Driving down Louis Botha Avenue last week looked like a warzone. Dozens of trees were chopped down, their stumps and branches littering the pavement. They were destroyed to make way for the Reavaya Buses and the Freedom Corridor. I know we need a better bus system and that we have 10 million trees in Greater Johannesburg. But I can’t help feeling sad.
These trees were among many planted 100 years ago when the government paid young people a penny for every tree they planted.
I am sure our youth would love work planting trees – but for more than a penny! Last year India employed 300 000 youths to plant 2 billion trees.* China has planted over 41 billion trees since 1981.** Closer to home, Kenyan Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her tree-planting and environmental work.
Why am I talking so much about trees? Being a World Environment Day and Youth Day service, trees are a perfect symbol for God’s Creation and our future.
In today’s Old Testament reading, God tells Ezekiel he wants to transplant a cedar tree to the mountains of Israel. (Ezekiel 17:22-24 NIV) This was an impossible idea in those days when the Israel’s hot climate could only tolerate a few small trees. The cedar was considered a mighty tree growing in the mountains of Lebanon, a hardy and evergreen tree that grew to 30m high. “On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it, it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will rest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” (Ezekiel 17:23) This story is an example of our Creator God transforming nature – even making the green tree dry up and the dry tree green. This is a foretelling of the transforming power of a future Messiah who would be Jesus Christ.
Today’s Psalm also includes trees. It is about the importance of praising God and appreciating the blessings in life; it says be glad and “proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night”. (Psalm 92:2 NIV) The psalm says growth of goodness is like a palm tree (traditional symbol of peace, victory and fertility), and a cedar of Lebanon (hardy, mighty and evergreen). “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” (Psalm 92:14 NIV)
The reading from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:6-10;14-17 NIV) says we have courage to do what is right and we know that we all must appear before Christ to be judged for what we have done – good or bad – in our bodily life. We don’t live for ourselves but for Christ, who “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor 5:15 NIV)
The gospel reading is about planting hope for the future. (Mark 4:26-34) Jesus liked to use parables or stories to teach people through symbols. Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest seed, to explain the Kingdom of God. “When planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:32 NIV) This is amazing because it is so similar to our earlier Ezekiel passage.
Our faith is also like a tree. It spreads roots that stabilise the earth, helps heal the land, shelters and provides oxygen to humans and animals and feeds us. We cannot live without trees.
But like any seed or any tree, our faith needs to be nurtured. We need to be connected, inspired, watered and pruned. We have to help the seed that God planted in us to grow and flourish. We are all unique in what works for us – praying, singing, worshipping, caring, loving one another. It may be a walk in a park, a hilltop view, watching a sunrise, gardening or feeding birds that make us feel closer to God. Find what works for you and do it as much as you can.
Wangari Maathai grew up in rural Kenya when trees and rivers were healthy and plentiful. She was distressed at the desertification of Kenya, how trees were being chopped down to sell charcoal to foreign companies, how people could no longer grow their food and their children were starving. She wanted to find a way to reverse this in order to support women and their families. So she started the Green Belt Movement in 1977.***
One programme was to plant indigenous trees and remove the old invasive ones that the British settlers had imported to dry up rivers to plant cash crops. As the women, including Wangari, planted the trees and felt the soil with their hands, something changed. They felt an amazing joy and reconnection with the earth. Slowly and surely the movement grew. The earth started replenishing, rivers sprung back to life, trees began to bear fruit, thousands of communities had hope again. Wangari said it was her work with the environment that inspired her faith and not the other way around. She believed if we can find ways to connect and replenish the Earth, we will feel closer to God. Sadly she passed away but her legacy continues. To date the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees!****
Wangari’s story can inspire us to find ways to nurture young people and together we can reconnect and replenish the Earth. This can ignite a lifelong passion for God and God’s Creation that we can share as we build God’s Kingdom today. So if you haven’t already signed up, please join the Youth Day Eco Walk on Tuesday. AMEN
****Maathai, W. 2010. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. London:Doubleday