In December of 1874, the naturalist and writer, John Muir explored the forests of the Yuba River watershed in central California. Muir was a tall, thin man, usually pictured with a bushy beard and a button-up coat. Now, it’s important for us to recognize that, although Muir’s thinking on wilderness preservation and nature was far ahead of his time, his attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people were not. He was retrograde in that way. But Muir’s writing on nature is luminous.
Muir was staying with a friend during his Yuba River excursion. One day a great windstorm swept into the area. Muir tells us that there is always something exciting about the sound of a strong wind in a forest. It flows like water through the trees. It brings scents and ephemera from far off places. The windstorm of 1874’s December was, Muir said, one of the most “beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed.” And enjoy it he did. Muir left his friend’s house and began to wonder through the forest watching the effect of the wind in the trees. He saw how they bent, how the great stems pulled at their roots.
A comedian imagines a sinner coming to confession, saying, “Bless me father for I have done an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon.” To which the priest replies, “Well, yes, I’ve never heard of that one before.” We do love originality. So it’s not terribly hard to follow the comic Eddie Izard here and imagine congratulating someone for such creativity, even if it involves sin. That’s assuming it is a sin to poke a badger with a spoon, which it may not be.
I wonder if you’ve ever had a friend give you advice on your golf swing or your baseball swing or maybe even the way you were hitting a volleyball. I’m not thinking of the annoying, nagging ‘advice’ a backseat driver might give you, but the kind of advice that’s actually helpful. Maybe you knew you were having a hard time hitting the ball squarely, but you couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Something didn’t feel right, but you couldn’t see the issue. The same kind of thing could apply to playing an instrument. You know the piece doesn’t sound right, but you can’t figure out what’s wrong. And then, a friend or a teacher, just says it: keep your front shoulder in, keep your eye on the ball, slow down. You could receive it as an insult, but you knew there was a problem.
In our reading from the gospel of John today, Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” My hope is that we can take these words as helpful advice, like a friend or a teacher getting the root of a problem we sensed but couldn’t solve on our own.
Last week the New York Times ran a story about a disagreement between residents of rural Vermont. At first glance this doesn’t sound like a topic worthy of coverage in a national newspaper. Here’s what happened: A stocky man with a bushy beard moved from northern New York State to Vermont and bought 30 acres outside a small town. He made the move because of Vermont’s lax gun laws. Vermont is a rural state with a long tradition of hunting and the like. The New Yorker bought the land in order to open a special kind of gun range. Specifically, he wanted to establish a tactical weapons training site, a place where people from wherever could come and practice using their personal assault rifles. He set up several life-like scenarios for live-fire drills. According to the New York Times he tried to sidestep the usual permit requirements by not charging admission and thereby not officially operating a business.
Mark, the gospel writer, tells us that the Holy Spirit “drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” There he was tempted by Satan. He was in the company of wild beasts. Angles showed up to take care of him.
What a charged tableau this is. It almost feels like a screenshot from a video game. Mark packs all this energy and contestation—this fasting, battling, fearing and angelic ministering—into two sentences.
We live at a time when it’s hard to know what to believe. This is curious because every day of our life we have more information available to us than at any prior point in the history of the world. Yet it’s still hard to know what to believe.
The auto-correct feature is a lot of fun. This week I sent a text to someone trying to say that, indeed, I did have Cormac McCarthy’s book in my office. Auto-correct told them I had a book by an author named “Corkscrew McCarthy.” I imagine many of us have similar stories. I say this just to assure you that I know what an auto-correct error can do, and that my chosen topic today is not that kind of a mistake. Today I would like to talk about the “omnipresence” of God. I realize this sounds like a terribly boring topic. But I assure you it is not. So, no, “omnipresence” is not a typo. That’s really what I want to talk about.
The psalmist says, “The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl.” So we pray, oh God, let us hear your voice. Cause us to whirl; cause us to turn.
You can think of this as a New Year’s sermon or as a Lent sermon. In the church calendar Lent is the time when we look inward and prayerfully consider how well we are stewarding the life God has given us. It is annual spiritual maintenance. As it happens, our secular calendar has us doing the same thing at the start of each year. I sometimes wonder if this overlap gets in the way of celebrating Christmas. It’s hard to feast and relax when you know you’ve already committed to losing ten pounds and learning a new language.
As you know, last week a number of countries, including Canada, closed their borders to travelers from the UK. This was caused by fears of a new strain of COVID-19. It all happened so quickly that many truck drivers from continental Europe ended up stranded outside the port of Dover and the channel tunnel in Kent. One of these was a Brit named Rick Mayo. Rick told an American journalist that he had moved his family to Spain because the cost of living was cheaper. But there he was parked at a rest stop, unable to cross back to France. The BBC said that on Tuesday almost 3,000 trucks were stuck waiting for the border to reopen. Rick said that, even if the border opened in the next day or so, it was unlikely that he would be able to make it home for Christmas.