A Sermon by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Year A, Advent 2
…for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
Back in August my family and I drove up the Gunflint Trail, where we figured we might find some blueberries still ripening in the late summer sun. We were not disappointed. On a bald outcropping of granite, overlooking a gorgeous bay draining into a whitewater stream, we sat and picked the last of summer’s sweet blue gems. It was sunny and out in the open where the best berries thrive, away from the shade, it was almost hot, and we sweated as we gathered, our good boy Chester keeping watch for bears and other interlopers. When we had what we needed, we took a walk along the road, in the shade, to stretch our legs and to cool our heads. Looking down from the shoulder of the road, in the shadow of a small grove of Douglas firs, my eye caught the bright pop of apricot, a distinct pale orange against the lush carpet of green moss, a fruiting of chanterelle mushrooms growing in a cluster in the shade! I dashed into the brush to collect these treasures, pulling off my outer shirt as I went, to make a bag to carry them, and knelt in the moss to carefully harvest the bounty the forest was offering up as we passed.
In her brilliant book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer relates both the learnings of western science and centuries old wisdom of her indigenous heritage, to articulate a simultaneously new and ancient way of regarding our relationship with the planet we call home. She writes,
“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example.”
In another place she writes, “Our indigenous herbalists say to pay attention when plants come to you; they’re bringing you something you need to learn.” And, in yet another place she adds, “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.”
Ever since reading this, I have begun to ask what the plants and fungi I encounter are trying to teach me, what lessons they are willing to impart if I were to just pay attention. More often than not, the answer is simple – the earth is full of an abundance of gifts, a table generously set for the sustenance and care of all. Like a gracious host offering gifts and hospitality, the plants we encounter daily, often without our noticing, are offering up food and medicine and beauty for any who have need. It is quite humbling if you think about it, enough to bring you to your knees in gratitude, both metaphorically, or literally by the side of the road in the moss, between the fir trees.
The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, says the prophet Isaiah. And, I have to wonder if the only thing wrong with the prophet’s proclamation is one of tense. He says “will be” and I would counter “is”. And, perhaps there’s no distinction to be made. The prophet is speaking a word of challenge to the people. He has just, in the chapters preceding today’s lesson, given his hearers a terrifying vision of the destruction of their cities and their way of life, what scholars call Isaiah’s little apocalypse. And, here he is offering a vision of the salvation of the people and the nation and the land. While the image is both dramatic and stark, it is important to note that it is also rich with images of the created world. Wolf and lamb, lion and fatling, cow and bear, mountains, waters, and even a shoot springing from a stump, the restoring of the world, the healing of the nations, is presented in images from nature, in and through the land. This would come as no surprise to Isaiah’s hearers. The covenant relationship that defined their identity as a people with God, was a covenant connected to the land. After a life as slaves, after an existence where their identities were stripped, their personhood obliterated, they now had a land to call their own, and identities and personhood restored, and a relationship with a God whose promise was to always be with them. For Isaiah’s audience, there were inseparable connections between identity and relationship and God and the very land itself. But, even before they entered the land and possessed it, even in the wilderness, in the dessert, for 40 years, the story goes, even there God had journeyed with them. And, there, by the providence of God, the land had provided food when they needed it, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, clouds that shaded, and fire that guided. Even in their wanderings, the land offered up its gifts. Or, so that is the story they told themselves, generations later. The earth was full of the knowledge of the Lord. The earth was full of the abundance of the Lord. The land was teaching and guiding and providing.
Perhaps the difference between “was”, “is”, and “will be”, is, as Kimmerer argues, the simple act of paying attention. Paying attention to the land, to the plants, to the animals, to the waters and the mountains, teaches us, as she says, about reciprocity. The land is offering up gifts – beauty, nourishment, and medicine. But the land is also teaching us, by her example, to offer gifts generously, to welcome the stranger, to heal the sick, to give back as much or more than we have been given.
In their covenant with God, the land was a gift, and itself full of gifts, but the expectation was that the people would behave reciprocally. As scripture says, they were to welcome the alien, forgive debts, tend to the least and the lost. They were to remember when they were wandering and alone, when they were slaves and oppressed, when they were hungry and in need. In fact, the words of judgment, the apocalypse that precedes today’s lesson, is a vision of the destruction that comes when this side of the covenant is broken, when the people forget how God, through the land, provided for them, and when the people forgot their reciprocal need to provide and care for others.
It is no accident that in today’s gospel, John the baptist is out in the wilderness preaching a word of repentance. Invoking the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist’s call is to remember the same covenant, to remember the ways that God provided in ages past, to notice anew the wisdom imbued in the very land itself, of how God cared for, nourished, and supplied the needs of the people. When John rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers fleeing from the wrath to come, he is calling on those with connection to power to remember their relationship with God, to resist the tempting allure to collude with empire, to be about their part of the covenant, to give back, to tend the sick and feed the hungry, to welcome that stranger, to care for the meek in reciprocity, just as God once did for them, in the wilderness.
There is a temptation in every age, one that Matthew’s gospel was attempting to critique, to practice our religion as a set of rituals, to show up in church as if expecting to get what we want, to feel our spiritual feels, to make brownie points with God or sit in our pew and enjoy the beauty of the stained glass windows and the gorgeous harmonies of choir and organ, but to end there. After all, this church, this land, this life, is ours for we made it. We gained all of this by merit, by power, by the goodness of the empire too which we are beholden. Or so we might be tempted to believe. To this, the baptist’s cry is ever and always the same. Repent! Turn around. Remember that the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord. The earth is full of God’s healing. The earth is full of God’s goodness and sustenance. It is given as a gift. Learn from the land. Remember the gifts of the plants. Now, in recognition of all you’ve been given, return to others that which you have received as free gift – heal the sick, feed the hungry, practice justice, invest with the poor in mind, work for the oppressed, welcome the stranger. Echoing the wisdom of Dr. Kimmerer, our preacher in residence, the Rev’d Barbara Mraz is fond of reminding us that paying attention can be a kind of prayer. She’s right. Paying attention can help us see the world rightly – it can help us notice where we are living out of synch with the gifts God gives us, out of touch with the teaching of the land and the plants. If you but pay attention, you will see that the world is full of the knowledge of the Lord. God’s gifts are all around.