May 1, 2016

Tom Joad and Healing Leaves

Born of the natural, economic, and social disasters that drove three and a half million men, women, and children from their farms in the 1930s, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath explores the depth of human pain, depravity, and resilience revealed by the symbiotic American cataclysms—the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Steinbeck’s novel follows the Joad family—a group of dispossessed sharecroppers from Oklahoma—as they head west to find work in California. People of salt-of-the-earth dignity, the Joads are, nevertheless, subjected to hunger, humiliation, prejudice, and an ever-present specter of violence along the way.

The Joad family’s trials and tribulation culminate with a scene in which Tom Joad, the story’s protagonist, crashes headlong into the violence that haunts the landscape.

When Tom sees a good friend killed for standing up for exploited migrant farm workers, Tom lashes out and kills his friend’s killer.

Knowing that he is now a wanted man whose presence puts his family in an even more perilous position, Tom meets his mother in secret to tell her goodbye.

Ma Joad, of course, wants to know if she’ll ever see her boy again. She wants to know if she’ll ever hear from him again and what he plans to do.

Tom’s response to his mother’s plea is one of the great monologues in American literature. His response has inspired millions to stand up and stand with their hurting and beaten down neighbors. It’s inspired the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to write songs, and when Henry Fonda delivered it in the book’s 1940 film adaptation, Tom’s farewell became one of the great scenes in Hollywood’s history.

Tom Joad told his mom,

I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.
Moments later, Tom and Ma part ways. She goes back to the family and the book’s closing chapters, but Tom exits the story here and enters, instead, into the hearts of the hurting people his story reflects.

Tom Joad became a hero of this nation’s literary canon because millions of people recognized their neighbors, their families, and their best self in him.

A nameless, expendable, poor Okie in the eyes of many, to others Tom was a man of dignity, a loving and beloved son, a good neighbor, and a survivor.

In the late 1930s, he was exactly the kind of hero a whole lot of people needed to believe in.

You see, when The Grapes of Wrath landed on American bookshelves, loaded down caravans were still moving west, proud families were still being driven to despair, and the people of this nation was still searching for answers to the political, existential, and spiritual questions the Great Depression raised. It was a turbulent, chaotic, maybe even an apocalyptic time, yet John Steinbeck skillfully rode that turbulent wave and produced a revelatory work.

This is how First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described the book.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well-drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page. Somewhere I saw the criticism that this book was anti-religious, but somehow I cannot imagine thinking of “Ma” without, at the same time, thinking of the love “that passeth all understanding.” The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and the story is very beautiful in spots just as life is.
As coarse as human experience, a challenge to those who would wield religion’s power to harm and exploit, as captivating as it is, at times, repellent, and “very beautiful in spots”—this morning I invite you to make Roosevelt’s words your point of entry into the Book of Revelation because what she said about The Grapes of Wrath could easily be said about the Bible’s last book.

Revelation tells the story of a Christian community tormented and persecuted by the Roman Empire. Faithful to Jesus as their Lord, Christians in this community were unwilling to declare themselves loyal to an Empire that demanded their allegiance and their worship. From the Roman perspective, this stubborn devotion to Jesus was treasonous and deserving of punishment—punishment they meted out in the marketplace, on the streets, and in the churches, even to the point of death.

Weary and nearly defeated, the faithful cried, “How long, Lord? How long will the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? How long will it be until you take up our cause?”

So many of the wild and mysterious images most often associated with Revelation emerge from the answer to that question.

Darkened skies, falling stars, broken seals, and apocalyptic horsemen—these are but characters in John the Seer’s inspired effort to assure the faithful that they are precious in God’s sight, that their cries have been heard, and that the Risen Christ has taken up their cause.

“See, the home of God is among mortals!” that’s what he heard from the heavenly throne the last time we were together.

Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God.(The Message)
This brings us to Revelation 22, where John describes the intimate relationship with God the faithful will experience.

The darkness of persecution lifted, they will walk through the City of God in the light of the Lamb who is Christ Jesus.

The pain of unjust suffering relieved, they will be nourished and find refreshment at the river of the water of life.

And, then, John describes a tree within the city whose blossoms benefit not just the faithful, not only the righteous, but all people, for the nations.

On either side of the river is 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.
We do well to recognize that this mysterious book isn't as interested in predicting the End of the World as it is interested in inviting the Church to see and experience for ourselves the redeeming power of God at work in our lives. This book ultimately ends with an image—the tree’s healing leaves—that encourages the Church to share Good News of healing and mercy and redemption with a sin-sick world.

You see, when Revelation landed in the churches’ pulpits, the faithful were still suffering and still seeking a way through a wilderness of wickedness. It was a turbulent, chaotic, and apocalyptic time, yet John, filled with the Spirit, rode that turbulent wave and centered God’s people in the reality of God’s holy and awesome presence.

John told them, and he still tells us, you are loved with a love that will not let you go so, drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

Tom Joad embodies this. He knew hunger, and injustice, and sorrow, and he gave himself over to standing with his hungry, exploited, and hurting neighbors.

The AA groups that meet here throughout the week embody this, too, for they are made up of people who know what it’s like to hit rock bottom, yet have committed themselves to helping others take their first step after they fall.

And we embody this, as well, when we give because we know how much we have received, when we forgive because we know that we are forgiven, when we love because we know that we are loved.

John Street Church, you are loved with a love that will not let you go, so drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

At the heart of the city where God lives there stands a tree whose fruit is always in season, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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