Back to Nature

Easter 6B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia grew up in a logging family in Canada. She was a 20-year-old forester when she noticed a particular young spruce tree, planted in a clear-cut forest, was dying, but others nearby were not. That was 40 years ago. Her life’s work is about explaining how forests are not collections of isolated organisms but webs of constantly evolving relationships. Her latest book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, was published last month.

There is a scientific revolution underway that can help open our hearts and minds to today’s gospel. You’ve heard that evolution is propelled by survival of the fittest. Yet as biologists progressed from studying individual organisms, to species, to communities of species, to ecosystems, to higher levels of organization, they began to notice other forces at work: cooperation, collaboration, and even memory. Nature loves diversity. More plants and animals leads to greater stability and resilience. These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They’re beautiful to look at, fragrant to the sense of smell, full of sounds, and textures. Mature forest communities are in some respects more egalitarian and efficient than our own.

Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you. Abide in my love.’ (John 15:9 & 15). Are we surprised to discover that we live in a world of subjects, and not mere objects? John’s gospel famously proclaims, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3 & 4). Could a forest or a prairie teach us what abiding in God looks like, feels like, sounds like, and even smells like? Today we hear Jesus pray for the disciples. In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: A Beloved Community of Spiritual Resistance)

Yet we refuse. We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or attempt to remove our roots from the soil. We do not abide. It’s absurd. We are like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that? We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi — better known as Tani —is ten years old now. He and his family are refugees. When Tani was a toddler they fled Nigeria because of fears of Boko Haram, the terrorist group. When Tani was seven he was living in a homeless shelter in New York when he sat down at a chess board in school and learned how to play. His school then agreed to his mom’s plea to waive fees for him to join the chess club. Tani wasn’t any good at first. His initial chess rating was 105, barely above the lowest possible rating, 100. After little more than a year, at age 8, he won the New York State chess championship for his age group, beating well-coached children from rich private schools. When people heard about Tani they helped raise $250,000. The family used the money to set up a foundation that helps other homeless people and refugees.

This month, as a fifth grader, Tani won a tournament in Connecticut open to advanced players of all ages. He emerged with a chess rating of 2223, making him a national master. Tani said, “I want to be the youngest grandmaster. I want to have it when I’m 11 or 12.” The youngest person ever to become a grandmaster, Sergey Karjakin, achieved that honor at 12 years 7 months.

A reporter said, “The larger lesson of Tani’s story is simple: Talent is universal, while opportunity is not. In Tani’s case, everything came together. His homeless shelter was in a school district that had a chess club, the school waived fees, he had devoted parents who took him to every practice, he won the state tournament (by a hair) and readers responded with extraordinary generosity. But opportunity shouldn’t require a perfect alignment of the stars. (Nicholas Kristof, Remember the Homeless Chess Champion? The Boy Is Now a Chess Master,” NYT, 5/8/21) How many talented Tani’s are there in the world, or here in the United States, or right here in Chicago, who miss out on connecting with their potential? We are all the poorer for it.

There’s an old Swedish proverb that says, “Sorrow shared is cut in half; but joy shared is doubled.” Jesus came and taught us. He showed us how to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other “…so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) The early church thrived and grew as it lived into the radical, inclusivity of the gospel to break down barriers of privilege, of culture, and of religious self-righteousness. They put themselves out there. They went into the streets. They went person to person. They carried the gospel upon their lips. They used their hands and feet. Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort. He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch. Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

Abide in me. Abide in my love, Jesus said. Be rooted in Christ. Let your hearts and minds become as clear and pure as a mountain stream. Then you will know the wisdom of the forest and of all living things. We cannot be saved while others suffer. We cannot be the church and be indifferent to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the victims, the perpetrators, and all those caught up in the endless grinding cycle of violence, fear, and hate.

You have heard it said Jesus came only to save Christians, but the gospel of Christ says, the knowledge of God and the love of one another are equivalents. To know God is to love, and to love is to have true life. To share the love of God is to make our joy complete by sharing it with each other, with strangers, and all living things. This is the path to true joy, true wisdom, the truly abundant life. Abide in my love. Then we shall find abiding peace and shalom welling up like a spring of water from deep within. Then we shall discover and know the true joy of every living thing. Then The sea and what fills it will resound. The rivers shall clap their hands, and the mountains shout with them for joy (Psalm 98).