I am indebted to John Philip Newell’s book “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for inspiring this sermon. The Season of Creation is a relatively new addition to the Church calender and the first and Gospel readings are those prescribed for Forest Sunday: Genesis 2:4b-23 and John 3:1-16. The contemporary reading is from John Philip Newell. The Scripture readings were taken from ‘the inclusive bible: The First Egalitarian Translation” which opens a new way of understanding both the Genesis story and the Gospel According to John simply by using more inclusive literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. You can find all three readings here
Listen to the sermon here or click on this link
The Season of Creation is a very recent addition to the Church Calendar. We first observed it, here at Holy Cross, just two years ago. So, this is the first opportunity we have had to observe Forest Sunday. It seems odd to me that in a country like Canada where the forests are so vast and have such a huge impact on the history of this nation, that up until just a few short years ago, did not set aside a day dedicated to the celebration of our forests. Indeed, that churches around the world, should have failed until recently to set aside a season dedicated to the celebration of Creation is not just astounding, but dare I say it, sinful.
So, I’d like to begin this sermon by summoning up visions of my favorite forest. Now, I’m well aware that there are hundreds of brilliant forests in these parts, but it won’t come as a surprise to many of you that my favorite forest is located on the West Coast.
This particular forest is special not only to me, but it also stands tall in the annals of Canadian forests; indeed, it stands out among the forests of the world. It is located just north of West Vancouver and I’ve been walking in this forest since I was a teenager. This deep, dark, rich, rain-forest is one of the few old-growth forests in Canada and many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the erection of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark back-drop for the lighthouse so they banned logging in the area and the city of West-Vancouver has set the forest aside with the creation of Lighthouse Park.
My first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was but a child, taken there by my father for a family outing. I remember a dark, wet, gentle hike down to the water’s edge, followed by a half-hour’s uphill climb back to the parking lot, where my mother waited with our picnic lunch, of sandwiches and hot tea. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself, there were so many dark, wet, gentle hikes in this forest cathedral where I often retreated to for solace from the trials and tribulations of finding my way in the world.
Over the years, I have often returned to this living cathedral where the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars are hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of years old and looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I still remember the first time I took my wife Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendour of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was matched only by the deep silences which are possible in such a place. It is without a doubt a Thin Place a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the know is so thin that you can feel the presence of the ONE who IS both the SOURCE of all that IS and who is BEYOND all that is.
In this Thin Place, I have laid down burdens, wept, laughed, shouted, cried, rejoiced, slept, breathed deeply of the earth and lost my breath trudging up the dark, damp, fecund trails. In this thin place, this forest cathedral I have worshiped the source of all that is, been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and been emptied of concerns, trials, tribulations and filled with joy, hope, peace and LOVE. In thisThin Place, this Forest Cathedral, over and over again, I have been born anew. In this Forest Cathedral, and in so many Forest Cathedrals, I have come to understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she said that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” for in these sacred Thin Places, in these Forest Cathedrals, in the sheer beauty and the magnitude of life that abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL this is also the ONE who is the SOURCE of MY BEING.
But these Thin Places are not for the faint of heart. Over the years, I have made various pilgrimages to Lighthouse Park, only to find a sign erected warning those who dare to enter that a bear has been sighted in the area. Sometimes the authorities have posted a sign that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area that park is closed to all hikers. When I was younger, and much more foolish, I ignored those signs and ventured into the deep, dark forest despite the warnings. The sense of danger was palpable and added to the intensity of the experience of this dangerous wilderness. But the wisdom gained over the decades has of late caused me to heed the warning signs and so from time to time Carol and I have travelled to Lighthouse Park filled with anticipation only to be thwarted by a warning sign.
It seems appropriate somehow that a Thin Place should be so subject to warning signs. The definition of DIVINE MYSTERY, developed out of the work of Rudolf Otto names the MYSTERY we call God as the NUMINOUS. Otto defines the NUMINOUS in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum,” and over the decades others have added the Latin et Facinam;” the ONE whose is the SOURCE of ALL BEING is mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, actually makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble with fear in the presence of such great MYSTERY, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the ONE who is the source and ground of your BEING.
When you reach down to the rich earth on the forest floor, the mysterious process of rebirth can be touched as millions of years of decay, provide the nutrients necessary to give centuries of life to the ancient rain forest, which in turn gives life not only to the creatures which live within the forest, but breathes life into the very air we breathe in the magnificent processes which literally cleans the air. We are so intimately related to the forests of the planet. Our existence, both the forest’s existence and the existence of we earthlings, is intimately connected one to the other.
So, this week as I was preparing for this first Forest Sunday, I was wandering through the forest trails in my mind and marvelling at the mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating NUMINOUS in which we live and move and have our being, I was determined to wax poetic and gently ease back into preaching after my vacation. I thought this sermon would be a walk in the park. Then yesterday, flashed across the front page of the screen was a headline that “We Are Number One.” I was reading the Canadian edition of the Huffington Post and wondered what on earth Canada was first at. “Number one contributor to deforestation.” It seems that bears are not the only danger in the woods. Canada, that’s you and that’s me; Canada is a danger in and to the woods. Apparently, 8 percent of the world’s virgin forests were degraded between 2000 and 2013; that’ 104 million acres, or an area about three times the size of Germany. Of that degradation, more than a fifth — 21.4 percent—occurred in Canada. That’s more than any other country.
We hear a great deal about the destruction of the rainforests in Brazil, but Brazil came in third at 14 percent. I must confess that having lived so long in British Columbia, I kept expecting the article to mention our wonderful re-forestation programs. After all Canada once lead the world in re-planting trees. Sadly, in less than a decade Canada has gone from a reforestation leader, to cutting and slashing reforestation efforts to such a degree that forest renewal efforts in Canada are at an all-time low. Now I realize that I’m standing upon a wooden floor inside a building largely constructed of wood. I know that the lumber industry adds almost 22 billion dollars each year to Canada’s economy….that’s 1.2 percent of all economic activity. But I can’t help wondering, how it is that a nation that receives so much from the forests can blatantly refuse to step up to the task of being good stewards of the bounty we have received.
I suspect that centuries of the church’s failure to celebrate creation might be a contributing factor to our in ability to see how intimately connected we are to the Earth. That the very air we breathe, the RUACH, the SPIRIT, the WIND, the BREATH of LIFE, relies on the forests to renew and refresh it, ought to at the very least engender the kind of respect which enables us to become better stewards of the forests. Sadly, for centuries the church has wallowed in theologies and doctrines which encourage her members to escape the Earth and set us up over and against the world, which ironically is the same world which the scriptures tell us: “God so loved.”
This morning’s contemporary reading was from John Philip Newell’s new book, “The Rebirthing of God.” In it Newell tells a story about Carl Jung…the story goes like this: “Carl Jung is the founder of analytical psychology. Even as a boy Jung had prophetic intuitions, although for many of these he did not find language, or the courage to speak, until many decades later in his life. As a twelve-year-old boy in Switzerland, walking home from school one day past Basel Cathedral with its shining new spire, the young Carl Jung became aware of an image rising up from the unconscious. He was so horrified by it that he tried pushing it back down. But it kept insisting on coming forth.
When finally, as he explained years later, he allowed himself to name what he was seeing, he saw that above the spire of the cathedral was the throne of God. Descending from the throne was ‘an enormous turd” that smashed into the spire and the walls of the cathedral crumbled.” Newell insists that, “We are living in the midst of the great turd falling. In fact, it has already hit the spire, and the walls of Western Christianity are collapsing. In many parts of the West that collapse can only be described as seismic. In another twenty-five years, much of the Western Christian household, as we have known it, will be no more. One only has to look around on a typical Sunday in most of our mainstream Christian churches. Who will be there in another quarter of a century?” Newell writes “There are three main response or reactions to this collapse. The first is to deny that it is happening. The second is to frantically try to shore up the foundations of the old thing. The third, which Newell invites us into, is to ask what is trying to be born which requires a radical reorientation of our vision.
What is the new thing which is trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity? Newell goes on to tell of an encounter “a few years ago after sharing Jung’s dreamlike awareness of the enormous turd at a spirituality conference in the United States, a woman came up to him at the end of his talk. She explained that, she was a midwife and that in her twenty-five years of midwifery she had noticed that the turd nearly always comes before the birth. In other words, what is it that we need to let go of to prepare for new birthing.”
The author of the Gospel according to John speaks of the need to be “born anew”. The religious right has highjacked the phrase born again and to hear some Christians tell it, being born again requires that we become something other than ourselves. I’ve heard and read too many sermons which call us to deny our human nature, turn from our sinful nature and be born again. I have grown to hate the term born again. But this idea of new birth lies at the heart of Jesus’ teachings and points not to denial of who and what we are, not a turning away from our humanity, but rather allowing that which lies deep inside of us to come forth again.
Julian of Norwich reminds us that we are not just made by God, we are also made of God. All of creation sprang forth from God and is of God. Being born anew is setting free that which lies deep within, what is at the heart of all things—made of God—being set free to emerge in radically new ways. As Newell puts it, “The Rebirthing of God is precisely this. It is to point 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 froth and be reborn in our lives. We can be part of midwifing new holy births in the world.”
Within us IS the likeness of the ONE from whom we have come and of whom we are made. We are made of the LOVE which lies at the very heart of reality. We are made of the light which was in the beginning. We are made of the WISDOM which fashioned the universe in all its glorious interrelatedness. We are made of the LOVE which longs for oneness, for justice, and for peace.
Imagine if you will, a church born anew, a church which seeks to be a midwife to the rebirthing of the sacred; a church which seeks to facilitate the rebirthing of relationship among all that IS of God. A church that not only celebrates Creation but presides at the birth of emerging new relationships between the creatures of the Earth and the Forests of the Earth.
I know that there are those who prefer to go to Lighthouse Park when the weather is bright and sunny. But if you have the courage to go to the Lighthouse Park when it is raining; if you can see past the gloom of a west coast drizzle, then the forest cathedral will reward you with a rare glimpse of the Earth’s womb. There’s a wonderful aroma emitted from the moist earth that hints of centuries of decay. If you venture up along the Juniper trail you will come upon the most amazing maternity ward. Lying upon the forest floor you will see the rotting remains of a cedar which must have lived some 500 or 600 years before falling to the earth. The dead cedar has laid there on that spot for another six-hundred years or so. We know that because out of the rotten decay of that giant cedar has sprung new life; that is if you can call a 400-year-old fir tree new life. The thousand-year-old remains of a cedar tree out of which grows a 400 year-old fir. The decaying cedar is known as a nurse-log. It is a mid-wife of sorts, providing the means for new growth.
There is much we can learn from deep within a Forest Cathedral. Not the least of which is the reality of our inter-relatedness with all that IS. Newell rinds us that, “We are Earthlings. We do not have the capacity in and by ourselves to save the Earth. We do, however, have the capacity to serve the Earth and to nurture its deep energies for healing, to allow it the space and the time to renew itself.”
Newell insists that the church is uniquely placed to be a blessing to the world. He writes: “The church’s roles is to serve that deep knowing and to help translate it into how we live together with the Earth.” He invites the church to, “a new humility, to serve the holy wisdom that is already stirring in the hears of people everywhere, the growing awareness of earth’s interrelatedness and sacredness.”
I am reminded that the word humility comes from the word humus, which means Earth. The church is being called to humility, to remember it’s earthiness. To call all of us to a kind of sacred midwifery, to facilitate the new birth of that which lies within the Earth and deep within the heart of humanity. The humility to which we are called is to serve the Earth and her creatures for we are ONE.
Yes, there are bears in the woods, but even the bears have wisdom to teach us. If Christianity is to be born anew, we must be about the work of rebirthing God. The ONE in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Let it be so among us. Let it be so.