flora and fauna sunday: insights for the season of creaiton...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, September 11, 2016. It is the15th anniversary of Al Qaeda's attack on the US. It is also Flora and Fauna Sunday for those of us honoring the liturgical season of creation. And also Islam's Eid al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice.) While still on vacation today, it was important to do some preparation for Sunday's worship as I will be attending a family wedding at the end of the week. If you are in town for worship, please join us.( I am grateful to the scholars who published The Season of Creation: Preaching Commentary as well as Krista Tippett's interviews with both Naomi Shihab Nye and Ellen Davis.

Today is the 15th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on the United States. At the time, some claimed that this experience changed us forever – but I don’t sense that this is true. It wounded and frightened us for a while. It challenged our social naiveté and tarnished our internal understanding of our place in the world. But, as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye articulates, we lost a great opportunity to go deeper into truth, compassion and humility in the aftermath of September 11th.  And our failure continues to haunt and hurt us all even today. In the days immediately following the carnage, she wrote:

Apparently, the entire United States has (recently) taken to reading more poetry, which
can only be a good sign. Journalists ask, "Why do you suppose people are finding strength in poetry now?" Those of us who have been reading poetry all our lives aren't a bit surprised. As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor—those great tools of thought that deepens our confidence in a meaningful world… Perhaps, she continued, when men with hard faces do violent things – and fanaticism seizes and shrinks our minds – people of tenderness will not abandon our songs, maybe we should sing them louder?

But at best our chorus of poetry and song remained fleeting – uneven – often shrill and nearly always incomplete. Most of our sisters and brothers never quite grasped the wisdom of this wound. We were not encouraged much to see how this injury, which is almost universally understood beyond our shores, is steadfastly resisted and even rejected here. So yet again Americans were denied the possibility of learning how pain and brokenness can become a bridge into humility and solidarity with the agony of others – what we call compassion – but only if we honor it and quietly choose to sit with it as with a mentor. St. Paul taught us this just a mere decade after Christ’s crucifixion and we have been avoiding it ever since: suffering (in deep trust he wrote in Romans) can produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the calendar of Christianity is circular, celebrating the same holidays time and again and asking us to revisit certain readings over and over in the hope that maybe – now – we might get it.

That’s what strikes me about the questions and insights from Job and Jesus in today’s lessons.
They give us another chance to listen to grace – especially on Flora and Fauna Sunday in the Season of Creation – that just happens to fall on the 15th anniversary of September 11th. I hear these ancient words as poetry, not doctrine, and never ever linear, bottom-line, utilitarian facts. “Poetry” says Naomi Shihab Nye, “humanizes us in ways that the news – and even religion – has a harder time doing. Poetry has the unique ability to capture the significance that the ordinary imagination cannot grasp.” It creates space for us to wonder – and listen – and ask questions without rushing to judgment. It creates an opening for our hearts to mature and ripen. So, on this day wrought with so many connotations and lessons, let me: First, share with you a story about how one of the Lord’s four legged mentors has helped me move a step closer towards patience and trust. Second, offer you a few insights from the wisdom of our Scriptures. And third, ask you to share with me and one another your reactions, thoughts and questions.

First, a story set in the context of learning from God’s flora and fauna something about how to live more faithfully in the Spirit of the Lord. Some of you know Dianne and I have a dog name Lucie. She is a precious, beautiful, highly intelligent shepherd/hound mix who brings into our lives profound joy and delight – most of the time. You may also recall – or if you’ve met her you know – that Lucie is stone, cold crazy: neurotic, anxious, strong-willed and remarkably stubborn. This is not my typical Scots-Irish hyperbole, beloved, just the simple facts. Now, when we are at home in our quiet, little house of Crane Avenue, and nobody comes to visit or do repairs, Lucie is the sweetest and most loving dog I’ve ever known. But bring strangers into the mix – or take her into the busy and noisy world of Montreal like we did a year ago on sabbatical – and she melts down, can’t function, flips out and becomes a royal pain in the ass. It is simultaneously heart-breaking to see her like this and exasperating to try to live life when she is in this condition.

So the entire time we were away in Canada last year, Lucie was bonkers: cowering in the house, whimpering in terror whenever we took her out to the park to do her business and jumping around in the middle of the street doing 360 degree flips that regularly pulled Dianne off her feet. It was misery for all involved – and it never got any better. For the first month we thought we just had to tough it out and, with practice, she would improve. But that never happened. She was just as unglued on the last day as on the first. So after consulting a dog trainer for both her well-being and our sanity, we came up with a few short-term strategies including the use of beer - for Lucie – that helped us get through the worst of her terror.

Now, here’s the thing I learned: I wasn’t in control – no matter how tough or patient, strict or lenient, consistent or flaky, I acted Lucie wasn’t going to change for she was always going to be panicked. I could either learn to be more patient and tender with her, or, I could kill her. Those were really the only choices available to me and I love my dog. She is precious to me – even with all her absurd, tragic neurosis – so it was up to me to change – to listen and wait, to practice being in solidarity with her anguish so that I could help her with my patience. I would be a liar to say that I always got it right – she could make St. Francis abusive – but… but we did grow closer and I did learn how to better hear what she needed and try to love her through her agony.

I think that is part of what the words of Job and Jesus ask us to explore today, too: what do our relationships with other living creatures on Earth reveal to us about living more compassionately and cooperatively with one another as well as what nature reveals to us about the sacred order of God’s love in the rhythm of life? Most middle class, professional white folk rarely think in these terms – and we certainly don’t go far beyond our anthropocentric notions of God to praise the Lord who is revealed in creation – but that is what both Job and Jesus ask of us today – and here’s how I see it taking shape:

Job was written as a way of making peace – and learning from – the inevitable suffering that happens in real life. You may recall that the legend of Job was borrowed from Babylon during the time ancient Israel was held in captivity there after 587 BCE. It tells the story of a good and innocent man who is forced to endure untold agony. His friends try to use religion to explain his pain – insisting that God doesn’t punish the innocent so Job must have screwed-up and sinned somewhere – but this only pushes Job into deeper alienation. Eventually, after 31 heart-breaking chapters, Job explodes at God in a rage and demands an answer to why he is suffering.

Now there are two clues I want you to remember: first, Job teaches that it is ok and even necessary for us to become angry with God. There are things we can’t understand, things that are unjust and unfair, and part of our responsibility is to be in honest dialogue about them with the Lord. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, all the great wisdom teachers argue and fume with God both because they want answers and because they love God. The arguments and rants are part of a relationship, you see, so don’t play it cutesy-nicey-nice with the Lord: to everything there is a season – even shouting at and doubting the Lord’s love and grace, ok?

The second clue is that after Job’s outburst, God replies – there is often a sacred response to our needs if we are paying attention – but rarely in a linear, news-you-can-use manner: 
Job wants an explanation for his suffering and human injustice and God never once directly replies. Rather, first the Lord speaks of the magnificence of the universe (in chapter 37) and then in chapter 39 asks what is implicitly true about the holy through some of God’s most fascinating animals?. Please notice that God’s reply comes in the form of questions not answers. This was one of ancient Israel’s adaptations of the Babylonian story – the use of questions to take people deeper rather than mere facts – and here God asks: “Do you know how mountain goats give birth? Do you know how many months a deer calf requires to mature? What about the wild boar – know anything about its existence?”

Now remember that this text was being honed during and after ancient Israel’s bondage in Babylon – the same time that the Jewish priests were working on parts of what we know as Genesis – specifically the first two creation stories. And the reason that’s important is because what God does with Job – parade a number of animals before him – is very similar to what happens in Genesis 2 when God parades a host of animals before Adam who is asked to give them names. In Genesis, Adam responds to the Lord suggesting that his names are connected to some knowledge of the animals’ nature. But in Job – when two ground animals and two birds of prey are presented -- Job is clueless. Are you with me? The suggestion is that Job is out of touch with God’s nature in creation – he is living out of balance – he is self-absorbed and self-centered even in his suffering.

And the Bible drives this home with the animals Job is asked to consider. Scholars have observed that the mountain goat lives in the “high, inaccessible hills and cliffs” of the area, so far from human habitation that their normal behavior would be unknown to Job. That means, of course, that he would have no clue about how the female gives birth. Further, he wouldn’t know that almost immediately after birth, these goats are able to fend for themselves making human care or interaction unnecessary. Do you see where this is going? The same would be true of the wild boar: it is NOT domesticated and needs no human care as it thrives unrestrained in the wilderness.

These two animals expose Job’s limitations and limited vision – and the same is true for the hawk and the eagle. The hawk soars on winds that are invisible, carrying it through the seasons in ways that humans cannot comprehend. And the eagle, the sky's equivalent of the lion in the forest, swoops down on its prey without warning before returning to a roost far beyond human control. All that Job can do is express amazement.

One commentator put it like this: “God’s challenge to Job is to consider some of the marvels of the Lord… that he cannot begin to comprehend and over which he exercises absolutely no authority.” This is not unlike the lesson Jesus shares with us when he reminds us: …the flowers of the field grow wild and their charm, delicacy and beauty have nothing to do with human control.” The grass that appears in spring and dries up in the summer is fleeting. The raven – a bird that feeds on carrion and was considered ritually unclean by Jews of the time – is still given nourishment by the Lord as part of the sacred balance. And if so these – unclean birds, perishing grass and wild flowers – how much more so you and me?

+  Jesus is using a form of argument favored by the ancient rabbis called a fortiori – making a case for God’s care from the lesser to the greater – if what we humans can see God’s care in little things, why not trust it with greater matters? Another way of saying this would be: God’s providential care saturates creation. “It is present to all like the flowers of the field, it is granted to those despised by some like the raven, and even to those who moment in life if brief like the desert grass… for in God’s love there is no discrimination.”

+  Jesus and Job speak to us of learning about God’s grace and providence through animals. In other places the same truth is told about children becoming wise teachers, the least of our sisters and brothers being ambassadors of the kingdom or the movement of the sun and stars showing us the power of God’s love.

Both Job and Jesus learned to trust God more deeply through nature – in this case through
some of the Lord’s four-legged and winged friends. They also learned to sit with their questions and God’s and watch and wait what was to be revealed rather than rush off and try to control things they did not understand. In the contemplative tradition, this is spoken of as “taking a long, loving look at what is real.” Like Mary, the mother of our Lord, we are asked to hold all these things in our hearts and ponder them quietly without anxiety. Small wonder that Jesus could tell us: Do not be anxious and do not worry – look around you every day – and you will see signs of beauty and grace and God’s presence.

The words of Jesus and the wisdom of Job were shaped by a profound understanding of the Bible’s creation stories, particularly that passage from Genesis 1 where we read that after all of creation was formed, God made human beings in the image of God to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living being. And before I ask your reactions and/or questions, please ponder this:

+  To live in the image of God in the world is NOT about being king or queen or the crown of creation. Rather, it is to live among creation as God does: aware of our “special and unique power and privilege – our responsibility – to share love, interdependence and respect” just as the Lord did in the beginning. The ancient Hebrew story, you see, does not make the first people nobility or even divine unlike all the other creation stories of the era. No, we were created in the image of God to strengthen and cherish the way of God in creation.

+  And we know this is true from God’s charge to us: this is how you shall live into my image – by exercising dominion – rawdah – over the earth. Sometimes this Hebrew word is translated as rule, sometimes as reign; when the Bible was translated into the vernacular during the age of Europe’s explorers, rawdah was translated in the King James Bible as dominion. Such was the limited vision of that era, but this is a nuanced and evocative word that contemporary scholars render differently. Ellen Davis at Yale Divinity School and others suggest it should read: you are to exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures.”

God has already set creation’s order and rhythm in motion: the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are to be fruitful and multiply – not just human beings – so what is really being encouraged is living in a way that honors and strengthens the blessings God has set in motion. Not controlling them. Not acting in self-absorbed and ruthless ways, nor losing ourselves in self-pity. But rather living into the image of God as the Lord intended. 

+  So… that’s what I have to share today: what about you? Thoughts? Reactions? Questions?

+  Knuckle headed, neurotic pets like Lucy can teach stubborn and bone-headed guys like me about living into the skilled mastery of God’s image. The rhythm of creation can evoke awe and humility. in even the most arrogant soul The pain and suffering that touches every life can put us into communion with compassion and solidarity if we are willing to watch and wait rather than rush to judgment. And every day we have the chance to try again.

How manifold – how numerous and awesome – are your works, O Lord? All of them show us your wisdom. Let’s sing to the glory of God…



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