Rev. 22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
There’s this supremely beautiful place, at the end of a long, hard journey, where flows a clear, clean river, full of life, amidst stately, fruitful trees, in a supremely beautiful and peaceful place in which are heard many languages spoken by people gathered there from many different nations, colors and cultures, supremely enjoying each other’s company, sharing even a banquet together.
Oh. Did you think I was talking about the New Jerusalem, about which we just heard in the reading from Revelation 21 and 22? I’m talking about Philadelphia Community Farm, and the new agency that is coming alongside it, Growing Hope Farm, with the help and leadership of many people in this very sanctuary.
If you haven’t been there, the clear, beautiful river is the St. Croix, the fruitful trees are oaks and maples, and the people are members and friends of this very church, plus friends we have come to know through other churches, Urban Ventures and the Phillips Neighborhood, friends from Mexico, Ecuador, Somalia, Russia and elsewhere. Many of them we have brought in our cars or an Urban Ventures van.
But on some of those visits there has been a stowaway, an interloper, a gadfly of sorts who pipes up from somewhere in hiding and asks, “What does this have to do with the mission of Emmanuel Mennonite Church? What are you doing playing in the dirt in Wisconsin, when you are supposed to be about spiritual things? Shouldn’t you leave saving the earth and food justice to specialists and activists, and get back to preaching the gospel and saving souls?
To which I say, “but ‘God so loved the world…’ the Bible says.” And the interloper, the stowaway, says, “but in I John 2 we read, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world….” I come back with, “but ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,’” and he replies, “but Paul says, ‘Set your mind on things above, not on things below.’ And even Jesus said, ‘The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.’” I come back with, “But Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’” and he says, “But he also said, ‘Man lives not by bread alone.’” With the Bible-boxing contest coming to a draw, I start singing, “This is my Father’s world, he shines in all that’s fair,” but he puts his fingers in his ears and sings, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through…..” And the funny thing is, we’re both reading out of the same Bible and singing out of the same hymnal.
Have you heard that voice too? Or struggled with that tension? It’s one reason why many people are not interested in the church, the gospel, Jesus nor heaven. Even why some people leave the church all together. When we ask some people, “Do you know if you’re going to heaven when you did?” or “Do you want to know how to go to heaven?” they’re thinking, “Not to your heaven, I hope. I’m not interested in floating around forever among the clouds in some disembodied purely spiritual form like Caspar the Friendly Ghost with a harp. I’m more interested in going to Colorado, to climb mountains, or to Padre Island and a warm beach.”
That’s all the more true as people are waking up to a new ailment of the age. Its called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Our lives have become so busy, so technical, so digital, virtual, high-tech, fast paced and urban, that we hardly know what season it is, let alone what is blooming alongside the roads we race down it at 75 miles per hour. In spite of that Nature Deficit Disorder, or because of it, there is at the same time this growing hunger for re-connection with nature, something to which the church hardly ever speaks at all. Or sometimes it even speaks to it with hostility, for fear that we will become pagan sun-worshipers. Still, who has not sensed at moments what we heard in Psalm 8 earlier this morning, upon contemplating the stars at night or the bountiful beauty of fields and forests, when all nature seems to be saying something to us. We feel it awakening something in us, something deeper than words. Its love, yes, but also wonder and humility, gratitude and longing, and more. Its not just nature calling us, though. I think its God calling.
But what is our growing nature deficit disorder doing to us spiritually? Who are we if we don’t know that milk doesn’t come only from stainless steel trucks, as many inner city kids don’t know, or have never heard an owl hoot at night? This disconnect with Creation surely has something to do with the looming crises of pollution and the viability and sustainability of life on our planet, as bees die off, species go extinct, and 100 year floods now happen every other year.
To which that interloper says, “No big deal; it was all doomed any way. Matter doesn’t matter; only Spirit does, because our ‘citizenship is in heaven,’ the Bible says.” For that same reason a former Secretary of the Interior, a publicly self-identified Christian, said in the 1980’s that we don’t need to protect Creation nor restrict our consumption of resources and energy, because Jesus is coming again soon anyway.
That’s why many environmentalists and conservationists see Christians as the enemy. If only we could go back to our pre-Christian pagan primal past, they say, when we worshiped trees, rivers, and the earth, then we would not abuse them nor pollute them.
This earth-hostile voice was not original to either the Bible nor the early church. But it soon infected the church. Some time around the 4th Century, in Turkey and Greece there emerged some saints, so-called, who would sit alone for years atop tall, thin pillars, wearing only rags, if anything, in order to dis-engage from all the comforts and pleasures of creation and the world, including human society. People might occasionally send up a little food or water by way of a rope to keep them alive, but beyond that, theirs was an attempt at total renunciation of the world and all its enticements. That was their way of being “spiritual,” rather than earthly, material.
If you wonder why they would do something so crazy, those Greek saints atop their pillars read their Bibles through the lenses of a very unbiblical philosophy that pitted matter against spirit. They believed that anything physical, tangible, was inherently inferior, inconsequential, or even evil, while spirit and all spiritual things were inherently superior and morally good. So, the whole point of being spiritual was to escape everything material, including earth and our bodies. Strains of this hostility toward all things material have survived in the Western, European American Christian, tradition. As a child and heir of that tradition, I’m convinced that that voice I was talking about is coming from inside my head in ways that I’m still coming to terms with.
And whenever that voice pipes up, I would hold up instead the stirling, shining vision of a clear river flowing peacefully, gently, among stately, fruitful, life-giving trees, with people of many nations, colors and languages gathered in peace with God, Creation and each other.
Oh. Did you think I was still talking about Growing Hope Farm? No, now I’m talking about the Holy Jerusalem, the city that John saw descending from heaven. Or is it a park? After all, it has a river, and a tree of life, with people of every tribe, tongue and nation living in harmony with God, his world, and each other. And I don’t see anybody leaving earth to go to heaven in this passage. Instead, heaven is coming down to reunite with earth.
Yes, these are material images of spiritual things. But what do you make of the fact that we can’t even talk about spiritual, heavenly things without using material, earthly words and symbols? Or what do we make of the fact that there’s no temple; God relates directly to people everywhere in this park, or city?
It tells me that God is God of the material world as well as the spiritual. It tells me that God’s plan of redemption is not about just scrapping Planet Earth and setting our spirits adrift in the sky. God loves his created world, and if we love places and animals and the vistas of water and trees along with God and people, then I would think that God is pleased. “That’s my handiwork you’re admiring,” I think I can hear him say. And it shouldn’t surprise us that we would experience something of the presence of God among trees, around rivers, and with other people even now, just like we will in that city. I think that’s God’s doing, a grace of his, a gift of God.
And whenever that voice asks, “Why should we care about the world when its doomed and soon to be replaced?” I’d say that there seems to be some confusion over what we mean by the word, “world.” Are we talking about the real world of people and porcupines and pine trees that God created, which the Creator “so loved that he sent his only Son…”or are we talking about the false world of human folly and fashion? Something more like what we find in a National Geographic special, or more like what we find in a fashion and celebrity magazine in the checkout line of the grocery store?
And when he asks, “Shouldn’t you just be concerned about saving eternal souls?” I’d reply that after nearly five years in this neighborhood we haven’t figured out how to get into the homes or lives of our neighbors, nor how they might come and worship with us here. But now some of us are in cars and vans together on the way to Growing Hope Farm, in fields and greenhouses together, and around dining tables. And there we can talk about God. Not only because Creation speaks to us of its Creator. It does. But because there are people who invite them to this farm and host them there. It combines our vision of choosing peace and extending hospitality. The possible connections we might make between local ministry and international ministry, between peace-making and justice-making between people and peoples, and between people and creation, through this farm, are endless. And even while we work with partners like Urban Ventures, it remains a contribution that is unique to Emmanuel Mennonite Church and our faith perspective that combines spiritual regeneration in Christ with the renewal of Creation.
So let’s explore and enjoy this emerging connection between the church, a farm, a neighborhood and a city. Minneapolis? Yes, but also the New Jerusalem. And if God has not called us personally into that, we can still grow spiritually as we open ourselves up to the graces of God that come through the material world, as well as the spiritual one. Let’s be better stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. All of us can reduce, reuse and recycle. Drive less, consume less, and play outside more.
But what’s really needed is a change of heart toward Creation and the Creator. Let’s reject this tradition that depreciates the material world, because its an affront to our Creator. If we have to draw up such stark lines between things, lets not pit earth against heaven or matter against spirit, but nurture against exploitation, stewardship against abuse. That begins with recapturing the full biblical vision of salvation, a vision that is so grand, so cosmic and even so material, that all of heaven and earth get in on it, along with our eternal souls.