Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 • Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 • Romans 15:4-13 • Matthew 3:1-12
On a clear day, if you stand tall on the railroad tie in just the right spot in the gravel parking right out there, you can look Southeast to the great white mountain early inhabitants of this land called Tahoma, Takkobad, Tkomma, Dah-ko-beed—what later European settlers named Mt. Rainier.
I don’t think it’s going to come of its hiding today, but it is there. Just because the clouds are covering it, the mountain continues to stand as it has for ages and ages, ready to surprise us again—when we’re coming over the crest on Union Avenue toward Honey Dew or driving 405 near Southcenter or even up in Everett and beyond when all of a sudden it fills your view and you are struck again with just how big this thing is.
According to the Duwamish people, at the time the Transformer was preparing to come around the world to make everything different, there was a tremendously large woman named Dah-ko-beed.. And she quarreled all the time with the two other wives of Ahstch-a-kud, a sharp peak who stands southward in the distant Olympics. Dah-ko-beed was especially a problem because there was no place big enough for her, so Ahstch-a-kud finally placed her over on the opposite side of the Sound and she became what we know today as Mt. Rainier.[i]
With a little imagination, we can envision the quiet, pristine, remote valley of the Cedar River watershed in all its wild, natural beauty. The Duwamish people settled and fished down there for some 9000 years before Captain William Renton brought his machinery with him from San Francisco in the 1850s, and built a saw mill. Erasmus Smithers platted the town and organized the Renton Coal Company with the financial backing of Captain Renton. He was one of the founders of the first sawmill and responsible for the Pacific Car and Foundry railroad—PACCAR as we know it—that moved timber and coal and other gifts of the land that we did not create to Seattle and beyond.
We know something of the rest of the story. In the 1920s and 30s, Renton evolved into a working blue-collar center. The US Junk Company became McClendon’s Hardware. Boeing still dominates the land along the waters of the Cedar as it did when production of the B-29 “Superfortress” began at the Boeing Renton plant and “General Sherman” tanks at PACCAR. It was a great war that brought an influx of workers and expansion of the city up its logged hills to the East and South.
It seems conflict has often if not always been a part of our story under this great white mountain. It is, quite literally, a story as old as the hills.
And the hope and even the promise of peace is just as ancient, I suspect. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. An infant safe at the entrance to a snake’s den. What we wouldn’t give for some peace of mind when it comes to all this conflict!
I see John the Baptist a little different these days. After a week of hiking in the Cascade wilderness this summer just north of that big white mountain the human family has known by many names, I could see John as one of those thru-hikers inspired by a creation myth of a different sort, Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the movie that followed and inspired thousands to get away from it all into the wilderness to find themselves, to find something deeper than all this distraction and illness this culture of conflict fills us with to the point that we are flooded with distress.
We stopped a lot for Huckleberries, but locusts and honey is actually a pretty tame diet from some of these backpackers who carry everything they need to survive on their backs and are baptized with a new name as they make the journey. It is a little easier to understand John’s anger at the world when we remember all the conflict that was a part of it then as it is now.
When I think of John, I think of what I learned some years ago when I served a church in Sunnyside, along the banks of the Yakima River whose waters have flowed steadfastly for millennia from the slopes of—you guessed it—the Cascade Range, and that great volcano George Vancouver named in honor of his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, the British naval officer who was injured in the American Revolutionary War and then brought large swaths of territory in the East Indies under British control.[ii]
Sunnyside is a family farming community—or used to be. It is changing now, and that’s created some conflict. I think I discovered something of a pattern while I was there. As I was learning from them, trying to understand how they think, I noticed that the families were multi-generational. Not a surprise when you need to keep the farm going. Parents had handed off the farm and all its responsibilities to their kids and then it went to their grandkids and so on. The little church was made up of family members who had stayed to work the farm or for other pursuits. But in just about every family there were missing siblings, brothers and sisters who had left—to New York and Seattle and abroad. All over—scattered to the winds—often to be heard from only rarely. That dynamic gave the church a personality I think many churches have. I realized it was different from my own, and it occurred to me that was because I was one of those who had left.
I suspect something of the conflicts we may have experienced or tried to avoid around our Thanksgiving tables—this year especially—is in large part explained by the fact that all families have some who, have stayed, while others have left. We’re different that way. We see differently. And it makes for some conflict.
We never ask for a battle. But it always seems to find us. And sometimes conflict and tragedy brings together what was once apart. This is the sign and strangely also the promise of this little child, this new birth we await in this season.
Perhaps you’ve heard about Owen and Mzee. Owen was a baby hippo orphaned in the mountain of water that struck the coast of Kenya near the end of 2004.[iii] The day before Christmas, heavy rains washed a family of hippos down the Sabaki River and out to sea. The residents tried to urge the family back up the estuary, but they failed. Then the tsunami that had started nearly 4000 miles away erupted the day after Christmas off the Kenyan coast, turning the sea angry. And the hippos disappeared and were forgotten in the recovery efforts. The next day only one could be seen, a baby stranded on a reef.
An army of people with ropes, boats, nets, and cars were assembled, but it was finally a brave rugby tackle that brought the slippery hippo to safety. The cheer could be heard from nearly a mile away. The hippo was named after his rescuer, but I suspect he was known by other names beforehand.
What happened next is what made the news. Owen—the baby hippo, not the rugby player—was relocated to a sanctuary. The moment he was released, he rushed over to an old tortoise named Mzee and cowered behind him like he would his own mother. At first Mzee didn’t know what to do but this baby mammal and this ancient reptile became a family of sorts, baby and adopted grandfather spending their days together in the pond, feeding and patrolling. Owen would nudge Mzee to come for walks, and Mzee sometimes even followed Owen.
Here’s one hypothesis: the name for that great white mountain Tacoma in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Puyallup people means “mother of waters.”[iv] It would make sense, and is probably a better thing for us to remember than the name of an obscure British Admiral named Rainier, as heroic as he may have been. Because we are water people. The waters in that baptismal font come from the heavens, by way of that great white mountain. They water the fields that grow our grain. The waters fill our watersheds, create our rivers. They are piped into our homes and churches. Ultimately they become a part of us.[v]
We are inclined to imagine we are separate, individual, not a part of that mess that goes on out there. But they are us and we are them, and we belong to one another as part of a great human family, and even more importantly, as a single creation—dust to dust, animated for a while by water and Spirit, somehow able in our best moments to remember we are of the same stuff, children of the same God, partners in the same journey from conflict to peace—before we become the compost that fertilizes other living things, before a shoot grows from an old dead stump. Who would have thought?
“The earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord,” Isaiah says. We can’t always see it. Just like that mountain. But the connection is there to this one great God and this one fragile creation. We can’t always see it, but the hope is there. It is always there. And just like that mountain, it is always breaking through, and sometimes it surprises us.
So Paul tells us to remain steadfast as we await the righteousness for which we long. It is coming. Look for it. Search for it. Live for it. Because it is in you and around you and you are nothing but a part of it.
[i] Cf. Ella E. Clark. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953, 2003), 28-29.
[ii] Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Rainier,_junior.
[iii] The story was told in many places including by NPR on July 17, 2005. See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4754996.
[iv] Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Rainier.
[v] The Cedar River watershed originates in the Cascade Range, which includes Mt. Rainier: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_River_(Washington).
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