Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Finish Then Thy New Creation

Rev. Kathy Donley

05/07/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Romans 8:18-2; Revelation 22:1-5

 

I have a friend who is a scuba diver.  When she is off on a diving trip, she shares the most amazing underwater pictures on Facebook. She also shares pictures of what makes her groan with creation:  plastic pollution in the oceans being ingested by sea turtles and other animals, and the bleaching of coral reef. 

 

Creation groans in the Midwestern United States – at least 10 people have died because of flooding in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas and precious top soil is being carried downstream. 

 

Creation groans as hundreds of whales beached themselves in New Zealand in February.

 

Creation groans when oil ends up where it doesn’t belong, like the 20,000 barrels that came out of a pipe in a wheat field in North Dakota and took two years to clean up,  or the 5 million gallons spewed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Creation groans as the land slid away after torrential rains in Peru in March. 

 

Creation groans, and we groan along with it.  Many of us groaned this week as our elected representatives passed a bill that would deny health care access to millions of Americans. 

 

And may we take a moment here to lament for the tragic and violent end of the life of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old boy.  He was a passenger in a car driving away from a party who was shot by a police officer.  His brothers, in the car with him, were not allowed to tend to him, but were kept under aggressive police control and were probably also in fear for their own lives. 

 

His parents now face their own enormous grief while they also try to help their two living sons heal from the incredible trauma of that experience.  They’re sixteen years old.  They want to sleep with the lights on or with their parents and when they do fall asleep, they have nightmares.  Can we acknowledge that this is tragic and unimaginable and should never be normalized?  Can we acknowledge that for many people of color this is nothing new, but only a continuation of racial violence? Systemic racism is just one painful wounding reality in our fallen, broken world. 

 

The creation has been groaning for a long time, Paul says, in his letter to the Romans.  Someday I want to ask him where he was aware of it, because many of the things I named are not things we would have known about. Paul believes the entire creation is in bondage, just as human beings are, but he is defiantly hopeful that freedom is coming.  He says that creation waits with eager longing.  The verb literally means to stretch out the neck.  So J.B. Phillips translates this, “the whole creation is on tiptoe” anticipating the revealing of the children of God.   It must be a powerful hope that has the earth on tiptoe while simultaneously in the pain of giving birth.  That is a great mental image of the tension in which we live. 

 

Oscar Romero was Archbishop of El Salvador in the 19070’s.  He mobilized the people to nonviolent resistance against an oppressive military regime there.  In his last sermon, he said this:  “God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery.  When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.  That is the hope that inspires Christians.  We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”[1]  As he finished that sermon, a single bullet from an assassin ended his life.

 

Creation waits for the children of God to be revealed.  As God’s children, we do have a role to play and sometimes the cost of that role is very high.  But I want to be careful to say that we are not expected to save ourselves.  If we could fix the mess the world is in, wouldn’t we have done it by now? We work alongside God; we are not God.

 

Nelson Kraybill is a Mennonite pastor and scholar.  In his commentary on the book of Revelation, he wrote, “Living out the way of the Lamb [the way of Jesus] makes little sense without a God-centered eschatology or theology of the future.  Important as it is to work for an end to violence and injustice, humans are not going to gradually improve until we ourselves usher in a golden age.  A restored humanity and a new creation will come by divine initiative . . .”[2]

 

I find it hopeful to understand that we should not be expecting salvation from other human beings. Recent displays of human lack of compassion and seeming contempt for other humans have left me discouraged and not feeling very optimistic about our ability to evolve into more compassionate, wise beings.

 

The vison of John, described in the book of Revelation, offers images to support that hope.  In Revelation 21:6, God says “It is done.  I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”  God is the originator and consummator of history.  This vision picks up the threads of the story of God’s ongoing relationship with humanity and weaves them into a complete picture.  In the beginning, humans were created for relationship with God.  In the end, God will dwell with them.  In the beginning, there was a river flowing through the garden. There was a tree of life in that garden.  In the beginning, humans were forbidden to eat from that tree.  In the end, the river flows from the throne of God, the prohibition is lifted and the tree bears fruit every month in every season.  The old order of things, the brokenness of life under the curse, has passed away. 

 

There is a promise of “newness” a new heaven and a new earth, but we should think of think of it in terms of resurrection, not annihilation.  God says “I am making all things new, not I am making all new things.”    In the beginning, God pronounced creation good.  God loves this world and in the end, God will renew it, resurrect it.  It says that God will dwell with us.  That verb is the same one used in John’s gospel where it says that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us.  Or a more literal translation is that Jesus pitched tent among us.  Jesus’ love for the world was such that he took on human form and lived on earth with us.  In the consummation of time, God will dwell on earth like that. 

 

We only have hints and guesses about this new heaven on earth.  It appears to be a place of abundance.  There is no energy shortage.  No electricity, no fossil fuels are needed because God’s light powers the place and never goes out.  Diversity abounds – every kind of jewel is represented; there are 12 kinds of fruit on the tree every month, all the nations are there.  It is a place of radical inclusion.  The twelve gates to the city are never shut – I guess all those jokes about St. Peter as custodian of the pearly gates have it wrong.

 

There is a garden in a city.  The river of life flows through the city and there is a tree.  I have always loved what John says about the tree “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”   It sounds beautiful.  What could it mean?

 

The legacy of a Kenyan woman named Wangari Maathai offers an interesting twist on that.   Wangari was born in 1940 in rural Kenya, when her country was still part of the British empire.  She was one of the rare girls who got to go to school, earning a high school diploma at a time when very few African women learned to read.  She came to United States to study biology, chemistry and German, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in Biology.  Later, she earned a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy. 

 

She lived in the USA and in Germany.  While she was abroad, Kenya declared its independence from Britain. Under decades of British rule, many trees had been cut for commercial production of tea, coffee and sugar cane.  That practice continued even with independence.  When Wangari returned to Kenya, she was dismayed by the loss of forests and resulting soil erosion.  Rivers were drying up.   As she travelled the country to study wildlife, she became acutely aware of the needs identified by rural women, particularly the lack of firewood, clean drinking water, and arable land to farm to feed their families.[3]

 

In response, she launched the Green Belt Movement in 1977, whose major goal was to plant trees.   She empowered those rural women by paying them first from her own funds and later with grants, to plant trees in their villages.  By 2004, 100,000 women across Kenya had planted 30 million trees.

But it was not without cost, one January day in 1999, Wangari and friends went out to plant a tree in Nairobi, not an unusual action for her.  But on that day, she and her friends were attacked by 200 guards armed with machetes, whips and swords.  It was not the first or last time she would be attacked for planting trees.  On that particular occasion, she was leading a protest against a planned development in Nairobi's only remaining forest and against the president's ideas of progress for Kenya.

The story is longer than I can tell here, but Wangari and the movement persevered.  Using trees as a symbol of peace-keeping is a widespread African tradition.  The elders of the Kikuyu people carried a staff, from a certain tree, that was placed between two disputing sides in a conflict and caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation.  There were many ethnic conflicts as the Kenyan constitution was written and re-written.

The Green Belt Movement became a people’s movement for freedom and peace.  Trees were exchanged by communities as symbols of reconciliation.  Trees were planted as living expressions of peace now and into the future.

In 2004, Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In celebration, she planted a flame tree near her home.  In Wangari’s case, the leaves of the trees are quite literally for the healing of a nation, and because we are all connected on this planet, they are also for the healing of many nations. 

We hear the groaning of creation and we grieve for it.  But we also hope.  We hope courageously, defiantly.  We hope with bold and perhaps costly actions, as we lean on tiptoe into the vision of resurrection and new creation, the glory that Paul says will be revealed.  God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery.  When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.  And so we pray with the hymnwriter, “Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let it be.  Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.”[4]  Amen.

 

 



[1] James R. Brockman, The Church is All of You:  Thoughts of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Minneapolis:  Winston, 1984), p. 110

[2]  J. Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance:  Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2010), p. 184. 

[3] http://www.wphna.org/htdocs/2011_nov_wn3_wangari.htm 

[4] “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” Charles Wesley, 1747.

 

 

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