A Wild Journey – Wilderness Sunday
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 21, 2014 (Day of the People’s Climate March in NYC)
Joel 1: 8-10, 17-20 Mark 1: 9-13
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
What I always find intriguing and alarming in equal parts in this passage, is that Jesus doesn’t just decide to go into the wilderness – the spirit that descended upon him during his baptism drove him into the wilderness. He was compelled into the wilderness by God. And in the wilderness he lived with beasts, resisted temptation, and encountered angels. Regardless of what Jesus thought he might be doing that day, post baptism, the Spirit pulled him with a power that he could not resist, toward the uncertainty and beauty of wilderness.
Have you ever felt a pull into the wilderness that was stronger than your fear, stronger than your plans?
In the critically acclaimed NY Times best-seller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed felt this pull. At twenty-two, and in the wake of her mother’s death, as her marriage disintegrated, driven by what she calls “blind will,” Cheryl hiked more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State; alone.
Henry David Thoreau, reflecting on his choice to live simply for a year on Walden Pond, wrote, “A person needs wildness the way a garden needs its load of muck … In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Centuries apart, Thoreau and Strayed both argue that wilderness has an irresistible pull as well being the sustaining, shaping force on us and the planet.
In her book, The Pine Island Paradox, philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore elaborates, “Wildness changes human beings in ways we value: we come from the wild places restored … which must have something to do with the new stores that will nourish us, new sources of strength and peace, or maybe new stories of who we are in relation to each other and the moon.” With wilderness land shrinking at an alarming rate, and remembering that most of us on most days don’t encounter wilderness, she concludes, “without deep lakes and mountaintops in our daily lives, what we need in the cities is the moral equivalent of wildness. But what would that be?”
I have been deeply nurtured by the writings of John Muir, describing wild places I will never visit.
Muir (or John of the Mountains) was our first great American naturalist and is known as the “Father of our National Parks.” Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, a seaport facing the rugged North Sea, with moss covered ruins, meadows, and seemingly endless wooded country surrounding it. He was a preacher’s kid, and grew up immersed in scripture, eventually memorizing ¾ of the Bible, but also playing outdoors, exploring castles, watching birds, and climbing trees where he discovered “another primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature.”
John emigrated to America in 1849 when his father became pastor of a congregation in Wisconsin. There, John continued his study of God’s two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, but he also began to seek his vocation. As a young man, John was naturally inventive. He once won a fifteen-dollar prize for his “early rising machine” a clock device that would, in the morning, raise the top of the bed so that the occupant would slide down and land on their feet. He was always building something, to the consternation of his father and the fascination of his neighbors. John eventually took a job as an apprentice in a workshop, and that’s when his accident happened. A file he was using slipped and sprang back, nicking his eyeball. His palm sprang to his head, and as the “milky white, aqueous humor dripped down onto his hand,” and the “sunlight on the meadow faded from his right eye”, and then, as a result of the shock, from his left as well, John knew he was blind.
“Sunlight and winds play in the gardens of God and I will never see them,” John said to his doctor. Of course, the doctors assured him they could repair his eye. But for four long weeks John had to lay in bed in a darkened room. Then shades were gradually raised, day by day, to let the light back in. And slowly he began to see. When, weeks later, his employer stopped by to invite him back to work, John said “Mr. Osgood, this morning I walked in the woods. I saw the beauty of God’s creations. How softly the gray clouds filtered the sunlight, how sweet the sights and sounds of nature.”
“Yes, April is nice. Look, Mr. Muir, I don’t expect you to come back to work tomorrow – another couple of weeks and – “
But John shook his head. “No, Mr. Osgood, a couple of weeks or a couple of months – it wouldn’t matter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s as though I’ve risen from the grave, Mr. Osgood. This morning I realized God has to nearly kill us to teach us lessons.”
“Think about it please,” Judson Osgood insisted.
“I have. I could become a millionaire, but I think I’d rather be a tramp. My new address, Mr. Osgood, will be the Universe.”
And tramp is just what he did. John took a train from his home in Wisconsin to Louisville, KY and then started walking … all the way through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, all the way to Florida and then on by steamer to Cuba. Intending to go on the South America, but unable to find passage on a ship, he ended up in California where he spent the rest of his life walking. During my own family vacation this summer, August and I spent a day walking in John Muir’s footsteps, following his trail through what is now Big South Fork National Recreation Area in Tennessee. It was humbling and awesome to eat our lunch below the Angel Falls that Muir described so long ago.
But Muir didn’t just explore and he didn’t just write popular wilderness adventure stories that acquainted the wider public with the spectacular scope and depth of wilderness. He did something else. He founded the Sierra Club and organized to preserve the wilderness areas that were threatened.
You see, wilderness is not only a balm, a challenge, and a mirror for the development of our own selves and societies, it is its own range of habitats with creaturely populations and intrinsic contributions to our planet’s well-being. In other words, the relationship isn’t all about us and what wilderness can do for us. Muir reminded us not only of our intricate relationship with wilderness but also the need to respect the wilderness for what it is apart from humans –he recognized wilderness in its own right and demanded from us that we respect the wilderness, not simply take from it – even when that taking is spiritual renewal.
This week my mother found bobcat scat on the sidewalk in front of her condo in Florida. She knew the big cats were out there in the woods behind her home, but this one had come around the house and up to her front door. Wilderness sought her out. Was it a reminder? An appeal? An invitation?
There are ironies here in an age of dangerous climate change. As the earth’s atmosphere warms, and ice-packs melt, new fields – our formerly wild places are become available for exploitation by fossil fuel companies. Places like the tar sands in Canada, or sea floors that used to be locked away under glaciers. Our future depends on our ability to leave these wilderness places unexplored and untouched. And we are profoundly bad at leaving things alone.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on Friday,
As responsible citizens of the world – sisters and brothers of one family, the human family, God’s family – we have a duty to persuade our leaders to lead us in a new direction: to help us abandon our collective addiction to fossil fuels, starting this week in New York at the United Nations Climate Summit. Reducing our carbon footprint is not just a technical scientific necessity; it has also emerged as the human rights challenge of our time.
In just a few minutes I am going into NYC to join members of our congregation – and what is now estimated to be over 500,000 people – at the People’s Climate March. It is a wilderness undertaking. This great river of humanity will flow through the streets of New York, for the sake of the wilderness, for the sake of our planet and for the sake of ourselves. At this moment in our earth’s life we sense God compelling us from the sanctuary and into the wilderness; into the risk and the possibility of life together on this great gift from God, our earth. At 1:00 many more of you will gather on the church lawn to sound a climate alarm and to pray and to sing.
Because everything needs to change.
The world be about to turn!
[Immediately following the sermon we sang
My Song Cries Out with a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning) by Rory Coony,
the chorus of which is
“My heart cries out with a joyful shout,
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.”]
 I have culled this story from John Stewart’s Winds in the Woods – The Story of John Muir (The Westminster Press, 1975), which was given to me as a gift by The Rev. Peggy Howland. Muir’s integration of scripture and the book of nature is abundant in Meditation of John Muir: Nature’s Temple, compiled and edited by Chris Highland (Wilderness Press, 2001). Muir’s journal from his first long walk has been published as A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (Mariner Books, 1998).