1 Kings 19:9-18 † Psalm 85:8-13 † Romans 10:5-15 † Matthew 14:22-33
*A video form of this sermon can be found here or you can see the entire liturgy here.
In the Fishlake National Forest, on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau there is a colony of quaking Aspen that is an estimated 80,000 years old. Now, were you walking in the midst of it right now rather than listening to me, it would not be readily apparent. There is no tree in the grove that is anywhere near that age. Cut one down and you might count 80 rings, 80 seasons of growth. Maybe more. Maybe less.[i]
But underground, the eighty-year-old trunks are 80,000, a 100,000 years-old if they are a day. Some scientists think even this is a huge undercount, suggesting the forest has been around for the better part of a million years. Every tree here has sprouted from a rhizome mass too old to date even to the nearest hundred millennia, they say.
This is Pando—“I spread” in Latin. The Quaking Giant—a single clonal creature that looks like a forest. Each tree is genetically identical to the next, rising from a single organism operating on an entirely different timescale than any other organic being. As you are walking through this forest, all around you spreads one single male whose genetically identical trunks cover more than 100 acres.
This single organism has been alive for all of recorded human history. It journeyed through the land before humans left Africa. There are Aspens everywhere, but not one has grown from a seed. They won’t germinate in the current climate. But they propagate by root, shoots spring up from a single root system. They spread. They migrate, these motionless trees—stands of aspen retreating before two-mile-thick glaciers, then moving north again.
All the drama of the world is gathering underground, a symphony of connection, of meaning, mostly hidden from our eyes. A mystery to us. What we don’t know about what is beneath our feet, and alive in the overstory above our heads is far more vast than what we do.
“I alone am left,” Elijah imagines. And the psalmist says in reply:
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.[ii]
The disciples quake: “It is a ghost.”
And Jesus says in reply, “Take heart… Do not be afraid.”
The earth tells us a different story. There are resources, there is life teeming out of our sight. God is moving in ways we cannot comprehend. Even the wilderness is a place of abundance for God. Even a pandemic and its lethal force does not compare to the spread of God’s goodness. We have no idea how connected we are.
You of little faith. Why did you doubt?
Deep into this pandemic, riddled by one offense after another, the clear-cutting of a forest of norms in our political story, our assault on the very ecosystem that gives us life, it becomes so easy to see how fragile life is, and surely it is. How could we think otherwise on the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima? How could we imagine differently as we summon all the courage we can to look in the face of this history of white supremacy and our privilege in it, and imagine a future that makes room for all?
It becomes easy to think this thing will not hold, this way of life we have given ourselves to, this faith in deeper powers and holy presence is not enough.
I was caught this week by an interview with a woman named Sharhonda Bossier. Raised by her grandparents in the Watts section of LA the story tells her journey to activism. Her childhood was lived out in the context of oppression and the threat of violence. Latasha Harlins, a girl close in age to Bossier at the time is shot and killed by a store owner without justification. Rodney King is beaten by police. Protests and riots follow. She rode a roller-coaster of hope and despair. Even though she didn’t yet have the words for it, she learned there was a different force, like gravity, that she didn’t yet understand, but it would impact the trajectory of her life.
Then her grandmother died, and she was devastated. She turned angry.
I was pretty angry at God when my grandmother died. I felt like I had been dealt a pretty short hand already on the parent front. Parents who struggled with addiction. A father who was incarcerated. A mother who was absent from most of my life. And then to take the only mother I had ever known at 13. I just — I didn’t know what kind of God would do that. So I enter high school just mad at the world and mad at authority, in particular.[iii]
We could imagine how this might have gone, but a few of her teachers took an interest in Bossier. Her English teacher told her, you know, you could really do something with all this anger you’re feeling.
I thought, initially, that my teachers were going to have me do something whack, like a petition drive or join student government. And I had no interest in doing that.
And Mrs. Campbell says, you can protest. You can try to change these things that you don’t think are fair. You can become an activist.[iv]
The thought resonated with her. And she decides to participate in a school walkout for the first time. It’s organized because some of her peers are upset that they are attending a school named after a slave owner.
On the day of the walkout, she remembers pausing before she reached the doors of the school. She looks around:
And I remember security guards standing at the gates and saying, if you walk out, we’re going to report your name to the front office.
— and she just takes this deep breath, like, am I doing this?
If I had to call my grandfather and say, “Grandpa, I’m at the police station because I walked out of school,” I couldn’t imagine having to do that.
And then exhales, and decides she’s doing this.
I got to walk out.
She walks past the security guard and out the doors. She remembers the feeling of the fresh air on her skin. And a feeling of release. A release that feels productive.
These stories. These people. This world. When we get a glimpse of what is, even when it is beyond our sight.
What is above and what is below meet here. It speaks clearly in the sound of sheer silence with which Elijah is already acquainted. And so are we.
The apostle to the Roman church says we are not destined to be ripped apart: Who will ascend into heaven? … Who will descend into the abyss?[v]
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart… because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
This isn’t about saying some magic words, you see. This is about remembering and recalling, renaming what we know to be true what saves us, even when we can’t see it for the ground or for the trees.
So, listen to those voices that speak truth in our time. Learn from them. Feel the fresh air on your skin and give yourself again to the one who walks on water to you. And get out of the boat. If you’re helpless, afraid, overwhelmed. Act. Do something. Reconnect yourself, pleach yourself, to the network that gives life to us all.
[i] This narrative is drawn from multiple sources, including Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition; McDermott, Mat. “Utah Aspen Grove Is 80,000 Years Old”, October 11, 2018. Retrieved on August 6, 2020 from: https://www.treehugger.com/utah-aspen-grove-years-old-4857816; and Ketcham, Christopher. “The Life and Death of Pando,” October 18, 2018. Retrieved on August 6, 2020 from: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/the-life-and-death-of-pando. Video images are drawn from “Earth’s most massive living thing is struggling to survive” PBS NewsHour, February 3, 2019. Retrieved on August 6, 2020 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwHyEz0qSnA; and “Pando, One of the Oldest and Largest Organisms” SciTech Now, March 15, 2016. Retrieved on August 6, 2020 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGYBTma6y8s.
[ii] Psalm 85:10-12.
[iii] “Stay Black and Die” The Daily Podcast. New York Times, August 5, 2020. Retrieved on August 6, 2020 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/podcasts/the-daily/protests-racism-police-brutality.html?showTranscript=1.
[v] Romans 10:6-10.
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St. Andrew Sermons