“The Theology of Woodworking”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 14, 2022
On the sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.
Connecting scripture to some of our sermons in this series on “The Theology of…” – like the theology of pets, or the theology of birdwatching – might have seemed like a bit of a leap. I had to get a little creative in my scripture selection. But today, we’re talking about the theology of woodworking, and handily for us, Jesus and his father Joseph, pictured on the front of your bulletin, were both woodworkers.
Tekton, the biblical Greek term in today’s Gospel reading, is usually translated into English as “carpenter,” but that doesn’t really capture the full scope of the trade Jesus learned from his father. Commentator Larry Largent explains that “a tekton could be a simple carpenter, but it could also mean master craftsman, working in either wood or masonry.” Indeed, tektons worked on projects as big as the building of the Temple, and our word architect comes from the Greek architekton, that is, arch-craftsperson or chief artisan.
On a more local scale, Largent continues, “a tekton was the person each village depended on to set their foundations right, or to build a properly functioning door.” Writer Philip Kosloski says that “One way to describe Joseph and Jesus is that [they] may have been the “handym[e]n” of the neighborhood who helped everyone with their projects, big or small.”
What I love about the breadth of this term is that in a village like Nazareth, Jesus and Joseph would have been in and out of homes, crafting and repairing everything from furniture to plows to roof beams, making their homes safe to inhabit and their daily tasks easier to accomplish. They would have been intimately involved in people’s daily lives, caring and providing for their well-being in a meaningful way – not so far off from how Jesus and God care for and provide for us.
Nowadays, though some of us may be lucky enough to know a treasure of a handyperson we would trust to fix anything, and for a fair price, we don’t usually have that kind of intimate relationship with the person we call up to repair the roof or tackle a minor plumbing problem. The caring aspect of Jesus’ work as a tekton, a craftsperson, might be more familiar to us if we happen to have a woodworker in the family, someone who creates treasures for our daily use or for special occasions, someone who pours both skill and love into a dining room table made just to our specifications or who carves wooden toys that generations of children and grandchildren will treasure.
Though I was lucky to have Jim make the candlesticks I showed our young people before he passed, I haven’t personally worked with wood since junior high shop class. So I reached out to Eric Rochon, our PACC property deacon and a woodworker, to talk to him about his experience with the craft.
I asked him to share his thoughts on the cutting, the joining, and the finishing of wood, but he said that woodworking starts much earlier than that.
“When I’m in the woods on hikes or sitting in a tree stand, I’ll see a tree, sticks on the ground, or some kind of a unique burr on a tree that can be used” to create something beautiful. Working with fallen wood, he said, he thinks about how it grew from the ground, how it has “lived its life, and now it’s going to live a new life for the person carving it or as a gift for someone, maybe become an heirloom. It’s a real joy to think about repurposing something that is no longer alive or no longer in use,” Eric said. And he saves every little cut-off and scrap piece, never knowing when it will fill in just the right corner on a future project.
There’s a redemptive factor there – bringing life and purpose back to something that could easily be considered rubbish. Eric and I talked about how that’s also the way God sees people. Someone whom the rest of society has written off as worthless, no longer worth a second look, God looks at that person, at us, and says, “I know just what to do with that funky, gnarled branch that grew around an obstacle or was blighted by a hard winter,” or “I have the perfect project for that falling-down barn that’s been weather-aging for years, no longer functioning as its original purpose but ready for something new,” or smiling lovingly at some castoff piece: “Ah, there’s that little bit I’ve been saving for just the right project. You’re just what I want to make this whole.”
Eric talked, too, about the way that relationships and love are woven into woodworking. To take a timber cut off of his uncle’s property, to use his wife Christine’s dad’s bandsaw to cut it, to do all that work in this dad’s workshop with his dad holding the big pieces so they cut true and don’t curl up, and then to install the finished product in his own home as an overhang for the entrances, to use it every time he goes in the front or back door, is to be surrounded by love and to be reminded daily of the network of people it takes to give life to our dreams – not to mention all the time and care that his dad and others put into teaching him how to work with wood, what to pay attention to. It’s not always so clearly discernible, so tangible, but we all live in that web of love and gift, where we rely on others’ generosity and compassion, on God’s generosity and compassion, to support us and shelter us and shape our days, to sustain our very lives. It’s easy to forget that vital truth in a world that so often sells us the illusion that we are self-sufficient islands.
There’s a web of life, too, from the very trees that grew the wood used in woodworking that Eric mentioned and that I want to elaborate on. If you are sitting in our sanctuary right now, you are sitting on pews made from trees, reading bulletins printed on pages made from trees, watching me preach from a pulpit and next to an altar and lectern made from trees – the very rafters of our ceiling, protecting us and providing us this soaring sense of space, are made from trees. And if you are joining us online, you are likely sitting on or will eat your lunch later from furniture made from trees, with each concentric ring, each striation along the lovely straight boards, speaking to years of painstaking growth, years of patience for a tree to grow large enough to give the gift of a canoe or a truss or a railroad tie, years of patience, too, for wood to age and dry out to be fashionable, workable. The crafted wood surrounding us is a memorial to that life, to that long process of years, and a proof that after death there is a new kind of life that goes on, albeit in a different form. Let us pause for a moment to give thanks for that life, for the gift of all those millions of trees we have sat on and scribbled on, traveled on and found sanctuary in, throughout our lives.
I want to finish by reading of a gorgeous poem by Greg Halsey, a friend of mine from the poetry group I belong to, who is also a woodworker. His poem so beautifully traces that life-cycle of growth, craft, and gift, and also gives insight into just how much woodworking, or any craft to which we dedicate ourselves over the long-haul, becomes a way not just for us to work on raw material, but for God to work on us.
For What Belongs – Greg Halsey
The task of the craftsman
is to establish a fit
between some of the things of this world,
created for fitting
but left still to the work of our unfit or fitful hands.
A tree, largest thing of the green earth.
Living tissue slow rising out of dirt
Years of putting on sapwood
cambium radiating outward,
becomes inner layer heartwood
sinews dense and lean
the dead core standing tall in the sky.
Then, a gut-sickening fall.
Long slow bow, a shudder that enters the body, quakes up through soles
What have I done?
What can grow up in fitness for life
but so simply be brought down to destruction?
Upon the thick mass of the log
subtractive work begins.
Branches that bore the leaves
soft notes of cellular nourishment
now heaped in a burn pile, awaiting snow.
Coarse work is ever the first engineering.
Twelve-foot butt section sawn along its length
and left out, quiet yard of air-gapped stacks,
thick wet boards and scattered trails
of bright fragrant dust.
Months later, comes something more intimate
that can appear a dance.
Hours honing edges of steel
handplane and chisel join worker and wood,
gossamer translucent shavings pared away.
asserts itself from deep within.
Creeping up on a fit for gluing.
Just enough friction
swelled by a thin glue of animal hide,
joints are made
the image first only in the mind,
then by measure by scale on gridded paper
is come together
with what has been offered up
out of soil and radiance and living waters.
This rite, a new piece of this heaven remade, matter ever conserved
under two hands
imperfect in love
reaching out for grace
in the play of grain upon grain.