Intended for Good?

a sermon on Genesis37&50

 

Bad stuff that turns out okay.

As we skip from the start to the conclusion of this story of Joseph and his brothers, we could be tempted to say that no matter what happens, it all works out in the end. In fact, I do frequently say something like that as a word of hope in a God of new life and resurrection. But with this narrative, let’s go tentatively and not leap to the conclusions.

As the story begins, we meet Joseph who is the 11th son of Jacob or Israel. From last week’s story of Abram waiting for God’s promise of a child, eventually Isaac, that son of laughter, was born. He and his wife Rebekah had twin sons, and Rebekah’s favorite was also favored by God. That was Jacob, a cheater and thief. He didn’t only struggle to steal from his older brother, but also from God. That wrestling for blessing late one night got him renamed Israel.

Obviously we know Israel as the nation bearing his name, a nation sometimes claiming to be right with God even as they continue wrestling with their brothers and sisters and neighbors. They took the name Israel since that became the identifier for the family of God’s people. We learned last week that God’s intention to bless all nations and peoples was through one specific person and family, Abram and his descendants. In today’s story, this Israel or Jacob has twelve sons and a daughter (from multiple mothers, and Joseph’s mother died in childbirth). Those 12 sons by next week will have grown and expanded into 12 tribes of Israel, 12 big extended family groups.

But before we worry about the family dynamics among hundreds of thousands of relatives, in today’s story we’ve got problem enough with just the close family, the brothers with each other and sons with their father.

Commentators like to point out that Joseph is a jerk. He’s a tattling younger sibling. He’s the favorite and he knows it and wants to rub it in. He dreams that his older brothers and even his father will bow down to him. And he tells them about it. He may have poor social skills or be a stereotypical younger child who can get away with too much.

Some older siblings would react by offering a hurts doughnut or a dutch rub or a wedgie, or would ditch the twerp and pedal away faster on bikes, leaving the whiner crying in the dust. Maybe since Joseph had gotten more on their nerves, or things were rougher in this family, the brothers decide to get rid of Joseph by killing him. Murder. Fratricide, like the first death in the Bible.

Again in the stereotypical way, the oldest sibling is the most responsible and concerned about parental response. Reuben tries to plan so he doesn’t have to answer to an angry father about why and how he let his littlest brother die.

A creative middle child has the entrepreneurial mindset to realize they can both be rid of him and make some cash on the side, so they sell him into slavery in Egypt, which I suppose we take as the less-worse of options, the lesser of two evils, maybe.

Joseph is sold to a high-ranking official, but that official’s wife tries to sexually assault Joseph. In what is much too rarely the Bible’s story (or any story), the vulnerable person escapes, and yet, as is more commonly the case, the victim is blamed nevertheless, and in Joseph’s case, it lands him in jail.

Eventually around more dreams, he is able to tell Pharaoh there is going to be a time of great harvests followed by a time of famine. So Pharaoh puts him in charge of all the crops and essentially all the Egyptians to sell them food when the hard times come.

These Egyptians aren’t isolationists. When disaster strikes and others also are starving, they are ready to help (again, at a cost). This includes Joseph’s brothers who come to ask for assistance. They have no idea their brother is alive, much less that he’s the second-in-command in Egypt, living with a new identity.

Joseph doesn’t quite welcome them with open arms. He does help with some food, but also plays tricks on them and is conniving and demanding. We can’t quite tell if it’s just in jest or if he’s vindictive and resentful of how they treated him, whether or not that would be reasonable and fair.

Eventually he comes clean, reveals that he’s Joseph. He’s weeping. They rejoice. It’s all such a happy family reunion at that point, overcoming decades of separation and worse.

Still, the brothers are fearful. Fearful enough that their worry comes up twice. Once in chapter 45, and then again in the part we heard today, later on after their father has died. They’re still trying to fabricate lies for things to turn out better for them, not to address straight on what they’ve done wrong.

And we might wonder whether Joseph would hold them to account, if he would recount the litany of his sufferings, if he would use his newfound power, if the expectation would be retributive justice. But Joseph forgives them. Suddenly he releases them from responsibility or liability for what they did wrong.

It’s easy to have this enshrined by Scripture and stand on its own, but I want to hear it differently and tentatively by making it more generic. Here’s a retelling for our ears:

A younger sister was disregarded by older siblings, and they found a way for her to satisfy their appetites of bad habits requiring hard cash. Her fate of human trafficking was the same as so many hidden others, modern day slavery, abandoned in a foreign place where she didn’t even know the language.

Because of her youthful good looks, multiple times her boss tried to harass, touch, grope, even rape her.

Rather than finding justice, she was the one who wound up in prison, where others forgot about her and she was left under a too-long sentence. Still, on her eventual release, unlike many, she managed to reintegrate and even move up in society, but with a role that made awful demands on people while claiming to help them—extorting their money, extorting their lands, eventually extorting their very lives into the confinements she had escaped.

Even her own family, when they came looking for help, she extorted their kindness, their regard for each other, making a mockery of their identity and making them bow and grovel.

But! it all turned out in the end.

See, we have to wonder at the sudden end and shouldn’t rush to God’s resolution. After all, whether the version from Genesis, or the updated retelling bringing it into a reality we know more about, these may feel more like real life, at least theologically, than last week where the voice and promise of God was loud and clear. We shouldn’t skip to the ending, as we’re left wondering: how do we attribute an invisible silent God’s place?

In this whole saga we heard, God isn’t mentioned until things turn good. But Joseph even there only raises the backward question that the role of God is to punish but that he can’t. So through this whole thing, do we expect that God is absent or negligent in the harder times? Or why do we give God credit especially for the good? Maybe we hold this as Don Tubesing shared in preaching a couple weeks ago, that we can’t see it as it’s happening but can later look back and see the “thin silver thread” running through it all, even when everything seemed lost and gone. That’s also a task and a vision we can only accomplish ourselves. We can’t tell others what the meaning was, or how to relate their difficulties to God.

But still, if God doesn’t get mentioned at all until the end, we wonder through it all, from back at the start, did God give Joseph the dreams, even while offending his family? Or was it just his subconscious at work?

Did God design for all the horrendous details, just to put Joseph through it to lead eventually to something else? Was the rotten stuff warranted because it turned out better? Wouldn’t we flee promptly from a God who used any means to justify an ends?

Or did God just manage to take what was available and turn it nevertheless to good purposes? Using imperfect materials and dull tools and the lack of clear blueprint that so often exemplifies our lives, if we’re God’s instruments, God’s stuck with not the sharpest knives in the drawer. That feels the most obvious to me, that a good God continually strives ahead in spite of our sin and stubbornness and suffering.

Was the alleged happy ending that Joseph helped save people from starving? Or more narrowly that he forgave and was reunited with his family? Both could be God’s work, of feeding the hungry, and of reconciling relationships.

And what about that not really being the end, with the ongoing hard edges, that everything isn’t fixed and made right, that by the time we turn the page into Exodus, this pleasant family get together will have resulted in the enslavement of the Israelite descendants and killing of their children. That will further result in the harm of many Egyptians and their livestock, including deaths of all the firstborn. And we might have to say it eventually results in the injustices perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians.

In many and various ways, Scripture does assert that God is working for the good, that indeed “goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW 721), that our fallible wills will not inevitably lead to destruction, that God leads to new creation through God’s promising ever-resilient and tenacious will, always finding a way forward.

Sometimes we glimpse or taste that ourselves, as we share in a moment of healing or a change of heart or happy surprise or experience the power of forgiveness for new beginnings, as grace leads us home.

Sometimes we have to say it’s more than we individually know, that the arc of the universe is long but it does bend toward justice, that we can see the Promised Land, even though we may not each get there. There is that kind of larger hope, hope for our children, hope for our nation, hope for humankind, hope for the planet.

And then there’s even something beyond that, that death can never prevail against the God of life, even though sometimes that means God’s good work is not accomplished in this life but must wait for resurrection.

When we’re faced with hardships like human trafficking and sexual assault and exploitation and extortion just to be able to afford not to starve, when we’re faced with fractured families that may be downright dangerous or may just be the usual kind of frustrating and doing all sorts of wrong to each other and mourning loss of family members, when the story may be a long, long way from finished, we’re left to ponder how God is involved, whether God works with us to make things right, or we work without God, or God works in spite of us. Given the bleakness of the story, I can’t but hope in the biggest possible God with the most potential, even if it is yet to come.

I also know that I can’t muster that hope on my own. That, as the twisty pondering questions of this sermon have indicated, if I’m left to myself, then I don’t know where to locate God. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know whether to hope or fear, press ahead or retreat, ask forgiveness, praise, or lament. That is why I’m here in worship, with you. That is why I need gatherings like this, for reassurance.

In one small way of that, I’ll tell you that except for the next song, the rest were chosen by Sybil Klatt as hymn selector. You can tell mine is more dour. She had upbeat and trusting choices, confident in a God who is with us and seeks our good in spite of too  much evil and sorrow around us. Today, because I’d spent a week struggling with where God was in this reading and where God is in my life, in your lives when you need God, in our desperately needy world, this week I needed Sybil and her hymns to help reinforce my faith and hope. Thanks Sybil. Thanks all for hanging in there as this community sustaining promise and hope and pointing to God together.

 

Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (603)

 

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Seeing Stars

a sermon on Genesis15:1-6

Look to the Stars

As one facing childlessness, this reading of Abram feels burdensome to me. Why no child, God? God clarifies and repeats a promise. But, I have to ask, how does Abram encounter that promise and what actually is God’s promise today?

We’re beginning a second year of the Narrative Lectionary for Bible readings. Last week, we heard generally about earth and generic earthlings. Now the story takes a very different turn, from a broad statement of all creation and all humankind to this particular story, one person instead of the whole human family, one individual leading to universal benefit.

In a significant way, this is the start of our story, past the background stuff. (Though we might make the same point when we get into Exodus in a couple weeks. Or you probably even feel more that way when we get to Jesus and the New Testament in December.)

Still, for origins, you might know that the three great monotheistic religions trace back to Abram, whose relationship to God has been formative to Christians and Jews and Muslims, even as we emphasize and understand that differently. With over 4 billion combined adherents, over half of the world’s population, that is a big number.

But it feels hasty and unsatisfying to chalk that up as if God can hang up a “mission accomplished” banner after four millennia and say that the spiritual heirs of Abram have now spread out like the dust of the earth.

For one thing, it doesn’t address my own personal concern. Nor does it address Abram’s, which is the point of hearing and living again into this story.

To know the fuller narrative, Abram first appeared at the end of chapter 11. Barely has his family tree been named when we’re discovering it’s going to end up a stump. Four verses after he’s introduced, we’re told he’s unlikely to have any children, and not just because he’s already 75 years old.

But by the start of chapter 12, God is making promises to Abram, and keeps reiterating them, about the heritage for Abram’s offspring. Eight times in the following chapters, God voices reassurance of making good on this promise, even when everything seems directly to contradict it.

Now, for Abram the issue was different from how I consider it. For Abram and his time, a child meant life by offering necessary support in old age, that culture’s kind of social security. Descendants were also their version of eternal life—not that I personally would continue to exist, but that something of him would live on in future successors. This is also how God’s work would proceed, through the course of family generations and on in the Bible’s story.

But if the first problem was that this promise seems absurdly impossible, then a second problem is that it’s awfully gradual. We’re already three chapters along at today’s passage, and God is reiterating the promise a third time, and Abram is having to protest, to question, to raise his doubts: Hey God, you keep talking about this, but (in case you hadn’t noticed) I don’t have a lone child, much less plural like the sands of the beach. Right now my hired help is the closest thing I’ve got, and that doesn’t sound like what you keep yakking about.

This chapter reinforces that God will be responsible for making it happen, but it doesn’t move any closer to fulfillment. In the next chapter and eleven years later, Abram does have a child, but this won’t be the one who counts for the promise. It’s another thirteen years when Abram is 99 years old before Isaac is born, a name that means “he laughs.” It almost seems that the laughter wouldn’t be about joyful birth, but a disbelieving scoff that it actually happened, or even a sarcastic chuckle from God, smirking “see, I told you so.”

Abram continues mostly as the focus until he’s laid to rest in chapter 25, then remains the bedrock or roots or seed of this whole story. For the rest of the Bible, one of God’s main identifiers will be “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the first three generations of this myriad.

So there’s the sweep, but still, for the particularity today: even as God repeats promises, Abram doubts. We shouldn’t picture a patiently persevering patriarch of the faith. It’s not that he can stifle his concerns and assume God will work it out in God’s good time. It’s not that he has the self-confidence and fortitude to take matters into his own hands.

Perhaps, hear this passage with resounding grinding disappointment. Hear it as one who can only see literal dead ends, who simply doesn’t believe it can be possible. Hear it in the peculiar phrase Paul uses for Abram much later in Scripture, that he could only “hope against hope” (Romans 4). Hear it as prayer with nowhere else to turn. And maybe it’s fitting that Abram ends up looking up at the night sky, because he’s sure stuck out in the dark.

These are horribly hard moments when even the littlest things seem like an impossibility, when anything is too much to hope. It’s not just Abram. It’s life’s immobilization. That no matter how hard I try, it won’t work out. Things just don’t go how you want. That we don’t know what to do, so why bother. That progress is preposterous.

In such moments, I need to compliment Abram for voicing his grievance. I mostly end up wordless, with my head in my hands, tears in my eyes, staring out the window and unsure not only what I could do about it, but unsure of my very self. Abram at least can argue with God and not let a bland platitude pretend to be a promise. He won’t stand for God saying, Oh, Abe, Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be alright. It’ll work out.

Abram’s objection meets God’s exact identity: God always keeps God’s promises. And so it is good to know those promises. God clarifies and repeats. And God clarifies and repeats. And clarifies and repeats. Because we need to keep hearing it, especially when it is incredible, unbelievable, too good to be true, more than we can hope.

Still, I can’t but wonder if God goes a little overboard this time, telling Abram to go out and count the stars. When Abram is concerned about having no children, this is a ridiculous reply, a depiction reinforcing how outlandish God’s promise is. I gave it a shot this week on a clear evening. From my house, even with city lights and trees in the way, I could count 68 stars, plus two planets and an airplane. Setting aside if the extra planets and plane might mean a couple pet dogs and an aardvark, 68 stars says 68 offspring promised to a guy who had none. Figuring that Abram didn’t have to deal with light pollution, around 4500 stars are visible to the naked eye in a night sky. Or we might take the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Or maybe God intended a full insight into the septillion or so stars in the universe. Clearly ludicrous to be transferable to God’s promise.

So does Abram take this as good news? Pretty much every commentary I read found encouragement for old Abe, that he had a nightly verification of what was in store. That’s optimistic analysis. From the shoes of a doubter, I wonder if he was feeling his nose rubbed in it. For 24 years, a nightly reinforcement that not only didn’t he have innumerable progeny, but had zilch. So is God sufficient? Abram seems assuaged by the end of the passage. How about you?

I admit this is a weird way to start this year of the Narrative Lectionary, and a weird way for the Bible’s story to get going. It certainly doesn’t mesh with instant gratification or our analytical minds looking for proofs and verification. We want results and we want them now. This isn’t satisfying. For all the confident reassurances, it doesn’t exactly feel very confidently reassuring. I admit that, while refusing to let God’s Word become a little pep talk so that you can go back out there from the sidelines and feel better. Maybe we do celebrate the eventuality of abundant goodness.

But for the most part, we have to recognize that all we’ve got is the promise. Faith. Trust. This is a desperate hope, a blind confidence, believing without seeing. This is a God who offers you the stars as reminder with diddly squat as factual evidence. This is a God in Jesus who says that his presence with you and everlasting life for you is in a bite of bread that’s gone long before you get back to your seat, much less feeling very tangible when you go back out to face fears and real doubts in these hard days. This is a God who continues to accept your concerns and frustrations and wonderings, who fully knows your struggles and sorrows and yet decides to work within those limitations and to reiterate goodness for you. God clarifies and repeats. Clarifies and repeats.

So what is this promise? Abram was supposed to go out and look at the stars and think about having children. But I can’t claim that applies from God to me. I can go out and look at the stars as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises. That ultimate promise is life. And God refuses to have that interrupted or disturbed by any circumstance, by your place in the generations, by foolishness or old age, by family trees or stumps, by lightyears of distance and continuums of spacetime, by apparent impossibilities, by our dim understandings, by doubts or disagreements, dead ends or even death, a promise of life that can’t be beaten by hurricane forces or rigid oppressions or sad endings, by the too-slow turn of history, or even by the too common Monday morning blues and frustrations of the week. That is the promise of life from God that Abram came to count on and is for me, for you to hear and hold and maybe deem right. And so again God clarifies and repeats.

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#RiseForClimate speech

(Woodland Park, Monona, Wis.) 41413813_10155856821403785_3385218520341020672_n

I’m Nick Utphall, a board member of Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light (WIPL) and pastor at Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community way out on the west side (and in spite of the distance, still pedaled my bike here like so many of you today). But this used to be literally my old stomping grounds, as I brought kids from Vacation Bible School at St Stephens Lutheran Church – ELCA – Monona, WI just up the block into these woods to explore creation and be connected to what they could discover in God’s world, because we grow to save what we love, right?

I remember when this was re-opened to be an oak savanna instead of having clogged and invasive undergrowth. We further remember that the oak savanna was a symbiotic relationship in this area generations before anybody claiming to be Christian or with my sort of skin color or ancestry arrived in the area, that native peoples burned the undergrowth to continue spurring this sort of mutual beneficial ecological community.

We’re here today encountering the far opposite end of that spectrum: a mutually _detrimental_ ecological community. Or maybe we need to replace all those words. It’s not mutual, since we decided that humans are more important than any soils, waters, plants, or animals…and Americans more than other humanity…and those with huge financial interest and investments in fossil fuel corporations more than the rest of us. It’s not community then, because we’re not living in it together, but suffering the breakdown of all kinds of relationships and dependencies. And it’s certainly not ecological, because this is not the logic of caring for our common home.

All of that selfishly detrimental economic fracture can feel frustrating, that everything is unhitched and going wrong and that we have little direct capability to change it. After all, it barely matters a smidge that I pedaled here. Or that we attend to science as the real news. It may feel like we’re such a small group for what a huge global problem this is.

But I’m here to testify on behalf of the underdog and the importance of small actions and movements that do change the world.

We’re frustrated at our government. We’re upset that the President and his EPA administrators seem hellbent on rushing in the wrong direction. But I also confess I was frustrated at the previous President, who did too little while still encouraging worse behavior, bits of better conservation while expanding efforts everywhere we could drill or mine. Sure, that was better than now. It still wasn’t enough.

But I’m here to testify that we’re not waiting for any President. Today is about all of us overturning an old system, fighting for and fulfilling in places like Monona and Middleton and Madison the international Paris Climate Agreement. Here in Wisconsin, not only for ourselves but on behalf of the globe.

And I testify this personally because I’m a follower of Jesus. He is the historic epitome of grassroots revolution. It wasn’t from Caesar and the centers of power in the hegemony of the Roman Empire that change was going to come, that values of compassion would take a turn for the better, that life would win. It came from the poor peasants and outcasts in a backwater village by drawing people together, and courageously and sacrificially seeing what they knew the world should be, and who went on to subvert the ignorant control of the world’s allegedly most powerful empire. With it came the proclamation that God is on the side of life. God is on the side of relationships. God is on the side of shared wellbeing. With this vision, as we struggle and strive, as we Rise Up for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, the God known in Jesus is present with us to restore, to renew, and to recreate a mutually beneficial ecological community, across the earth, and right here in this place, now and for good. Thank you.

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Mountain Sunday

sermon on Exodus33:18-34:8, Mark9:2-10, Psalm48 (and John Muir)

 

The mountains are calling and I must go…mountain

We could think with mountains just of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Mount of Olives. Or of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to scale Mount Everest. Or Pachamama, the indigenous Peruvian mountain goddess who gets combined with the Virgin Mary. But for the voice of mountains, let’s hear from Wisconsin-raised John Muir, who led the call for protecting several of our earliest National Parks and camped with Teddy Roosevelt and founded the Sierra Club. John Muir’s words will guide our reflection today, in concert or dialogue with Scripture and our faith.

“The mountains are calling and [we] must go” is a good phrase from him to get us started. It may fit with God beckoning Moses up the mountain, and the retreat of Jesus and the disciples, to get away from pressures of labors for solitude and re-creation. Plus, that’s the vista where you can see visions. We are in this for a mountain-top experience!

You may know the feeling I had as a 6th grader flying over the Rockies, seeing a snow-covered range for the first time and yearning to go explore more. Or the sense of driving into Colorado or Montana and just waiting for the craggy peaks to appear in the distance. Or the return to flat land when clouds on the horizon make you look twice expecting that soul-filling grandeur.

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. Cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

 Expanding on enjoyment, as stress and cares depart, this is often our reaction to mountains, of getting away on vacation. Muir also said, though, that “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” This sense not only compels us to get out and explore, to find rejuvenation away from too-controlling and human civilization, but also propels us to preservation, that we need to be caring for these things. Hope for us, and for them.

Again, Muir could declare that few are deaf to the preaching of pine trees, that “Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.” Those sermons, Muir said, are about not clear-cutting forests, so their preached message includes self-preservation, but also means conserving these wild places because they are good for us, too, like in this quote:

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountains are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

 Still, this highlights a distinction. Though I’d reject the strict Christianity of Muir’s father and am eager for us to hear his voice for our view of the mountains, it isn’t totally the same focus as what we say here in church. When he says the trees on slopes have sermons and the mountains convey “good tidings and Nature’s peace,” we have to ask if that’s the same tidings of good news proclaimed in a sermon or is different than the peace of Christ we share here. When Muir said Beauty is synonymous with God, we’d say love is more representative in embodying God.

Again, I share Muir’s message to try to bring some the feel of the mountains into this very tame and calm and orderly setting. But I remain unconvinced that you can get the same good news and hope by being outdoors on a Sunday morning. Moses couldn’t take the full terrifying view, but with his back turned had to trust proclamation, that our God intends to be known as a God of steadfast love and kindness, whose promise abides to the thousandth generation. It’s a perpetual question of where you look—or listen—for God. I believe you need to be here for a clearer word from God spoken in your language and into your own being that you can’t discern from a mountain message. The “fountain of life” isn’t simply what naturally exists around you, but at its heart the fountain of life is God in Jesus, and we should listen to his proclamation. We can extrapolate from Jesus to nature, but not so clearly the other way.

Still, from John Muir’s natural perspective and these Season of Creation weeks, we celebrate beauty with clarity that everything made is good, a unity of the whole. Here’s Muir on our place amid a much grander family than we usually recognize, and which Muir himself says he had overlooked:

[I had] never before noticed so fine a union of rock and cloud in form and color and substance, drawing earth and sky together as one; and we shout, exulting in wild enthusiasm as if all the divine show were our own. More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.

Those words of a divine show—a Godly spectacle!—were from Muir’s first year in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about a sunset on this very day 149 years ago: September 2, 1869. Because we so often separate ourselves and see creation as other, here’s another passage on the same theme of family:

Yosemite Park is a place in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers [and sisters]; one even learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds.

It’s interesting he’s able to see not just animals but also plants and waters and the rocks themselves as siblings. That can help us hear relationships when Jesus says that if we’re silent about these things, instead (as we sang last week) “every stone shall cry” out.

Muir also directly offers words from Jesus here—of “peace, be still,” from Jesus calming a storm. Yet that may show a distinction, since Muir favors the tempest and delights in the destruction. He sees death as no enemy. He learns to like the storms. He climbed to the top of a 100-foot pine whipping in a fierce windstorm so he could feel as the tree did and hear the music of the needles in the wind.

That, versus how we may be intrigued by extreme weather events, but only to a degree. At Holden Village, I liked snowshoeing up a snowfield alone, but was intimidated and ready to turn back from the crash of avalanche noise and the footprints of a mountain lion. I admit I enjoyed biking through the downpour after the Worship Team meeting Tuesday, but was also ready to change into dry clothes at home. You may wince at every forecast and dread it and look for escape rather than delight. That may seem a place for faith: that we seek in God shelter from the storm. Or, better, remember that God’s abiding and enduring love is so much more than terrors, as terrifying as they may be.

There’s another edge of faith, too, that’s not about escape, but about engagement. Here’s a bit toward that:

Here is the eternal flux of Nature manifested. Ice changing to water, lakes to meadows, and mountains to plains. And while we thus contemplate Nature’s methods of landscape creation, and, reading the records she has carved on the rocks, reconstruct, however imperfectly, the landscapes of the past, we also learn that as these we now behold have succeeded those of the pre-glacial age, so they in turn are withering and vanishing to be succeeded by others yet unborn.

This describes John Muir’s discovery that glaciers and not volcanoes formed the scenery of Yosemite. He was reading the clues left long before, that they slowly carved away the mountains. I pair that with words from Jesus, that faith can say to a mountain “be thrown into the sea.” We tend to picture that as meaning you could say a little prayer and move mountains. I’m favorably inclined to Muir’s geo-logic that sees the stretch of God’s work over eons, that mountains are indeed being carried into the sea, and the new mountains arise through the still-little understood process of plate tectonics, that these moving mountains are, after all, a vision of our faith, from 470-million-year-old Appalachians to eruptions in Hawaii, God still creating.

People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.

Our task today has been to see these journeys not just as sightseeing or diversionary little outings, but reverently, as holy pilgrimages to encounter the mountains, and to encounter God. Finally, we return to the extended rest of our opening:

The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, incessantly.

With John Muir, then, on this Labor Day weekend, we remember that this isn’t escape. It’s not vacation. It’s not a peace just from pause. It’s a peace through engagement, from work, being aware of our place amid connections. Whether with Jesus we go back down from the mountain or with John Muir we work incessantly above, our vocations remain. God calls us to work. As we say at the MCC, this is the practice of living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation. That’s God’s work and labor, too. So one more good one, to let Mr. Muir have the last word:

Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born.

  

Quotes are from John Muir: Nature Writings (Cronon, ed.) and https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/favorite_quotations.aspx

 

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