ACTS 2:42-47 / John 1:1-3
A rabbi asked God to give him a glimpse of what heaven and hell would be like.
God agreed to this request, and asked the prophet Elijah to be the rabbi’s guide on this adventure.
Elijah first led the rabbi into a large room. In the middle of the room was a fire with a big cooking pot bubbling away on it. And in the pot was a delicious stew.
All around the cooking pot sat a crowd of people. They each had a long handled spoon, which they were dipping into the delicious stew.
But the people looked pale, thin and wretched. There was an icy stillness in the room. The handles of the spoons were so long that no-one was able to get the lovely food into their mouths.
When the two visitors were outside again, the rabbi asked Elijah what strange place this was. ‘That is hell,’ Elijah explained.
Then Elijah led the Rabbi to another room, which looked exactly like the first one. In the middle, a fire was blazing and a cooking pot was bubbling away, full of the same delicious, aromatic stew. People sat around the fire, with the same long-handled spoons in their hands. But they were enjoying lively, animated conversations with each other.
And the difference? Well, the people in the second room were not trying to feed themselves with the long-handled spoons. They were using the spoons to feed each other. ‘Ah, heaven,’ said the rabbi!’
Last week I introduced the first chapter of a book I was given for Christmas by a member of this congregation. The books is called “8 Master Lessons from nature: what nature can teach us about living well in the world.” Today I would like to continue with chapter 2. The chapter’s title is: “Life on earth thrives thanks to a vast garden of connections.” And so this chapter of the book introduces us to the theme of the interconnectedness of nature.
Gary Ferguson writes that trees are an exceptional examples of this master lesson in nature of the importance of interconnectedness. Beneath the surface of the soil, not only is there a vast tangled web of roots, but there is also an inter-dependent relationship between the trees and with an underground fungi called myccorhizal fungi which forms around the roots of trees and which connects trees to one-another over vast areas. Not only do the trees and the fungi help to feed each other with nutrients they otherwise wouldn't have access to, the fungi also forms a vast underground communication and transport system for large groups of trees. It is a bit like an underground telephone system for trees.
For example, Gary Ferguson writes that if a new young sappling in a forest was struggling to grow because it was not getting enough sunlight, other trees surrounding it would somehow become aware of this through the fungal telephone system. Surrounding trees would then respond by sending carbon and other nutrients, molecule by molecule through the fungal network, passing on nourishment from those who had more than enough, to the one’s who didn't have enough. Sharing is caring as our children would probably say.
Trees can also send warning signals to other trees through this underground telephone system. If one tree was attacked by blight for example, it would send out messages to all the trees in the surrounding area stimulating their defense systems and thus minimising the affect of the blight on the rest of the trees.
In one forest in which Gary Ferguson he has spent a lot of time, he writes that he became aware of one especially large, old oak tree, what he calls an old matriarch which in all likely hood played the role of a grandmother tree – serving dozens of other trees, including quite a few of other species, by routinely releasing nutrients to the young and vulnerable trees. He writes that when it comes time for this grandmother tree to pass away, as she dies, she’ll use the fungal network to send her share of the resources to other residents of the neighbourhood.
But it is not only other trees and plants that benefit from this kind of inter-connection and inter-dependence, it is also human beings that benefit. When you walk along a woodland path, the trees and even some of the smaller plants growing at our feet are giving off invisible airborne antimicrobial compounds. And he writes that when we inhale these with every breath we take, as they enter our blood stream they help to lower a persons heart rate and lower blood pressure. And when they’re absorbed into our lymph glands they also help to boost our immune systems.
Scientists are beginning to discover that the less green your surroundings, the greater a persons risk of disease and death. The more concrete, tar and brick, the less resources our bodies have to remain healthy. But on the other hand, the more trees and plant-life in our surroundings, the healthier we become.
What does all this have to do with our faith?
Firstly, in these intricate and interconnected systems of communication and support in the natural world, we catch an amazing glimpse of the deep underlying wisdom and intelligence at work in and through the natural world. As the Psalmist expresses it: How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all. Or as the writer of Proverbs puts it, in that beautiful hymn of praise of Wisdom
“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep."
The image is of Wisdom working alongside God in bringing forth creation. And it was this image that inspired early Christian writers when they reflected on the life of Christ and they came to the conclusion: that he was the Word, or the Wisdom of God made flesh. As the writer of John’s Gospel put it: through him all things came to be. This Wisdom that helped to give birth to creation, and which is woven in and through all of creation is none-other than the wisdom of Christ himself.
To be a follower of Christ is to learn to be in touch and in tune with the deep wisdom of creation, the wisdom of interconnectedness and interdependence.
Secondly, this interconnected network of trees that share resources between each other, reminds me of the earliest vision of the Christian Church in the book of Acts. It was a community that shared it’s resources amongst themselves so that no-one was in need. If a Christian had excess wealth or land, the book of Acts tells us that they would sell this land and bring the proceeds to the apostles so that no-one was in need. In many ways, our modern taxation system seeks to do the same thing. When it is working at it’s best, the taxation system shouldn't serve the richest in society, but the poorest. It was the vision of the NHS when it was first introduced. It provides a vision of what modern tax systems should be doing.
It is a well documented fact that inequality in society breeds crime and violence. The more unequal a society, the greater the crime and the greater the violence. It is why South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world today, because it is unfortunately one of the most unequal countries in the world.
The Wisdom of nature reminds us that a harmonious eco-system requires networks of sharing resources.
You will hear a lot of people today commenting on the state of politics across the world and making comments like: “The world seems to have gone crazy.” Across the world we are seeing unprecedented levels of social tension. Isn't it interesting that we are also in the midst of one of the most unequal periods of wealth distribution in modern history. On the internet, you will find numerous articles saying that we haven't seen levels of inequality as great as this since the 1930’s.
The wisdom of nature is calling us to remember the lesson of interdependence. We are all in this world together and harmonious eco-system, including human one’s require networks of sharing resources.
Lastly, if we wish to live healthy lives as human beings, nature is teaching us that we need to go back to the garden. Our future as human beings is not with more and more concrete and more and more tar. Our future is not like Star Trek and Star Wars suggest, living in sanitised space-ships or buildings far away from this blue-green planet. Our future as a species, is to return the garden of interconnectedness. It’s one of those interesting things in the Bible. The story begins in a garden with humanity living in harmony with all living things. Before Jesus Crucifixion, where is he found? In a garden. The garden of Gethsemane. And when Jesus is resurrected, where does the first person meet the risen Christ? It is Mary Magdalene, and she meets him in the garden. Isnt it interesting also that she mistakes Jesus for a gardener. According to Genesis 2-3, isn't that the vocation that God first gave to Adam and Eve… he placed them in a garden and gave them the instruction to care for it and to protect it.
The wisdom of nature, is inviting us back, to rediscover a life of interdependence with nature, where simply walking through the woods and breathing, you are breathing in good health and life.
The wisdom of nature is inviting us to rediscover that the Way-of-Heaven, as expressed in that opening parable in this sermon, is already to be found here on earth. As Jesus is recorded to have said in Luke’s Gospel: The Kingdom of Heaven, the Way-of Heaven, is amongst you.