Tree of Life: Healing of the Nations
Tree of Life: Healing of the Nations
October 2, 2016 World Communion Sunday Maple Grove UMC
Today we conclude this series on trees in the Bible. "Why trees?" some of you have asked. The name of our church was the inspiration. When you’re called Maple Grove, you really ought to know about trees in the Bible! But trees have always been at the heart of religion and deep in the human psyche. The epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to at least 2500 BC, has a tree of life that gets snatched away by a serpent. Our own book of Genesis has a serpent and a tree. The Buddha reached enlightenment sitting under the Bo Tree of Wisdom. In psychodynamic theory, Freud thought trees stood for . . . well, I’ll leave it to your imagination what Freud thought about trees. Perhaps more helpfully, Karl Jung found trees to be archetypes of the self--a union of earth, heaven and water. Why trees? Because trees reach deep into the human spirit.
And then there’s this: just as the first story of the first book of the Bible contains a tree (the tree from which Adam and Eve took and ate), the last vision of the last book of the Bible contains a tree: on either side of the river that flows from the throne of God, says Revelation, is the tree of life, and the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations.
Most people think the visions in Revelation are of the "End," that is, how things are going to be some day in the future. But New Testament scholar Eugene Boring teaches that "All Revelation’s statements about the ‘End’ are really statements about God."1 That is, Revelation’s visions about the "End" are really visions of life the way God wants it to be, now and forever. The completion of the visions may indeed take place some time in the future, but the reality of these visions exists already in the will of God and in the hearts and minds of God’s people. The tree of life, then, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, this tree may not yet be thoroughly visible right now, but it is as real as God’s longing for peace, and it will become as visible as God’s people dare to make it. Oh, how we need, and Oh, how we are those leaves that are for the healing of the nations.
As I hear those words, "for the healing of the nations," I’m reminded of the ending of a poem that Dottie Trax shared with me a few weeks ago:
later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the
where does it hurt?
I met with the Maple Grove youth last Sunday evening, asking them to think and pray with me about this vision from Revelation. They used arts and crafts (glitter was the key ingredient) to make artistic leaves, to represent the leaves that are for the healing of the nations. And as they cut and pasted, we talked about places in the world today in need of healing. The conversation got around to Syria, and one of the youth asked, "What exactly is the fighting in Syria about?" I waited, hoping that someone, anyone else would speak up. But when no one did, I gave it a try: "Well, Syria’s ruler, Hafez Assad, is a brutal dictator who has committed atrocities against his own people, so various groups tried to rebel against him, and the US kind of supported them. But Assad also has lots of American weapons, so they weren’t able to drive him out. And then ISIS got involved and teamed up with some of our allies, so we couldn’t be allies with them any more. And Turkey is our friend, kind of, unless we support the Kurds too much. And Russia came in and pretended to be our friend, but wasn’t."
"So who do we want to win?" he asked.
"I don’t know," I had to admit. "I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as ‘winning’ any more, only killing."
We’re going to put some of our youth’s leaves here by the table of Communion with Christ. May they be for the healing of Syria.
It’s hard not to lose sleep over the violence of Islamic extremism in so many places. Boko Haram kidnapped school girls in Nigeria, killed 20,000 people and displaced 2 million people from their homes. Iraq is torn apart, Yemen has civil war, and there are bombings and shootings in the West as well. But here’s something else. Late last year in Kenya members of the jihadist group al-Shabaab hijacked a bus and asked the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians so they could kill them. The Muslims refused, telling the terrorists to kill everyone or leave. Thank God, they left. These our Muslim brothers and sisters were being the leaves of that tree, bringing healing to the nations. And in gratitude for their courage we place these leaves by the table of our Communion with Christ.
On Wednesday Cathy Davis, Nancy Watson and I attended a United Methodist district event about ministry with immigrants and refugees. Did you know that there are 65,000 Somalis in the Columbus area who have fled the violence in their homeland? There are 25,000 Nepalese here who were forced from their homes in Bhutan. We heard from a man who escaped from Iraq. His life was threatened by Al Qaeda because he translated for the Americans. Members of Worthington United Methodist Church sponsored his family and helped them get settled here, and his gratitude is overflowing. We don’t have to go anywhere to be leaves for the healing of the nations. The nations are right here, waiting for us to extend the hand of peace. Let’s place these leaves by our Communion table, in anticipation of our own ministry with refugees.
When I met with our church youth, they were concerned mainly about violence and injustice here in the US. One of them actually knew Tyre King, killed recently on the East side. And they know about Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York. And there’s Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—all African-Americans who were shot by police or died in police custody. When our youth say that Black Lives Matter they don’t mean that white or brown lives don’t matter. They mean, Can’t we do something to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Can’t we eliminate racist talk from our politics? And can’t we change the fact that black men are seven times more likely than whites to die in encounters with police?3 This is not to blame anyone in particular, but just to acknowledge a truth about our country. Our youth created many leaves to heal racism in our nation; I want to join them.
At the same time, can’t we support our police officers who on a daily basis risk their lives to protect and rescue people of every color and culture? Being a police officer has been ranked one of the 15 most dangerous jobs in our country and the 4th most stressful. Let’s offer them some of our leaves for the healing of our nation, for the healing of the tension between police and community.
The last vision of the Bible is of the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We pray for that vision, for that will of God, to be ever more visible in the world. And on this World Communion Sunday, let’s commit ourselves to be those leaves, for the healing of the nations and of our own nation.
1 M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 215.
2 Warsan Shire, "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon," http://amberjkeyser.com/2015/11/warsan-shire/.
3 "Police Gunfire: Unarmed Black Men 7 Times More Likely to Die Than Whites" The Chicago Tribune, August 9, 2015.