Zechariah 8.1-13; Revelation 21.22 - 22.5
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
The Dean's sermon preached at Choral Evensong on the sixth Sunday of Easter
The clock is ticking, and retirement is looming. But we now have somewhere to live when we get chucked out of the Deanery! We’ve bought an apartment in the centre of Leeds. If I stand on the walkway below our windows, I can see to my right the tower of one of the churches where I was a vicar, St Saviour’s Leeds. It’s a beautiful church, the gift of Dr Pusey and a perfect example of what the Tractarians thought a church should be like. Just as we have a Harvard Chapel that church has a Pusey Chapel. In glass fronted cupboards in the chapel hang Pusey’s doctorate robes and his mortar board with his initials ‘EBP’ carefully embroidered inside them.
The eastward facing altar in that chapel was an interesting place at which to celebrate the Eucharist. The reredos to the altar had been made in the 1920’s. Some of the older members of the congregation when I was there could remember the young female artist delivering it in a hand cart for the workmen to install. It was a war memorial and in the centre was the figure of Christ, yet he was also a tree and springing from him were branches and on the branches, leaves and fruit and underneath the figure a quote from this evening’s second lesson - ‘And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’
Either side of the figure of Christ were depictions of the war in France – men running with fixed bayonets, people being shot, villages burning, planes tumbling from the sky with flames issuing from them, the trenches with wounded men lying in them, the full horror of the ills that needed healing.
It sounds unusual and it was. It was a strange thing to be looking at as I celebrated the Eucharist – not so much the figure of Christ which was in fact very beautiful – but the horrors that surrounded it. But it all gave real force to the text from the Book of Revelation.
The Second Lesson for this evening is part of the climax of the Revelation to St John, a passage that spans the last two chapters, the culmination of everything that’s gone before, the final glorious act of God in the restoration of the city, the restoration of paradise. In many ways the Bible goes full circle – this final scene brings us back to where we began.
In Genesis we’re told that God created a garden with a tree. But the fruit of the tree that our first parents ate brought ultimate death to them, they were banished from the garden and forced to toil in dry and unyielding places. But this new garden, this new tree brings life, it brings healing – and to the nations, to all people, not just to the chosen few, not just to the remnant as Zechariah describes it in our First Lesson – but to all the nations, to all the people. Humankind was excluded from the first garden – this new garden, this restored creation is inclusive, a place for all.
Zechariah prophesises about a restored city, for him a place to which the Jews would return, a place where true community would be created, a place where young and old would sit side by side, play side by side, along with those who are doing the rebuilding. It’s a full and proper society which he sees, in which everyone is valued, where the rights of all are upheld, to which the dispersed people are brought back home and given what’s rightly theirs, a place where there’s a sowing of peace, a place of fruitfulness where the worker is paid a wage and all live in safety.
John and Zechariah give us wonderful visions of what society can be like – challenging visions for those of us who have the responsibility of building society.
It was inevitable that when the Archbishop of Canterbury stood up in the Lords last week, still basking in the reflected glory of the Coronation, he should be condemned by some of the press for daring to suggest that the Government’s proposed migration bill was immoral. There will have been those saying that the church should keep its nose out of politics.
Every evening when I was training at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield we’d have coffee after dinner served in the Music Room and there on various book stands were the College photograph albums.
In the earliest ones, amongst the pictures of earnest young men and severe looking Mirfield fathers, were pictures of the huge political rallies sponsored by the Community of the Resurrection and held in their grounds. There were photographs of Keir Hardie and other leading socialists of the day addressing hundreds of cloth cap wearing men and well dressed middle class ladies who’d come to Mirfield from Leeds and Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Bradford to hear these radical speakers, many of them faithful Christians, who had a vision of a more equitable society, of a place in which all people would be given their true worth and the worker and the boss would stand equally together.
These were Christians who believed, just as Zechariah did, that a new form of society could be built under God – and a society in which things were not closed down, where opportunity was not stifled but in which everyone had the chance to be who they were created to be and where nothing would be allowed to stand in their way.
‘The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’.
And what is written on those leaves? ‘Plenty’, ‘peace’, ‘health’, ‘wealth’, ‘education’, ‘environment’, ‘equality’, ‘young people, old people, women, men’; you can add to the list. But one leaf would say ‘welcome’. What kind of welcome can we give to those who want to share our life on this island, what kind of welcome for those who are looking for safety, what kind of welcome to those looking for economic stability and opportunity?
God has a passion for each of these leaves and more besides. There’s nothing talked about in any political arena that Christians are not concerned about, that we are not concerned about – because God is concerned for the whole of our life – and Gods concerns are our concerns.
On a leafless tree on a hill outside a city a man was nailed and he became its fruit. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, his life, is life for the world – to our city, to our nation, to our world we bring his fruit, the leaves, the vision that transforms, transfigures, resurrects, restores. Every leaf on the tree brings healing, brings wholeness to our society - every leaf we carry helps to make the vision a reality.