Sermon-Video “Remembering The Trees – The Cross, The Lynching Trees and The Amazon Forest”



Remembering The Trees – The Cross, The Lynching Trees and The Amazon Forest

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Riverside Church March 26, 2023 


Calvary, The Lynching Tree and the Amazon Forest – Taking Up the Cross

Luke 9: 23-25


Quotes for contemplation:

“Whoever does not love trees, does not love God.”

Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Amphilochios of Patmos


“All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.”

Mary Oliver Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way


Luke 9: 23-25

23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?


Psalm 1

1 Happy are those

who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread,

or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like trees

planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.


Dear Friends,


May the peace of Christ be with you all. I am deeply honored to be here with you today. I have been living next door to Riverside Church for 7 and a half years and the organ and the bells of the church have gotten deeply into my heart as a sound of welcome, of assurance, of love. I always thank God for you.


Coming here today and seeing Rev. Adriene Thorne as the pastor of Riverside makes my heart sing. We studied together at Union, we conspired together at Max Café. I visited her previous church in Brooklyn, saw her amazing ministry there and how much she was loved. Rev. Thorne is close to my heart and I give thanks to God every time I remember her. Today I am also happy because I have my family with me: Katy, Libby, Cici and Ike. I am also happy because I have my precious parents-in-law here as well: Bruce and Rethea. And I also have the  luxury of my niece Debora who arrived last night from Germany. My heart is full.



Friends, we are living in a time of climate disaster. Just this week scientists released the IPCC report saying that if we don’t change our ways of living by 2030, temperatures will rise beyond 1.5 Celsius and we will enter into a period of unknown consequences and unforeseen disasters. Governments must move and change now, investing billions of dollars if we are to keep the earth safe.


When I hear this news, I feel powerless. What are we regular citizens do to? Perhaps go to the streets protesting? Push our local, state and federal politicians? Be attentive to whom we elect? Yes. Perhaps we must engage in cleaning our local rivers, the protection of our parks, the supporting our local farmers? Yes. Perhaps we can stop buying everything we want to buy–perhaps only 90% of our endless consumerism?

Yes, there are ways to fight and engage. I hope the new generations will be taken by courage and a sense of responsibility to protect the earth for themselves and future generations.


But today I want us to think about this larger issue of climate change through the presence of trees. Yes, trees. How can our faith engage the world from the perspective of a tree?


In the Bible, our human history starts and ends with the presence of a tree. In Genesis chapter two, the tree of life set limits and boundaries to our good living (limits we fail to respect). The Bible ends our history here on earth with a tree at the heart of the city of God, a city restored and renewed. Revelation 22 says: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”


From cover to cover the Bible carries a forest!


In Ethiopia, there is a church that lives inside of a forest. The church was built surrounded by trees and lives in deep harmony with the trees. They sustain each other. The interiors of the church were made of the trees that surround it. The colors of the church came from the trees’ bark and leaves, and the sacred objects of the church are also made of the trees’ wood. The people carry a cross made of the wood of the trees and when they pray, the trees pray with them. The trees are living witnesses of their relation to God. In some parts of Africa, trees are symbols of the connection between humans and God since the trees are grounded on earth but reaches up to the skies.


So if you allow me to ask you this question: What is a tree for you? What is a tree for? As our pastor Rev Amanda asked us: “In what ways are people like trees?” Or we could also put it another way: Are trees like people? Like the Bible, do you carry a forest in your heart?


Throughout history, we fail to pay attention to the natural world except to describe the landscape as a secondary concern to human activity. But what if we look at history from the perspective of a tree?


Today I would like to think with you all about three events where trees are the major character: the crucifixion of Jesus, the lynching tree in the United States, and the Amazon Forest.


During the pandemic, a group of people from Ghost Ranch asked me to lead a spiritual practice for Lent focusing on the stations of the cross. I thought about Lent through the presence of trees and I realized that the very cross of Jesus was made of a tree. Then I started to imagine how the stations of the cross could connect us with the suffering of the world including the suffering of the trees around us and elsewhere. How could the stations of the cross lead us to consider trees and their need of care, love and sustenance?

The group started asking questions about the memory of the tree who held Jesus’ body. Yes, it was a dead tree who held the body of God for Christians. Was it a cedar tree, a dogwood tree, a cypress tree? We don’t know. There were other dead trees carrying robbers next to Jesus and were part of the story, but we know almost nothing about them and nothing about the trees. But why not?


One thing we know: it was the death of a tree that prepared the way for Jesus’ death. A carpenter who knew woods so well, had his body carried by a tree.


The Bible says that Jesus carried his own cross to Calvary, and the weight of the wood hurt his already massacred body. Jesus was a danger to the Roman empire, but the tree was nobody, nothing. The robbers next to Jesus were nobody. Their trees were nobody. To this day we still put poor people on crosses of injustice and oppression all over the world. And we destroy trees as if they have no life, as if they are nobody.


On the day of Jesus’ death, the natural world witnessed the public shame placed on these 3 men: the skies got dark, the trees and the soil were tinted with human blood and sweat, hair and perhaps urine and feces. We forget that the natural world also notices us.


Later in the meditations on the stations of the cross, our group read Professor James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” In that book, Professor Cone relates the cross of Jesus with the lynching tree. Both trees are symbols of death. The tree/cross of Jesus was the placeholder of power and death of the Roman Empire. The lynching tree held the power of white supremacy through racial segregation and apartheid in the Empire of the United States.


The hanging trees or hangman’s tree were composed of many kinds of trees all across the United States: Oaks, Ironwoods, Junipers, Sycamores, Ponderosa Pines, and other trees holding black bodies. These trees were the witnesses of human cruelty of black bodies being brutally murdered.  These trees saw the sweat, fears, anger and the last breath of precious Black people. These trees carried not only their bodies but also their spirits and their songs. Oh those trees still sing the sad song of those… whose lives were taken.


The cross at the mount of Calvary and the Southern trees were loSouthern breeze.” Precious bodies on precious trees, neither of them considered full beings. Until this day.


But trees and Black people teach us so much about surviving and thriving.


Trees create seeds that will succeed in the soil they are planted. Some seeds will drop, some seeds will be carried out by animals and birds, some seeds will fly nearby and some will fly away to faraway places. Since trees cannot move, they can feel and sense changes arriving way before we do so they can get prepared. So they spread their seeds further. They might know they won’t make it but they spread their seeds as far as they can so they can continue existing in the next generations.


The same way, Black people also knew how to survive. Out of these senseless brutal deaths, Black folks have embraced the cross to find meaning and healing, which teaches us a way to survive and thrive. It was the cross of Jesus that gave meaning to those on the lynching trees. These utter forms of violence didn’t need to happen, but from them we received freedom. They are not the cause of our freedom but they were turned into forms of survival. I will say again what I said last time here: it was the life and struggle of black people in this country who saved the gospel for us all. When this country had lost is very soul, it was the lives of black people who again, made a way out of no way, and kept the spirit of life moving, the possibility of a people to continue alive and the gospel to continue to be what it is: good news!


As the trees spread their seeds all across the earth, black people spread their SPIRIT all across this nation. As trees carry a healing balm in their leaves, black people carry healing balms in their songs, their praise, and in their struggle. Alleluia!


History shows us how the natural world and black people got along well. Black people knew the land and the sky so well they knew how to walk up North. They told each other to follow the drinking gourd in the sky, which was the big dipper. The song said how to move up, running near rivers so they could drench themselves in water to erase the smell of their sweat so the dogs wouldn’t catch them.


Wade in the Water said Harriet Tubman to those looking for their freedom.

Wade in the water my people for God’s gonna trouble the water.




Wade in the water

Wade in the water children

Wade in the water

God’s gonna trouble the water.


The natural world was an ally for their fugue and escape. This week I was reading how black slaves in the Caribbean found unique ways to find freedom. Women would draw the map of the forest in their own heads with their hairs showing patterns of escapes and places of dense trees. Their hair was the route of escape through the forests.


It is time for us to return to the natural world to figure out our own faith and our way out of this crisis. Where does God live near us, through vegetations, animals and trees?

Calvary brought us salvation.

The lynching trees renewed our Spirit.

And now the Amazon forest is issuing a cry into our ears.

Each place is marked by the presence of trees.


From Calvary, passing through the United States and arriving at the Amazon forest, trees continue to hold the memory of our violence. In the Amazon Forest for instance, trees are being murdered by the consumerism of the United States and Europe.


A true genocide. During the four years of the Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil, more than two billion trees were killed. That is more than a million trees each day, or 15 tree murdered each second.


Mahoganies and Cedar are two kinds among the 16 thousand species of trees present in the rainforest. Along with the trees, indigenous people are also being decimated.


There are few forests left standing in the world and yet, our very lives depend on their standing. Without the presence of trees, we cannot tell our stories. Without trees we cannot stay standing either.


However, if we change our perception about the importance and fundamental presence of trees to our faith, we might start to read and tell our histories differently. That is what happened to me.


I didn’t know anything about trees until I met Wonder. Wonder lives at Adams Ricci Park in Enola, a very small town in Central Pennsylvania. Wonder is next to this beautiful shallow and long creek called Conodoguinet, one of the hundred tributaries of the Susquehanna River, the oldest river on earth, dating circa 3 hundred million years.


It was a weekday like any other when I met Wonder, a Northern Red Oak tree. I was walking in a park with my family when I saw this huge tree. I had never known anything about Oaks but after Wonder I started to search. I learned that oak trees love water and sun. Her roots usually go outside of the ground. She feeds many other beings like squirrels, raccoons, blue jays, wild turkeys, and deer and its branches and trunks offer nesting places for mammals. She gives away up to ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND acorns throughout her life. Native Americans have used her leaves to treat bleeding, swelling and dysentery.


Wonder is an Oak and my last name means Oaks. She and I are two different kinds of Oak people. We became friends. And Wonder became a PORTAL for my connection with the earth. Wonder has helped me ponder, wonder, and imagine my relation with other beings. Paying attention to Wonder changed my life.


As a city boy I still struggle being in the forest but I do have trees living vividly in me. When I go back to the gospel of Jesus and hear Jesus saying “take up your cross and follow me,” I cannot help but realize that this call is not a symbolic one, but rather a call to pay attention, protect, heal, and care the very trees next to my house, the trees of the forests near where I live, and the trees of the Amazon Forest – to care deeply for them.

Indigenous shaman Davi Kopenawa, who lives in the Amazon Forest, helps us here. He gives us this commandment: Love the forests! Love the forests as much as you love your family. But to love the forest we must start paying attention to the trees. We must get closer and get to know each of them. Learn their names, their histories and stories, how they live, who they witnessed, and what past they saw. To love the forest we need to love each tree and learn what they need to thrive, the soil they are planted, who they feed, nest and sustain. To love the forest we must start listening deeply to each tree.


Wonder teaches me how to relate with her and all forms of life that surround her: worms, birds, squirrels, spiders, ants, possums, and so on. With her I learn how to take up the cross and follow the Spirit(s) of life. To take up the cross is to join the struggle to save the Amazon and demand forests to be saved and continue to stand. To take up the cross is to stop the Calvaries of injustices with the crucifixion of the poor. To take up the cross is to stop the new forms of lynching in our world today. Finally, to take up my cross is to go back to Wonder time and again.


During this lent, I challenge you to pay attention to the trees around you as you think about the cross of Jesus Christ. May you remember the lynching trees in the United States and the lynching of the trees in Brazil right now.



If we take up the cross of Jesus we will become what the Psalmist said



3 They are like trees

planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.


If we ARE like trees we learn to adapt.

If we ARE trees we will care for the rivers near us.

If we ARE like trees we will care for the birds around us.

If we ARE like trees our lives will not create crosses but cradles, no prisons but welcoming shelters. 

If we are like trees, we will not be there for lynching but for healing.


Friends we have to reforest our minds, reforest our hearts, reforest our thinking, reforest our spiritualities!


Let churches be forests!


Let us send our roots to sustain each other’s lives. Anywhere you are, spread your roots to care for somebody.  My parents and my in-laws are like roots of trees for my family and myself and my wife are roots for our kids.


Let us live like trees planted in the house of God.


And we shall bear colored fruits of love, fresh fruits of peace and powerful seeds of kindness to the world.


Let us be like trees my friends, let us be like trees.