There’s a tree in my backyard, actually a neighbor’s yard, but it’s branches reach above our house, a canopy of leaves over our backyard. A month ago there was a tree guy doing work on it, cutting away a dead branch that stretched toward our house. I asked him how old he thought the tree was. At least 150 years, he said. I stared at it from my backyard office for the rest of the day, thinking about what it’s seen. In it’s early years, it would have watched as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation set enslaved people free, free from their Southern masters. Maybe the tree was planted in celebration of that liberation. An oak tree bearing witness to the end of slavery.
The first time I had that feeling—the feeling of trees watching us, trees with a long view of human life—was on a road trip in college with a friend, driving up to Canada from southern California. We didn’t plan very well, of course, so we ended up getting tired somewhere before Oregon. I remember thinking, as we passed through Eureka, that we might could stop and find a cheap hotel, but we didn’t. When we finally decided that we needed to stop driving for the night, we took an exit for some campgrounds. We drove a couple miles down a curvy road, then just pulled over into a clearing and set up a tent. We were tired. It was dark. We were asleep in an instant.
I remember waking up, unzipping the tent flaps, and walking out to see the biggest trees I’ve ever seen—Sequoias, massive trunks towering into the sky, overshadowing our small lives. Later I learned that these trees could live around 2 to 3 thousand years. Those trees have seen a lot of life, animals, including human life, migrating up and down the Pacific coast, from Alaska down into South America and back again, habitats shifting with human settlements. And now my life, sheltered there for a night, with a sequoia watching me, my life as a fleeting moment in it’s centuries-long life.
I started to think about trees this week when I was on a run while visiting my sister in Denver. I had stop and take a look at google maps on my phone, to make sure I was headed the right direction along the urban trail, and I since I was already looking at my phone, I glanced at Twitter, because I’ve got issues, and I noticed the news about the Amazon rainforest in flames—almost 400 billion trees in that forest, representing 16,000 species, a forest that’s 50 billion years old, first coming to life in the Eocene epoch, four epochs before the emergence of human beings. The Amazon forest has watched this earth across geological time, watching the birth of some species and the extinction of others, and now this new experience of humans setting them on fire on a massive scale, 7,200 square miles burned away so far this year. They call this forest the lungs of the planet, because those trees breath in 25% of the earth’s carbon dioxide emissions, and exhaling oxygen, what our world needs for life.
I watched a brief video of the blazes on my phone while I stood on a dirt path meandering through a grove of cottonwoods, some of them a hundred years old, and I wondered if they knew.
There are several passages in the book of Jeremiah where the earth mourns. “How long will the land mourn,” the prophet asks in chapter twelve, “and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away” (12:4). But the verse that came to my mind, as the Colorado cottonwoods peaked over my shoulder at my phone, at their siblings on fire in Brazil, was from chapter four: “the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black” (4:28)—that part about the sky growing dark with smoke, the earth in sackcloth and ashes.
In his biblical theology of land, Walter Brueggemann called the prophet Jeremiah “the poet of land par excellence.” That’s what we hear in our passage assigned for today, in the first chapter of the book, when God commissions Jeremiah for a life of prophetic ministry: “Now I have put my words in our mouth,” God says. “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down… to build and to plant.”
Here, at the beginning of the book, Jeremiah is in the same position as the rest of the prophets we’ve heard so far this summer—Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, all of them warning the people of exile, that soon they will be taken from their homeland, that they will be conquered and deported into other lands, to live under the oppression of foreign leaders.
And that’s why this commissioning here sounds like such a strange thing to do with your time: to build and to plant. Here, at the beginning of the book, with deportation and exile on the horizon, God tells Jeremiah to plant. The first part of the verse makes sense to me: to pluck up and pull down. Because why not, since all his people are going to be forcibly removed from their land soon enough. Might as well let the land go to waste, to pull up some favorite plant life to take along on the journey, to the new place, the new garden, for their future in a new land.
God calls Jeremiah to prepare for exile by planting
—to plant, even though others will reap the benefits, or perhaps no one will, just plants being plants without anyone there to watch them grow, to take the produce. To plant, without reason, without calculation, without a future.
But God calls Jeremiah to prepare for exile by planting—to plant, even though others will reap the benefits, or perhaps no one will, just plants being plants without anyone there to watch them grow, to take the produce. To plant in the ground what cannot be taken with them—a commitment to an environment, an ecology, beyond personal benefit, beyond any concern for the welfare of his people. To plant, without reason, without calculation, without a future.
There’s a legend about Martin Luther from the sixteenth century that goes like this. People were asking him how to live, given the tumult in the land and the doomsday prophecies—what to do if this is the world will be consumed with apocalyptic destruction next year. Luther responded, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”
There’s an ethic here that jolts us from our usual way of thinking about life, which, if we follow our logics far enough, reaches down to some self-centered core of our motivation—to pass make life for us a little better, if not for us than for our people or for the future generations or for humanity. But here, in this saying from Luther, there’s just an overwhelming commitment to plant a tree, no matter what happens tomorrow or next year or in the next generation—a commitment to do what is good and beautiful for no other reason than it’s the good and beautiful thing to do.
There’s an early rabbinic homily that gets at a similar point. This is from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who says, “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet him.”
Maybe the point is that we are called to love what God loves, to love as God does—to love what God has created, because God loves all of it, us included, the earth and all who live in it, the life God has made and sustains.To care about God’s world because God delights in this earthly life, that God became a human being in Jesus to get as close to this life as possible, to become the flesh of the earth, an earthling like Eve and Adam.
The call to Jeremiah is also for us: to plant, to plant life, a community of all creation, an environment for all of us. To plant, not only for ourselves, but for a world beyond us, a world that goes on without us.