—Photo by Dan Burkholder
In the beginning, God planted a garden and at its heart God set the Tree of Life. From that moment on, we have been tree people. We cannot tell the story of God’s love without speaking of trunks and roots, vines and branches, leaves and fruit. The oaks of Mamre, the root of Jesse, the burning bush, the olive, the mulberry, the willow, the cedar of Lebanon, and the fig—as we learn their names in the stories of our tradition, we come also to know the God whose mere presence, the psalmist says, causes all the trees to stand up and applaud.
And so it’s not surprising that when God drew even closer to us in Jesus, his story also unfolded tree by tree. We remember that Zacchaeus became his disciple while draped in the branches of a sycamore. Nathaniel went after him too, after Jesus summoned him out from under the shady fig. We still tell each other the story of the mustard seed that grew into a great tree whose branches hosted all the birds of the air—no matter who they were, or where they found themselves on the journey of life.
A tree that is not producing anything, Jesus said, need not be cut down, but commended to the care of the arborist for another year—a mercy (we suspect) that was probably extended the year after that as well, and the year after that one too. Other unproductive trees were not so lucky, but they made his point about the urgency of responding actively to the gospel. Jesus was hanged on a tree. They buried him in a garden full of trees. And in the end, when God re-creates all things, a tree will straddle the River of Life and produce fruit in every season, and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.
Sometimes we imagine the church as a club you join. Or we think of it as an organization that has business to do. Or as a center of advocacy and the promoter of causes. Our attention tends to focus on membership, activity, programs, and numbers. But the Bible tells us a different story about who we are.
The church is not a club, nor an organization concerned with bottom lines and the size and success of the franchise, nor a social service agency or political action group. The church is a people set apart, a priesthood, a new kind of family, God’s adopted daughters and sons, citizens in a new commonwealth, an assembly, a holy gathering for God’s praise and purposes. And it is, the Bible says in many places, a tree—a cedar, an evergreen, an oak of God’s own planting.
Not only does God gather us under trees for shade and protection; not only do God’s trees welcome us, their fruits nourish us, and their leaves heal us; not only are trees parables of God’s patient mercy and faithfulness, as well as of God’s urgency and impatience; not only are they places of epiphany, encounter, and decision; not only does our life with God and with each other unfold tree by storied tree, we ourselves are a tree planted by God and in God, who is the living stream that feeds us.
When our roots drink deeply from that stream, we are a tree whose leaves do not wither and whose fruit never fails, a tree capable of welcoming, shading, feeding, and healing, planted at the heart of the garden of this world to offer life.
When the church welcome new members, then, it’s not like signing people up on the dotted line. It’s more like grafting new branches into the trunk of a tree. God makes new life circulate to everyone through such new branches. And by God’s grace it means that there will be even more room for many more birds of every kind to flock, to feed, and to rest.
When the church meets, it’s not primarily to cast votes, fill committees, and discuss budgets, but to marvel at and give thanks for all the ways God provides for our health and wholeness, watering, pruning, and dressing us, so that we might thrive, so that we might be a blessing, so that we might give ourselves away.
And when the church worships, it is not to talk a lot to God and to each other and to come away with insights to improve our lives, but to join the praise of trees and all creatures, who by being alive, or by just being, please the Maker.
In a world where great forests are clear-cut for profit, where ancient olives are bulldozed and torn up by the roots from a land called holy, and where young human saplings are cut down by bullets on city streets, never to reach full stature; in the face of all the life-destroying things that human beings may do on this earth, God stubbornly plants and cultivates trees. God does not give up cultivating life—like the life that is in us, life for the sake of other life, life for the sake of the world.
Would anything be different about its way of being and doing if a congregation knew it was a tree?