Sermon preached on Sunday, September 13, 2015
Based on Revelation 22:1-6
When we think about the book of Revelation, we might want to have our Bibles handy. To tell the truth, it’s probably a good thing it comes at the end of the Bible, because we really do need the whole collection of books to help us make sense of this one.
- without the understanding of God’s covenant with all of creation we find in in the story of the Great Flood;
- without an understanding of the covenant God has with God’s people – the promise that they will never be forsaken – that we hear in Abraham’s family story and in the Exodus;
- without the poetry of the prophets who proclaimed that streams would burst forth in the desert, flowers would bloom where nothing could grow, and vineyards and fields would produce more than enough food for everyone to eat and be satisfied;
- without the intentional focus of Jesus on the immediate and urgent presence of the kingdom of heaven;
- without all of this, John’s vision of violence and upheaval and healing in Revelation is simply a nightmarishly bizarre and incomprehensible collection of images with little or no relevance to us.
In the passage before us today, for example: the story of Creation helps us remember that God made everything in a complete and beautiful way. Each part of creation is meant complement and sustain the other parts of creation. Without that, and without the connection to the two trees in the Garden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, this healing tree at the end of John’s vision wouldn’t make any sense.
These beautiful words: “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” wouldn’t make any sense
When John’s people heard those words, they would have been thinking of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden – and all the promises of God through the ages to bring shalom – wholeness and abundance – for all of creation. In the midst of the chaos and oppression and death that characterized the Roman Empire – this Tree of Life was an essential shining sign of hope and life.
Fast forward 1000 years and find Hildegard of Bingen – one of my favorite saints. One of her greatest gifts was a deep understanding that the power of God is the life force at work in all of creation. This sustained her soul and her work. She connected to the exile and the wandering through the desert, and saw Isaiah’s prophecy as the key to our hope for the future: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (35:1-2). Wherever she saw the creative life-giving blossoming, the green vitality of spring, the rich loamy soil, she recognized that creation set the pattern for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with abundance. For Hildegard, even in the midst of barrenness of winter or the emptiness of suffering, there was always the potential for God’s greening to break forth in fruitful ways.
One thousand years later, we are still trying to learn the lessons of the interdependence and abundance that Hildegard embraced and which God intends for creation. And we struggle with our role in bringing this green and healing kingdom vision forward.
Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol. These ingredients are the product of the African Palm and are found in laundry detergent, chocolate, lipstick, biodiesel, instant ramen, margarine, soap, ice cream, pizza, cookies, or shampoo (among other things).
Then there’s sorbitol, high fructose corn syrup, marital, cornstarch, caramel coloring, mitrocellulose glue, microcrystilline cellulose. These corn products are found in toothpaste, yogurt, chewing gum Coca Cola, diapers, envelope glue, and perfume.
And then there are Bananas – that amazing, yummy, yellow fruit we love to eat, blend, bake and fry.
Palm oil, corn and bananas are three products which are grown by mono-cropping – an environmentally devastating agricultural method that humans developed as a way to force abundance on the land. As we traveled through Honduras and Guatemala, we saw with our own eyes the effects of growing only one crop in a large area of land – from the devastation to the soil itself, to the displacement of small family farms. This is also true of grain farming in Iowa, where I grew up. It’s important for us to pay attention because bananas and African palm are produced in enormous quantities all around the world and shipped largely to serve market demands in North America.
Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to grow and share a bountiful harvest – it is biblical, too! But the kind of factory farming we witnessed in Honduras included techniques and methods such as intensive application of commercial fertilizers and heavy use of pesticides, the kinds of chemicals that make our bananas grow in the beautiful shape and color we prefer. Tragically, the material used to make our food more luscious, to make the products we demand, also runs off in the rains, damaging fresh water which campesino families use as their source of drinking water.
Surprisingly, there is significant use of irrigation systems in a region that used to flow with living water. Now droughts and specially-grown target crops require water in every season further depleting the sources of fresh drinking water as more and more is directed toward crop cultivation and away from small farmers and villages.
In order to produce these crops, factory farms have converted to heavily mechanized farming methods – including heavy equipment used to break down hillsides for terrace farming and for processing the crops prior to shipping. Not only is it economically impossible for small farmers to participate in this kind of farming, they have been forced off their land as the government claims land and privatizes it for multinational processing plants and corporate farms. So these families, many of whom have lived on little plots of beautiful green land for generations, begin to move within their homeland and beyond even looking northward for a better life.
Lest we think our country is doing a better job of this, consider the Monarch butterfly. Corn production in this country requires chemicals that kill the milkweed plant. The leaves of the milkweed may not heal the nations, but they are essential for the lifecycle of the Monarch. Since 1990, there has been a nearly 80% reduction in the Monarch population due to this loss of habitat.
In so many ways, the green and fruitful potential of creation is being damaged by our consumption. Humans, created as partners in caring for creation, are now exercising the dominion God provided for us in the form of domination and even destruction.
Here’s where scripture can help us. As God’s people, living the covenanted life, we can learn from scripture about God’s intentions for creation and begin to see our place in it. And if we’re going to survive this, it’s important that we accept our place as just one part of the larger picture in which and through which God works.
When we wander in the direction of hyper industrialized production, we need to listen to the prophets call us to return to God’s ways, to the calling of living rightly with each other and the land. This means we need to begin noticing and perhaps even changing our habits, behaviors and preferences, like yellow bananas and convenience foods. We need to recognize that our consumption contributes to oppression and poverty AND to the destruction of the delicately balanced ecosystems God has provided for the good of ALL. It is clear that human beings and other creatures are meant to be connected. And we must realize that either we will flourish together or suffer together. Having dominion, subduing the earth, and being “fruitful and multiplying” cannot take place at the expense of other creatures including other humans. Nowhere in scripture so we see even a hint that we are supposed to expand the “garden” for our own sake.
If we want to remain true to the vision John has of a river of life flowing and the trees with healing in their leaves, we need to remember the green and growing things were here first. And that God calls us to be caretakers of creation and of each other, so that goodness and abundance can truly flow for all.