life that’s what tingles with an almost electric energy in the woods. Forests speak to us of passionate relentless determination to LIVE and GROW and EXTEND and EXPAND.
Because forests “rage, rage against the dying of light” in the words of poet Dylan Thomas. They reach up, gasping and grasping for sunlight. Their roots intertwine to protect each other and strengthen themselves against erosion, against wind. The sheer ridiculous intensity with which the urban forest maples in my neighbourhood shower down their seeds, like they’re NOT beset fore and aft by streets and sidewalks and driveways and houses –
It’s just fierce. That fierceness of the woods’ claim to Jesus’ promise – I came that you may have life and have it abundantly” – I think that’s what translates for us.
I think that’s the voice of “the spirit of the universe” that we hear when we listen to the woods.
It’s certainly the voice of “the spirit of the universe” that Jesus is invoking in the parable of the mustard seed that we heard earlier. Because that parable – it’s meant to be cheeky. It’s actually meant to be humorous. Because if there’s one thing that every one of Jesus’ listeners would’ve known that day, as he was telling them that parable, it’s that mustard trees were the goldenrod, goutweed, weird huge hogweed version of Queen Anne’s lace of the Ancient Near East.
So if anything was going to seize upon life and have it abundantly, it was a mustard seed. It’s anarchic, it goes rogue. If the Kindom of God, so Jesus teaches in that parable, is like a mustard seed, it simply drinks in life and growth and embrace, wide open. It’s love poured out, it’s energy – electric.
It’s “the spirit of the universe” speaking to us in the woods. It’s just not peace, it’s fierceness of life. It’s not just strength, it’s determination. And it doesn’t just restore our soul or our spirit, it also lifts it. Closer to that Kindom of God, to that love poured out with electric energy.
Because if we’re listening to the voice of the forests and to the fierceness of that grasping for life, then what we’re also hearing is a voice that speaks to us of resilience.
Which, it’s kind of an interesting concept right now, and popping up in contemporary discourse. Resilience as a value, as a capacity to be nurtured or strived for or taught.
Because there are movements in contemporary discourse that question our valuing of resilience, on the basis that essentially if we’re trying to learn or teach resilience then we’re effectively ceding the field to whatever brokenness or hurt or oppression we’re having to get ourselves over in the first place. Like, it all gets to just continue unchallenged, and the important thing is just to live through it and bounce back.
And I get that critique. I do. I think there are a lot of things that a lot of us have learned to get over and learned to bounce back from, and frankly those things weren’t okay and it’s pretty unfair that the onus is on “us” to live through them instead of on other people to change them. So I get it, with saying “enough with the emphasis on resilience”.
But at the same time, I think that leaves a great big hole where all the things are that we might need to be resilient to survive, that kind of just happen.
That aren’t a matter of systemic oppression, that can’t be blamed on a person or an institution, that don’t present us with a moral imperative to challenge their continuing as a part of the status quo – because in fact they just happen.
And whether things just happen, or whether all we’re really up for at any moment is the mere survival and not the full-on challenging of the perfidies of the status quo, what does gets us through is resilience.
And there’s maybe nothing that the woods and the forests speak to us and reveal to us more clearly than resilience. That fierce and passionate grasping for life, it’s not just urban maples absolutely certain that THIS TIME, God being their helper, their babies will grow down the centre of every street and sidewalk in Halifax.
Because if we don’t pave paradise, the woodlands and the forests are really hard to kill. They defy our destruction all the time. They reclaim what’s been abandoned. The woods have swallowed up Chernobyl. They creep back over the blackened ruins of forest fires so swiftly that Lytton BC burned again this year.
And the forest speaks to us that fierce resilience. It envelops us in its own determination, in its relentless renewal and restoration and repair and resurrection.
Even when it’s not really a forest. Even when it’s the opposite of wild and it’s just plonked down in the middle of a city like a sanctuary somehow held within the holy mystery of shimmering green quiet.
Even in the Public Gardens, listening to its trees wounded, we can hear determination and resilience and healing. Thanks be to God for this voice of creation. Amen.