If you wish, you can hear the sermon as it was preached from the UCJ pulpit. Simply click the play button below:
Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
June 4th, 2017
Excerpt from The Mountains of California by John Muir
Toward midday, after a long, tingling scramble, I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the music of its topmost needles…
After cautiously casting about, I chose the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one of which seemed likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.
My eye roved over the piney hills and dales as over fields of waving grain, and felt the light running in ripples and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge, as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air. Oftentimes these waves of reflected light would break up suddenly into a kind of beaten foam, and again, after chasing one another in regular order, they would seem to bend forward in concentric curves, and disappear on some hillside, like sea-waves on a shelving shore. The quantity of light reflected from the bent needles was so great as to make whole groves appear as if covered with snow, while the black shadows beneath the trees greatly enhanced the effect of the silvery splendor.
– John Muir
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
One day last fall I was working at my desk when I noticed that the small bell that hangs outside my front door was ringing.
This wasn’t unusual—that bell has a habit of making little offhand comments in the middle of the afternoon when the wind blows.
But the complaint had abruptly taken on a more insistent tone.
I looked up.
Outside the window the sky had suddenly darkened.
The limbs of the Ash tree pitched upward in one fierce motion and the lid of my neighbor’s trashcan sailed clean off, clattering on the gravel.
It being early November, a multitude of dry leaves made a brittle charge northeastward up the hill.
A moment before the leaves had been lying around dead.
Now they were running full tilt as if from some terrible fright.
I stood up and made my way through the house. I went outside and stood on the back porch, in the lee of the house.
Our Norway Maple was filled with the spirit, gesticulating like a preacher in a tent revival.
Leaves were flying off and tearing about madly.
I love this kind of weather.
When the wind begins to rise, and the sky darkens, I head outside
to feel the wind on my skin;
to watch the horizon for lightning;
to thrill in the wind that rushes through the woodlands, playing in the skirts of the evergreens.
I love the bite of cold,
the mystery of distance –
the imagined expanses of ocean and sky that I seem to taste in the wind.
And, of course, it is impossible not to think about God.
God who is eternal.
God whose voice makes us tremble.
God who cannot be controlled.
In the Pentecost story, the wind is a kind of voice for awesome power of God…
And suddenly, the text says, a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
After the sound of wind, tongues of flame came to rest on each of the disciples.
The Holy Spirit filled them…
It was a moment of inspiration…
In pretty obvious display of divine intervention (rush of wind, tongues of flame) the Divine fills the disciples with a gift.
What is this gift?
Is it the ability to leap a building in a single bound?
Is it the ability to run faster than the speed of sound?
How about shooting spiderweb from our wrists?
We will have to depend on other strange and other-worldly influences to provide us with such powers as these.
The God of the New Testament is not a radioactive spider or a particle accelerator.
However, the Divine does give a kind of power.
In may not be all that splashy, but it is important.
It is essential.
It is at the very core of human experience.
It is the spirit of the living God.
OK! But what is it?
The text says that after they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples… “began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
When the Divine makes a big show of giving us something, what are we given?
We are given the power to communicate.
When my wife, Cary gave birth to our first child, her labor was long.
It seemed to take forever!
We’d been up all night, working through the waves of pain. In Her face was strained
She had long since given up using words – reverting, instead to sharp gasps and long, weary groans.
But there was no mistaking what she was communicating.
Pain is universally understood.
Cary had been determined to have a natural childbirth, but when the dawn began coloring the horizon, the midwife advised her to accept some pain relief.
“You need some rest,” she said.
Cary wisely accepted this advice.
After she fell asleep, I stumbled over to the window to watch the sun peak over the Boston skyline. The streets below were edged with snow leftover from a recent storm. It was barely light, but there were already people about, walking quickly to beat the cold, vapor rising from their breath.
Sleep — which was just what the doctor ordered – was exactly what Cary needed.
Later that morning our son was born.
After cutting the umbilical cord, the midwife moved quickly to suction the mucus from his throat and I watched eagerly as our son took his first shuddering breath, scrunched up his little face and let out a long throaty wail.
Many Christians, over the centuries have taken the Pentecost story literally.
One tradition that has grown out of a literal reading of this story is an experience that has become known as “speaking in tongues.”
People who are filled with the holy spirit begin speaking in an odd guttural language that is not directly recognizable as a language that we use in our everyday lives.
Now I am not going to venture an opinion about the whether or not the Holy Spirit is present when people speak in tongues.
I do not doubt it, but I don’t know.
However, it is a little strange, isn’t it, that in Pentecost story when the disciples were inspired by the Holy Spirit everyone understood them, and when people today, speak in tongues, no one understands them.
Or do they?
God gave us the gift of communication.
There are things that everyone understands
There are things that no one understands.
Words, of course, help us to understand because, through the help of culture, we agree on the meaning of words
But communication, does not require words, does it?
The throaty wail of an infant’s first breath…
The groan of a mother in labor…
These are indistinct sounds…
They cannot be found in Webster’s dictionary.
And, yet we need no interpreter to tell us what these sounds mean.
They are the universal sounds of human suffering
When the Bible tells us of a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…
I cannot help thinking about old John Muir.
As well as being an excellent writer, John Muir, who wrote the Modern reading that Dorothy read for us this morning, was instrumental in creating the National Park System. He founded the Sierra Club, and is generally considered to have been the inspiration for the modern environmentalist movement…
He was a writer and a scientist, and inventor and a wanderer, who rambled all across the nation. His writings chronicle amazing feats of bravery. He would wander into the mountains with nothing but a crust of bread in his pocket and survive snowstorms at high altitude through his ingenuity and indomitable will.
The reading is a good example of John Muir’s spirit.
Up on a high ridge, the wind began to blow.
Did Muir seek shelter?
Rather, it occurred to him that “it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the music of its topmost needles…”
Once he scaled his way to the top of a Douglas spruce, he described it thus:
never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion! The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.
Can you imagine?
I have always been thrilled by the sound of the wind in the trees.
I’ve been lucky enough to be up on a ridge when the wind begins to blow…
And though I’ve always wished that I could somehow learn more from the mysterious sound of the wind in the trees…
It never occurred to me to climb into the treetops in the midst of a gale…
But, while I am utterly astonished by John Muir’s audacious thirst for experience, I lift up this story, not to immortalize Muir, but to think again about the spirit…
… and about communication.
Communication, I think, happens on an impossibly huge, atmospheric scale,
and also in the most intimate human moments.
The wind teases the bell at my front door…
The wind inhaled, for the first time, becomes life in the lungs of my child…
The wind pulls at the skirts of the evergreens, lashes at the tops of the Douglass Spruce…
The wind, groans in the throat of a woman in labor…
The wind rushes in from heaven…
The spirit of the Living God.
The wind, that swings through the atmosphere
That gives muscle to the hurricane…
This immense, uncontrollable cosmological force
is also the delicate coo in the vocal chords of a new mother…
The throaty wail of the newborn child.
We do not need words to communicate.
The most wild and primordial element – the wind – rushed into the room, filling the entire house.
The disciples breathed it in.
Moving through our consciousness, and vibrating our vocal chords, the wind is language,
The Wind becomes the way we reach out to each other
Sculpted by our tongues, wind weaves meaning.
It is the spirit that allows us to find each other,
to learn about each other.
Wind – the spirit of the living God –
gives us life when we breath
and language too —
So that we can learn to love.
Spirit of the Living God
Fall afresh on me…
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.