The leaves of the tree

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"The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations"

Preached by Revd Keith Underhill on 22nd January on the occasion of the week of prayer for Christian unity at Wantage Parish Church.

Lets us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and redeemer, Amen.

The symbolism of what we are doing here today, the relevance of this occasion and the importance of our united service, is probably the most poignant and timely for many years.

In the current climate of popularist politics, of sensational, inflammatory and inaccurate tabloid headlines and where we are being urged to be fearful of the stranger and foreigner in our midst, and to place the blame for the ills of the world on those who are seen as somehow being different, (and therefore of unimportance and of lesser worth), our very presence here is a rebuttal and a challenge to all that is being played out in front of us.

We should not underestimate nor underplay what is happening and going on here this afternoon, for in what we are doing and in what we are saying and in what we are representing, we are modelling and proclaiming a different story and an alternative narrative to that which currently makes the headlines and which has taken us into uncertain and worrying times.

But let me come back to that later!

The books that go to make up our Bible, are sandwiched between Genesis and Revelation, the beginning and the end, that which was before anything came into being and that which will be at the fulfilment of all things.

And in both, at the beginning of Genesis and at the end of Revelation, we have the tree of life.

In metaphor, story and symbolism, both remind us of what it means to be God's people in the world.

The one that features at the beginning, the one that is set in the beauty of God's garden, the one that was at the centre of all that caused humanity's downfall, reminds us that none of us can stand before God with clean hands. Just like Lady Macbeth, no matter how hard we try, we cannot rid ourselves of the stains that mark us and point to our common humanity.

It is easy in the current political and economic climate to simply point the finger and say "it wasn't us", "don't blame me", "It's not my fault", "it was them", "it was the others!" — but to do so, is firstly, to condone the use of the very language that has become so divisive; language that speaks of others, and those who are not like us and second, it is to deny the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum and that we all in one
way or another are responsible for how the world is, through what we say or do, and often more importantly, what we fail to say or do.

We become like Adam, who when questioned by God in the cool of the evening, immediately blames Eve, who in turn points to the serpent. Both failing to own up to their mistakes and to acknowledge their shortcomings.

It is in the last book of the Bible, indeed, the last chapter of the last book of the bible, where we fully see the redemption of the events of Genesis, where in the holy city, on either side of the river of the water of life, is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

I've never been to New England in the fall to see the wondrous sight of natures full glory, that kaleidoscopic explosion of colour — but we don't have to travel that far to know what it is like, because it happens all around us.

As the leaves of the trees in our gardens, streets, parks and woodlands, turn from various shades of green to brown, yellow, orange, gold and red, we see this miracle unfold before our very eyes.

This for me, is a sign of God's delight in the individuality, difference and variation of his creation. Different colours, different patterns, different shapes, yet at the same time, one.

The autumnal tapestry that speaks of unity in diversity or to use St. Paul's analogy of the body, the importance of every single member and part of the whole that enables it to function as it should.

This isn't I hasten to add, about some kind of romantic universalism, but rather the Gospel imperative that reminds us that at the very centre of our faith, of God taking on human form, of all that we have celebrated this Christmas past; is that the witnesses to that event, were themselves foreigners from a far distant country and those who were despised and didn't fit in, who were seen as being different.

How then, can we even for a moment think about using the language that is now the common currency of the current political landscape which appears to be gaining even more momentum?

We are called to be different, to be like the leaves of the tree of life, in order that we can be for the healing of the nations.

To turn outwards from the confines of our churches and in our unity and diversity, in our difference and similarities, reach out to a broken world in desperate need.

And we need to do that by example, as I said at the beginning, to model a different narrative and an alternative story, to be those who proclaim and practice love, grace, humility, peace, welcome, hospitality, acceptance, tolerance and understanding — and of course, we are doing just that as we gather here today in this very service.

As we look around at one another here, now, we see that we come from different traditions and denominations, we come with different experiences, we come with our different ways of church governance, worship and theology and yet we come together seeking to be as one.

The importance of this is so crucial for these times, but don't let us fool ourselves into thinking this is easy, because it isn't — but it is what we must aim for.

And simply gathering here for a service, is a beginning it is not at all the finished item!

You may have read or heard of the comments made by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York ahead of this week of prayer for Christian unity, in a year that marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Reminding us to remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years that saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord.

This year, they say, is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone. With this confidence we shall then be ready to ask hard questions about those things in our lives and the life of our churches that get in the way of sharing and celebrating faith in Him.

Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them.

This anniversary year will provide many opportunities to do just that, beginning with this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
We therefore call on all Christians to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ ..... to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ."

It is not easy to hold in tension the different views and opinions, styles and preferences that exist and are real in any single church, let alone across the churches of all the denominations...and yet it is what we must do.

We need to show and model such practice, for if we, who claim to be grounded and rooted in the love and grace of Jesus Christ cannot do it, then what hope for the world — and it is for the world that we are called to witness as one, to be the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.

Having only just arrived here, I don't know where you all stand when it comes to working ecumenically. Whether its a priority, or an optional extra that is add on if there is time.

For me, I am totally committed. I will work with anyone and everyone to model God's story and demonstrate the alternative narrative to that of our current age and to show people that there is a different way.

So, I seek to join in with you, even as now, in this very moment, I invite you to join with me, as we travel that path together in the unity of diversity and as leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

What shall our greeting be:
Sign of our unity?
JESUS IS LORD!
May we no more defend
Barriers he died to end:
Give me your hand, my friend:
One Church, One Lord!

What is our mission here?
He makes his purpose clear:
One world, one Lord!
Spirit of truth descend,
All our confusions end:
Give me your hand, my friend:
JESUS IS LORD!

Amen.

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