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Sermon Archives

Generation by Generation

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 12

Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Isaiah 55:10-13, John 15:1-5, 8

John’s gospel uses the familiar imagery of God as the vine-grower: the one who plants and grafts, tends and prunes. God is the source of life and growth.  If God is the vine-grower, Jesus calls himself the “true vine.”  “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”


“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  If this seems like a quaint horticultural metaphor, let’s take just a moment to remember some things about viticulture—the science of propagating grapes. This was the practice—established for centuries in the Holy Land, and intimately familiar to John’s audience—that made vine and branches such vivid imagery for them.  Grapes are cultivated through grafting.  The vine-grower selects a shoot for its characteristic qualities and grafts it onto an older vine with stable, well-established roots and stem. The new shoot grows into the old vine—merging at a cellular level—and carries the specific qualities for which it was selected.  Maybe it bears much fruit, or produces sweet grapes for wine-making. 


Or maybe—at the level of metaphor—the branches carry loving-kindness or care for neighbor, or a passion for justice: those characteristics that are in the DNA of our tradition.


Today we celebrate the baptism of a tiny baby—the newest member of our faith community. As we anoint Eliza with the waters of baptism, we welcome her, not only into this household of God—First Church in Cambridge—but into a faith and tradition with roots going back many centuries.  Our faith—passed down from generation to generation—is both ancient and new. Our community is living and growing, continually being renewed, by the grace of God. 


We celebrate this faith, so fruitful that—as Isaiah says—it shall accomplish God’s purposes. So joyful that the mountains and hills shall burst into song and the trees shall clap their hands! Today we celebrate life!


Today, we also mark the end of an era and observe a moment of loss and grief.  We have come to the time when we must say “goodbye” to the beloved yellowwood trees that have graced the front of our church for 142 years.  If you’ve been around First Church awhile, or if you were in church last Sunday to hear Dan Smith’s sermon about the history of the trees, you know that they were planted by America’s leading botanist of the 19th century and First Church Deacon, Asa Gray, who was a friend and colleague of Charles Darwin.


Wow, these trees have history!  You’ll see in today’s bulletin a special enclosure detailing some of that history along with some beautiful photographs of the trees. Thank you to all who helped in the creation of this special memorial and remembrance. Anyone who wants to know more can pick up a copy of last Sunday’s sermon. And those who want a full history, can pick up a copy of the definitive biography of Asa Gray by our own Hunter Dupree!  (A special thanks to Hunter for recording that history. And a welcome to Hunter’s and Betty’s son, Andy, who is visiting from Seattle.)


Wow, these yellowwoods have history.  Still standing after 142 years, they have far outlived the average life expectancy for their species, which is under 100 years.  Think of all the human events for which they have stood as quiet witnesses. The paving of streets (yes—the streets of Cambridge were first paved in 1901—a quarter century after the trees were planted!)  All the human events.  The construction of buildings, founding of institutions, a succession of leaders, changing customs.


Think of all the voices that have been heard beneath these trees.  The songs of children, greetings of visitors and guests, conversations of worshippers, students and passers-by, the confidences of friends, the professions of lovers. These trees have history!


It is humbling to stand beneath these magnificent trees.  They stand as sentinels to earth’s time, botanical time, God’s time.  I don’t know about you, but it can leave me feeling a little breathless.  The same feeling I have on a whale watch in the Stellwagen Bank, when the boat pulls up beside a pod of humpbacks.  It makes you ponder the scope and significance of your own human life. 


As the psalmist wrote, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers…what are human beings that you are mindful of them?  Mortals that you care for them?”


What can we say in the face of such grandeur?  The life-span of a gnarly old tree, the measure of a magnificent whale?  The scale of time in the natural world leaves us in awe. Whale-time. Bowheads—now endangered—can live up to 200 years.  Tree-time. Giant sequoias have a natural lifespan of centuries, often living more than 2,000 years. Cosmic time—the birth of stars—over the span of billions of years.


Many of us find in nature, not only awe, but a place of quiet refuge.  Wendell Berry wrote these words in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” 


When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


Today, we celebrate the refuge, beauty and comfort we have found in our old yellowwood trees.  We mark the end of an era.  But we also mark the beginning of an era.  A few years back Jim Rissling and Cathy Garnet (and possibly others I’m not aware of?) knew that the ancient yellowwoods would eventually come down.  They had the foresight to plant some young trees, which now stand in the shade of the two giants.  When the old trees are gone, the new ones will have more light, without competition from the tall crowns of the older trees.  They’ll have more water, without competition from the massive root structure of the old trees. They’ll have space to flourish and grow.


Like the vine-grower in John’s gospel, we will take great care with what we are cultivating for the next generations at First Church in Cambridge. We will collect seeds from the old trees and send them to the Arnold Arboretum.  We’ll conserve rootstalk from the trees that might be used to propagate new trees.


Friends, today we are acutely aware of the seasons of birth, death and renewal. We celebrate the passing of life from vine to branches, from tree to seedling.  We rejoice in the passing of faith down through the generations, signified and sealed by the waters of baptism. We praise our God of hope, who sustains us through all the seasons of our lives. 


Immediately following worship today, those who wish, may circle around the trees in front of the church. We’ll bless the old trees and the young ones, pray, share memories and give voice to our hopes. 

I’d like to close with these words from poet, Mary Oliver.



When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness,

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.


I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.


Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, "Stay awhile."

The light flows from their branches.


And they call again, "It's simple," they say,

"and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine."





Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Mary Oliver, “When I am Among the Trees,” Thirst (Beacon Press, 2007.)






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