Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Tree of Life - Thoughts of Hope after Grenfell

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Clement's church North Kensington on the occasion of the blessing of a garden for Peace, Healing and Justice on the 10th June 2018, the week of the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.

 In the Bible there are three important trees, one at the beginning, one at the end, one in the middle. The first was mentioned in our reading from the book of Genesis - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a tree that represents the choice placed before us -  the choice to turn towards God, towards life and all that is good, or to turn away from him towards the darkness. As the story unfolds, it relates that fateful choice, repeated so many times since, to turn away from God, and love, and goodness, and instead to those destructive patterns of behaviour which lead to so much misery in our world. This tree therefore becomes a symbol of the tragedy at the heart of human life, our tendency to ignore and hurt one another, to damage ourselves, our neighbours and our planet, the entry of evil into our world. It is a symbol of the deep wound of creation, the suffering of the world that we are very conscious of here as we approach this coming week. 

Like the tree of good and evil in the Genesis story, Grenfell Tower today stands as a symbol of tragedy, of pain and our failure to care for one another. Somehow that building was allowed to get to the stage where a small fire could so quickly get out of hand, with the resulting trauma that this community has experienced over the last year and the 72 precious lives that were lost as a result. 

Yet there is another tree - the tree at the end of the story, the one mentioned in the book of Revelation – “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”It is a symbol of energy, prosperity, creation restored - the Christian hope that one day, evil will be banished, God will make all things right, that peace, justice and joy will reign. It is a symbol of life, just like the garden that we will dedicate at the end of this service. 

Yet how do we get from one to the other? How do we move from a symbol of tragedy and despair, to a picture of life and fruitfulness? That is where the third tree comes in. It is the tree that was cut down, and reshaped into a crude wooden cross, on which Jesus Christ, the Son of God was crucified, an event we recall every time we break bread & pour out wine, as we do today, to recall the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus. 

Christian faith tells us that when we grieve and sorrow, God does not stand far off watching, but comes to be with us right in the middle of that grief and sorrow. This week will be a painful and difficult one for many in this community. It will bring back harsh memories and vivid reminders of loved ones whom we have lost; the confusion, grief, anger of those days last summer and many since. Yet in the middle of that pain, we have this pledge that God  meets us in it, and stands alongside us. According to this story, God is a Father who knows exactly what it is to watch a Son suffer and die, a God to whom we can therefore come with our sorrows. A small sign of that is this building, which, over the past year, has been a place at the heart of this community, where people have brought their tears, prayers, grief, longings - as we read in our gospel reading – like a shrub, where “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” As this building stands in the heart of this community so God is present with us in our pain and confusion, offering us his presence and his comfort.

And yet there is more. The Christian story also tells us that God enters into our human experience of pain not just to be with us in it, but to redeem and transform it. 

When something goes wrong, we have a deep and sure instinct that it can only be healed if justice is done. When something happens that breaks the harmony of God’s creation, when we damage and destroy each other, it cannot simply be ignored, glossed over and life carry on as normal - justice is vital if restoration and healing are to emerge. To put it differently, atonement has to be made. 

This world is out of joint with the purposes of its creator, and yet is healed by love - by the self-sacrificial love of God, in his Son Jesus Christ, who in that great act of love, takes on himself the consequences of our sins, mistakes and the harm we do each other, and atones for them on that cross, so that justice is done, and we and the whole world can be healed. In a mysterious way, that can take a lifetime to fathom, healing is brought about as God himself enters into our experience of pain and grief and loss, to redeem it and transform it from within. Healing comes through love – the love of God which enters right into our human struggles to transform them. 

The transition from desolation to joy can only come through justice. We hope, trust and pray that justice will be done through the Inquiry and the Police investigation. But God has already been present here this year, silently working to bring healing in every act of love, of kindness, of listening, people being brought together to urge for change, the courage we saw in the bereaved families as they told their stories at the Inquiry, the slow path to truth that the Inquiry is seeking to find, the lives that are slowly beginning to heal. There is a long way to go, but life is stronger than death, and there are signs of life if we have eyes to see them. 

As we gaze upon that second tree, the tree on which the Son of God was killed, we are assured that this same God that created us and gave us life, enters with his love into the very heart of our human experience of pain and grief to redeem it and transform it. 

And that is why we can have hope. After the death of Jesus came the Resurrection of Jesus. Suffering and pain are never the last word, but can be transformed by the love of God into healing and wholeness. It does not make the suffering and pain right, or take it away immediately, but it does offer the promise of transformation and hope. After a difficult year, it is that hope that we hold onto today, and that we need to hold onto. 

The third tree, the ‘tree of life’ stands for a new world, one that we all long for. A world where ‘the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

The garden we will dedicate later is a symbol of all this. This area, even Grenfell Tower itself has long been one where people from all over world live side by side, a place where the nations come together, so especially here it is fitting to remember this promise of the healing of the nations, wherever we come from. 

We long for Grenfell itself to change from a symbol of pain and suffering to one of healing and restoration. Imagine in 20 years time, looking back on Grenfell Tower as a the trigger for a sea-change in the way we looked after one another in our cities, a time we decided once and for all to provide good quality, safe social and affordable housing, when we learnt to look out for one another, even to love one another as good neighbours, not just in times of disaster but as a regular way of life, whatever our differences of ethnicity or faith? 

The road ahead, even the next few days ahead will not be easy. That is why we need to fix our eyes on hope. Hope is sometimes hard to find when everything around seems hopeless. That’s why we need thingsto hold onto, to touch to feel, to represent that hope. 

Today is a day that offers us symbols of hope: in this buildingwe have a sign of God’s presence with us to offer us comfort, shelter and a home, especially for those still waiting for theirs. 

In the bread and wine we are brought back to Jesus, the God who stands with us in our pain and redeems the suffering of the world, through his act of self-sacrificial love. 

And in the garden of healing and peace, we have a symbol of life, of hope, a new world where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

I pray and trust that the garden that we bless today will be a sign of that tree of life, of the coming healing of the nations, a reminder of the hope of a new world, one where we have learnt to love the God who gave us life and the neighbour who is given to us to love. Whenever you walk past it, let it be a sign of the world that we long and pray for – a sign of God’s presence with us in the darkest of times, a sign that the world is healed through love, a sign that life is stronger than death. 

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