Easter 6/Year B
1 John 5:1-6
Last summer I had the opportunity to go on retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ghost Ranch, it is located in high upper desert at the north end of the state and like the state, is a land of many contrasts. High multi-hued red mountains and rock formations rise up from canyons and plains dotted with cottonwood trees, streams, desert flowers, and cacti.
At one time home to the Navajos and other first nation peoples, the red dirt is infused with their spirit. Painter Georgia O’Keefe lived at Ghost Ranch for 40 years and many of her paintings reflect the wild, otherworldliness of the landscape. It is a magnificent, mystical place.
The particular retreat I attended was led by Celtic scholar and author John Philip Newell and his wife, Allie, a clergyperson in the Church of Scotland, and was the launching of his book, The Rebirthing of God, Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings.
It was an apt location to deal with themes of death and rebirth because while we were comfortable, it is a really remote area. It was not, and is not, a place for complacency. You really have to pay attention. Spiritually, psychologically, and physically. It’s the desert.
I had no cell phone service and there were only two “hot” spots where I could to connect to the internet, both of which seemed to be gathering places for untold number of mosquitos, who decided I tasted pretty good. After receiving over 30 bites in my first two days there, I took it as a sign from God I was to lay down my connection to what euphemistically could be called my “real” life and attend to the lessons at hand.
In essence John Philip asked us to reimagine the words from John’s Gospel in which Jesus says we are to be “born anew,” or “born again,” as more commonly said, and instead reclaim the heart of Jesus’ message, which in John Philip’s words “point[s] to the necessity of what is deepest in us coming forth again . . . pointing to a radical reemergence of the Divine from deep within us. We do not have to create it. We cannot create it. But we can let it spring forth and be reborn in our lives.”
By and large the rhythm of the days started with prayers outside just after sunrise, followed by breakfast, time spent with John Philip and Allie in teaching, approximately 30 minutes of silence, discussion, lunch, free time, more teaching, dinner, and some kind of evening activity.
On all but the last day during the period of silence I sat in a low Adirondack chair that faced a plain which stretched out for miles, with a large red mountain to my left that looked as if it had forced its way up from the center of the earth.
But on the last day, as I was on my way to the chair where I usually sat, a cottonwood tree caught my eye. It was almost as if the tree was calling to me, and so I decided to sit there. Upon closer inspection of the tree, I saw there was a flat area, a seat which had been carved into its trunk, so I settled in and leaned into the trunk of the tree. And in that moment I felt as if I could hear the voices of the ancient people of this land say, “sit daughter and listen. You are in the presence of Mother Tree.”
And it came to me then perhaps one of the most profound ways we can let the Divine spring forth and be reborn in our lives, is to simply stop, pay attention, and listen. To in the words of today’s Gospel, “abide”, remain with, continue, stay present, to and in God’s love.
Now obviously, we can stay present, abide, in God’s love in any place and any time. But on this point in time, at this time in our history, on this Creation Care Sunday, there is an urgency and we are not just called, but cajoled, begged even, to look at this beautiful, complex, sacred planet we’re on and consider deeply what it means to abide here in order for the Divine to spring forth and be reborn in our lives.
Of course, on many levels we know what needs to be done—and there is so much to be done: we recycle, carry reusable bags in our car for shopping, participate in beach cleanups, invest in and use alternative energy sources, drive hybrid or electric cars, take shorter showers, and do any of the innumerable things we can to be kind and protect this fragile earth, our island home.
And all these things are necessary and important. We need to keep doing them, and more. But sometimes in the midst of this all this doing, all this busyness, we lose sight of why it matters in the first place, of how creation care at its very foundation, is not about what we do but rather about honoring the relationship between us as human beings, and the whole of God’s creation.
To abide in Jesus’ love means we abide in God’s love with him. And to abide in God’s love, means we are to abide—remain with, continue, stay present to all God has created.
We exist one within the other. We exist because of and through each other. We are profoundly interrelated. And we lose sight of this at our peril.
The great environmental activist and writer Wendell Berry put it rather starkly in his book Traveling at Home:
There appears to be a law that when creatures have reached the level of consciousness, as humans have, they must become conscious of the creation; they must learn how they fit into it and what its needs are and what it requires of them, or else pay a terrible penalty: the spirit of the creation will go out of them, and they will become destructive; the very earth will depart from them and go where they cannot follow.To allow this to happen, to lose our consciousness of creation, creates a draught of the soul as destructive as the draught we are experiencing in this parched land.
I am thankful beyond words to have been reminded of this connection, this abiding as I leaned into the embrace of Mother Tree. But what I, and perhaps many of us, need to remember, bring to consciousness, is in order for the Divine to spring forth and be reborn in our lives, we must continuously claim, own, and live into this creative, life sustaining relationship we have with all God has created.
By the grace of God, there are special places we can go to abide in God’s love, places which take us outside of our everyday existence and allow us to become reacquainted with God and God’s creation in new and refreshed ways. Ghost Ranch will always be such a place for me. Truly a place of retreat.
But just as we cannot linger around the Eucharistic table indefinitely—eventually we have to go out to love and serve the world, we cannot linger over long in our places of retreat. We have to love and serve God’s creation wherever we find ourselves.
And we do this by abiding in the every day. By noticing and paying attention to the air on our faces every time we step outside, feeling the soil as we dig it up for planting, watching sunlight play upon ocean waves, smelling flowers, and listening to the sound of wind blowing through trees.
And when we consciously abide in the grace and abundance of God creation, the Divine will spring forth and be reborn in our lives. And anything we do to savor, protect, learn from, honor, co-exist, and co-create with creation will no longer be an obligation, something to do, but instead an act of the very deepest love.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
St. Paul’s Cathedral
10 May 2015