Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Homily: John Muir and Hudson Stuck [Earth Day: April 22, 2009]

Although I am a longtime admirer of John Muir (hey, the guy’s on the back of the California quarter!), I must admit that until a couple of days ago I had never heard of Hudson Stuck. John Muir, as many of us know, was a naturalist and writer who emigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin and then spent most of his life in California. He is most famous as the author of The Mountains of California, My First Summer in the Sierra, and as the founder of the Sierra Club. Hudson Stuck was also an immigrant: born in England he came to America in 1885 and attended the University of the South. He was ordained a priest and served as Dean of the Cathedral in Dallas, Texas before becoming Archdeacon of the Yukon in 1905. He was well-known in his day as the author of such books as Ascent of Denali and Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled. In 1913 he organized the first successful ascent of Mount Denali.
Now I never quite know what our lectionary makers are up to when they set aside days for us to remember saints. I don’t know if Muir and Stuck were friends, but aside from their love of nature I’m not sure they had a lot in common. While Hudson Stuck was both a mountaineer and a priest, John Muir was not what any of us would call conventionally pious. I always get nervous when our church tries to claim celebrities as our own—I’m old enough to remember how we bragged when Vice President Spiro Agnew was an Episcopalian, a fact we tried to hide after Watergate—and I’m not sure that Muir would appreciate being lumped together with the Archdeacon simply because they are dead Britons who loved the American west. But taken on their own terms, each is an admirable person and their separate and joint witness has something important to tell us about our own relationship to God in nature.
What has always interested me about John Muir’s life is the moment when he made the vocational transition from nature-lover to activist. When you read Muir’s earlier writings, you get the sense that his earliest experiences of nature were private, personal ones. He moved to Yosemite Valley and lived there because he loved the transcendent qualities he experienced there. But, over time, Muir began to realize that some kind of collective action had to be organized to save the California wilderness from the encroachments of industrial society. So Muir gave up living in the wild and moved back into the world and in 1892 organized the Sierra Club. In 1901 he led the unsuccessful fight to stop San Francisco from buying and flooding the Hetch Hetchy valley, a near duplicate of Yosemite, also in the Sierra. For the rest of his life, John Muir was a tireless advocate of natural preservation.
And something like this transition from nature-lover to advocate took place in the life and ministry of Hudson Stuck. Though Stuck obviously combined the active and contemplative lives by being a mountain-climbing Archdeacon, he too moved more and more into political activism on behalf of the natural world as he got older. Stuck’s last great cause became his effort to outlaw large fishing ships called “floating canneries”, and this campaign led to the regulations of 1920 for salmon conservation in Alaska and the restoration of native fishing rights. As they aged, both men moved from a spirituality of individual “communing with nature” to a corporate, communal understanding of nature as a shared and sacred space to which all creatures, including people, have rights of access.
The Gospel which we’ve read today [Luke 8.22-25] tells the familiar story of Jesus calming the storm: “They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.” [Luke 8.24] Just as I’m a bit suspicious of the lectionary-makers, so I’m not so sure that Luke would understand being in touch with nature in the same way you and I would. If anything, this story seems to be about command and control rather than about organic connectedness. Nevertheless, beneath the easy and overt connection that’s being proposed, I think there is a deeper and truer way in which this story about Jesus says something about John Muir, Hudson Stuck, the planet, and us.
What has always struck me about this story in Luke’s Gospel is the way it shows us a Jesus who knows who he is. And what Jesus knows in this particular moment is that he is at home in God’s world. Right now, that world appears to be a dangerous place: the winds are roaring and the waves are crashing. But Jesus knows he is safe there because he knows that this world is God’s world and his world, and so it is his home. He belongs to it. He knows it, he loves it, he accepts it on its own terms. And so he is able to speak to it precisely NOT from a command-and-control mode but from a posture of love.
And it is by speaking to the world from that sense of being at home and that posture of love that Jesus is able to take on advocacy on behalf of those in the boat with him, people who operate out of alienation and fear, who see the natural world as more of a problem than a gift. So in a profound way, Jesus embodies the characteristics we admire in John Muir and Hudson Stuck. He loves the natural world on its own terms and makes himself at home there. And his love for that world moves him beyond mere appreciation of it into advocacy both for it and for the people with whom he is in community. Jesus knows what America’s indigenous people know: that the natural world is as much about community and justice as it is about Romantic transcendence.
Today, of course, is Earth Day, an occasion celebrated in America since 1970. As we gather at Jesus’s table to give thanks on this day for the created world and our place in it, let us remember and give thanks for the lives and witnesses of John Muir and Hudson Stuck. Yes, they were sensitive souls who responded to the sublime transcendence of the natural world. But they answered God’s call in their lives to be more than chroniclers of nature and its beauties. They stepped into the responsibility of standing for and with God’s world against those who would treat it as an object and not as the precious subject that it is. Like Jesus, Muir and Stuck loved the world, were at home in it, and they gave the last part of their lives in service not only to the planet but to all us creatures who live on it together. It is not enough just to admire something or someone. True love and compassion call us toward the next step—to move beyond appreciation into advocacy. May we embrace this day’s calling with similar love and commitment. And may we also gather at Jesus’s table in solidarity with John Muir, Hudson Stuck, and all those who love and serve God’s world and God’s people, and together with them give thanks. Amen.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Homily: April 9, 2008 [Maundy Thursday]

A few weeks ago I saw a presentation in a parish I was visiting in which a priest was talking about the Lord’s Prayer with teenagers. As much as I like and admire this priest, I couldn’t help finding his discussion of prayer and its obligations rather one-sided. In this account, we’re supposed to hallow God’s name and declare God’s glory because we’re all God’s creatures and that’s what God’s creatures are supposed to do. That’s all true enough, I said to myself as I listened, but why exactly is this equation he describes so one-sided? What is God’s obligation toward us? The God whom this man described was at best a benevolent despot, a being mysteriously insistent on being hallowed and glorified. There was no suggestion in anything he said to these kids that there might be some deeper mutuality to this relationship. The Lord’s Prayer sounded as he spoke like a decidedly uneven proposition.
I want to go easy on my clerical friend, because this assumption about the one-way obligations of the divine-human relationship is broadly shared in our church culture. About a decade or so ago I attended a clergy conference led by Martin Smith, a priest and monk and writer, who told a story about a question he often poses to clergy coming to the monastery on retreat. On the first night he tells them to go back to their room and ask themselves what they would like Jesus to do for them. Without fail, he said, the next day the clergy always show up with long lists of what they are supposed to do for Jesus. No, Smith said, you didn’t hear me right. I didn’t want you to ask what Jesus wants you to do for him; I asked you to think about what you want Jesus to do for you. Not surprisingly, when the question is put that way, his retreatants have a very hard time coming up with any ideas. Jesus do something for me? Isn’t that backwards?
That’s the way it is in this Gospel for Maundy Thursday. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, Peter becomes distraught.

"Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." [John 13]

Though we are tempted to think of Peter as they guy who never quite gets it, in tonight’s Gospel it looks to me as if he responds as any one of us might. Jesus is the teacher, the disciples are his students. The normal order of things in a hierarchical culture is for them to serve him. Jesus calmly but radically turns that hierarchy upside down. He establishes the primary obligation as being on his part, not theirs. He serves them.
I’m not a big fan of long homilies in Holy Week, so tonight let’s just sit with Martin Smith’s question as we think about the events we witness tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. At most parish churches last Sunday many of us shouted “Crucify him!” as part of that dramatized Palm Sunday reading of the Passion Gospel. If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought a lot this Lent about the many and myriad ways in which you regularly let God and Jesus down. Fair enough.
But it’s too simple to say that we are the crowd in that Gospel. It’s more true to say that we are both the crowd and Jesus. And tonight Jesus’s act of washing his companions’ feet asks us to think about why God and Jesus are going through this whole experience of betrayal, crucifixion, and death in the first place. They are going through it for you and me. They are going through it because you and I are worth something to them. They are going through it because we’re precious enough in Jesus’s sight for it to be worth his while to wash our feet.
Maundy Thursday is both a penitential and joyous occasion: we gather both to lament Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and to give thanks for Jesus gift to us of the Eucharist as the way to be together in the world. As you enter into these three days of betrayal and death and resurrection, what is it that you want God to do for you? What is your need for God right now at this moment in your life? What would grace for you look like? How do you want God to act toward and for you? How have you been betrayed or misunderstood or mocked? How would God heal and restore you in the light of that? What would new, risen life look like for you if you dared to ask for it?
"Unless I wash you, you have no share with me," Jesus replied to Peter. In one sense we should hear that as judgment. But, in the context of the infinite love which undergirds the mighty acts of these three great days, we should hear that as a promise, too. Jesus washed his companions’ feet; God hears our prayers not because we grovel but because we are loved. Use the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter to ask yourself and God what you need Jesus to do for you. And then do your best to live-- creatively and joyously and maybe even with a little bit of risk and a lot of love-- into the answer you hear. Amen.