John 10:11-18; 1John 3:16-24
Seeing God’s creatures up close, is always amazing to me. To see the talons on that eagle; to see how big it is compared to the birds I’m used to seeing up close— to the robins that are beginning to show themselves again— it is astonishing to say the least. What an amazing God we worship who creates eagles and cranes that still remind us of dinosaurs we never got to meet and the turkeys that wander through my backyard. I am in awe of God’s creative powers— of God’s vivid imagination. The Bible is full of imagery of God being like an eagle; or an earthquake; or that God is on the top of the mountain— because our Biblical ancestors were so much closer to the earth than we are today— interacted with the earth in such intimate ways, that it was no secret to them that they were part of the earth, along with all of the creatures.
Today, we have to teach ourselves and our kids about that connection because it seems so foreign to us. As we have discussed and studied and struggled with forgiveness this winter, one thing that repeatedly comes up is the notion that we are all connected. Desmond Tutu calls it Ubuntu— the South African word that means that I am me because you are you— I am human not in a vacuum, alone and apart from anyone else, but I am human precisely because I am connected to you and to other humans. This is both a frightening and amazing, but it does not stop with humans. We are connected to all living things and all living things are connected to us. We are only beginning to understand how intricately everything on this planet relies on everything else, even though we live as though we don’t rely on anything but ourselves. Our experience with Bald Eagles is one example of many. Did you know there were half a million bald eagles in what is now the United States before the European colonists began to arrive? Half a million that went down to 500 before we recognized the problem and began to get out of the eagles’ way so they could survive again. Today there are close to 50,000 in North America, but we have no idea what else we lost during that time.
As humans, in our ignorance, we often think we know what’s best for the world we live in, and we’re only just beginning to find out how little we know. In a fascinating book that the nuns at St. Ben’s introduce me to, called “The Hidden Life of Trees,” Peter Wohlleben shares story after story of the ways trees communicate to one another and to the earth around them. He has researched how tree roots crackle as they grow, which may not seem like a big deal, except that the root tips of other plants nearby respond to that crackling by turning toward the sound. Think about that for a moment. When tree roots grow, they send out sounds that cannot be detected by the human ear, but when they do this, other tree roots turn towards the sounds as though they are listening. Is that so different than when one of you comes up to talk with me, and I turn towards you? And when a tree is bitten by a certain insect, it knows from the insect’s saliva which insect it is, and begins to release toxins to discourage that insect from eating it, all the while sending information through those toxins that it has released to warn neighboring trees around it— so that trees a mile away will already start releasing that same toxin to discourage the insect before it ever gets to those trees. Do we think we’re smarter simply because we communicate faster? It’s starting to look like humans are the ones who have been ignorant all along, while the world around us continues to try to survive despite what we keep doing.
Bernie Kraus has been recording the sounds of nature for his whole life. When a movie or a TV show needs certain nature sounds in their films, Kraus is one of the people they hire. And Kraus says that when he began his work, 45 years ago, he used to record about 10 hours of wildlife sounds to get an hours worth of material that he needed. He would record forests or prairie or waterways listening for the right bird, the right sound, the exact animal that his client needed. Now, he says, he has to record up to a thousand hours to make one hours worth of material because the birds and animals have become so sparse. In fact, when he heard that a company was going to do selective logging on an area, which they said would have little impact on the environment at all because they were only taking a tree here and a tree there rather than clear cutting the area, he decided to record that specific forest before and after the selective logging to see the difference. Before the logging you can hear a hundred different kinds of birds, the frogs and squirrels and other rodents in the area, and just barely in the background, a babbling brook. But a year later, after the selective logging, the recording sounds dramatically different. In it you can pick out one or two bird sounds at any given moment, but the constant chatter of birds and animals is hardly on the radar at all. Instead, the babbling brook is about all that can be heard. Going back once a year for five years, Kraus found that the soundscape of the area did not come back. Although the forest looked the same, it sounded completely different. “If you are a religious person,” Kraus said, “it seems to me this is the time to be concerned. This may be our last chance to truly hear God’s voice.”
So what do we do, according to Kraus? “Be quiet.” He says, “Listen. Stop trying to dominate the natural world.”
Ellen Davis, an Old Testament Professor, has written extensively on how our Christian Scripture has a lot to say about how right relationship with God includes right relationship with the earth. That the Hebrew word for “land” actually encompasses not just dirt, but all that is: the ground, the trees, the plants, the rivers and seas, the air, the creatures, and of course, other human beings. Davis has been known to say that in the fullness of time, not only will we be held accountable for what we have done to other humans and to God, but that creation will be given its voice (or perhaps we will finally be given ears that hear better than we do now) and we will be called to sit down and listen, really listen, to the pain we have caused.
Which sounds exactly like the way of forgiveness that we have been studying. The earth has been trying to tell us its story. The creatures have been trying to tell us their story. The plants and rivers and air are telling us a story— if we would just stop long enough to pay attention and hear that story and recognize our part in it. We are called not only to tell our story and to listen to the stories of those we have harmed, but to also listen to the earth’s story so that we can repent of the ways we have hurt this home that is not ours alone, take the time to name those hurts, and renew our relationship with the earth — because in this case, releasing that relationship is not an option we can live with!
In our Scripture this morning, we hear Jesus call himself the Good Shepherd. He is distinguishing himself as different from a hired hand— from someone who has just come to do a job and get paid. A shepherd who loves his sheep acts in service to the health of the sheep. He lays down his life when its necessary. He has the well being of the sheep in mind. It is a beautiful image. It is a comforting passage to know that Jesus cares for us deeply— as a parent would, not as a hired hand that will go on to something else tomorrow. But I don’t think what Jesus meant is that our actions have no consequences— that we are to be as ignorant as we think sheep are. Remember last week, when Jesus told Peter three times to feed his sheep? We too are called to be good shepherds in our world— and not just to humanity, but to all the world. We are called not to be hired hands, using the earth for our own profit and then moving on; we are called to be shepherds— to love our brothers and sisters; our neighbors; our enemies; and to love the earth and its creatures and its waterways and its mountains and its air and its prairies and its forests. We are called to love the earth and to lay down our lives for this world that God loves— not to make a buck like a hired hand— but to recognize the sacredness of it all.
What do we need to lay down in order to love the earth and all of its creatures? I don’t think we’ll be called to lay down our lives, but definitely to lay down our addictions to the earth’s resources; to lay down our laziness of not recycling; to lay down our greed of choice that burns up fossil fuels so that we can live the lifestyle we are used to; or mine precious minerals to make cell phones. What can you lay down today to make a significant difference? Maybe it’s to begin composting your food waste instead of throwing it into a trash can; maybe it’s buying solar power or eating less meat each week; maybe its standing together as a community to speak out against cutting down forests in our community; to buy organic food so that the use of pesticides continues to go down instead of up. Pick one thing this week that you can do and make a habit of it, and then when that’s a habit, pick another one. I’ve heard a lot of people committing this winter to enjoying this summer more than ever since we’ve been waiting for it for so long. What would it mean for us to commit to changing our ways this summer— perhaps one habit per month— so that by fall our negative impact on the world can be that much smaller? It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
God has given us this beautiful, amazing planet— a far better home than I could’ve imagined or dreamed of— and God calls us to care for it; to receive forgiveness for what we have already done, but not to continue in that direction— instead to lay down the parts of our lives that are harming others and harming this planet, and to find life in what is already here, right in front of us, appreciating the complexity of life and the ways in which we are all connected. It’s far more than even Ubuntu— perhaps in Hebrew, it would be called Shalom— the true peace of God that comes when we all recognize our connection to each other and to the earth. When we recognize that God’s voice speaks to us in creation, and to cherish that voice more than our own.