Our scripture reading comes deep within my message today so please be patient, humor me if you must. It will come.
I am feeling a bit vulnerable these days. With the recent wave of deadly riots and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi stemming out of religious violence and protest I feel vulnerable as an American and as a cleric. I feel my nationality is under attack and the ‘religion field’ that I chose to make my living and that I am called to is also under extreme attack. It does not feel good. I do not like it.
But let me tell you how I really feel.
When religious extremism ramps up its fervor and attack, those who rebuke or reject religion, or someone else’s religion, are quick to point out the ways in which religion kills and persecutes. And that is true, religious extremism has that capacity. So I feel embarrassed, saddened and disgusted because of someone else’s behavior and I feel defensive because I know that these are acts of fanatics and not well-reasoned people. What I feel and think inside me thankfully, does not materialize into words and come out of my mouth. I practice self respect and restraint.
Those who chide religion, or someone else’s religion, do not want to hear all of the positive attributes that the practice of religion offers, about how their lives could be transformed, about how things really could be different, about how there seriously could be peace that is divinely sanctioned and humanly embraced and enacted.
They don’t want to hear that message. Minds are closed. They have bought into the ‘all ‘organized’ religion is bad’ stream of thought. All I can do is model what I know is good about my religion, Christianity, and with a gentle firmness not condone or give into their prejudice, anger and hatred. Faith traditions have their extremists and all faith traditions have their moderates who are living examples of the beauty of their religion. And I do believe that each religion has within its core belief a yearning for peace. I truly believe this.
This is how I really feel. And I ask God, when will this end? Where do I find hope and understanding? How might our nations ever survive in this climate of change and revolution? From where will come our peace? And then God speaks.
Our scripture for today is from the Book of Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible. It’s quite a visual book and a confusing book to read. It details cosmic wars, visions, seals being opened to reveal apocalyptic revelation, it has blasting trumpets and seven headed beasts. Sort of Kafkaesque if you think about it. For our 21st sensibilities it is difficult to get clarity on what the author really meant and scholars viewpoints vary as do the leaves on the trees on crisp autumn day.
Although we can try to put it into context. It was the end of the first century and
was a religious and political force to be reckoned with, probably under the rule of the emperor Domitian. With Domitian came an enhanced imperial cult mentality in which there was the belief that the emperor was divine and would insure the well being of the inhabitants and the state. (Wouldn’t some of our political leaders like to return to the days of the imperial cult!!) Rome
Christians and Jews, of course, viewed this ideology as pure idolatry which put them at huge odds with the empire and in turn were viewed as great enemies of the state. So by the time the author of Revelation puts quill to papyrus, they were in desperate need for a message of healing and a helping of hope.
This passage is one of the more beautiful and peaceful passages of scripture in the entire Bible and it’s entitled the ‘Tree of Life’. Hear now a reading from Revelation, the 22nd chapter.
Tree of Life by Gustav Klimpt“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. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Picture a city and through the middle of a street in the city flows a river that is filled with the water of soul refreshing, heart renewing life. It was as vivid as it could be, bright as crystal that is clean and sparkling. And the river’s source is the throne of God.
And the river is lined on both of the banks with the trees of life bearing twelve different sorts of fruits. Imagine an apple tree growing next to an orange tree which thrives next to a pomegranate tree and then a pear and almond tree. So life giving they are because their leaves provide shade for a weary soul, their trunks a place for the traveler to rest their aching back against, and the fruit is the sustenance of life. Wisdom abounds. Nourishment is abundant and life is valued and at peace.
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nations then, nations now still are in need of healing.
Friday was International Day of Peace as declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2002. How’s that working out UN? Probably none of us even knew about it! Peace does not make the headlines in our media, it does not sell advertising space like violence and conduct that has gone tragically astray does. Do not feel bad that you did not know. The healing of the nations are still in need of these leaves from the tree of life.
From the UN declaration: “Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples…This day will serve as a reminder to all peoples that our organization (the UN), with all its limitations, is a living instrument in the service of peace….”[i] I suppose we are much better off as a world with the UN then not.
It’s just that peace is much more difficult to define and one’s practice of religion has a great deal to say about what peace is and how peace can be achieved. As individuals we must be instruments of that peace as it speaks to us as Christians in a pluralistic world.
I heard a very interesting interview on ‘Morning Edition’ on NPR this past week. Salman Rushdie was being interviewed on his new memoir that has just come out, Joseph Anton. I heard him speak in 2005 at
and was quite impressed by his thought process. The memoir is about his life and experience in hiding for 12 years after the release of his book, The Satanic Verses. He said, Fairfield University
“My purpose was not to write about Islam; it was to talk about the nature of revelation, and also to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges; One is the challenge of how do you behave when you’re weak? And the other, how do you behave when you’re strong?” he says. “When you’re weak, do you bend, do your compromise? Or are you [unyielding] and firm? And when you’re strong, when you’re victorious, are you cruel and vengeful, or are you merciful and forgiving?”[ii]
What if peace were the new idea in the world? I mean a true and everlasting peace, not just the cessation of war. A peace or shalom that surrounds each and every individual in each and every nation. A peace that creates a non-threatening existence so that the dignity of each person is maintained, what if? This new idea peace, if weak, will bend and break and not make it. But if it is a strong and united peace it will forgive and strive to create tolerance, cohesiveness in our differences, and a truth to love that all people can hear and understand.
For us as Christians we can answer Rushdie’s challenge most emphatically. When we are weak we look to the Lord of Light who sits at the source of the river, we let the waters flow around us lapping up strength and refreshment to be healed. And when we are strong we can look also and again to the Lord God of light and be merciful and forgiving like Christ. There is a challenge and a choice and God is there for it all from the very beginning.
Let us hold this image from Revelation within our hearts and minds so that when bombarded with the world’s violence we can feel inner peace. And let us be bold enough to speak truth with humility and respect, to look to the source of our being that is God so that we can be the peace that will heal this world. If the leaves of the trees can be for the healing of the nations, then so can we.
May it be so!