Guest Preacher Rev. Sarah Anders
Ask the animals and they will teach you, or the birds of the air and they will tell you. Let the fish of the sea inform you, or ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you. ~ Job 12:7-8
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
~ T.S. Eliot, Excerpt from “Little Gidding”
Moment for Meditation:
Is divine sovereignty the appropriate imagery to express salvation in our time? It may have been for some ages, but in our time, when the interdependence of all life and our special responsibility for it need to be emphasized, is it for ours?
~ Sallie McFague
It’s wonderful to be with you! Ellen and I go way back to when she was Director of Faith Formation at IFFP and my husband and I were members. We both made transitions to the UCC and have worked together in the Potomac Association on Faith Formation and Older Adult Ministry (with Le Rowell!) The last time I was in this sanctuary was for Ellen’s installation!
While preparing for today, I looked at a few of Ellen’s past sermons and recent CP website posts, and was buoyed to see her recent reflection on Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term for “Forest Bathing.” Forest Bathing combines leisurely walks on gentle paths under forest canopy with guided activities and meditations to help you open your senses, hone your intuition, and experience the forest as you never have before. This speaks to my heart.
For me, there is no better medicine than the outdoors. I’m committed to getting our churches outdoors. So I’ll cut to the chase. As delighted as I am to be here, I’d rather be outdoors this morning. On almost any given Sunday, I’d rather be outside than sitting within four walls of a building. I love the spiritual path we walk together in worship – but these days I love the path that goes along the Potomac River even more. If I could bring my spiritual/religious friends with me for a spiritual/religious gathering every Sunday, that’s where I’d be. That’s where my work and the work of others in the church is headed.
There’s a small but stream of religious people interested in worshiping outdoors. The Church of the Woods, led by an Episcopal priest, meets on 106 acres of wild woods and wetlands in Canterbury, NH. As I speak, they’re on a 40-day Connecticut River pilgrimage. You and I are invited to join them for as much of the pilgrimage we’d like, drop in as a one day-paddler or at a shore-based event.
Creation Spirituality communities have actually been around for awhile. They’re a network of folks yearning to be attentive to the sacredness of creation. They do this through the study and practice of Matthew Fox’s seminal work called “Creation Spirituality.” I’m working with CS leadership to gather like-minded folks in our area.
There’s the growing Forest Church movement in the United Kingdom. Loosely part of the Anglican church, they call themselves a “fresh expression of church” that draws on much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside.”
In our own backyard, there’s the Center for Spirituality in Nature with whom I’m associated. Beth Norcross, the founder, helps develop “Spirituality in Nature Groups” in local churches. They offer monthly walks and explorations in a church community, coming together to experience the Divine in nature. A regular group has sprung out of Fairlington Methodist Church in Arlington that interestingly includes a fair number of millennials. Yesterday the Center was with Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax for a spirit-filled walk in the woods.
What if we had church outdoors regularly? In the same place every week, where we could notice what had receded from the week before, what had more visibly thrived, and what miracle is occurring beyond our vision?
This sermon was in the works on Tuesday when I picked up the Washington Post and read an article that espoused nature’s many physical and emotional benefits, citing studies that “show people who live near green areas live longer, healthier lives than people who do not, even when adjusted for income.” The journalist interviewed a woman who’s written a book, The Nature Fix, that looks at how societies around the world are “incorporating nature into their health and well-being.” There also was an article in the Health and Science section of the Post on the efforts of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad to get Americans walking outdoors, in our forests and our cities.
Non-religious people and groups everywhere are getting outdoors! There are hiking clubs, biking clubs, walking, kayaking, canoeing clubs… Might we, as religious people, get outside together, too? For the all the benefits we know about, of course, but also because as Christians we are called to pay attention to our spiritual lives, and our spiritual lives are illuminated by being outside. But also because we follow a Jewish mystic whose ministry was outdoors, and who escaped to the wilderness for silence, solitude and prayer. And because Jesus’ core teaching was “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Some Christians interpret the Kingdom of Heaven as where we go when we die. It’s not here, now, it’s later, waiting as a reward if we’ve been good. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal Priest and mystic writes, “The problem with this idea of the kingdom of heaven being in the future, is that it isn’t what Jesus said! He said, The kingdom of Heaven is within you, it is at hand!”
Bourgeault writes and teaches about contemplative Christian practices like centering prayer, lectio divina, and chanting to help hone our attentiveness. These practices are for people who pray, but who have an unexplainable hunger for something deeper and more experiential than what I’ll call “traditional” prayer. Contemplative practices are for those who desire to “taste and see…not by intellection, but by an ineffable experience of God as the living core-center of their being.”
Contemplative practices in nature are a gift right at our doorstep. When we first glimpse a butterfly at our feet — or when we’re awestruck by the expanse of landscape from a mountain view – or when the first, small buds of the silver maple come forward spring — are gifts that invite us and move us into Presence. A Presence bigger than our egoic self. A Presence bigger than our everyday mind. Noticing that butterfly is what some people call a “Holy moment.” There are “Holy moments” all around us. We are saturated in holiness – there’s that saying, “We’re dying of thirst while we’re standing in water…”– but here’s the good news – all we have to do is notice – because the holy moment is in the noticing. God is part of all of this and I am part of God and all of this, too. (In mysticism it’s called the Unitive Way or non-dual consciousness. And then we go back to our everyday mind, lists and busy-ness, and our hurry-up disease until we notice again, the Presence, what is all around and within us all the time.
Practicing noticing, like any spiritual discipline, is important, because the more we notice, the more we will notice. Have you ever been on the hunt for a new car and you’re looking at a particular type – let’s say an Elantra – and suddenly you see Elantras everywhere? We had to buy a new door recently and I was focused on a particular style – suddenly I saw them everywhere. Have you ever been on a walk with a three year old? They are noticing mavens! They notice everything. Recently I saw a white-oak hydrangea, and now I’m on the lookout for them wherever I go! Noticing leads to more noticing.
And what tends to happen, over time, is that noticing grows into a passion. And that passion, that love for what you’re seeing and connecting with, turns into compassion — caring for what you’re loving. We know that caring for our earth is critical today.
Trees are a little passion of mine. A few years ago I climbed a glorious oak in north Georgia and slept there way up high in a tree boat. You notice a lot of things when you sleep in a tree. You just might crack one eye open in the morning and look directly into the eyes of a little squirrel staring directly at you! This March I traveled to the Santa Cruz mountains in CA and climbed a 200ft old-growth redwood named “Grandfather.” Grandfather is between 600 – 1,000 years old. I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to climb that tree. The climb itself is a sit and stand adventure – you’re in a saddle, your feet are in foot-loops, and you’re pulling yourself up with your arms as you’re pushing yourself feet down in the foot-loops. Because I’d climbed a tree before using a different method that was harder than this one, I thought I knew how hard it was going to be. And how much time it takes. So I was prepared to take off, moving up as fast as I could. I didn’t want to spend my time on the side of this giant redwood beauty, but at the top.
Our leader, Tim Kovar, was wiser. He had another plan. Before we headed up he said, “We’re going to stop every 15 – 20 feet, and just hang out (literally “hang out”), look around, and maybe talk a bit.” I looked at him like he had two heads.
Yet today this is what I remember from the climb: the depth of our conversations while we were hanging out, the scent of the sap sitting at the open holes where acorn woodpeckers had bored, and the 6 foot redwood trees growing on horizontal limbs of the Redwood next to us, just hanging in silence. Once at the top, we continued just hanging out. But being at the top was irrelevant. “Think of tree climbing as a place to be, not something to do.”
It’s a common saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” But our journeys get soooo full, everything is just a blur! It’s really about stopping. And noticing.
In stopping and noticing, we rediscover what we’ve forgotten: our rich and loving inter-relationship between the Earth, its creatures (that’s us too), and the Divine.
In stopping and noticing, we remember who we are: part of this glorious, divine fabric of being. The kindom of heaven is at hand. The holy moment is in the noticing. Humans and the Divine.
 Washington Post, Metro section. The Nature Fix, Florence Williams. 6/5/17
 Tuoti, Frank, Why Not Be A Mystic, 19
 Tim Kovar, Outsideonline.com. Article by Michael Roberts