I once asked a group of fellow travelers what they imagined heaven on earth to be like. Someone said, “More pizza.” I think my idea of heaven has something to do with really good dark chocolate.
Every time I read Wendell Berry's poem “Massachusetts Avenue at Rock Creek Park, Sunday Morning,” I find something new. People are carried on a road that is like a river of burning oil. That is us, driving our cars running on fossil fuels: a river of oil. So unlike the river of the water of life that runs directly from the throne of God, as we heard in today’s reading. The images in this poem are of fire, burning all of creation. This is a poem about a people with no vision, knowing that we are headed down a wrong path, a path that will ultimately destroy the world, and not knowing how to do otherwise. And, just as the reading from Revelation has the crystal clear river of the water of life as well as the tree of life bearing fruit all year on its banks, so is there a green tree in this poem: it is “the Love of the ages / of ages, whose green tree yet stands amid the flames.” A tree of love standing green and alive despite all burning around it.
If we are followers of the risen Christ, we are about building God’s realm, about living into heaven on earth, about finding that green tree and singing from its branches no matter what is burning all around us. It is not about living in denial of reality; rather, it is about seeking to create heaven on earth and not letting go of that vision. Because within that vision lies hope. Within that vision lies the Love of the ages of ages. Within that vision lies God.
Sometimes when something is especially beautiful, we might describe it as “heaven,” or “heaven on earth.” Maybe a scene by a lake, where the water is like glass and the trees and sky are all reflected. Or some mountaintop view, where you can see for miles in all directions.
This passage from near the end of Revelation is one person’s vision of heaven on earth. After many chapters revealing in great detail all the disasters that will befall creation, the author comes out the other side. In his vision, a new Jerusalem literally descends from the sky. In this new Jerusalem, the gates are always standing open, because there is no enemy to keep out. In other words, we study war no more. There is no sun or moon to give light because God is our light, and the Lamb of God is the lamp, the vessel of light. All the rulers of the nations are guided by God. Imagine that! They rule as stewards of their nations, taking care of their people and their land, not taking advantage of them or oppressing them. The river of the water of life is crystal pure and runs directly from the throne of God. The tree of life grows along the banks of the river. Do you remember the tree of life? We met it in the Garden of Eden, right by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And I love that this tree of life is like the fruit of the month club, giving different fruits every month.
We may quibble with parts of this vision. For example, I wouldn’t want to live someplace that had no night. The darkness has its gifts. And I wonder what it means that “nothing unclean will enter [the city], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” We all fall short at times. Does this mean we are excluded? Or will we be living as our best possible selves all the time and thus be able to come into that new Jerusalem? And how do we know whether we’re written in the Lamb’s book of life?
I suggest we not take any of this too literally. The gist is that there’s a vision of the ideal, of heaven on earth.
What does heaven on earth look like for you? Here are some of the things that came to mind for me:
Let’s go back to that climate change bit, because it’s the biggest challenge facing our species and our planet today. If you read all the reports, it’s pretty gut-wrenchingly terrifying to contemplate how the planet is already changing and how much worse it could get… if we don’t do something. Ah, there’s the door cracking open and a sliver of light shining through. Because there is a lot we can do. So what if climate change is actually our invitation to live into a new vision of heaven on earth?
I’m reading a book right now called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, compiled by a fellow named Paul Hawken. Many climate change experts have contributed to it. There are sections on energy, food, buildings and cities, land use, transportation, and so on. There’s a section called “Women and Girls,” with subheadings on women smallholders, family planning, and educating girls. Within each section there are short stand-alone essays on a particular topic—wind turbines, for example, or tropical forests, or mass transit. In each of these subsections, they’ve done calculations on how many gigatons of carbon this particular thing would save, how much it would cost to implement, and how much money it would save. There is no one answer to climate change. This book is about the top 100 strategies. Very hands-on, practical ideas that are already being implemented and that we could do—or are perhaps already doing.
This book, for me, is very hopeful. It says here’s what we need to do and how we can do it to reverse global warming. It says, “The ways and means for the United States to be fossil fuel and energy independent are here. What is often missing is political will and leadership.” [Paul Hawken, ed., Drawdown (New York: Penguin, 2017), 4.] No kidding.
Well, we talk about climate change in this church. And I know a number of us take actions to reduce our carbon footprint. I know most of us realize that climate change is big and real and here and almost too scary to contemplate. So let’s get organized about our response to it as a church.
Earth Ministry has a program called “Greening Congregations” that helps communities of faith create organized plans for raising awareness about climate change and then taking steps to address it. We’ve talked about this program in our Social and Environmental Justice Team meetings, and we want to get to work on this.
There are five categories for us to consider under this program:
Worship and liturgy
Building and Grounds
Community Engagement, and
We’re not starting from zero. We’ve done a lot, and that all gets taken into account. We’ve had Earth Day services, shown films on environmental topics. A few years ago we were all invited to read Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, and this year we read Jim Antal’s book Climate Church, Climate World. We’ve made trips down to Olympia, installed LED lights and water cisterns, and more. But becoming a Greening Congregation means we get more systematic about planning and implementing how we do our bit to create heaven on earth. We become more intentional about prioritizing this work and getting it onto the calendar and out into the community.
We can’t do this work well coming from a place of despair and fear. That’s just not a good motivator, and fear invites people to make decisions for all the wrong reasons. As people of faith, we can come at the issue of climate change from a place of hope and possibility. As I said earlier, maybe this is an invitation to create heaven on earth.
A world where cars are quiet because they run on renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels. Where we reconnect with the soil and the seasons, growing some of our own food or subscribing to community supported agriculture.
Where all girls can get an education and all women have access to health care and reproductive resources so they can make decisions about their own bodies and family planning.
Where rivers of burning oil give way to rivers of crystal clear water, and trees full of good fruit grow abundantly along their banks.
Where the air is clean because we’re no longer filling it with dirty emissions or burning creation to the ground.
I see that world as being about God and love and justice. Notice in the reading from Revelation that the river of the water of life flows directly from the throne of God. And everyone lives in God’s light. Pretty great.
I opened with a Wendell Berry poem about people seeking a vision as creation burns. The reading from Revelation is a vision of new heaven on earth after the old creation is laid waste. We know that a new and better world is possible. Only by setting forth a vision can we work toward that heaven on earth. So I close with another poem by Wendell Berry called simply, “A Vision.” May we always be seekers of a vision of heaven on earth and live into that realm.