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Season of Pentecost week 15, Common Lectionary Year A
(Season of Creation week 3: Wilderness)

Wilderness: A Geography of Hope.i
(Joel 1, Matthew 3:16-4:2, Romans 8:18-25)

By Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones


Many of us have had the privilege to travel at some point in our lives, and others of us dream we may one day.
Some of us like to visit the great cities of the world,
Paris, Budapest, Sydney Australia, Bangkok, Venice.
While I too love visiting these cradles of human culture and creativity, I think I am more drawn to the world’s wild places where the footprint and handprint of humanity are less evident;

The desert spaces of Utah or Arizona, or the Australian Outback, We don’t even need to travel far to find the wild places, for we live in a country whose thin ribbon of civilization along the 49th parallel is miniscule in comparison to the vast wild places to the north of us.
It’s in such places, shaped by the forces of nature
that I can more easily see the handiwork of God:
– in the mountain ranges of the Rockies in fall sunlight,
– or the silent passage of an owl across a snowy prairie,
– the galaxy spread like a gauze of spun silver across the sky,
– the sea, stretching beyond the horizon,
a moonpath marking the way towards eternity.
It’s in such places, that this normally rather verbal and overly rational person finds herself moved beyond reason, and silenced in awe.

The wise saints of the Celtic Isles called such wildernesses
such God-shaped spaces, the “thin places”
places where eternity and creation come so close together
that you can feel the vibration of their touch.

Thin places are places of connection, where heaven and earth,
Creator and Creature touch in a sense beyond all sense.

Thin places cause a vertigo of the soul,
a timeless, weightless letting go,
into a second, or a moment, or an hour,
where doubt is replaced by belief,
that the interminable pain will end,
that the weights and burdens of grieving and living will be lifted that there can be healing, cleansing, forgiving,
letting go, or coming back, because in those thin places
we have met again the God of heaven and earth.

When I read of Jesus, being led from the place of Baptism among the crowds, to the wild place of the Judean desert,
I see him drawn to just such a thin place.
To be sure, his thin place was no gentle pasture,
but a wild place where his limits were tested,
but he, like us, came away from that thin place
changed, and charged.
Connected with his Creator, his Sustainer
for his own work of redeeming.

Wilderness, thin places, are God-shaped spaces,
where we find ourselves reshaped, renewed, recharged,
recommissioned for our own purposes in life.
We would do well to protect them,
for in them heaven and earth meet.

But we know as well as any,
all is not well in the wild places of our world.
As we take this day to focus on the wild places of creation,
Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome
takes on new flesh and bones among us.
As Paul said, Creation indeed does groan,
and groans most lamentably
in those places where humans
have failed to realize that the wild places are
vital for the survival of the planet, and our own.

Our earlier prayer of lament touched on some of these places,
and I could bombard us with a frighteningly long list
of wild, but hurting places, from North to South,  high to low, wet, to dry.
But we have heard it all,
perhaps become defensively deafened to
the lamentation of creation,
because of the strident voices of recrimination
and finger pointing, and doom saying,
and theory bashing, and side-taking,
that have filled media in the last decade
about a planet truly in peril.

But reading Paul in this context reveals a geography of hope
that we desperately need to perceive and respond to in these times.

Paul, well-experienced in the thin place
encounters with the risen Christ, and the God and Lord of his days, speaks out from the perspective of those thin places, to remind the Christian community of their
unique position within Creation;
to be a community which lives and works knowing that its destiny is inextricably interwoven with the destiny of all God’s creatures, and that destiny is a good one.

In such a community of God’s children,
pessimism and dire doom-saying about the future of the world,
then or now, has no place.
Pessimism and fear belong to those who
live under the false assumption,
that the only way that world will be healed is by human efforts. But, Paul says, to the children of God,
there is a fundamentally different way to see the world.

From the vantage point of the thin place,
Paul tells us that while Creation does indeed groan,
it is not the death rattle of despair,
but is like the groaning of a woman in labour,
working with the pain to birth God’s dream for a healed creation.

This may sound like mystical nonsense, perhaps it is.
But I choose to believe that Paul has a message of hope
we need to live into, with all our might,
and strength and heart and will.
We are among the communities of God’s children
who choose to live knowing that God’s dream is worth working for. Indeed we’ve committed in our Covenant with Creation to “develop worship that reflects our call
to live with respect in creation,
calling on our members to become partners with God
in this sacred mission of caring for creation.”ii

In a book published three years ago, Canadian Chris Turner
wanted to move beyond the despairing tone of much current
ecological writing to find, and describe a “Geography of Hope”
– a landscape just beyond the horizon,
like the thin places of the Celtic Isles,
in which a new generation of activists, economists, ecologists, scientists, and even industrialists,
and what he calls “spiritual and other alternative communities” were busy creating a patchwork of sustainability
and care for the planet, a geography of hope.

He’s right.
More right than he knows.
We do have a unique place in the geography of hope;
we need to learn how to live into this unique calling from God to redraw the map of human relationships with the earth and our fellow creatures and the resources we all share.
Green Church projects are a great start,
as is our covenant with creation,
but for today, let’s listen to Paul’s road map
for charting this geography of hope:
He tells us first to listen until we hear the groan of creation well enough to recognize it,
then he calls on us to do that thing which is unique:
to pray, with the Spirit’s leading,
adding our sighs to the groaning labour pains of creation
birthing God’s Dream.
And don’t worry,
we don’t even have to know the words of the prayer,
we just need to know how to sigh, and long for, and hope.

i “Geography of Hope” was a phrase I read in 2008 in a Christian Century Theolog Blog post by Trygve David Johnson. It is also the title of a book by Chris Turner, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World we Need. (Random House, 2007).

ii Cedar Park United Church Covenant with Creation. cf.

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