HOLY CREATURES: Loving Our Wild Neighbors

Posted By Beckie Sweet on Oct 9, 2022 | 0 comments

October 9, 2022 ~ 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Holy Ground ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet


               A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the UMC in Clarks Summit, PA that was built when my father was pastor there.  I was in elementary school when the church was built.  I always love visiting there because for the past three decades one of the long hallways by the Sunday School rooms has been adorned with a pictorial history of the church, complete with pictures of members of my family sporting puffy hairdo’s and lambchop sideburns. 

            During this most recent visit, on the wall of another hallway were posters that struck me as strange.  One had a naked mole rat (not a cuddly looking animal).  Another pictured a Panda ant, which is a wingless wasp that is native to Chili and inflicts an extremely painful sting.  The next was Red-Lipped Bat Fish, (picture that one!) which is not a good swimmer, so it must walk on the ocean floor where it lives off the coast of Peru.  Then, the Dumbo Octopus which grows up to 6 ft. long and lives in very deep water, some 23,000 feet deep.  The last picture depicted a Sea Pig, which also lives on the ocean floor.  It has a large cavity within it which can be inflated to make it scare off prey, or deflated for easy access to tight spots.  Someone said it tastes like chicken, but I’m not sure who would want to eat it.  Only after looking at all of the strange posters did I see the sign that invited people to that year’s VBS with the theme, “God’s Weird, Wild Creatures!” 

            God’s creative love makes each of us unique.  When I was growing up in the 70’s, to be uniquely weird was a good thing…to me, even if not to others.  The scripture reminds us that Jesus’ love for us is constant, even when we are weird, hard to look at, afraid, don’t understand something, feel differently than others…Jesus still loves us.

            And God’s creatures can teach all of us important lessons.  As we heard in the Bible reading from Job today, nature is understood to be a positive source of knowledge and wisdom.  To give you some context, Job had already gone through many tragedies.  He and his friends are trying to figure out why this has happened to Job.  His friends suggest there’s a hidden wisdom in nature, which they ask God to reveal.  Job counters by saying that humans can learn directly from the animals: all knowledge and wisdom is readily available to those who observe attentively and with open minds.  While they disagree on HOW the animals impart knowledge and wisdom, they agree that the animals possess it.

            Perhaps we should be looking toward God’s creatures and nature for answers to life’s deep questions.  The scripture goes on to invite us to listen to the birds and the fish.  In this scriptural saga, God is silent for 40 chapters.  And when God does speak, God tells Job that there are intricacies and complexities about creation that are beyond Job’s understanding.  There are nuances to creation that Job will never fully understand.  God asks Job, “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?  Do you observe the calving of a deer?  Is the wild ox willing to serve you?  Do you give the horse it’s mane?  Do you clothe its neck with might?” 

            Creatures are not listed in the scripture passages as existing for OUR wellbeing, satisfaction, or use.  They are elevated as sources of wisdom, as creatures to be respected, as teachers who can turn our focus toward our Creator.  God reminds Job that humans know so little about the creatures.  The answers to some of life’s biggest questions are not answers at all, but the ability to admit that there is much in life and creation that is beyond our comprehension.  God’s creation offers us awe and humility when we recognize just how much we have to learn.

            Some of that wisdom comes to us from Indigenous Elders and writers and truth-tellers.  We have been lifting up the writings of author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass.  She shares her experience of walking into her first freshman intake interview and being asked by her white professor why she wanted to major in botany.  She already knew much about the created world around her, and eagerly told him that she chose botany because she wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.  She was sharply told that she should attend an Art School if she wanted to learn that.  “Science,” the professor said, “is about looking at everything objectively.”  It was not until after becoming a Biology faculty member herself and listening to and claiming her own Indigenous wisdom that she learned and noticed more about the color wheel and light spectrum and the specialized receptor cells, rods and cones in the retina of humans, but also of bees.  Purple and yellow are reciprocal colors that delight the human eye, and that of bees.  For the bees, the Asters and goldenrod become the most attractive target in the whole meadow, and together receive more visits from the bees than if they grew alone.  Together they are a favorite stop for bees.  Bees pollinate every land plant that provides food for humans and other creatures.  The majority of crops that feed us depend on bees to pollinate them so that they will produce fruits, vegetables, and leafy sustenance.

            In 2017, when I moved to Kenmore, I was invited to attend a KVIS meeting.  Kenmore Village Improvement Society.  As we entered the Community Building and signed-in, we were each given a packet of wildflower seeds imprinted with the slogan, “Save Our Bees.”  You see, the bee population in that area had decreased by some 89% over two decades.  And finally, the humans took notice.

            If we took Job’s message to heart, perhaps we would spend more time listening to the bees and birds and fish and other creatures, and truly see them as connected to us in ways that prompt us to provide more care, treat them with more respect, and offer more protection.

            In our scripture text from Luke, Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor as oneself was recited by the legal expert who was questioning Jesus.  But then the legal expert asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  We usually only consider responses that involve humans!  Hmmm!  Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, which expands our understanding to include those we might not normally consider to be our neighbor.  But what if we kept expanding the response?  What if we considered who might be our neighbor among all living things, inside and outside of our community?

            Who are our wild neighbors?  What does it mean to be a neighbor to them?  Research proves that animals do experience and exhibit emotions (anyone who has had a pet can attest to that!).  Research also shows that children often show empathy first toward animals.  And children who grow up being gentle and respectful toward animals are more likely to be respectful and gentle toward humans throughout their lives.  It helps when adults model for children how to be kind and caring toward animals.

            What if we included animals in our concept of residents of our neighborhoods?  And I am not just talking about pet dogs and cats here.  What about skunks, foxes, rats and bats, squirrels and hawks, perch and bass?  If we truly consider animals and all creatures as sources of wisdom, teachers, and fellow residents of our neighborhood ~ would that change how we live?  How we interact with them?  What we eat and what we buy?  How and where we build our homes and businesses?

            This summer there was a story on the news about a man who fell out of his boat at sea and had to swim five hours to reach another boat.  He had a young seal following him, and anytime he would get tired and stop to tread water, the seal would start to nudge him as if to encourage him to keep swimming in the right direction.  The man said that experience restored his faith in God and reminded him that there are many creatures interacting in positive ways on this earth.

            There was also the story about lions who rescued a girl from kidnappers in Africa.  ‘Dolphins who rescued a surfer who was injured by sharks, a gorilla who protected a toddler when she fell into his environment at a zoo.  ‘Support dogs who are trained to call 911 when their owner is in need of assistance.  ‘Gentle pets able to calm service members struggling with PTSD.  ‘Animals raising the spirits of nursing home residents, children being treated for cancer, and anxious airline travelers.  There are many examples of creatures saving the lives of humans, and enriching our lives in so many ways.  From pollinating our crops so we can have food on our tables, keeping us from drowning, providing emotional, social, and medical support, to participating in search and rescue operations.

            Our homework this week is to spend some quality time with an animal in the wild or at home.  In addition to loving my pets, one of my favorite ways to do that is to listen to the wetland chorus at sunset, as the birds sing, frogs croak, muskrats play, and insects chirp.

            May we seek to value God’s creatures (tame and wild alike) as much as God does.  May we respect them for their uniqueness, for their gifts, for their wisdom.  May we be humble enough to know we have much to learn from all living things.  May we listen to the birds, pay attention to the fish, notice the insects.  Creation is more holy because of them.  We get a much clearer sense of God when we pay attention to all of creation.  May this be so.  Amen.

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