A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 23, 2017
Job 28:9-13 GNT; reading from John Muir
“. . . the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. . . God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!” ~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
At one point in the gospel of Luke, Jesus makes reference to the stones crying out (Luke 19:40). At first, such an idea may strike us as being a bit far-fetched. Stones – crying out? How could that be possible? we may wonder. It is one of those verses of scripture that has always intrigued me. Stones are not alive. Stones are not capable of speaking. Stones have nothing to say to us. Or then again, do they?
I believe, along with naturalist John Muir, that the stone formations of Zion, Yosemite, and a thousand other places in our world do have something to say to us, if we are willing to look and listen. Stones and magnificent stone formations have something to say about the Creative Energy at the heart of the universe that gave birth to the landscapes of the earth through the great mystery of creation and the creative forces that over time have shaped and molded these natural cathedrals and altars.
One of the experiences I had during my naturalist certification classes at Tremont was walking out into the woods with the instructions of picking up some natural object and serendipitously giving a five-minute interpretative talk about that object. I chose a small, smooth stone and “told its story” about how it had at one time been part of a huge boulder, had broken off, been washed and tumbled down the mountain for years until it was polished smooth. The point was, every natural object has a story behind it, including stones.
I often speak of my newfound love and passion for America’s national parks. Of all the national parks we have visited to date, if I could pick just one of them to return to, it would have to be Zion in Utah with Yosemite running a close second. I fell in love with Zion’s red sandstone bluffs that have been carved, scarred, and polished over eons by wind, rain, and the Virgin River that meanders through Zion Canyon. When we visited there a couple of years ago, I found myself standing in awe time and again as I stared up at those marvelous stone edifices.
My thoughts and feelings resonate with those of Muir. Of all the classic American naturalists, I suppose I most closely identify with Muir, his philosophy, theology, and passions for the natural world. Muir, it seems, was partial to Yosemite. In voicing his sense of awe when standing before the majestic stone edifices in Yosemite, Muir exclaimed, “God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!. . . . The very rocks seem to tingle with life . . . . all the rocks are dear friends, and have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh. . . . No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life.”
If that Great Mystery we commonly refer to as “God” was and is responsible for Creation, as the Judeo-Christian faith has always contended it to be, then there is, indeed, a sense of the Sacred inherent within the forces and Energy that have created these beautiful natural wonders of the world, as well as within them today. Zion, Yosemite, and other such places are living sermons set in stone, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
And as John Muir believed and spent his later years seeking to protect them, I believe these sacred places should be protected and preserved for all generations. Yet, such might not necessarily be the case. One of the other national parks boasting beautiful stone edifices is Arches. So many are the sermons in stone inscribed all over those sandstone arches – unsurpassed natural beauty, perseverance through the storms of time, and the ongoing creative process that shapes, molds, and polishes them to perfection. I don’t know how anyone could stand under the North Window Arch and not be inspired with the sermons carved in stone.
Yet, those magnificent natural stone structures are in grave danger today; threatened by the practice of fracking. In case you are not familiar with it, fracking is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. The problem is, tremors and earthquakes have resulted from some fracking, causing much damage to homes, businesses and natural landscapes. I was shocked to learn a few months ago that there are those who want to begin the process of fracking a mere 20 or so miles from Arches National Park.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is on the verge of opening over 80,000 acres of land just miles from Arches and Canyonlands National Park for oil drilling and the dangerous new method of gas drilling called fracking. If this does come about and the same thing happens there that has happened in other places, those iconic sandstone arches and the natural beauty and sermons carved in stone inherent within them are in danger of collapsing. Not only would such a tragedy be a major loss as far as losing some of the sacred wonders of the natural world. Think of what the loss of those arches would do to the local economy that depends upon the tourism dollars to survive! Such a move is nothing short of extreme shortsightedness, greed, and a total disregard for the Earth, its conservation and protection, and the generations that forever will be left with the destruction left behind long after what little bit of resources are carelessly extracted for monetary gain.
This past week, while searching the scriptures for passages that speak to the idea of sermons carved in stone, I read that passage from Job chapter 28 in a whole new light, in a way I had never before considered it. And I have read the book of Job numerous times; it is one of my favorite books. The passage could be interpreted as calling into account human folly that digs through the rocks of the earth and changing the natural landscape, void of wisdom and understanding. The writer of Job says,
“Miners dig the hardest rocks, dig mountains away at their base. . . . they tunnel through the rocks” (Job 28:9-10 GNT).
“[Man] dams up the streams so that they do not trickle,” (Job 28:11 ESV).
“But where can wisdom be found? Where can we learn to understand?” (Job 28:12 GNT).
I have spoken in years past of my disdain of another practice, mountaintop removal mining, a practice that blasts the tops off of ancient mountains and leaves them desolate and bare. The runoff clogs the mountain streams, causing floods and other devastation, and pollutes the drinking water of all those downstream from the mining. Sacred mountains that were millions of years in the making are desecrated and devastated in a matter of weeks in order to get at a narrow band of coal that will be burned up and gone in no time. It is nothing short of a grave sin against Creation.
And while I am on the subject of coal, many environmentalists contend that the chief culprit of air pollution plaguing the earth and contributing to global warming is the use of fossil fuels, with coal being the worst contributor of pollution of them all. But I have digressed from my original topic a bit, which is that mountains of stone have much to say to us, if we are willing to look and listen.
As caretakers of the Earth, we are called to action. And for many of us, it is a religious issue as much as an environmental issue. The opening chapters of the book of Genesis give humankind the mandate to be caretakers over Creation. Our Judeo-Christian heritage, which teaches us about the Sacred Energy and activity within Creation, and the spirit of Earth Day call us to think about the natural wonders of the Earth and what they have to say to us about respect, reverence, conservation, and care. Is the practice of fracking, which can result in tremors and earthquakes, leaving much damage in its wake, something we are comfortable with? Do we want any more mountaintops blown off for the sake of mining a little bit of coal that will be gone in no time? Do we really want to go back to the days of dependence upon the burning of coal, to the detriment of our Earth’s atmosphere?
If we answer “No” to any or all of these questions, then there are small steps we can take to make a difference – contact our representatives, sign online petitions, and support the efforts of John Muir’s Sierra Club and other such environmental groups. Let us do what we can to protect the Sacred Earth entrusted to our care.
Yes, Jesus spoke of the possibility of the stones crying out. The beautiful and majestic stone cathedrals (as Muir liked to refer to them) do have much to say to us of natural beauty, the creative process that formed them, and the Sacred Spirit of God inherent within them. There are sermons carved in stone with much wisdom to share, for those who will have eyes to see and ears to hear them. May it be so. Amen.