If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 12, 2009

When the Tree Was Green: a meditation on Luke 23:31

For if they do this when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? Luke 23:31

If trees could only talk. Imagine the tale that the tree used for the cross of Jesus might tell. That tree might reminisce about how it was planted by the finger of God in the moist earth on a small hill just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Maybe it would share its first memories as a sprout stretching its arms into the warm sky and the days when looking up at the birds in his branches that it secretly wished that it could fly. Can't you just hear the tree tell of being a young sapling and the time a young boy and girl shared their first kiss under the shadow of its trunk. The green tree might even tell us of the day when he was shaken to his roots by the marching feet of some Roman soldiers passing nearby.

Or the green tree might reveal how it trembled in fear as a carpenter hacked down several of its larger neighbors for purposes unknown. Oh, the horror of the sound of steel against wood hacking, hacking, hacking. It tried to hold its ears at the terrible noise. Craaaack. Whoooosh. Boooom! The trees would hit the ground and the dust curl into the air. Again and again the green tree had to endure the sounds like cries of pain in the night. "What had those trees done to deserve such a fate?" the green tree thought to itself.

Imagine the story that the green tree could weave about the fateful day a dark shadow fell over its branches. It was the carpenter. The tree dreaded the day when the carpenter would eye its trunk. But he knew the tree was still green. There was a lot of life left to course through its wooden veins. If only it could cry out to the carpenter to stop. But it couldn't. The green tree was like a sheep being silently led to the slaughter. The carpenter's legs were spread wide for sure footing. The green tree could hear the carpenter draw in a deep breath, Two big hands grasped the handle of the ax and muscles tightened on his arms as it was lifted. The sun flashed on the steel blade in mid-air.

It seemed like only yesterday that the burly carpenter had cut down two older trees nearby. The sound of the chopping of wood had made the green tree's leaves shake and sap to ooze from its knothole eyes. Why? Why must it be cut down in the prime of life? For what purpose? What had it done to deserve this? The thoughts raced inside the tree.

Then suddenly its thoughts were broken by a sound. Whooosh. The ax cut the thin air. When the sharp blade hit its trunk it shook violently. Sap flowed from its side. There was another blow and another. The tree was beginning to weaken. Craaack. Whooosh. The green tree hit the ground with a thump! The carpenter cut off the branches until finally the tree was stripped naked. The next thing the tree knew, it was on a cart with wobbly wheels heading down a dusty road. It passed under a stone arch in a gate leading into Jerusalem. lnside the city? The tree was hewn into a long plank at the carpenter's shop. On the wall it could see all the instruments of death used upon other innocent trees. There was a clanking of metal as a Roman soldier entered the shop. The green tree was loaded onto another cart and moved to the soldier's quarters.

The Roman soldier unloaded the tree onto the ground. It could see at a distance the crimson silhouette of a man. The man looked like a walking tree, for upon his head were thorny branches. The tree. still oozing sap, felt itself being lifted and placed on the bleeding shoulder of the thorny man. Off they both went down a narrow and winding cobblestone path through the city.

The tree teetered on the shoulder of the thorny man and was bruised several times when the man weakened and fell on the rough pathway. Then someone took the tree off the man’s bloody shoulder and placed him on a strong shoulder of dark skin. The tree could see the crimson figure ahead of him staggering drunk on death's bitter brew. Rounding a corner the thorny man came upon a group of veiled women, weeping and wailing and beating their breasts in sorrow. They must be mourning the predicament of the thorny man. The man in crimson stops and turns his branches toward the women and speaks: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" With those
words spoken, the tree knew that the thorny man was a green tree like itself: one who experienced the suffering of the innocent, one who was cut down before his life was fully grown.

Green trees are no good for kindling. They are fresh and moist and do not easily burn. Unlike dry wood, they do not belong in the fire. Just as Jesus did not belong in the fiery trial of crucifixion. Pilate could find no fault in him. Jesus was innocent. His only guilt was compassion for the poor and the outcast, telling dangerous tales of God's kingdom, healing the sick and restoring them to community, and confronting the principalities and powers in 'high places. Three times Pilate had told a crowd of kindling wood that Jesus was too green for the fire. With breath hot like the sirocco winds the hysterical mob cried out, "Let him burn!" Green or not, this tree was going to become kindling wood.

Even the tears of Jerusalem's daughters could not put out the fiery hell of the cross. For soon Jesus, the sprout of Jesse, the root of David, the tree of righteousness, would be engulfed in its red flames. If this innocent one suffered such a tragedy, what would be the fate of the guilty? As an ancient Rabbi once said, "When fire consumes the green, what will the dry do?"

What kind of world burns green trees? Why are crosses constructed for the innocent? Green trees continue to be cut down and thrown in the fire. Stephen received a volley of stones. His only crime was preaching the truth about Jesus. A green tree named Paul was believed to have had an ax put to his neck and Peter was crucified upside down. The pages of history are filled with green trees being thrown into the fire. A forests of green trees were cut down by the Romans as innocent Christians faced the lion and the sword. The sap of their innocent lives runs through the pages of the Martyr's Mirror. And what of those Anabaptist saplings like Michael Sattler, Dirk Willems, and Maekyn Wens? Did they deserve such horrible deaths for honestly living out their faith?

One could add the still-green Martin Luther King Jr., gunned down for marching for equality and justice. Or Oscar Romero, who gave his life while working for justice for the poor in El Salvador and was shot by an assassin while offering the body and blood of Christ in communion. Think of the forest of green trees incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And who does not shutter at the very thought of a holocaust of six million innocent fig trees wiped out in Nazi Germany? Have the hundreds of thousands of young trees who faced the US axe in Iraq been forgotten? What kind of world cuts down green trees?

Cry for the young saplings that are bruised and beaten by parents in rage. Weep for the dark oaks growing up on the streets that are chopped down by drive-by shootings while still in the prime of life. Raise a shout to the heavens for the poor sprouts withering up and dying without enough nourishment for their branches to grow and flourish. Even more, weep for ourselves, a dry people who live in a forgetful and forsaken world that still cuts down green trees or turns a blind eye as the axe falls in forests green. Pray that our wooden 'ears hear the words of that green tree on the way to the cross as words of warning and hope for an incendiary world.

For if they do this when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?

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