Care for Creation Sermon for the Season of Creation

By Marcy Wieties, Emmaus Lutheran Church, Racine, WI

The Third Sunday in the Season of Creation in Series A

Wilderness Sunday

Joel 1:8-10

Psalm 18:6-19

Romans 8:18-27

Matthew 3:13-4:2 or Mark 1:9-13

One of my all-time favorite movies is A River Runs Through It. It’s based on the book by the same name, written by Norman Maclean. It tells the story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister, as they come of age in Montana in the 1920s and 30s. One of the boys is studious, the other rebellious. The book is really good, too, but this is one of those really rare occasions when I can honestly say that I prefer the movie over the book, and that’s largely because of the images of the Montana wilderness and because the beauty of Montana is almost a character itself in the movie.

Whenever something was going wrong in the lives of Norman or his son Paul, they would take each other fishing on the Big Blackfoot River. It gave them perspective. And just getting away from their lives for a little while helped them face the ups and downs of life. Fly-fishing was the main thing the brothers had in common, and Norman used it as an attempt to save Paul from himself and from the world.

It was sacred, every bit as much as when they were in church . . . maybe more so! It was those times together on the river that strengthened their relationship, motivated them to search beyond themselves for answers.

The opening line of the movie is stated by Norman. He narrates: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Though they might find themselves bewildered and disoriented by the world, it was there, in the wilderness, that they rediscovered their center.

Although the descriptions in the book are detailed and admirable, it’s not the same as actually seeing the beauty of the wilderness in the movie. I can feel the relaxation, drink in the solitude . . . and the optimism.

That’s not exactly the vision of wilderness we often get in the Bible. Think about it.

When we experience wilderness in the Bible, it is often a place of temptation, hunger, thirst, wild beasts, deprivation, a desolate waste, a place of wandering and questioning. It’s an uncomfortable place, an uneasy place.

It’s important to note that the Bible does not define the word “wilderness.” It merely uses it numerous times, and it is assumed that the reader knows what’s being talked about. It’s safe to assume that almost any place beyond the immediate reach of a city or village could qualify as wilderness. It could be pastoral land with plenty of water and vegetation but no permanent settlements or villages. In fact, the Hebrew word denotes not a barren desert, but a district or region suitable for pasturing sheep and cattle; “that which is beyond.” Typically, it means “beyond” organized settlements, the control of the government, and traditional civilized norms.

Despite the frequently negative connotations of wilderness in the Bible, there are signs of romanticism about a nomadic past where one is not hemmed in by the rules of city life.

Both Jesus and John the Baptist are described as spending time in the wilderness, maybe simply because of a desire to escape the crowds and the demands of ministry and as occasions for prayer. When Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness in Mark, he showed that he was able to overcome its dangers, both physical and supernatural. John performed baptisms in the wilderness. And despite the stories of disobedience and complaining in the desert wilderness of the Exodus, that time is often thought of in glowing terms. The law is handed down; the eventuality of the wandering is the entry into the promised land. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites entered into a covenant with God.

We have mixed experience with wilderness, too, don’t we? For all the enjoyment I get out of that vision of the Montana wilderness, I will also admit that, on occasion, I sit down to watch “Man vs. Wild.” Have you seen this show on the Discovery Channel? The general format of each episode is the premise that the host, Bear Grylls, is left stranded in some sort of wild region with his film crew. The episode documents his efforts to survive and find a way back to civilization, usually requiring an overnight shelter of some kind. Grylls also tells about very real successful and failed efforts at survival-without-help in particular areas. The show has the definite feel that the wilderness is “out to get me.” It’s an opponent, an enemy to be conquered. It can be rather unsettling.

Wilderness is an indispensable part of American history and a quick glance shows that our experiences throughout history have been mixed as well. When the first European settlers arrived, the wilderness was something to be feared. One settler in the early 1600s stated, “Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.” And yet within a relatively short time, the wilderness was embraced as limitless frontier for discovery and growth. Throughout our history, wilderness shaped the growth of our nation and the character of its people.

The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas by law. In 1964, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. In effect, they formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and to the fabric of our nation.The Wilderness Act of 1964 is one of the most successful U.S. environmental laws, standing for almost 50 years without a substantial amendment. Subsequently, countries around the world have protected areas with laws modeled after the Wilderness Act.

Our theme of the day in this Season of Creation is wilderness. So what’s your vision of wilderness? For you, wilderness might bring up visions of forests, icy tundra, desert plains, jagged mountain peaks. It might be red-rock canyons and turquoise rivers or southern wildflower fields. All these iconic wild places are part of your “great American backyard.”

What’s your vision of wilderness? Mine is Montana, like in the movie A River Runs Through It. What’s attractive to me about this scene on the front of the DVD box? It’s the mountains, the forest, the river. It’s the rhythm of fly-fishing (which I’m sure is probably way more difficult and frustrating than it looks in the movie!). It’s the creatures, the birds singing, nobody around for miles. It’s the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the water, the solitude, a very real sense of disconnection from the world, the buzzing of insects, the peace and quiet. It’s the chance to refocus on what’s really important. It’s the relaxation, the chance to draw into yourself and be introspective, the connection to something bigger than yourself. We all need more of all of that in our lives—a place to meet God and God’s creation—on God’s terms!

I’m thinking that rather than thinking of the wilderness as uncultivated, maybe we’re better served to think of it as a place to be cultivated. Rather than a place where men and women find themselves bewildered and disoriented, a better vision is one of a place in which to find your center, to orient yourself, and refocus on the incredible gifts we’ve been given in the creation of this world.

As we become a more urbanized society with growing needs for space and energy, we often turn to wilderness as a resource. But wilderness is not just a resource to be developed. It has many human, natural and economic benefits that we need to protect.

Wilderness is a vital habitat for wildlife. Wilderness not only provides homes for wildlife. It also provides migration routes and breeding grounds for many kinds of animal species. It helps to preserve a wide variety of life forms and contributes to more diverse plant and animal gene pools. More than half of the ecosystems in the United States exist within designated wilderness areas.

In wild places like Alaska, native human populations also rely on wilderness and the wildlife within it for subsistence. And when wilderness is threatened, so are local people’s livelihoods and cultural traditions.

And for all of us, wilderness is a haven, a place to escape to when we need to leave behind the pressures of our fast-paced society. It offers endless opportunities for outdoor fun with family and friends. It provides us with places where we can seek relief from the literal and figurative noise that too often confine us and confuse our priorities.

If you’re going to care at all about this creation gifted to us by God, you do well to begin with wilderness. It cleans our air and water. Wilderness areas protect watersheds that provide drinking water to many cities and rural communities. We’re connected to wilderness areas every day. Every time we breathe air or drink water, we benefit from the wilderness.

It’s also a natural laboratory, providing us with places to learn about our natural world and the issues affecting the health and vibrancy of our world, our wildlife, and ourselves.

There are 758 designated wilderness areas in these United States…from Pelican Island in northern Florida, at a mere 5.5 acres, to Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska, which covers over 9 million acres. But only about 5% of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. If you take into account that Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness, only about 2.7% of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

I could tell you about ways you can help preserve the wilderness, designated as such or not. I could tell you about things like picking up your trash, about leaving creatures and plants undisturbed, about supporting efforts to preserve wilderness, and the importance of being aware of development efforts that threaten the wilderness. But I have a handout for you to pick up at the end of the service today. You can read it for yourself and that’s not my real purpose here today. My purpose is the “why?” Why is it important to save our wilderness areas?

The Wilderness Act describes wilderness as “. . . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . .”

Untrammeled. That’s not exactly a common word. Untrammeled, meaning the forces of nature operate unrestrained and unaltered.

Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act, captured so well the sense of freedom that is essential to the idea of wilderness when he chose to use that expression. A “trammel” is a net used for catching fish, or a device used to keep horses from walking. To trammel something is to catch, shackle or restrain it. “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . .” So, wilderness areas are to be unconstrained by humans. Zahniser defined “untrammeled” in the Wilderness Act as “not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces.” It seems to me that maybe Zahniser wanted to allow the world to work as God intended it to!

Norman, the narrator of A River Runs Through It, says at the beginning of the movie, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” I think, slightly adapted, that that should be our mantra, our overarching theme for all of the Season of Creation. “There is no distinct line between religion and nature.” Maybe we should emblazon it on T-shirts or something! There is no distinct line between religion and nature. And I think nowhere is that more noticeable than immersed in wilderness, however you choose to picture it.

The wilderness is a place where God cultivates the faithful . . . and cultivates our faith. It can be a very good place to pasture sheep, whether actual sheep or God’s “sheep.” Wilderness, in the literary and biblical sense, gives us a place to reflect, on who we are, on what we believe, on what’s really important to us. It does that in a realistic, physical way, too, taking us away from distractions, away from technology, closer to God and nature.

It was once said that if something is not understood, it is not valued; if it is not valued, it is not loved; if it is not loved, it is not protected, and if it is not protected, it is lost. Public surveys have found that people who know about wilderness value it tremendously; yet almost half of Americans simply do not understand what wilderness is, how it shaped our nation, and how they benefit from it. This leaves many, especially today’s youth, disconnected from and less likely to support and value wilderness.

If you want to help preserve the wilderness, the single most important thing you can do is also the easiest—learn!! Learn about the threats, the American legacy of wilderness, the unique wild plant and animal species. Learn about invasive species. Learn about what your vision of wilderness is and then ask yourself what there is to discover—and to remember.

Although millions of acres of land in this country are protected by the Wilderness Act, many exquisite areas of forests, prairies, coastlines, mountains, and wetlands remain threatened today simply because they haven’t been officially classified as wilderness. In America today, we are losing about 6,000 acres of open space every day. Ask yourself, just exactly what are we losing with each and every acre?