The book of Revelation is a difficult book to get ones head around. It has such fantastic and bizarre imagery which has been accompanied by many equally bizarre and fantastic interpretations over the past 2000 years or so. At some point it might make an interesting preaching series. But in the midst of that sometimes bizarre and fantastic imagery there are also some beautiful portions about the inauguration of a new heaven and a new earth in which every tear will be wiped away. A little earlier in the book there is another profound and thought provoking vision that paints a picture of a gathering of great diversity of those who are followers of Christ, people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white and waving palm branches. If this is meant to be a picture of heaven, then it seems that according to the writer of revelation, God values diversity.
Last year I started a preaching series that got disrupted by Covid. It was based on a book I had been given by a congregation member called: 8 Master Lessons of Nature. We only covered two themes:
The first lesson was the Wisdom of Mystery – Gary Ferguson writes that anyone who truly studies nature will learn the lesson of Mystery. The world of nature and science when viewed up close is mysterious he says. Carl Sagan claimed that science wasn’t only compatible with mystery, but was a profound source of Mystery. And Jane Goodall, one of the worlds leading primatologist and anthropologists is quoted as saying: “There is so much mystery. There is so much awe.”
This theme of mystery and awe is captured in the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, where out in nature, in the wilderness, Moses encounters God, the Great I Am, and Moses is invited to take off his shoes and to recognise that he is standing on sacred ground.
The second lesson was learning from nature the wisdom of interconnectedness. Anyone who knows even a little about natural eco-systems is that they are complex systems networks of interconnectedness. If one species in a forest is affected by something it will have a ripple effect on many other species of plants and animals. This wisdom of interconnectedness is expressed in the apostle Paul’s writing on the Church as the Body of Christ. If one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is affected. The wisdom of interdependence is inviting us as human beings to rediscover and realise how much we are part of complex networks of interdependence that includes our dependence and interdependence with nature. No person is an island. We cannot live without nature.
Today I would like to examine briefly the third wisdom lesson from nature. In the third chapter, Gary Ferguson invites us to contemplate deeply the wisdom of diversity, a theme captured in that vision in Revelation 7:9. The title of Gary Fergusons 3rd chapter is “The more kinds of life in the forest, the stronger that life becomes”.
Gary Ferguson writes that at the age of 21, he was out walking in nature with his 62 year old boss and mentor Chuck Ebersole. He writes that after some two hours of walking they crested a final mountain rise that made his jaw drop.
Before them was a tumbling mountainside bedecked with the most glorious carpet of wild-flowers he’d ever seen containing a variety of different flowers, many of which I wont even try and pronounce… the safest one’s for me to pronounce included geraniums, buttercups, paintbrush, bluebells, elephant head, prairie smoke and monkey flowers. One can just imagine this beautiful array of colours shapes and textures that confronted them. For a long time they just stood there shoulder to shoulder in silence, until finally his mentor began showering him with questions: Asking why nature would produce such variety, why not just two or three species. And as Gary Ferguson stumbled around with his words, trying to answer this question from as many angles as possible, the answer that began to emerge was that nature hedges its bets. When an ecosystem contains such variety they are much stronger, and able to better withstand disasters that may happen, like severe droughts, disease and plagues of insects.
I may want to add to that by speculating that perhaps another reason for the variety is that maybe God loves variety and enjoys it and that those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Getting back to Gary Ferguson, he writes that contemplating that beautiful array of flowers, flowing down the mountainside, he learned a giant indisputable lesson: The more diversity in a natural system, the more vibrant those players will be. And also, the more resilient the system will be in the face of change.
He writes that our lives as human beings are utterly dependent on the diversity of nature and the more than one trillion species of animals, plants, insects and microbes that in habit this planet.
He says that it is no exaggeration that the diversity of the biosphere is responsible for giving us breathable air and drinkable water. Not to mention the replenishing of the soils in which we grow crops, along with creating pollinators needed to fertilize them.
Diversity in nature, gives us everything from the fibers in our clothes to the petrol that fuels our cars. And as much as 40% of all modern medicine comes from a diverse array of plants, including medicine that helps people to avoid heart attacks and strokes, aspirin that was first extracted from white willow, as well as medicines that are used to heal child leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma, antibiotics and drugs for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
It is indeed in humanities best interests to preserve the diversity of nature.
But diversity is also valuable at a purely human level. Even though humanity often resists diversity, we would often prefer others to be just like us, to think like us, to be culturally the same as us, the truth is there is strength in diversity.
When I have sometimes wished that others were a bit more like me, the spirit of God or the spirit of Wisdom has whispered in my ear and asked me to imagine what this world would be like if it was made up only of Brian’s like me. Clones of me. I can’t help but imagine that this world would be a dreadfully boring place. And there would be an enormous number of skills-sets that would be completely missing. This world would become chronically unbalanced. Even though we resist diversity and the otherness of other’s that we don’t always gel with, if we can learn to live with each others differences and look for the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives, we will discover that diversity can and should be a strength. The truth is that without a diversity of opinions, none of us would ever grow. Imagine if we all thought exactly the same. We would all just stagnate if we were all just clones of each other. Diversity of opinion is necessary for us to learn the cognitive skills that will help sharpen our ability to think and reason.
Getting back to Scripture, the early church was faced with the question of what kind of community they would be. Would they confine themselves to being a small Jewish sect of Jewish followers of Jesus, where everyone had to become culturally Jewish in order to belong? Or would they open themselves to people of other nations. The word that is used is Gentiles… a word used by English translators for the Hebrew word ‘goy’ and the Greek word ‘ethne’ which refer to ‘people’s’ or ‘nations’. Would the Church be a mono-cultural Jewish club, or would the Church be a multicultural and diverse community.
In large part due to the work and ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Christian church chose to open itself up and choose the latter option. It could be argued that if the Church had remained an in-house, mono-cultural Jewish institution, it would never have had the impact on the world that it has had. The diversity of the Church has been it’s strength even if at times also it’s achilles heal.
The seeds of this Christian diversity lay however in the very life and ministry of Jesus, who constantly coloured outside of the lines of his own Jewish cultural heritage. Constantly he is seen to be making detours through Samaritan and Gentile territories, engaging with people different from himself. In a very real way, Jesus’s capacity to embrace diversity and difference is an expression of his capacity to love. And for us, if we are to grow in our own capacity for love, it will inevitably mean growing our capacity to live with or embrace diversity and the otherness of others.
On that note, I would like to end with two quotes:
The first is from Thomas Merton - “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves that we find in them.”
The second from Brennan Manning – from a story called “Patched together”
Little Brother, being a friend means loving completely. You don’t have to understand completely, and chances are you never will. But that doesn’t mean you can’t love completely. That’s what being a friend is all about. And it’s really impossible to do that, without the mercy of God. And so you pray every day, ‘Lord have mercy’.