And A River Runs Through It

Genesis 2:4-10, The Revelation 22:1-2
September 21, 2014
Steve Hammond

Today we are running into a convergence of important events. September 21 is International Day of Peace. It’s also the day of the Climate Action March in NYC. And today marks the beginning of Campaign Nonviolence Action Week. Peace, nonviolence, and the climate crisis. That’s a lot. That’s why I can understand the allure of a faith that deals simply with getting ourselves into heaven. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, that wasn’t the kind of faith Jesus had. He was very much concerned with the issues facing this earth and, indeed, the whole universe. Throughout his ministry he was focused on the healing and redemption of the entire creation, and the possibilities of his followers joining him in building a new world.

I or anybody could spend a lot of time this morning talking about why peace, nonviolence, and living sustainably are important. But I am going to take it as a given that you all agree with me that all of those things are important matters to followers of Jesus. And I also assume that you agree that working for peace and a healed climate are cut out of the same cloth of shalom. If you don’t agree with me we probably should get together for a bit of dialogue. And I am serious about that because there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t have agreed with these matters had something to do with following Jesus. I would love to tell you what has happened to me.

Today I simply want to mention some observations I have made as I’ve been thinking about these three events. Let’s begin with rivers and trees. Most of us, I think, realize that the Bible is not a single work, but a collection of the sacred writings that tell the story of our faith in a variety of ways. But I can’t help but notice that at the beginning pages of the Bible and the very last pages of the Bible we are reading about rivers and trees. I think that is something worth paying attention to. Again, if the point of our faith is simply to get us to heaven, there wouldn’t be any trees and rivers at the end of the story like they are. At the end of the story the earth hasn’t been destroyed after some cataclysmic battle between Jesus and the forces of Satan. There is a renewed earth with a new city. And there is a river running through it. And there planted by the river is a tree for the healing of the nations.

I think The Revelation is a very weird and strange story that is a reflection on the life of Jesus and his vision for our world. Jesus believed that the end of all things was not this orgy of death and destruction as so many, including the guest preachers we had on campus this week believe. Instead, for Jesus what this whole thing is ultimately about is everything and everyone coming fully alive. That’s why resurrection matters so much to me. Death does not get the final word. Life does. What’s that great question the Apostle Paul asks as he reflects on the resurrection of Jesus and all that means for everyone and everything? “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?..But thanks be to God who give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What’s even weirder than The Revelation is that the church has taken this theology of life that was not simply at the heart of what Jesus was about, but everything he was about, and turned everything upside down to where the god of Jesus is a god of death. Even to this day, the rulers of this world know that they can rely on the church to endorse their wars and myriad forms of violence and death. And the church does that in the name of Jesus.

How did it come to this? We’ve talked before about how in the early church the signs and symbols of Christianity were rivers and trees. That’s what you find in the art work. It wasn’t until much, much later, around the times when the crusades were gearing up that the cross became the predominate symbol of Christianity. As the church became more and more an accomplice of empire rather than a challenge to empire, death became more and more important in Christian theology. That’s because you can’t run an empire without a considerable focus on death. And the church had decided that it was for its own best interest to go along with empire. So the rivers and trees and paradise disappeared from Christian artwork and understanding. And the world got sicker and sicker.

The end of the story, though, tells us that the rivers and trees have always been there. The vision of Jesus may have gotten obscured, but it’s always been there. And the other part of the story is that all trees and rivers are for the healing of the nations. Human beings are not meant to be unconnected from the creation. Back in that story in Genesis 2 we read that God took the earth, the humus and created the earth creature, the human. The testimony here that people and all of earth are connected is about as subtle as a search light. That thing we say about how from the earth we came and to the earth we will return is not a surrender to the meaninglessness of life, but a witness to our connection with everything. The internet of everything is not a new idea.

Imagine what would happen if we really began to understand that our healing was in the trees and the rivers, the earth and the sky, the animals and each other. A simple rule of life, and I think it should be elevated in all our minds as Christian doctrine, is that if we take care of the earth the earth will take care of us.

What if we spent our time, concern, and national budgets on taking care of the earth rather than fighting each other? What if we stopped that kind of violence and the violence we do against the creation? We would be healed. So, I guess that was my first thought. The next two are way shorter.

We are reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in our current study group. The chapter we just finished outlined a history of how far back in the history of this world people were working on lifting up the importance of nonviolence. Many of the founders and early adherents of many major and minor religions focused on the importance of nonviolence in their religions. The teachings on nonviolence in the New Testament and early church were not simply this new notion that can just be passed off as a great idea but wholly impractical. Lots of people have been thinking about this for a long time.

Third thought. There is actually a fourth commemoration of note for us today. In addition to being the International Day of Peace it’s also the International Day of Prayer for Peace. That was set by the World Council of Churches back in 2004 to coincide with the International Day of Peace. People are thinking about lots of action today. I think the World Council of Churches is helping us to see that it’s more than action we need to be thinking about today. Or maybe to realize that prayer is one of the actions we need to include as we consider all of these things.

Jesus believed in partnerships. Partnerships between people, including those who are normally divided from each other for a variety of reasons. He also believed in partnerships between us and God. Jesus showed us we can’t do this without and God isn’t going to do it without us.

Prayer connects us. Not only to God but also who are what we are praying for. Prayer without action is empty. Action without prayer robs us of depth and new possibilities.

There is going to be a march at Noon on Tappan Square in solidarity with those who are in New York at the People’s Climate March. But before we go to Tappan Square, and I hope many of us are, l want us to pray for peace in our world and with our world first. These are days for prayerful action. In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul writes about all of creation awaiting for the revealing of the children of God. Now is our time. From battered countries, to battered lives, to a battered climate, creation is waiting for us to come into our own and stake our claim with Jesus. A river runs through it all. From the beginning to beyond the end the river shows us the way of life, it brings us healing. And like all of creation it is waiting, waiting, waiting.

[We used this prayer, attributed to St. Patrick at the close of the service]

Today in this fateful hour
I place all heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with it whiteness,
And Fire with all the strength it hath,
And Lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of Darkness.
St. Patrick