(Preached at Melville United Church, Fergus, on March 4, 2018)
How many of you can remember what you were doing late in the afternoon of Thursday, August 14, 2003?
I can. I was camping with my family at Sandbanks Provincial Park. We were on our way to Kingston, where we’d be picking up David, who had been, for the previous six weeks, at a Sea Cadet Camp.
On that particular day, we had just finished supper, and I went to get some water from the pump.
No water—the pump wasn’t working.
Odd, I thought, so I went to another pump.
At some point, we realized that there was no electricity to run the pumps, that we were in the midst of a power outage. It was only when we went for a drive to get ice that we realized the truth—we were in the midst of the great blackout of 2003, which, at the time it happened, was the second largest in history.
We were rather lucky. For most of the blackout, we were safely camped at Sandbanks, where our needs for electricity were minimal. We’d mostly emptied our fridge and freezer into our cooler, so food losses were also not a huge problem.
And we sat that evening on the beach, and stared at stars that hadn’t been seen in this part of North America for decades, maybe even a century, and I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 19.
The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.
It’s sad that it takes a disaster nowadays for us to see the full glory of nature.
We begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, the reminder that we are all part of the earth, and to the earth we shall return. We need that yearly reminder, because we all too often forget that truth, that we are part of nature and not separate from it, and that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves, and that respecting creation means more than just recycling.
I’ve said before that I can go from my house, to the bus stop in front of it, to downtown Guelph, where I can get on a GO train and go to downtown Toronto, spend the whole day there and come back, without once walking on soil. In fact, most of my day could be spend without even going outside and seeing the sky.
So many people live like that, having such minimal daily contact with nature that it’s little more than an intellectual construct, and they’re truly shocked when nature intrudes upon their consciousness—when wind and ice together manage to bring down a huge tree right across their driveway, or when dense fog and swirling waters wash out a road and carry away a car, or when coyotes in the city are responsible for the disappearance of wandering cats and dogs.
Normally here I’d talk about how folks in the bible experienced something similar to us, but the truth is, this is a new experience for human beings. It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that we’ve managed to lose touch with the reality of God’s creation and make our own.
So today I’m going to speak about Saruman, the wizard in J.R.R. Tokien’s Lord of the Rings, and his encounter with the Ents, guardians of the trees in an ancient forest.
Saruman was once a force for good. He’s actually not a human—he’s the equivalent of an angel in Tolkien’s world. But the lust for power corrupted him.
Treebeard, oldest of the Ents and their leader, explained that Saruman “has a mind of metal and wheels; he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment…
“He and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot—orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc. There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days.”
Saruman has made the mistake that many human beings have made in the past and continue to make—they have begun to believe that nature was created to serve us. They’ve forgotten that passage from Genesis that says that we earth-creatures were put in the garden to serve, and not to be served. We have dominion, it is true, but only as caretakers, not as owners.
And we have forgotten that God’s creation has a mind of its own, and its own will to praise the Creator.
The doom of Saruman, when it comes, is swift. The Ents and the trees they guard rise up against him and destroy what he has made. The hobbit Merriadoc describes it this way: “The Forest had felt as tense as if a thunderstorm was brewing inside it: then all at once it exploded…
“They pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered and… in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruins.”
It’s just a story, isn’t it? Just a novel. True, Tolkien was a Christian, and was writing from his Christian convictions. Every part of Tokien’s world is a reflection of his Roman Catholic theology and Christian values. But it’s just a story.
Or is it?
In California, they’re having severe water woes. They’ve made the desert to bloom, but at a very high price. Groundwater pumped out from under the soil might seem free, but in some places, the ground (and the roads on it) has sunk ten or even twenty feet because the clay and dirt over the water has collapsed into the empty space created from pumping out the water.
Water rationing has contributed to the sight of corpses of almond trees lying in rows on the desert soil on which they once grew and wetlands much used by migratory birds drying up, all so we can have fruit in winter and Californians can have swimming pools.
In Houston, paved-over swampland made Hurricane Harvey the costliest tropical cyclone on record so far—125 billion dollars in damage and 107 American lives.
In Ontario, just recently, rain and ice dams and fog caused a road to flood and a van to be swept away, claiming the life of a three-year-old boy.
We can ignore nature. We can use it and abuse it—for a time. But eventually, it will end up storming our gates and tearing them down.
Saruman is destroyed because he doesn’t understand that treating the natural world with respect and caution isn’t just a nice thing to do—it’s a survival skill.
And we can’t treat anything with the respect and caution it deserves if we have no understanding of how it functions. We need to get out of the house and reconnect with the world from which we are made.
Touch a tree, and feel the life within, and realize that it’s not just lumber waiting to be harvested, but a unique community that supports countless living things—birds and insects and animals small and large and fungi and bacteria. And yes, even us, for trees are the lungs of the planet, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Look at the stars and wonder that there is beauty beyond our reach, forever safe from the greed of humans.
Watch the birds flock with growing concern—their numbers are nowhere near what they were even when I was a child.
Look upon a crow or an elm tree, and understand with joy that calamities such as West Nile virus or Dutch Elm disease will eventually run their course, and indeed, that such setbacks are part of the natural cycle.
Instead of bundling up, hunching over, and racing from front door to car and back again during a rainstorm, turn your face up to the sky and feel the rain and the wind on your skin and know that you, too, are part of God’s creation, and like the heavens, you were made to proclaim God’s glory.