It is that exquisite time of year when the leaves of the trees are just about to burst open or already have. I experience this time of year as incredibly beautiful to the eye, ear, and nose, but I realize that for many, including those near and dear to me, that while it may be a beautiful and song-filled time, it is also a time of extreme discomfort, with runny nose and itchy eyes. Allergy season is upon us.
Still, one only has to spend a few minutes quietly observing to notice the comings and goings, the callings and chatterings, the fluttering and scurrying that goes on in and around the trees. We have a huge old hemlock tree next to our house, probably at least as old as the house itself, so over 100 years old, that we’ve been told was at one time girdled, in an attempt to keep the two trunks from falling apart. Alas, that well-intentioned intervention will most likely mean the death of the old tree, as it is essentially being strangled. Nonetheless, we cannot bring ourselves to have the tree cut down. It is literally a skyscraper apartment complex for countless numbers of bird and squirrel couples, not to mention a landing zone for hundreds of others who swoop in to wait their turns at our feeders and bird bath.
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.
John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, including the New Jerusalem, includes this wonderful image of the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God. “Shall we gather at the river, that flows from the throne of God?” asks the old spiritual. And then that equally wonderful and mind-blowing image of the tree of life, “on either side of the river,” straddling it somehow, with its twelve kinds of fruit–the quintessential Fruit-of-the-Month Club–”and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The tree of life, the same tree of life from the second creation story in Genesis, that was in the middle of the garden of Eden, along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first humans ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as the story explains our sense of conscience, but God knew we were not ready to be immortal. So, the story goes, we were expelled from the Garden before we could eat of the Tree of Life.
But here we are, at the end of time, or at least at the end or goal of God’s intention for us, in John’s vision, in the New Jerusalem, through the middle of which flows the river of the water of life and on either side of the river is the tree of life. It seems that it is only after we’ve experienced what it means to be mortal, to know the preciousness and fragility of life, to have experienced love and loss, that we are even allowed to see once again that beautiful Tree of Life. And, caught up in the Spirit, as John was, immersed in the Spirit which is Love and Life, we recognize that it is healing we are in need of. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Imagine–all the time, money, energy, lives–spent on weapons, Departments of Defense, aircraft, ships, tanks, drones, personnel, all to stop the nations, or defend the nations, or beef up the nations…and here in this vision, it is the leaves of the tree of life that are for the healing of the nations. How “simple.” How green. How naive. Or is it?
The leaves of our trees are little microcosms of the whole planet. In them are found the pollutants that exist, even here in relatively pristine Vermont, in our air and water and soil. In the leaves of our trees are reflected the climactic conditions of drought or warming. The leaves of our trees share an amazing amount of genetic and organic material with us. We would do well to listen to the wisdom of the leaves of our trees.
And within the leaves and needles of our trees live whole communities–of birds and squirrels and chipmunks and insects, not to mention moss and other symbiotic plants. The trees themselves live within a community of organisms and elements, created in a balance that we have tampered with at not only their but our own peril. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Mission 4/1 Earth is the denomination-wide effort of the United Church of Christ to witness to our commitment to take on our essential and urgent task of caring for the earth, by planting trees, spending hours in earthcare, and engaging in acts of advocacy for policies that will protect and honor the earth. We confess that for too long, western Christianity has sanctioned abuse and exploitation of the earth and its creatures in a tragic misunderstanding of our place in the scheme of things. Western industrialism and scientific rationalism have pushed us further away from our essential identity with the rest of nature, even going to extremes to prove that we are “other” than nature. We have literally changed the chemistry and structure of the earth to such an extent that we may indeed have gone too far.
There is no “going back to the garden,” despite Joni Mitchell’s and Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s singing so sweetly that “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” There is only going ahead. Which is what John vision tells us…going on to the New Heaven and the New Earth which, even now, God is bringing forth. It is a vision of community, of inclusion, of restored harmony of humanity with nature, of restored communion between God and all of creation, including humanity, for “God is in the midst of them,” John says.
Elsewhere, the vision of God’s intention for us is portrayed as a banquet table, flowing with food and wine, where everyone is welcome at the table and there is enough for all. This table to which we are about to come is a foretaste of that day, where all who wish to come are welcome. It is a vision and a memory. It is an infinite moment here and now. In Christ, God and humanity become one. Heaven and earth are united. God enters into the cells of our bodies and even into the leaves of the trees. That is our healing and our hope, not only for us, but for the nations and the whole world. “Take and eat. Take and drink.” Let us keep the feast. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark