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Great are the Works of the LORD

Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28 and When I Am Among the Trees by Mary Oliver

Sunday January 31st, 2021

Welcome to this Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany! It is hard to believe that we are already at the end of January 2021!

Thank you for joining us today and may this time in our gathering be a time where you are able to hear whatever it is that you might need today. I invite you to take just a few moments to be present in more than just our bodies, let our minds and spirits arrive as well, coming to a place of openness. As you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19.

God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Great are the works of the Lord! That’s what we hear from the Psalmist today. And many scholars understand this fifth book of Psalms or chapters 107-150 to be about being uprooted, separated and aching to go home. As Thomas D. Parker writes, these are a “reflection of the experiences of the Jewish people in their long exile in Babylon and their joy at the prospective return.”

The joy part is what struck me this week. In years of hardship and unknowns as myriad as the stars, the Psalm begins like this, Praise the Lord! Great are the works of the Lord! You might remember that Praise the Lord is a translation of the Hebrew superscription, Hallelu yah. Even before they are home, they are singing Hallelujah, praise God, Great are the works of the Lord!

These joyful, thankful words are shared not when all is well, not when the path is clear, not when the way ahead seems easy, rather these are words from exile.

Hallelujah, praise God, Great are the works of the Lord!

So I have found myself wondering if it could it be that our experience of exile is changed when the first words out of our mouth are praise and thanks, when our default position is noticing all that is great? I mean this in a practical sense. What if this text is pointing us to a spiritual practice that will allow us to endure with joy? In other words, what if having an orientation toward what is good, toward what is wondrous and exquisite changes everything for how we experience each day? Some call this kind of posture revering God, but it isn’t about believing, it is being in awe of all the somethings Greater, of all that is beautiful, of all that makes our lives brighter.

Maybe the idea is that living this way is choosing a sort of expansiveness, opting for a framework where the first inclination is finding gratitude for and joy in, what is, making it a discipline almost to do things like stopping to marvel at the new blossom, being quiet long enough to hear the owl, going slow enough to see beauty and to wave at the baby, to find the magic in the ordinary every day.

Once again from Thomas D. Parker who puts it like this, “Those who revere God live in a larger world, because they allow themselves to be open to something greater, something better, that lies deeply within even the most ordinary experiences.”

That’s just it. To me, when dogma and creeds or what others say is stripped away, faith is daring to not give up on being in awe of this incredible Universe, the Great works of the Lord. Faith is promising not to forget how miraculous it is that any of us are here in the first place- letting ourselves stop needing to be efficient every second and instead being in the moment to savor this beautiful life. To me, faith is promising to forever marvel at the stars and to let ourselves be saved by the trees. As Mary Oliver wrote, “I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often.”

Walk slowly. Bow often.

I am hearing from many of you that what is getting you through right now is being outside- On the trails, on walks with dogs, on snow shoeing adventures in quiet forests, on hikes in the mountains, on runs beside the lake, on a dark morning sojourn up the road. We aren’t in the same kind of exile as those who came before us, but whatever formation you call this, it feels like some kind of exile- from many connections, from community, from life at its best. But it has given me comfort recently when I stopped and went outside and remembered that we are all still connected to all that shall outlast us- the great works- the Flatirons and the night sky all aglow that awaits us every night. The pink and orange rays of the morning sunrise offering a welcome for a fresh day. The trees reaching us and teaching us with their bending and waving, telling us to slow down and to be flexible. Mary Oliver wrote that the trees tell us to “Stay awhile.” And they remind us that we too have come into the world to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Could it be that our experience of this exile might be changed when the first inclination of our hearts is thanks and praise for all that is great? What if this will help us endure? What if taking time to notice what is wondrous and exquisite in this world will help us find joy?

Like many of you, the pandemic invited me to find and work with what was good in our little yard in South Boulder. For much of the Spring, I spent time outside, being among the dirt and the trees, which really did save me.

I started to learn about what had already been planted, brought Barbara over to share insights on what was what, and we had planted a peach tree, along with local berries and plants. Among the many trees in our yard, are Aspen. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I have long romanticized the Aspen as a symbol of Colorado and the Mountain West. One of our first adventures when we arrived in 2019 was to take a trip to the town of Aspen. I wanted to see Aspens in Aspen. I think they are really cool for many reasons!

It turns out that they have gone through a series of adaptations that have supported their ongoing survival, including a flattened leaf to help with high winds. Also the bark of Aspen trees is actually photosynthetic, allowing it to grow long after the leaves are on the ground. But my most favorite fact about Aspen trees is that one tree is actually just a tiny part of a larger organism.

“A stand or group of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with the main life force underground in the extensive root system. Before a single aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until the conditions are just right.” All of the connections are deep underneath. And the individual trees only live for 40-150 years, but the underground system of roots can last for thousands of years. Perhaps you know about the Pando in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah that is more than 80,000 years old.

We humans can often act as if we can survive alone, but we are more like the Aspen I think, needing nourishment from the world in ways that cannot necessarily be seen on the surface, connected generationally with trails of roots, surviving by a spectacular creation and networks of all kinds.

Being among the trees reminds us that we are a part of something bigger, a piece of a great creation!

Hallelujah, praise God, Great are the works of the Lord!

Taking time to give thanks and notice what is great in this vast and amazing Universe will help us get through and I think it will keep us going with hope and joy. Seeing the wondrous and the exquisite, being in awe. Paying attention to the main life force underground and above. Walking slowly. Bowing often. Being among the trees and staying long enough to be reminded that “we too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Beloved ones, while we are uprooted, separated and aching to go home, let us go outside! Let us continue to notice what is wondrous and exquisite, let us never forget that we are a part of something bigger, a piece of a great creation! Great are the works of the Lord. Hallelujah and Amen.

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