While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“Seventy years,” replied the man.
“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?
The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”
(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)
Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.
But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?
The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.
It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.
Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.
As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation. It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.
On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.
In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”
On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”
When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.
Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.
The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)
For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.
We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.
Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.
The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.
The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:
The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)
This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.
The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways. We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.
We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.
I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.
Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.
For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]
To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.
About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?
The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.
We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.
The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.
We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.
We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.
May it be so.
Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019
Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais; Wikimedia Commons)