Mountains Beyond Mountains


Randall Tremba
 December 9, 2012
Second Sunday in Advent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Luke 3:1-6
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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Today I want to give a shout out to those who are working hard to protect the mountains and mountain ranges of Appalachia, including the mountains of wild and wonderful West Virginia. The gospel lesson for this second Sunday of Advent urges us to flatten mountains and fill up valleys in order to prepare the way of the Lord. It’s a figure of speech, of course. But here in the Mountain State that kind of language makes us skittish.

I’ll get to the figure of speech but first a shout out to those here and elsewhere that work hard to protect the mountain ranges of Appalachia. They work hard to protect our mountains from reckless commercial exploitation. They know what others know who work for justice, who work for civil and human rights, for prison reform, or for protecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They know that kind of work is like getting over one high mountain only to find another in your way.

Working for justice isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But then no one said it would be this hard. Unless, by chance, you heard that certain voice crying out in the wilderness.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

After listing all the rulers, the people with so-called real power in that particular world, along comes John, a nobody who resides in the wilderness outside the corridors of power and has nothing but the truth and the courage to speak it. The rulers of this world are about to meet the rule of love. Look out!

John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:1-6)

This is Advent and the Advent carols proclaim: the day of the Lord is coming. The day of peace and justice for all is coming. The day when swords are beat into plowshares and bombs pounded into swing sets is coming.

The day when all children can dwell in safety and fear no bullying or molestation, the day when people can love and marry whom they choose without social or government taboos, the day when children in poor counties and poor countries get a fair shot at education, the day when the hungry get a fair share at the table—that day is coming.

The day is coming. But preparing the way is in our hands.

As it turns out, getting to that day is like tearing down mountains or filling up deep valleys, which is to say, when you undertake the work of the Lord, the work of justice, healing and peacemaking in the world at large or in your own small world, you can expect huge obstacles in the way.

Which is to say, just because a few states approved same-sex marriage doesn’t mean inequality and bigotry have vanished from America. Just because Israelis and Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire doesn’t mean greed, hatred and vengeance have vanished from the Middle East. And just because you didn’t murder someone last week doesn’t mean hatred and vindictiveness have vanished from your heart or mine.

A voice cries out: Wake up you drowsy dreamers. It’s not over. There is still much work to be done to bring peace and goodwill on earth to all.

In case you haven’t seen or heard, blasting the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams underneath has resulted in the obliteration of a wide swath of Appalachian peaks and valleys: at least 2,200 square miles and counting. Perhaps you’ve seen the massive scars from an airplane. I have. It’s nauseating.

But the worst problem isn’t the missing peaks. It’s what the spillage and rubble does to the delicate mountain waterways. Dumping a mountaintop’s rock and debris into a valley doesn’t just obliterate all life there. It clogs headwater streams, the wellspring for the forests and all that dwell therein.

And so for 30 some years Appalachian residents and regional environmental groups have fought against mountaintop-removal. Most of the time it seems futile.

And then, last month, according to John McQuaid in Slate magazine, one coal company at last agreed to phase out its mountaintop excavations and redirect its efforts back to underground mining. In an unprecedented announcement, the company’s CEO acknowledged that mountaintop removal affected both people and ecology. It was a small victory in what to many feels like an endless and often hopeless battle.

Today on the second Sunday of Advent we sit and pray in solidarity with those whose lives are endangered by mountain, valley and watershed desecration. And we stand and pray with those who work to save and redeem creation, its peoples and creatures. Some of you have come here this morning from the front lines of those battles. And to you I say: way to go. And, I don’t need to tell you, there’s still a long, long way to go.

There are mountains beyond mountains. That is basic geography and a figure of speech.

“Mountains beyond mountains” is a popular saying in Haiti. It’s a way of saying that just when you think you’ve gotten over one major problem, along comes another. Mountains beyond mountains.

There’s a book by that name written by Tracy Kidder on the public health work of Dr. Paul Farmer and the Partners in Health who are deeply invested in the land and people of Haiti. I read it several years ago and I recommend it.

I was reminded of that book and that saying last week when I saw a report out of Haiti about a cholera epidemic sweeping that country. As if the 2010 earthquake wasn’t devastating enough, here comes cholera. For more than 100 years there had been no cases of cholera in Haiti and now this year 7,500 have died.

After the earthquake, after battalions of government and NGO aid and personnel had come and gone, the world spotlight moved on. No matter, in Haiti small bands of compassionate and persistent people keep working hard to bring health and justice to those beleaguered people living in one of the world’s most impoverished nations.

They don’t leave when the TV cameras go. They don’t leave on the last plane out. They dig in for the long haul and provide wings of hope for the crushed and broken.

A voice cries out: the crooked and corrupt must be straightened, the rough cruel places smoothed. Every valley of inequality must be lifted up and every mountain of injustice toppled.

It’s true: there are mountains beyond mountains in Haiti. But, you know what: you don’t need to fly to Haiti to do works of healing, justice and peacemaking. Open your eyes. Look around. I’m pretty sure someone or something nearby in your personal world is calling out for attention.

You see, working for the Lord begins with waiting for the Lord. Wait. Be silent. And you will see. Wait. Be silent. You will hear.

The coming of Christ to earth is poetically portrayed in the Christmas story. That too is a kind of figure of speech. It is more than a literal, historical story. It is also a myth, a myth about our own nature, our own being, our own possibilities.

The power of love hasn’t descended to earth literally from some other realm. It has arisen. The power of love has arisen and continues to arise over time, by fits and starts in the minds and hearts of mere mortals, mortals like us.

We can’t fully explain it. It may be on-going human brain evolution. But if so it’s more than that. No, we can’t fully explain it but we can marvel at it and stand in awe and silence before it. As you are about to hear (in the hymn), it bends language to a breaking point to even hint at the reality present to our hearts.

Yes, the work is hard. Yes, the work is endless. Yes, you may meet the “powers of hell” within you or in this world. But do not be afraid for the “Light of light” is within you. And it is rising.

Wait. Be silent. And you will see.

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HYMN: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Sile