Learn why naturalist John Muir didn’t like hikers, though he probably climbed more mountains than just about anybody. Sing songs that celebrate the great good earth, come to seek forgiveness for our neglect and to recommit to care for creation.
A sermon given on April 23, 2017 at First Parish Dorchester
by Rev. Tricia Brennan
If you are sharp-eyed you might have noticed that the community prayer we prayed, called “Earth Teach Me”, is not what is listed in your order of service. The previously intended prayer called “Some Things Will Never Change” was written by American novelist Thomas Wolfe in the 1930’s, and it is a beautiful piece of writing. I chose it originally for how it captures the glorious particularities of nature and humanity. But when I read it again more closely yesterday, and heard how its title- “Some things will never change”- repeated throughout- was uttered as a testimony to the earth’s invincibility, a declaration of sorts that the earth lasts forever, I realized that this is a prayer from another time on our earth. A time when the earth was not yet seriously harmed by human actions. A time when the earth did seem indomitable, a symbol of stability and security, which we could count on to never change, to always be there for us. Implied was the belief that there was no way we humans could really harm something as strong and vibrant and above all, huge, as our planet. The oceans were such great carbon sinks that they would automatically cancel out pollution, the forests so enormous that we could cut as many trees as we wanted for they were infinite in number. Implied, or more than implied- assumed- was the belief that the earth belonged to us, was ours for the taking, the using, the possessing.
So though it had many lovely images, that was not a prayer I could chose for us to say together today, on this planet we share in 2017. Better a prayer wherein we seek forgiveness for our actions, or a prayer that recognizes the earth as our teacher, such as we did in fact pray.
Yesterday was Earth Day, and people marched for Science in over 600 rallies and marches, including here in Boston. Next Saturday, again in Boston and across the country, thousands of people will show up to fight for a climate rooted in racial and economic justice. No doubt many of us were there yesterday, no doubt many of us will be there next Saturday. Making a difference by speaking up and showing up, strengthening our political will by being with others. Essential political and moral work.
My hope for this service is for us to dwell in the garden a while, the garden of earthly delights. I want us to worship in the thrall of the power and splendor of nature, in praise of the natural world. Our passion to fight for the planet arises out of love, and love comes from knowing something intimately.
Is there a place on the good earth that you know intimately, like the back of your hand? Think on it a minute. It could be the woods near your home growing up, a hill that you used to climb, it could be your back yard now, or your garden, it could be the Blue Hills in Milton or the Dorchester Bay. Perhaps you grew up in the Midwest and know what farmland looks like, smells like, sounds like. Perhaps it is the sound of seagulls and the smell of salt air that is your homing instinct. Perhaps you have a plot in an urban garden and know every each of that 10 by 20 foot piece of earth. Perhaps it is a trail in the woods that you have walked a hundred times. Whatever it is, think on it for a moment, remember what it looked like in the morning light, the full-on day, at twilight and in darkness. Recall it in the seasons. What did you love about that particular place on this planet?
For me it was “the peninsula”, which sounds a lot more grand than it was. I grew up on the Thames Rives in Groton, CT, and across the street from my house a small piece of land jutted out into the river, near where the river meets the Long Island Sound. I would cross the street to reach the low grass that lead to a path through the high grass, often up to my shoulders, that lead to the rocks, a small cliff of sorts, where the waves crashed. It sounds like a long journey, but it took no more than 5 minutes to go from front door to my favorite perch on the rocks. Still, it was leaving one world and entering another. And there I would go many a day with friends or siblings, often alone. There I misbehaved in all manner of teen-like ways, there I had many a good conversation, there I prayed and thought and made decisions, there I cried and at other times felt exquisitely happy. There I watched the sun set and the moonrise, and the boats go by, and time moved slowly. I was lucky to have that place, and it is with me still, in the heart’s memory.
I invite you now, if you are willing, to tell a person near you in the pews of the place on this earth that you know most well, the place that came to your mind when I asked. You only need to take a moment to share of your place and listen to someone else’s. I know this is not something we do often in the midst of a sermon, but let’s give it a try this morning.
In a sense these places that we spoke of are the places where we have sauntering, to use John Muir’s term. Places we have walked through slowly, that are more about being in than arriving at. A la sainte terre- to the holy land we have gone- they are our holy places for there we knew ourselves as of the earth.
How many of you are hikers? Yeah me too, and I’m grateful my body can still take me places high and low. And though I’m not a fast hiker at all, I can still be guilty of the hiker mindset that Muir decries, the focus on distance and destination, more than really seeing and being where we are. For those of us who fear that if we saunter too much, we’ll never get anywhere or accomplish anything, John Muir himself stands as a helpful contradiction. If you added up all the times he spent in the mountains- his nickname was John of the Mountains- it would be measured in years, even decades. Yet this man who loved to saunter, wrote over 300 articles and 10 major books that recounted his travels, expounded his naturalist philosophy, and beckoned everyone to “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Muir’s love of the high country gave his writings a spiritual quality, and his readers, be they presidents, congress men and women, or plain folks, were and are inspired and often moved to action by the enthusiasm of Muir’s unbounded love of nature. His other nickname was Father of the National Park System, and he is credited with the creation of the Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon National Parks. Not bad for a fellow that never hurried and was usually the last man to reach camp.
He saw the encroaching growth of industrialization and fought its claim to the wilderness. He knew what it meant to a person to spend time in the natural world and he wanted everyone to be able to do so. He loved the earth and all its inhabitants. His was a mystical love. “We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but God flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.” (Life and Letters of John Muir) “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, Places to play in and pray in, Where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” (The Yosemite, 1912)
Today’s sermon could have easily have been about grief, the grief we need to face and feel knowing our beautiful world is in peril. And we will go there, more, another day.
But grief arises from love, And the wisest and most skillful fight to save our planet arises from love, And all that we do and all that we are is sustained by the earth- its sun, water, and nourishment- and by the simple delight we feel as we saunter along the places we love.
People here work hard, in your work lives and home lives, your church lives and your political lives. You give much, you struggle often- for life has its struggles, and still you find time to be justice seekers and peace-makers in our world.
My hope is that you will let yourself saunter along this trail of life, taking in all the beauty and love and friendship it has to offer. You will get where you need to go, we will get where we need to go, It is a beautiful world and we can save it best by savoring it, we can love ourselves into wholeness by letting earth heal us.
© Tricia Brennan, 2017