Date: Nov. 7, 2021
Scripture Lessons: Job 12:7-8 and Luke 19:28-40
Sermon: For ALL the Saints!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Famed naturalist John Muir is remembered for his devotion to nature and for founding the Sierra Club to protect natural lands but Muir was also an adept engineer and inventor. In 1867 he had an industrial accident which led to his being blinded. He had secured work in a carriage factory. As he was repairing a circular saw, a file slipped and pierced his right eye. When he realized that he could no longer see from his right eye, his first reaction was to murmur, “My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God’s beauty.” It’s almost as if Muir believed he had been given his eyes purely for that purpose – to witness the presence and glory and mystery of God in the beauty of the natural world. After the accident injuring the eye, his other eye failed as well, and then after a long period of recuperation, he regained his sight in both eyes and he was able to give us the vivid descriptions of nature as his legacy. [From The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures, selected and introduced by Lee Stetson, pp. 21-24.]
“Open your eyes, and behold, the whole world is full of God.” These words of Jacob Boehme, a seventeenth century German shoemaker and philosopher, certainly describe the life of naturalist John Muir, whether he knew them or not! Muir saw God constantly in the beauty and mystery and order of the natural world. While Muir’s father was an extremely devout Christian and sought to impose faith on his family through hard work, discipline, and punishment meant to ward off evil, his son, John Muir, spent his life taking delight in the divine revelations of nature. We see this religious devotion to nature in the way Muir writes about what he sees and experiences. In addition to continual biblical allusions, Muir very often personifies nature. Nature is not simply an ‘it,’ an objective thing. It is a living presence and he is in relationship with nature.
We see how Muir experienced this in a letter he wrote to a friend after spending some time in the city of San Francisco:
“When I reached Yosemite, all the rocks seemed talkative, and more telling and lovable than ever. They are dear friends, and seemed to have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by long and close companionship. After I had bathed in the bright river, sauntered over the meadows, conversed with the domes, and played with the pines, I still felt blurred and weary as if tainted in some way with the sky of your streets. I determined, therefore, to run out for a while to say my prayers in the higher mountain temples . . .” [The Wild Muir, p. 100.]
Muir found God in nature and he felt that he was part of the community of nature. His language of personification was not purely romanticism but was part of the expression of his theology – that creation was a community, a divine community, all of it, and that he and humanity were part of that community. His perspective reflects that of Genesis in the Bible.
Here’s an example of this idea of community from Muir in a description of the need for living things to seek protection in winter:
“The first of the great snow-storms that replenish the Yosemite fountains seldom sets in before the end of November. Then, warned by the sky, wide-awake mountaineers, together with the deer and most of the birds, make haste to the lowlands or foothills; and burrowing marmots, mountain beavers, wood-rats, and other small mountain people, go into winter quarters, some of them not again to see the light of day until the general awakening and resurrection of the spring in June or July.” [The Wild Muir, p.61.]
A marmot is a chubby rodent with the buck teeth of a beaver and without the tail plumage of a squirrel. And Muir, lovingly, fondly, refers to them among the small mountain people that hibernate in the Yosemite each winter. Mountain climbers and rodents alike must protect themselves from winter. All are part of a community of beings seeking the same goal – a way to survive the winter. Muir sees nature as one glorious whole revealing the presence of God.
What Muir shows us is what the Bible tells us, creation, nature, is the self-
expression of God. A manifestation of divine creativity. Nature unrestrainedly offering its praise to God, to the life force, the Creator. In Psalm 148, we are told:
“Praise Our God from the earth,
you sea creatures and ocean depths,
lightening and hail, snow and mist,
and storm winds that fulfill God’s word,
mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small animals and flying birds,
rulers of the earth, leaders of all nations,
all the judges in the world,
young men and young women,
old people and children –
let them all praise the name of Our God
whose Name alone is exalted,
whose majesty transcends heaven and earth. . .”
And in the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus portrays the rocks glorifying God. All of creation is a symphony of praise.
Muir’s vivid depictions of nature exhibit the same exaltation, nature praising God, and humanity part of the chorus. Muir shows us that nature is offered by Divine Love as a blessing and a gift. And humanity is part of this cosmic expression and a recipient of the gift.
In general, I am not a fan of anthropomorphizing – of God, of animals, of cars, of ships, etc. The anthropomorphizing of a machine, a car, seems to elevate a collection of metal and plastic by imbuing it with the life force which it does not have. So that seems a false elevation of the machine and a devaluation of the sacred life force. And I think the anthropomorphizing of God has another host of problems. It seems to bring God down to our level, diminish God, limit and restrict God to human conceptions. What I like about the anthropomorphizing of nature, as we see it in the Bible and in Muir, among other places, is that it honors the life force contained in nature, it elevates nature, and it emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature as part of a whole that is imbued with God, with divinity, with the sacred.
In Genesis, humanity is tasked with caring for creation. We are to be curators of God’s masterpiece. Stewards of this gift. While the Hebrew is often translated as dominion, I think a better translation might be guardianship. We have been given guardianship over creation. We are to see that it is protected and cared for as a child without a parental figure. The state appoints a guardian to see that the child is protected and provided for. We are to be guardians of creation. And the anthropomorphizing of the natural world, while maybe sentimentally romantic is also a way of expressing relationship and care and respect for nature. It can be seen as a way of honoring creation.
Certainly John Muir would not desecrate creation or nature in any way. After all, the natural world is full of God. Those who read the Cathedral on Fire [Cathedral on Fire: a church handbook for the climate crisis, by Brooks Berndt] book for the Creation Justice book discussion may have noticed that Muir is cited in the first edition and then there is a corrective offered in the second edition. Apparently, Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, has been labeled racist and is now to be treated with circumspection. Well, I would like to know who in this room is not racist, does not have some attitudes that are a result of racism? Aren’t we all in some measure racist? Living in this society it is almost impossible not to internalize racist attitudes. Muir was also known as an egalitarian. [A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster, p. 5.] He was known for interacting with respect with whomever he met on his endless sojourns in the natural world. His fierce defense of natural land, and his desire to see that there was land protected from human habitation and development, meant that he thought that original peoples should also be removed from some lands so that those lands might remain pristine. It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt or punish the native peoples but that he wanted to protect the land. While this may be deemed insensitive and racist, it also shows that Muir was including the original peoples with all humanity, including the European invaders/colonizers that took over North America. All were human. And Muir wanted to see some lands protected from human influence. Period. Even from the original human inhabitants of the land. Is that racist? Or egalitarian? We don’t need to answer that, but we do need to take seriously the responsibility to be guardians of the earth and all that is therein.
This past summer, the United Church of Christ General Synod which meets every two years with representatives from all of the conferences met virtually. And among the many initiatives and pronouncements was the passage of a resolution in support of the rights of nature: “‘Who will speak for the Trees?’ A Resolution on the Rights of Nature.” It begins with a quote from environmentalist Aldo Leopold: “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The resolution calls for a long needed reconfiguration of the relationship between the human species and the earth, people and nature. People have traditionally seen nature as an object, a commodity, property under human control, thus vulnerable to exploitation. The resolution calls for the view of nature as the self disclosure of God, as an expression of the Divine. Nature is to be respected and treated with reverence. This leads to a relationship of interconnectedness, human rights and environmental rights co-related. Our legal system recognizes a corporation as a person with rights. The rights of nature movement is working to give rights to nature, as to another living being. In Florida, there is an effort to see that the the Caloosahatchee River is given rights and is legally protected. The rights of nature movement comes from South America where there are efforts to respect the rights of the land, the mountains, and the waters. In a way, this is an extension of the personification of nature that we see in Muir and in other naturalists who are intent on the protection of nature from exploitation by human beings. And Muir was not just a tree hugger. He had lived in an industrial city in Scotland and then moved to a farm in Wisconsin. He had walked the states of the south and stayed in cities and towns across the land. He was an engineer. He was mechanically minded and trained. He was an inventor. He wasn’t against humanity. He was for the protection of nature. He saw the need for nature to have an advocate. He was trying to change the mindset of people before the damage was irreparable. And his legacy lives on in the Sierra Club and in countless other environmental organizations, maybe we can even say, including the church!
Muir and Rev. S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian minister, formed a friendship and engaged in many a wilderness adventure together. In an account of an outing with Muir, Rev. Hall tells of Muir seeing a host of wildflowers unexpected in the northern Alaska setting:
“Muir at once went wild when we reached this fairyland. From cluster to cluster of flowers he ran, falling on his knees, babbling in unknown tongues, prattling a curious mixture of scientific lingo and baby talk, worshiping his little blue and- pink goddesses.
‘Ah! my blue-eyed darlin’, little did I think to see you here. How did you stray away from Shasta?’
‘Well, well! Who’d ‘a’ thought that you’d have left that niche in the Merced mountains to come here!’
‘And who might you be, now, with your wonder look? Is it possible that you can be (two Latin Polysyllables)? You’re lost, my dear; you belong in Tennessee.’
‘Ah! I thought I’d find you, my homely little sweetheart,’ and so on unceasingly.”
Rev. Hall observes, “So absorbed was he [Muir] in this amatory botany that he seemed to forget my existence.” [The Wild Muir, pp. 153-154.]
This Sunday is All Saints Sunday. And we remember those whom we name as saints. We think of these as people who have in some way shown us a glimpse of God, in who they are, in what they have taught us, in ourselves. We think of saints as those who reveal God to us in some way. Those who embody the sacred and convey that to us. But as the Bible shows us, and we see it reflected in the writings of John Muir, God is also being revealed to us in the natural world.
So, this All Saints Sunday, I am inviting us to consider doing some of our own personification of nature. All Saints is a time to honor those in whom we see a glimpse of God. Saints are people who let that divine love shine. In the spirit of Muir, I invite us to name among our saints those animals, maybe pets, those waters, those woods and trees, those places in nature in which we have glimpsed God. Maybe there is a plant, a flower, a configuration of the night sky, or some other manifestation in nature that has connected you to the Divine, to the sacred, in yourself, in others, or in the world around us. Maybe there is natural phenomenon that has soothed your soul. Or that has knocked you flat with power and awe. Something that has made manifest the mystery and grandeur at the heart of life.
So, this All Saints Sunday, knowing the dire state of the world around us, knowing that we are responsible for the frail state of the Earth, let us pursue health and healing for ourselves and the environment, by honoring the Divine, the sacredness of all of creation, human and non human elements alike. Amen.
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