11 December 2022 – Third Sunday of Advent
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“The wilderness shall be glad…the desert shall rejoice and blossom…the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” (Isaiah 35). It’s a lovely, bucolic image, isn’t it?
But just a chapter earlier, Isaiah says this, “streams shall be turned to pitch and its soil to sulfur. Its land shall become burning pitch, night and day it shall never go out; its smoke shall rise for all time.” Much less inviting, right? (Isaiah 34: 8-9, Jewish Study Bible) What happened…that turned burning pitch into springs of water?
In March of 1980 several small earthquakes in increasing magnitude began to occur in the territory of the Cowlitz Tribe. Locals feared something big was about to occur in one of the active volcanos nearby. Then, on May 18th, 1980 the mountain the Cowlitz called “Lawetlat’la,” (Lah-weight-LOT-la) or “The Smoker” exploded. A column of smoke and ash rose 80,000 feet into the air. Glaciers that had been on the mountain for centuries melted in an instant and became massive mudslides carrying more than 3.9 million cubic yards of earth, rock, and debris that flattened everything within 230 square miles. More than 1.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide was released into the air. Remarkably only 57 humans, but thousands of large mammals, millions of fish and aquatic life were killed. 200 homes, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railways…all gone. Hundreds of square miles reduced to a wasteland [Source, source].
“Its land shall become burning pitch, night and day it shall never go out; its smoke shall rise for all time. Through the ages it shall lie in ruins; through the eons none shall traverse it.” (Isaiah 34)
As a white person, I know Lawetlat’la (Lah-weight-LOT-la) as Mount St. Helens, and I was a teenager when it erupted. And I remember ash from that 80,000 foot plume of smoke falling in our yard in Colorado days and weeks after the explosion in Washington State [map]. And if you remember seeing pictures of the devastation after that, it certainly seemed like the end had come for that area…that it would lie in ruins and be utterly uninhabitable for eons. But that’s not what happened.
Less than three months after the explosion, signs of freshly disturbed earth started turning up in the blastzone, and emerging from the ash were tiny northern pocket gophers. Who had been protected because they live underground.
Forty years later, that devastated area is covered with plants…grasses…alders. Animals abound, and streams flow.* ”The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…” What happened?
Philosopher and environmental activist Kathleen Dean Moore writes in The Great Tide Rising, “What the scientists now know…is that when the mountain blasted ash and rock across the landscape, the devastation passed over some small places hidden in the lee of rocks and trees. Here, a bed of moss and deer fern under a rotting log. There, under a boulder, a patch of pearly everlasting and the tunnel to a vole’s musty nest.” [Quoted in, Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth]. These little pockets of safety and life are called “refugia…little sheltered pockets that survive…that preserve life…that become seeds of restoration and growth.” [Debra Rienstra]
Theologian Debra Rienstra, in her book Refugia Faith, writes, “We are living in a time of crisis eruption. […] The future is uncertain; it always is. We do not know exactly what coming.” [Rienstra].
It is at times like this, she says, when people of faith are tempted in two directions. Either we start to close off…”remove ourselves from society out of fear or disgust, hoping to wall off a space safe from pollutants where we can protect some fantasia of holiness and purity”—in other words: we want to build a bunker. Or we are tempted to “a kind of triumphalism, in which we seek strategic dominance, infiltrating and controlling every aspect of society for God, as if God needs our human systems of dominance to squash out the competition.” In other words: we become the “beachhead” in the battle for dominion—Those are our temptations: hiding or conquering. [Rienstra]
We can hear echoes of both of these in our readings: In Isaiah we get the bunker—the faithful, pure remnant traveling the highway in the desert which “shall be called the Holy Way: the unclean shall not travel on it…no lion or ravenous beast come up on it.”
And we can hear echoes of the triumphalism in both Isaiah, and in Mary’s song of God coming to turn the world upside down with the strength of his arm casting down the mighty from their thrones…and we should probably get a head start on that…
Those echoes are siren songs luring us into our bunkers or deploying us to our imagined beachheads…
But there is another—more faithful—lesson in our readings as well…in James’ farmer who lovingly tends that precious crop…and waits patiently for the both the early and the late rains. Who encourages us to, “strengthen our hearts…” And there’s Jesus, who reminds us that what we seek and see in the wilderness is prophetic. Clearly, he means John, but remember Jesus was also trained by and in the wilderness…The wilderness itself has prophetic powers. And we can learn much from it.
Debra Reinstra again: “The earth [and our scriptures teach] that extreme disturbance can be survived and can even bring renewal—and one way this happens is through refugia….[because] God is always working with remnants, the most unlikely people, the most unlikely things, the losers and the people without power. Little seeds, mustard seeds. That’s how God likes to work […] God’s preferred way seems less like walls or combat boots and more like a tray of seedlings. God seems to appreciate the humble, permeable, surprising potentials of refugia.” And she wonders: how can we—the church—be places of refugia?
She imagines church communities as “places where we are content to be small for a while. To wait, to be quiet, to practice simple virtues like hospitality and empathy […] be honest, share our pain, share our joy, rest from our fears and strivings, practice some virtues, sense God’s presence […].build [our] capacity on a small scale [and] prepare [ourselves] for regrowth” [Rienstra].
Ultimately, what turns burning pitch into springs of water is God’s doing…our task is not to build bunkers or establish beachheads…it’s to seek out “Where are refugia happening, [in the world] and [then ask] how can we help? [And to discern] where do refugia need to happen, and how can we create them?” [Reinstra].
If we can do that—if we can receive the prophetic wisdom of that cries out all around us, and give those seeds space to grow—then maybe, just maybe, we too will blossom and can join the desert in rejoicing when Christ comes in glory.