I’m learning about mosses—slowly. A few paragraphs at a time, I’m studying Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss. Kimmerer, who is better known for her bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass. is actually a moss expert. She writes with reverence and creativity about her subject, as both a scientist and a member of the Potawatomi nation steeped in indigenous way of knowing. I fully confess: I am interested in Kimmerer’s writing. I was not that interested in mosses when I picked up this book. They seemed boring and inconsequential. I might have said their presence was a nuisance or a sign of decay. What I have learned is that mosses are incredibly valuable, both ecologically and spiritually. They are wonders to be treasured and treated with care.
Mosses are often described by what they lack, in comparison to the more familiar higher plants. They lack flowers, fruits, and seeds, and have no roots. They have no vascular system, no xylem and phloem to conduct water internally. They are the most simple of plants, and in their simplicity, elegant. With just a few rudimentary components of stem and leaf, evolution has produced some 22,000 species of moss worldwide. (p. 13)
Mosses are a sign of health and hope, Kimmerer explains, because they depend on clean air and clean water. When an abundance of mosses cling to ancient rocks in an old-growth forest, this flourishing is likely the result of hundreds of years of growth.
The mosses’ relationship with water struck me as I considered this morning’s psalm and text from the Gospel of Luke. On the one hand, easily accessible water is essential for mosses. Kimmerer writes:
Lacking roots, mosses can’t replenish their supply of water from the soil, and survive only at the mercy of rainfall. Mosses are therefore most abundant in consistently moist places, such as the spray zone of waterfalls and cliffs seeping with spring water. (p. 36)
Paradoxically, Kimmerer explains:
Mosses also inhabit places that dry out, such as rocks exposed to the noonday sun, xeric sand dunes, and even deserts. The branches of a tree can be a desert in the summer and a river in the spring. Only plants that can tolerate this polarity can survive here. . . . Higher plants devote much of their effort to resisting water loss. . . . When water depletion becomes severe, even these mechanisms are overcome, and the plants wilt and die. . . . But most mosses are immune to death by drying. For them, desiccation is simply a temporary interruption in life. Mosses may lose up to 98 percent of their moisture, and still survive to restore themselves when water is replenished. Even after forty years of dehydration in a musty specimen cabinet, mosses have been fully revived after a dunk in a Petri dish. (pp. 36–37)
Both of our scripture passages today invite us to be like mosses, to grow and thrive in challenging conditions. The psalmist proclaims: “I’ve worked up such a hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts.” The stress and grief of living through these recent years has certainly felt like a journey through the desert. I sense a great heaviness in myself and in the world as I try to process experiences like a global pandemic, increasing climate distress, the murders of George Floyd, Dante Wright and Amir Locke, and now the war in Ukraine. The more I talk to others the more I realize I’m not alone. Heaviness and weariness of heart, hungers and thirst of body, mind and spirit, seem to be a collective reality, seem to be the air we are breathing together. Just this week, at the congregational care team meeting, we named the heaviness, noted it and pondered how we might respond to it. It came up again at the elder lunch and in numerous one-to-one conversations.
In today’s Gospel passage, the daily news sounds similar to ours. People were perishing in a violent, unjust world. The terror they faced was sudden and random. Tyrants were murdering worshippers at prayer. Buildings were collapsing and crushing bodies in the rubble. In Jesus’ day, people made sense of their world by believing that suffering was a punishment. Tragedy, illness, disability, and poverty were all expressions of divine justice. They were signs of God’s judgement. Here, and throughout the Gospels, Jesus utterly rejects this theology. Yes, we humans have sin; there is a rupture that needs to be healed in our relationship with God and with creation. We all have this condition. No one person’s sin is worse than another’s. And we live in a perishable world, a world that fragile, a world in which beauty, kindness and generosity coexists with pain, tragedy and evil. “I’ve worked up such a hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts.” This cry speaks to our need for God. Like water, like food, God is essential. God’s care for us is present in so many ways. And yet God also seems absent, or powerless, amid the terrors we face. Both perceptions are true; both experiences are real and important. God is our spring of life and feast of hope and God is our unfulfilled yearning, our unrelenting hunger and thirst.
Jesus says repentance is our food and water as we journey through dry, weary deserts. Repentance brings relief when our hearts are heavy, and we are carrying the heaviness of the world. Repentance allows us to thrive in a perishable world. Repentance means turning toward God, love, and light again. Repentance is a re-orientation, a welcoming of God’s point of view, God’s way of seeing, knowing and being. Repentance is change, change that enables us to receive the abundance, resilience and wonder of divine life. Sometimes we are like the dominating landowner who believes he owns the trees and the earth in which they grow, who cares only for profit, and can’t stand to “waste” the soil. Repentance then means learning about and learning from all beings and their intricate interconnections. Knowing the more than human world, we come to know ourselves. Holding in reverence the life around us, we perceive the workings of the divine and we move in harmony with all that is sacred.
Sometimes we are like a fruitless fig tree. And then repentance means allowing God to show us our potential. God sees how we are stuck in the ways of futility, mired in patterns of death. And God believes that with some compost and some care, we can find the strength grow and the wisdom to thrive. Sometimes we are gardeners, working beside God, coaxing others to bear fruit even after years of barrenness, even in inhospitable conditions. “I’ve worked up such a hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts.” The psalmist’s cry is that of a refugee, of someone whose home has become inhospitable to them. More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine as of March 15. Half of these are children. Perhaps against the backdrop of such huge forces of harm, repentance looks like small acts of humanity, simple gestures of kindness. Did you see the photo of the small wooden bridge that serves as a border crossing between Ukraine and Romania? The bridge is lined with colorful toys placed along its span by Romanian border guards, as a sign of welcome and a gift of solace for children living through war. Or how about the group of strollers that were left at a train station in Poland for refugee families?
As I mentioned earlier, we haven’t sung together in the sanctuary for two years. Two years. The absence of congregational and choral singing has been yet one more loss, one more source of heaviness as we’ve moved through this dry, weary desert time. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed being part of a body that sings. I’ve yearned to be surrounded by your voices, all your voices—soft, stumbling voices, strong sure voices, voices that are gravel-y or out of tune, voices that effortlessly create beautiful harmonies. It seems very fitting that we return to singing during this Lent, as we focus on the psalms, the ancient prayer-songs of our faith. Normally during the Lenten season, we avoid saying or singing a certain word that we save for Easter. You know what it is. Today, we have some Alleluias to raise!
Repentance is a process. Repentance can take a long time, even a lifetime. Let us be like the mosses who can survive 40 years without water. Let us resemble the fig tree that flowers and fruits after three long years of dormancy. Even with heavy hearts, in a heavy world, let us raise our praise God. And with the psalmist, let us sing:
“I’ve worked up such a hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts. So here I am in the place of worship, eyes open, drinking in your strength and glory. In your generous love I am really living at last! My lips brim praises like fountains. I bless you every time I take a breath. My arms wave like banners of praise to you.” Amen.