October 6, 2019
Rev Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church
When I was in university doing my undergrad degree, I studied biology. I took courses on invertebrates and vertebrates, ecology and evolutionary theory. So when I enrolled in the Vancouver School of Theology, it was a bit of shift from what I had been used to studying. Because of my keen interest in both theology and biology, when I had the chance, I would study both at the same time. In our final year at VST we had to write a giant paper, and in my time there it was called an integrated paper. One of the parts was on a piece of scripture, another part was on a theologian and their background and also reflecting their views on that piece of scripture, and the third part was its application in the practice of ministry. The theologian that I chose was a man named Henry Drummond. I can’t remember how I came upon him, but I found his writing to be fascinating at the time. He was a minister who was around at the same time as Charles Darwin but was only 8 years old when Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. Drummond was also interested in natural science and studied Darwin’s work.
I remember being surprised to hear that Darwin also had studied theology and biology. He had studied to be a minister and then he left his studies to travel on the HMS Beagle, surveying and charting the coastline of South America. He spent a lot of time on land collecting specimens and investigating the life on the land. This began his life long commitment to natural history. The classification system that Darwin used was based on evolutionary relationships and commonalities between species, and he referred to it as the tree of life sketch. He went into great detail about how there was one starting point for the species and over generations and generations the species have adapted and changed, producing the branches and twigs of the tree. He says “The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life.”
The tree of life in today’s reading from the Book of Revelation comes right after we hear about the new heaven and the new earth. This section recreates the garden of Eden in the centre of a thriving urban landscape, drawing on Ezekiel’s vision that we read two weeks ago with the river flowing from the temple, with life abundant on the banks of the river, the trees producing fruit every month and the leaves of the trees being used for healing. This time we have the river flowing from the throne of God with life abundant growing on the banks of the river, the Tree of Life producing fruit every month and the leaves of the tree of life being used for healing of the nations. Sounds familiar! God’s healing of the nations comes from a tree.
At a time when Rome claimed to reign forever, this passage boldly proclaimed that it is God who reigns, not the Empire, and that God’s servants (us) reign with God. Our reign with God suggests that we are all sharing in God’s work in the world. We are all connected in this way, and in this case – we are sharing in the healing of the nations and satisfying the hunger of all in need with the ever-bearing fruit of the tree of life.
I was reading this week about this passage, and it said that this section of the Book of Revelation about a new heaven and a new earth, read literally is used by some Christians as justification for or as an excuse to not care for the environment. The rationale is that God will either fix it all or provide us a clean slate.
Last weekend, after attending the Climate Strike on Friday and feeling empowered and inspired to go out and trade my van in for an electric vehicle and change the world, on Saturday I participated in a Climate Crisis Forum for Christian leaders at Canadian Memorial United Church. There were about 25 of us from a wide range of denominations and backgrounds, a few of us from the United Church, a very interesting Eastern Orthodox priest, and Dr. Sallie McFague, an ecological theologian who has written a lot about climate change and theology. In our conversations at the forum, the thing that struck me the most was that some of the people there said that they would not be able to talk about the climate crisis in their churches or at least they would have to be very careful how they talked about it. Many of their members would be the ones who would interpret the new heaven and new earth in a literal way as I mentioned before, so any work on their part might be seen as interference with God’s plan.
For me, I would not think twice about talking about the climate crisis in church. In fact, I would say it is our responsibility as Christians to not just talk about it, but do our part to turn it around. So I prefer the interpretation of this reading as the idea of sharing with God in the healing of the nations. Doing our part to heal our planet.
Another significant part of this passage God’s people will see the face of God. According to Exodus this was impossible. One could not see God’s face and still live. But here, by God’s grace, humanity reaches its intended goal and completion, to dwell in God’s presence.
This is the promise of life with God brought out of the long story of humanity. From God comes light; from God comes the tree of life; from God’s throne flows the water of life; God is the temple, healing the entire community; and God’s own presence is given. We know that presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that presence of God at the font, and the table, and in the proclamation of good news. We know that presence of God dimly reflected in our own imperfect communities. We know that presence of God as we struggle together to do what’s right for our planet. This text holds before our eyes the goal to which God is bringing all of human life and calls us on to that reality.
On this day in our series when we are remembering the Forests, we have the privilege of looking right out our window to the forest. Around here we don’t have to go too far to be in a forest. When I was reading up about different forests around the world, I kept reading about how the destruction of forests causes a chain reaction of other problems for the creatures and other species that depend on it, the bodies of water that surround it. We are all connected.
For Charles Darwin, he used the Tree of Life sketch as a way to classify species, as a way to show the interconnectedness of living things. In our families we use a tree, a family tree, to show the connectedness over the generations of our families. Even in our spiritual lives, a popular meditation is the Tree of Life meditation. We can use it to feel our connectedness with nature, imagining ourselves as a tree, deeply rooted and grounded, and feeling the energy flowing from our roots right out of the tips of our fingers, our branches and leaves reaching up to the light, and then feeling that light flowing through us down into the earth.
The Tree of Life in today’s reading invites us to be connected with each other and with God and all creation for the healing of our planet.
Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibway author, sums up our connectedness well in this quote in his book Embers. “I’ve been considering the phrase ‘all my relations’ for some time now. It’s hugely important. It’s our saving grace in the end. It points to the truth that we are related, we are all connected, we all belong to each other. The most important word is “all.” Not just those who look like me, sing like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. ALL my relations. That means every person, just as it means every rock, mineral, blade of grass and creature. We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us – and heal the planet.”
We live because everything else does. We are all connected. Amen.