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Perhaps it is providential that Groundhog Day and Scout Sunday share a date this year. After all, there is no organization I can think of that better encourages an appreciation of the natural world. As we gather for worship, we hear our lesson from Psalm 19 singing that nature introduces us to God. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard."
You Shakespeare scholars will recognize the source of our sermon title this morning. The banished duke seeks to reassure his companions in As You Like It, saying "And this our life, exempt from public haunts, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, SERMONS IN STONES and good in everything."
Sermons in stones. Do you find them there? You can, you know. Or in the towering trees or fragrant flora or starry nights. At this time of year, words of Joyce Rupp come to mind. Listen:
One winter morning, I awake to see the magnificent lines of frost stretching across my windowpanes. They seemed to rise with the sunshine and the bitter cold outside. They looked like little miracles that had been formed in the dark of night. I watched them in sheer amazement, and marveled that such beautiful forms could be born during such a winter-cold night. Yet, as I pondered them, I thought of how life is so like that. We live our long, worn days in the shadows, in what often feels like barren, cold winter, so unaware of the miracles that are being created in our spirits. It takes the sudden daylight, some unexpected surprise of life, to cause our gaze to look upon a simple, stunning growth that has happened quietly inside us. Like frost designs on a winter window, they bring us beyond life's fragmentation and remind us that we are not nearly as lost as we thought we were, that all the time we thought we were dead inside, beautiful things were being born in us.(2)A sermon on a window pane. Sermons in stones. Or flowers, perhaps. As a very wise preacher once suggested, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you..."(3) To put it the way that our Scouts and other youngsters do these days, "awesome" sermon.
One lovely moonlit night, a young girl and her grandmother went for a walk. The sky was magnificent. As grandmother named individual stars and constellations, the granddaughter exclaimed, "Grandma, if the bottom side of heaven is this beautiful, just think how wonderful the other side must be."(4)
Awesome. Good word. Near the end of his life, Tuskegee Institute's brilliant teacher and researcher George Washington Carver was asked by an interviewer what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Dr. Carver replied, "The capacity for awe."(5)
Indeed. Awe is what opens our finite minds to the infinite intelligence of God. Awe is what connects our limited hearts to the limitless love of the Lord. Awe is what helps us to see God's glory in the sea and the land and the moon and the sun.(6)
To be sure, the natural world is not the only place we encounter God. As the psalmist insists, "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes." Yes, God is revealed in a general way in the glories of nature, but God is revealed in a very specific way in the revelation of the Word. That is why we gather for worship from week to week - yes, we get a glorious glimpse of God out in the world, but, in here, we get, in Paul Harvey's phrase, "the rest of the story."
Has your religion become routine? A bit commonplace? Even a little blah? Take a lesson from our Scouts as they explore nature and cultivate again your capacity for AWE. If you do, it will be like a homecoming for a Presbyterian. We whose ancestors in faith were the Celts of Great Britain and Scotland in the second and third centuries look back on a tradition that emphasized the goodness of creation and the gracious goodness of God, which can be seen both in the natural world and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Historians of religion tell us that the Celtic way of perceiving things was pushed aside in the fifth century by orthodox Roman theology, which emphasized original sin and the fallenness of creation. Much of the church's discomfort with the world to this very day - with humanness, with sexuality - comes from that theological conflict. Can we get back to our roots, please? Scottish theologian George McDonald writes, "We should look not only to the scriptures and the church to know God, but to creation as well."(7)
There is a wonderful Hasidic story about the child of a rabbi who used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there. He decided to discuss the matter with his child.
One day he took his boy aside and said, "You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?"
The boy said to his father, "I go there to find God."
"That is a very good thing," the father replied gently. "I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"
"Yes," the boy answered, "but I'm not."(8)
Sermons in stones. In a moment, we will hold a morsel of bread, sip the fruit of the vine. Will there be a sermon there? I'll bet the Scouts know.
1. "Groundhogs might be looking for love, not their shadows," Associated Press, Warren Times-Observer, 1/29/03, A-9
2. Joyce Rupp in Praying Our Goodbyes, cited in Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 134
3. Matthew 6:28-30
4. Clara Null, Christian Reader, Mar/April, 1996, p. 50
5. Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book, (New York: William Morrow, 1996), p. 321
7. John Buchanan, "Doxology," http://www.fourthchurch.org/112402sermon.html
8. David J. Wolfe in Teaching Your Children About God, cited in Spiritual Literacy, p. 128