10 min read

Camp Local 3: Where Are You From?

“Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.” — Thomas Berry
Camp Local 3: Where Are You From?
Photo by Marita Kavelashvili / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
July 24, 2022
Scripture: Job 12:7–10; Mark 1:9–13

So where are you from? It’s a bit of an open-ended question, isn’t it? As we continue Camp Local this morning, if you found yourselves at a really-for-real camp somewhere, there’s a good chance it’s a question that would be asked of you there as you’re meeting your fellow campers.

Where are you from?

You could answer by describing the city or town in which you were born. For instance, I usually say something like, “I’m from a suburb of Richmond called Glen Allen.” But you could also respond by associating yourself with a people group. You might say something like, “I’m from the Tar Heel State.” Or maybe, for you, your response is rooted in a geographic region — by the landscape, by the vegetation, by the shape and geography. You might say, “I’m from the Upper Peninsula,” or “I’m from the Pacific Northwest.” “I’m from Down East,” or “I’m from the coast.”

What I love about this question is that it reveals a relationship, doesn’t it? Not just with an abstract location — a dot on a map — but also with a culture, with a people, with the land and its creatures. If we dig deep enough, the question, “Where are you from,” is more than an icebreaker, a way to fill space when you don’t know what else to ask, but it also reveals something about our identity — something that places us, teaches us, orients us, and sometimes even changes us.

This was true for ecologist Suzanne Simard. She began her 2016 TED Talk in just this way — not only naming where she was from but also describing how this place changed her. She opened her talk by saying, “I’m from the forests of British Columbia.” And she went on to describe how, as a kid, she’d spend hours laying on the forest floor, staring up to the tops of the trees. She speaks of her grandfather and how he nurtured her love of the forests — and how one day, her dog, Jigs, got stuck in a pit, and so her grandfather had to dig through the forest floor to rescue it. And as he was digging, a whole new layer of her home and imagination was revealed, quite literally, as she saw, for the first time, the network of roots below the ground.

And it was this moment — there at home in the forests of British Columbia — that set her on a course that would lead to the study of forestry and, as she’d lay out in her TED Talk that has been viewed over five million times, toward the incredible discovery that trees communicate with each other through a vast underground network of roots and mushrooms and the like. But they don’t just communicate. They share. They pass down wisdom. In other words, what Suzanne Simard of the forests of British Columbia discovered is a complex underground web of mutuality and interdependence and resilience. It’s a discovery rooted not just in where she’s from but also in her relationship with that place.

This relationship is our central focus this morning.

This week, we roll into the third week of Camp Local. As a reminder, Camp Local is our annual summer series all about experiencing, reclaiming, and leaning into beauty, wonder, Sabbath, and reconnection — reconnection with God, with neighbor, and with self. It’s our response to Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel according to Matthew — an invitation that we desperately need — to get away with him so that we might recover our lives, to learn the unforced rhythms of grace, and to take a real rest. It’s also a way to keep it light and loose through these summer months — being playful (with s’mores and koozies and a lantern and this tent) while also thinking together about what it means to live faithfully in a world that so often feels like it’s lost its mind. Camp Local allows us to be transported somewhere — some distance for some perspective so that we might ultimately return home changed.

If you remember, Week 1 was Cosmos Week, and we considered what the stars teach us about God’s expansive love and our call to shine like those stars. It just so happened that week was right in sync with the release of the incredible images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Shout out to NASA, by the way, for timing that so perfectly. I really appreciate it.

Last week was Unplugged Week. We went without screens and limited our use of technology here so that we might rethink our relationship with technology, live as fully embodied creatures rather than just from the neck up, and unplug that we might give ourselves some margin and allow God the space to move in us.

In this third week, we’re exploring our relationship with the land and the sea — all that God has made — but also God’s relationship with the earth and all of us. It’s Earth Week at Camp Local, so let’s get into it.

This probably won’t surprise you. There was a study done by Pew Research a few years ago go on the religious sensibilities and patterns of spirituality in America, and it found that nearly six in ten adults feel a “deep connection with nature and the earth” — whether they’re connected to a faith community or not, Christian or otherwise.

And if you’ve ever had an experience that you might describe as holy or transcendent while at the top of a mountain after a long hike or while watching a sunrise at the beach or in the middle of a boat on Jordan Lake or while driving through a blanket of trees whose leaves are blazing red, bright orange, and deep yellow in the fall, then you’ll know something about this, too. I’ve heard it a lot as a pastor — and goodness, I’ve felt it a lot as a pastor — how deeply connected we feel to God while in nature.

But through its history, the Church hasn’t always honored that well — the idea that God is found in nature. In many ways, this sentiment is linked to the era of discovery and expansion, industry and progress, and it’s only become more entrenched. Land went from a place of identity, a place of story, a place of formation to a commodity — something that could be owned, objectified, taken, and exploited. Here’s how author, Victoria Loorz, puts it:

Everyone and everything else is objectified and valued according to their usefulness by those on top. Forests become lumber. Cows become beef. Deer becomes game. Land becomes private property. People of color become cheap labor or a threat.

And then, on top of this, there’s a problematic strain of theology that has maintained a sort of Gnostic idea that anything material is bad while anything spiritual is good, forgetting that Jesus came to us incarnate and whose resurrection was bodily. If nothing else, that tells us that matter matters.

And in a similar vein, in some Christian circles, there’s also a well-intentioned but destructive belief that we’re just passing through. That the earth is our temporary home — not our forever home — and so what we do here on earth doesn’t really matter. We have free rein to exploit and plunder and have our way. This is, in part, how slavery was justified theologically throughout our history. And it’s to forget, among other things, that what scripture describes is a renewing of this earth — not its destruction.

Our connection with the land has become marked by transaction and commodification. Industry and capital. But Mark, in his gospel — in his biography of Jesus — shows us a different way.

In her beautiful book, Church of the Wild, Victoria Loorz points out a fascinating detail unique to Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism. You heard Talley read it, but here it is again, and I want you to focus on a few particular prepositions.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And what’s really cool about this is that, in Greek, the word “in” as in, “baptized by John in the Jordan,” and the word “on” as in, “descending like a dove on him,” are the same word. In Greek, the word is εἰς. But here’s the thing — this gets really interesting when you realize that instead of “in” or “on,” εἰς has an additional and more common meaning, and that’s the preposition, into. In Greek, εἰς is often better translated as “into” rather than “in” or “on.”

And this small but profound nuance in Mark’s gospel matters when we consider the difference between these prepositions. When we think about it, we realize that “in” and “on” are prepositions that locate something. They’re positional. But “into” is different. “Into” implies a connection, an intersection, an entrance, a permeation. In other words, it’s a relational preposition in which two things converge and are transformed.

Notice what changes when the same passage is read like this.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John into the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Do you see it? The Jordan River goes from being merely a setting, a nice backdrop in a story, to something sacramental. Jesus is baptized into the river. The dove doesn’t just come toward him; the Spirit intersects Jesus. The Spirit falls into Jesus. There’s a permeation. A connection. A relationship.

In other words, Jesus, God enfleshed, inhabits the material world — in relationship. It’s not transactional. It’s not commodified or utilized. It’s relational. And this relationship with creation marks the beginning of his earthly ministry. It’s where he’s from — and this place marks his identity.

And so this nuance, this particularity, invites us to rethink and reorient ourselves in relation to the land and the animals and all of creation. Rather than something to be exploited or used merely for our own personal gain, it bids us to see ourselves in relationship with the earth. It invites us to, like the trees, find ourselves part of a vast network of mutuality and interdependence and resilience. To lean on the wisdom of St. Francis, who saw creation as his siblings, using names like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

When we move from an orientation of “exploitation of” to “relationship with” creation, a few things happen.

First, we slow down. Our lives move at a frenetic breakneck pace. Our attention spans grow shorter by the day. One day this week, I was on the go from 8 am to 9 pm — with barely enough time to eat. It’s rare for me but not rare enough. And not only this, but we’re often living in the future — our heads and attention out ahead of us — planning our next move, our new project, drafting the next email in our heads, ticking through our upcoming calendar, getting ahead.

We forget all too often that Jesus only moved at three miles per hour.

But to enter into relationship with the earth requires that we slow down. If you’ve ever been birdwatching, you know that it’s much harder to spot a bird when you’re moving quickly than when you’re walking slowly or even standing still. When we slow down, we can learn the names of trees. We can count the rings in a stump and wonder at the smoothness of a stone shaped by the water. We can follow the trails of insects, in awe of how they work together. We can marvel at a bee co-creating life by transferring pollen from one flower to another. We can delight (with a little bit of envy) when we see a puppy unapologetically rolling around in the grass — living his best life.

When we slow down and bring our awareness to the world around us, we are moved to gratitude. Moved to wonder. Moved to delight. Our cynicism and disenchantment begin to show cracks as we open ourselves to God’s world. And when we slow down into relationship with the created world around us, we get to know God a little better, too.

And this shouldn’t surprise us either. If you listen to the story of scripture, you’ll hear echoes throughout of a relationship between God, human beings, and creation.

We get a picture of God’s desire for us in any garden, reminding us of where we’re from as we remember the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

When the leaves change in the fall, we might consider how God appears to Moses in a burning bush.

When the clouds look ominous, it might bring to mind how God led the Israelites out of captivity toward freedom in a pillar of cloud.

In flowers and birds, perhaps we recall how Jesus points to both lilies and sparrows to teach about God’s provision and care. Or, on rainy days, how he uses rain to describe God’s mercy.

When we consider the community of trees, perhaps we think about how at the end of the story, in Revelation, there stands a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

If we don’t slow down and pay attention to the world around us, we’ll miss so much — important lessons about God’s abundance and beauty, providence and interdependence, death and resurrection.

This is what Job’s getting it when he reminds us to:

“…ask the animals, and they will teach you,
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you,
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”

Theologian and ecologist Thomas Berry puts it this way:

“Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.”

All of creation points to God — creation a reflection of its Creator.

One last thing — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this has significant implications for our lives, for that of our kids and grandkids, and for all the creatures who inhabit this world. The stakes have never been higher. The need for reorientation from exploitation to relationship has never been greater. We are already feeling the effects of climate change, and the continued threat may seem insurmountable. There are some days it may feel hopeless.

But we’re in the business of hope, y’all. And we often wonder, “What can I do? What’s going to make a difference?” I truly believe that one small step with profound implications is a simple shift into relationship with the earth — noticing, paying attention, spending time in the woods, naming a tree, taking a close-up picture of an insect, playing in the dirt, splashing in the lake. This simple shift into relationship can be the beginning of the revolution this planet needs for its nurture, healing, and salvation by God’s grace.

So, where are you from?