Tree of Life
Recently Dwight, Luke, and I were given the gift of a small stained glass window for our home. The window was a blank slate; we could put any sort of image we wanted on it. Dwight and I decided to put it near our entryway as a permanent fixture, and spent some time thinking about what it should picture. We wanted the window to have meaningful Christian symbolism, but also to be subtle enough that it would speak to the next people who bought our home – whatever their background might be. We wanted it to capture our vision of life, but in an expansive way. We thought about what we cared about – following the way of Jesus, nature, persistence, joy, commitment, tradition, flexibility and deep-rootedness. We thought about all the places we had lived together, and what had spoken to us in each. Dwight and I are Californians, but have lived together in Connecticut, Virginia, and Minnesota.
Eventually, we decided on a tree of life image. The image of a tree is so powerful, especially a tree that has been standing and around much longer than we have. I think about the redwoods in Northern California, or the Torrey Pines in Southern California. I think about the huge tree with deep roots by the San Diego zoo that so many other children climbed on over the years. I thought about the avocado trees in my back yard, and especially the one that held a simple fort from which my sister and I fired loquats at the neighbor boys.
Trees give shade, provide wood, and clean the impurities out of the air. When well-tended they are majestic, and when ill-tended or ignored can serve as warning signs of neglect and environmental degradation. They provide shelter for birds and fruit for our consumption. The bark and leaves of some trees have medicinal properties. Dwight and I finally decided that the stained glass window would have a Monterrey Cyprus leaning into the sun, its large roots clinging firmly to the ground. It is next to a crystal blue body of water, and the sun is rising. The rays of the sun are radiant shades of orange, bringing light and hope to all who see and experience them.
So when I looked at the texts for this Sunday I was immediately drawn to the reading from Revelation. It is a powerful vision for the Christian life, one which came to the seer John as he fasted in a cave on the Greek island Patmos. While the vision of the tree of life is hopeful, it was first shared with early Christian communities facing persecution from the Roman Empire. While Revelation contains some disturbing and frightening images, it is also a gorgeous picture book providing images of hope, healing, and encouragement for Christians wondering what the future will bring.
In today’s reading the city of Jerusalem descends from the heavens. The Jerusalem Temple is gone and in its place is God. There is no building or place where God exists because God is everywhere, among God’s people. The city of God is perpetually full of light. It’s like the best of summer when children play on the streets together late into the night and you can hear their parents talking and laughing on their porches. There is no need of the sun or moon because the Glory of God lights every street, every corner, every part of the city. There are no dark or hidden places, no shadows, no intrigue, no one suffering alone, unseen. There are no broken street lights or abandoned parts of town. The gates of the city are wide open. There are no gated communities, no places where only certain people can enter. Rather all the nations are welcomed into God’s light, welcomed by the Lamb Jesus, who holds a great lamp.
In the middle of the city there is a river which is the river of the water of life. It flows from God’s throne and is crystal blue. As all of us who have lived in cities near rivers know, this is a beautiful vision, a river like the Mississippi going through the heart of the city bringing peace, and power, and the intersection of the natural and man-made world.
On either bank of the river is a tree of life, which produces different fruit each month. The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. The trees are healthy, they are to be used by God to feed and heal God’s people from all over the world. What a wonderful image for the heavenly city and for Christian community! Will God give us deep roots like the tree so that we can withstand storms and continue to bear fruit to satisfy others’ deepest hungers, and leaves that will be healing? What will feed us, like the river of life, so that we can be given away for others? Is that river God’s peace, our prayers, our worship, the spiritual practices that enable us to stay centered and constant come what may?
In our Gospel from John Jesus prepares his students for his departure. He knows that when he leaves them physically they will struggle and be afraid. Jesus thus tells them not to fear. He will give them his peace which is a gift, not something they can earn. He also tells them that God will send them the Advocate, otherwise known as the Holy Spirit or Holy Comforter to guide them, teach them what they need to know, and remind them of Jesus’ words. This passage reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s presence with us and with Jesus’ followers after his ascension. The Holy Spirit is present and working through our lives, communities, and the world. The church is not man made but Spirit-created, and we were each brought here by the Holy Spirit for a specific purpose – to give, and to receive a gift, and to join together with the people in this place to participate in God’s mission to be and do so much more than we could ever be or do alone. The church is not a commodity, a vendor of religious goods and services, one among many leisure time options. It is essential to life, the people of God gathered together in a specific time and place to give thanks and praise to God, to learn more about the life for which they were created, and to discern what God is up to in the community so they can participate in God’s fruitful, healing work.
This is a compelling, beautiful vision of life and Christian community, one I want to be a part of. In the days ahead the vestry will be hosting a series of discussions in which they hope to hear your thoughts about a specific path for the Christian life we can all wrap our heads and hearts around. This path arises out of and will be informed by all the wonderful insights and desires that emerged during the Discipleship Task Force Focus groups. It will be informed by St. Matthew’s history, all the important discernment work we’ve done thus far, and the spiritual practices and habits that have become important to our faith community.
As we discern the specific shape of a path on which we, the people of St. Matthew’s, can follow the Way of Jesus, I hope today’s passage from Revelation comes to mind: the image of a tree with deep roots by the bank of the river of life. The tree is nourished and sustained by the water and the soil in which it is rooted. It bears fruit year-round, and its leaves are used for the healing of the nations. God dwells everywhere. The light is bright and welcoming and the gates of the city are open wide, welcoming all nations and people.