Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney on 31st December 2006
You turn us back to dust and say:
‘Turn back, O children of earth.
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday,
which passes like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away like a dream;
they fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes;
in the evening it is dried up and withered. Psalm 90:3-6
There is a planting of trees on the Milltown Road between the townland of Bright and the townland of Ballyhossett in Co Down. They are tucked into the fold of a hill and provide shelter for sheep from the neighbouring field in the wintertime.
They are young trees, when I first met them the diameter of the trunks would have been no more than a few inches. I stood and looked at them as I walked my dogs one evening in 1989; they seemed almost frail, too weak and immature to face the hardships of this world. But I looked at the rolling drumlin scenery around me, unchanged in generations, and thought that the dangers would be face would be few. Barring some catastrophe, they would sit there under the cover of the hill for decades to come. The trees would be there when I was long gone.
The trees are changed little in the past seventeen years; I cannot make a similar claim. The trees came to mind one morning as I stood and looked across to the Dublin mountains from the window of the kitchen in the old Rectory.
It was one of those damp and foggy November mornings and the mountains were completely shrouded in mist, if you didn’t know they were there you would have assumed the landscape ended at the ridge of hills on this side of the M50.
The ruins of the Twelfth Century Church at Tully were visible on the hillside. The ruins are surrounded by a thin circle of trees. In the valley below Tully are the ultra-modern apartments of Cherrywood. When Mary Hanafin was speaking here a couple of years ago she said that the population of Cherrywood is expected to eventually reach a total of twenty-thousand people.
Looking at the trees and looking at the new town, I wondered which would remain in a hundred years time. Will the buildings see out the trees? Or will the trees continue to look down into the valley as our society changes when the oil runs out, or the apartments make way for another swathe of urbanisation as Ireland finds other ways to sustain growing populations?
Like the trees between Bright and Ballyhossett, the trees at Tully will certainly outlive me. The writer of the psalms had the relative longevity of trees and humans in perspective. Being blessed for the writer of Psalm 1 is like being as constant as a tree,
‘He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither’. Psalm 1:3
As we come to the close of another year and set out on a new one, thinking about the trees perhaps helps us set things in a right perspective. The things that so preoccupy us in everyday life can seem very small and insignificant in the long view. Looking back on our childhood days, we can laugh now at things that were so important to us then. Looking back over years to different times, moments that loomed large, moments that were the biggest things in our lives at the time, are just now part of the up and down curve of our lives. How many trees are there around us that have looked on unmoved and unchanged as we have become different people?
I think I understand why there was such a respect for trees amongst the ancient people of Ireland, they had a deeper understanding of reality than we have achieved in the 21st century. The things that they noted were constant and unchanging. Their reality was the reality of nature, the reality of the passing seasons, the reality of cruel and harsh winters, the reality of depending upon a good harvest for your very survival; their realities were very earthly realities. How do the things that we think are noteworthy stand in comparison? The dÃ©cor of our house, the model of our car, the pay from our job; these things really don’t compare with hills and mountains and forests and rivers. What is there in our current lifestyles that could stand alongside an ancient oak tree? What could we possibly buy that would compare with an oak?
The writer of Psalm 90 knew how transient people were, how fleetingly our lives pass:
‘The length of our days is seventy years’
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away’. Psalm 90:10
He knew, however, that those times were in God’s hands and that in God’s sight we should make the most of each day
‘Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.’ Psalm 90:12
Embarking upon a New Year, we do so in the knowledge from Scripture that we live our lives in God’s care; we do so remembering the ancient traditions of this land which valued those things that were lasting and unchanging; and we do so in the sure hope that we have in Jesus that we are journeying homewards to be with him.
May God prompt us in the year ahead to think about the trees and to think about our lives, what will we do for him in the brief time we are given?