At a construction site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, here in Philadelphia, on a median strip that faces the front of the Barnes Gallery (or is it the back of the gallery?), on a block that encompasses the twin cenotaphs of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, there is a tall fence - maybe twelve feet high - that rings the entire space of the median strip. The fence encloses a stand of trees planted in a double row – mostly London Plane trees, if I am not mistaken. And all along the fence, just above eye level, every ten of fifteen feet or so, there are signs posted that proclaim in an understated typeface, that has not, for some reason, been printed in bold letters, the following declaration: WARNING! TREE PROTECTION ZONE
These signs intrigue me. They fill me with questions. I suppose it is somewhat obvious that it is the trees that are being protected from the outside forces of the adjacent construction project; and not, say, pedestrians who are being protected from the trees.
I cannot find the provision of Philadelphia construction rules and regulations, or the requirements of this particular project that call for a Tree Protection Zone. But I am able to locate literature that explains that a Tree Protection Zone is “the means by which we protect trees on development sites and should protect both roots and crown spread simultaneously. The TPZ should be considered as sacrosanct….”[i] And Philadelphia seems to be employing guidelines like other cities that require that the area “be delineated with chain link fencing and posted to alert contractors on the site and others that no equipment, materials, debris, supplies or fill soil shall be located within the TPZ.”[ii]
This information helps me address the most vexing of the questions that I have about the signs around the Tree Protection Zone on the Ben Franklin Parkway, that is the matter of the first word on the signs: WARNING!
It is a curious way to announce something as apparently wholesome as a Tree Protection Zone: with a warning. What is the nature of the warning? What danger is posed to or by these trees that requires the urgency of a warning? Who is at risk in the vicinity of these trees? Why must we be warned? The obvious answer is, of course, the least interesting: that the signs announce the possibility of penalty to the contractors working nearby. But once I got the idea of a Tree Protection Zone in my head, I couldn’t chase it away; especially a Tree Protection Zone that comes with a Warning. It all seems too rich. It seems impossible to me that the words themselves do not possess homiletic potential: WARNING! TREE PROTECTION ZONE.
English translations of the New Testament more than once refer to the instrument of Jesus’ execution as a “tree.” And the Christian literary tradition of our language has become easily comfortable with this sleight of hand. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” St. Luke reports in the English version of the words of St. Peter. The actual Greek word used in the scriptures is a bit more ambiguous, a bit more generic. It could just mean “a piece of wood.” But tree sounds better, doesn’t it?
So let it be a tree – the Cross of Christ. If you’ll allow the poetic license, is it too much to think of this church as a kind of Tree Protection Zone? If so, would that assertion raise questions? Who is being protected from what? Should there be signs with a WARNING on the exterior of the building? Is the Cross in danger? What danger is posed to or by this tree that requires the urgency of a warning? Who is at risk in the vicinity of this tree? Why must we be warned in its Presence?
John Calvin once said that there are enough relics of the True Cross to fill a ship.[iii] And while we do not possess such a relic in this church, it’s true that this place is replete with glorious images of the Cross, that we venerate and treat with dignity and signs of reverence. And it’s true that in some sense that we protect in this church the idea of the Cross, and the saving ministry of Jesus for which it stands. And it is also true that the Cross does not need our protection.
But we need the Cross for our protection. A protection is a “person or thing that prevents someone or something from suffering harm or injury.”[iv] It is a notoriously complicated thing to try to say precisely what God is doing with Jesus by subjecting him to crucifixion. We say that by this act of love our salvation is wrought – but what does that mean? In part, at least, it means that Jesus on the Cross is preventing us – his people- from suffering harm or injury. This comes as a shock to us, if we stop to think about it, or at least as unlikely. Our lives are full of harm and injury; what good has the Cross done us? As a talisman to protect us, perhaps it has kept vampires at bay, but what other danger has not befallen us? Sickness, old age, accident, betrayal, warfare, assault, insult, degradation, failure, calamity. You name it; it has happened to someone clutching a Cross to his breast.
In my extremely limited experience, however, there is one thing against which the Cross has regularly and consistently provided superb protection, and it is part and parcel of nearly every other hazard we could name: fear. Fear is the antithesis of faith; most poignantly the fear of death. For when we are possessed by fear, we can do nothing, we are frozen, subject to the whims of every evil in the world, every possible threat that comes our way.
But the Cross is the antithesis of fear; for from it, Jesus confronts not only his own scourging and mockery, not only the persecution of the imperial state, not only the indignity of insult, not only the agony of his own injuries, not only the misgivings of doubt, not only the failure of religion, not only the abandonment of his friends, not only humiliation on a grand scale, not only the reversal of the great expectations proclaimed as he entered into Jerusalem, not only the apparent vindication of his enemies, not only bloodshed, tears, sorrow, and pain, but also death itself. The Cross puts Jesus as immediately and entirely as possible in the midst of a comprehensive catalog of fear. And then, behold, and see, says the Cross, what comes of such fear, as Jesus’ Body is taken down from it and carried to its borrowed tomb.
The saving work of Jesus on the Cross is his demonstration of the failure of the Cross to achieve its intended aims, and his triumph in dying a real death there that nevertheless could not claim with finality his abundant life. And we know that Jesus meant to share his triumph on the Cross with his followers precisely because he told them, before they could possibly know what it meant, that they must take up their crosses and follow him. Not only for the suffering, but also for the triumph! When life confronts you with abuse, injustice, insult, injury, doubt, inadequate religion, friendlessness, humiliation, loss, betrayal, bloodshed, tears, sorrow, and pain… and when death itself lies at hand… do not be afraid! But take up your Cross and share in Jesus’ triumph that was won for you there! See how the Cross vanquishes our fear!
That is why here, in this church, on this very morning, we have become a Tree Protection Zone. I suppose we always have been such. For the Cross of Christ is planted here, from roots to crown. And there are times when we do our feeble best, I suppose, to protect the idea of the Cross. But, quite in contrast to the construction zone on the Parkway, where the trees are being protected from damage by construction workers, here in our Tree Protection Zone, we are being protected by a tree of life on which the prince of glory died! Perhaps, from time to time, it seems to us that the protection afforded us by this tree does, in fact, prevent harm or injury from befalling us. But more especially in this Tree Protection Zone, we are being protected from all the fears that confront us, none more powerfully than the fear of death.
I don’t, frankly, know whether or not this protection should come with a warning. I am sure there is risk involved when you embrace the love of Jesus – that perfect love that casts out fear – because it will lead you to places you never dreamt you’d go; it will transform you (if you let it) into a different person than the one you thought you were going to be; it will free you from all kinds of bonds that you hardly knew entrapped you. Is it better to warn you and the whole world about these possibilities, or not?
On reflection, I suppose that it is better not to post a warning, since the promise of transformation so often seems worrying to us, accustomed as we have become to our own shortcomings and failings. The possibility of giving them up, like quitting any addiction, seems daunting, maybe even unwelcome. And it might be tempting for us to put fences around the Cross – our new tree of life – and post warnings for the timid, lest their lives be changed. But this impulse would be wrong-headed. Because ever since his Body was taken down from it, Jesus’ Cross has, rather, beckoned to any and all who would listen, and come and take shelter beneath its boughs, to share the glories of its crown, to find security in its deep roots, and to enjoy its protection, and live.
But you, here this morning, you may consider yourselves warned that on this Palm Sunday, you have entered into a Tree Protection Zone. The tree is unlike any other in the world. And it doesn’t require your protection or mine. This new tree of life is the tree of perfect love, which casts out fear, and thereby protects all who come beneath its boughs. Pray God, let its roots grow deep within us, and may its branches crown all our days.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Palm Sunday 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Queensland Arboriocultural Association, 2014
[ii] City of Santa Monica, Community Maintenance Department, Public Landscape Division
[iii] John Calvin, A Treatise on Relics