24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:24-28)
This morning, we will be exploring Yellowstone National Park together, so lets take just a couple minutes to get a look inside it:
Good morning! Today we are making the first stop on our summer road trip through 8 of America’s National Parks. This might seem like a strange concept for a sermon series but stick with me here for a second. Right now, we are experiencing a World-Wide Pandemic. Many of us in this church, including myself, are choosing to remain as self-isolated as possible while scientists are working towards some solutions for how we can move forward in spite of the Corona Virus.
But this means that a lot of our plans for the year have been cancelled, right? I know all of my vacation plans have been, which is hard when after a few months you start going a bit stir-crazy in your house.
This is why I bought the book America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks, by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. In it, they share the history of a National Park, the features that make it special, and how we can see God in that park. They connect each park with a scripture and a theme and provide some insights to help the reader make their own connections. In the introduction, they explain why they wrote the book this way:
“For as long as humans can remember, we have looked at the wondrous beauty of the world and sought to understand our place under the stars. In the tallest peaks of the mountains we see transcendence, a thin place between ourselves and the heavens. Verdant valleys remind us of the abundance the earth provides. Desert landscapes can leave us alone with our thoughts, perhaps to ponder our lives and to have gratitude for the supplies we need to sustain us in an otherwise unforgiving place…we see beauty in these places and events, sometimes we see, or at least feel, something else our eye cannot fully see nor our mind fully understand. These are holy moments…this book seeks to reconnect you with your own holy moments of your past, to create new holy moments on future visits, or simply to transport you to one the national parks.”
I have never been to Yellowstone National Park, but I almost feel like I have been I grew up hearing stories of Old Faithful and the volcano underneath the surface of the park, seeing pictures of the wildlife, and the hot springs, and the waterfalls and the mountains.
Yellowstone is well known for being the very first place to become a National Park, an it is easy to see why. Along with the picturesque views and the amazing physical features, Yellowstone is also a huge wildlife preserve. According to Lyons and Barkhaur, it is home to the densest animal population in the lower 48 states! Sustaining the wildlife in Yellowstone has always been a top priority of its caretakers, in fact, a lot of controversial things have been done to sustain it.
For example, its caretakers “allow wildfires to burn extensively when they are restoring the landscape.” They understand that sometimes things have to die for new life to begin. Not only that. In an effort to save the balance of the park’s ecosystem, back in the 1990s, they re-introduced wolves into the park. This might seem a little strange to those of us who aren’t scientists. If you want to protect all the wildlife in a park, why introduce a predator into the mix?
This question brings me to the scripture I chose for this morning. In it, Paul writes to the early Christian Church in Rome that “All things work together for good for those who love God.” Christians have used and misused this scripture to say that it means that God causes bad things to happen to us because it is part of some master plan. After the death of a child, someone might say that God needed one more angel in Heaven. Or if someone gets sick, they might get told, “Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason.”
I think people have good intentions when they say things like this, but it can also be hurtful to people who are reeling from a major catastrophe in their lives. Sometimes, bad things just happen. Period. This sermon is not to tell you that when bad things happen to you, it is because God made it happen to make you stronger.
I don’t think that is what Paul was trying to say here either. Paul was giving the early Christians a message of hope. A reminder that we are resurrection people, that Jesus and the disciples experienced the worst thing, and then through the resurrection all came together for good.
It is important to note that Paul did not have what I like to affectionately call a “Pollyanna complex.” He wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, ignoring the bad in the world. He was not speaking from a position of great privilege, where everything was going right in his community. He was speaking to the early Christian Church whose Messiah had been tortured and killed, and who were risking their own safety and lives even to be Christians. They knew that bad things happen. But Paul encouraged them to have hope. Hope that God can use what is meant for evil in our lives and transform it into something good.
This is what happened in Yellowstone. As I was doing research for this sermon, I watched a video called “How Wolves Change Rivers” which was created by a non-profit called Sustainable Human. In the video, the narrator shared that after the pack of wolves was introduced into the park, they thinned out of bit of the deer population and scared the rest of them out further into the park. So, the areas that had been overpopulated by the deer began to grow again. These changes stabilized the vegetation and trees, which changed the way that the rivers behaved. Rather than flowing erratically through the park, the water slowed down. It became more stable, which helped sustain plant and wildlife.
Plants began growing in healthier ways. The amount of trees spread and the size of existing trees grew larger, which in turn brought back birds and gave the beavers a place to set up their habitat.
The Beavers changed the ecosystem even more, creating pools for wildlife like fish, ducks, reptiles and otters to use to help them repopulate in the area. The wolves also scared off some of the coyotes, which helped to bring back other small animals like mice, badgers, rabbits, eagles, and hawks. Introducing a pack of fourteen wolves into a park the size of Yellowstone, somehow revitalized the whole landscape and changed it into the park it is today.
And all of this is so good, until we think about it from the perspective of the deer. Back in 1995, the introduction of predators into their habitat must have terrified the deer. Being hunted forced them out into different parts of the park, they lost the places that felt safe and like home to them. But as Yellowstone grew healthier, as the plants and wildlife came back and the river became more stable, the deer also benefitted. Today they live as part of the delicate balance of Yellowstone’s ecosystem.
And if God can change the ecosystem of an entire National Park with a few wolves, what can God do with the predators or frightening things in our own lives? As Christians, the story of Jesus reminds us that the worst thing is not the last thing. That we can hold onto hope that something good can come out of what we are hurting from.
This doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt. This doesn’t mean that it’s not terrible when we get a scary medical diagnosis, or our financial situation causes us to experience homelessness, or when someone we love dies. It doesn’t take away the stress and the anxiety of living through a pandemic. What it does mean is that despite the bad and through the pain, we can hold onto knowing that God is good. God is with us. And with God, anything is possible.