John 1: 1-5 and Colossians 1:15-20 – Joy is resistance

Creation Sunday – April 21, 2013

We all know this have been a difficult week but I want to begin with a question. Was there anything beautiful in the natural world that you noticed this week? I’d like for you to raise your hand, and when I call upon you to name that thing of beauty.  Thank you.

Now I would like to ask another question. In what way would your life, and that of your children, be different if the thing of beauty were missing forever.

These two moments are crucial for our stewardship of God’s good creation. I say stewardship because as Christians we are blessed with the spiritual obligation to care for creation. That means we actually are the ones responsible for the care of the creatures with whom we share the creation that, according to the Genesis, God has named as good. It is not as if we are separate entirely from these creatures even though we obviously are different species. Our lives are bound together in remarkable, often startling ways with other non-human creatures and with the earth itself. It is this interdependency of all species that is the heart of what we often call eco-system though seldom ponder how astonishing is that reality to which we belong.

What is even more astonishing and frequently forgotten among Christians is the conviction found in our text from Colossians that our entire biological eco-system is held together by the living Christ. This is so deep and profound that it stretches our capacity to comprehend, much less explain. What I would like to do instead of explaining this wonder is ask you to consider the community of creation to which we belong as a not only a biological reality but also a spiritual reality. One translation puts it this way: the whole creation finds its coherence in Christ. This Christological claim means that earth is not just matter with which we humans can do as we please for our purposes alone. We are bound together with it and all creatures in Christ. This is why our stewardship of the planet is not simply a good moral practice. It is deeper and more profound.

Though most of us have heard this spiritual obligation many times and have some knowledge of the inter-dependency of all creation, it is quite easy to forget. That is one reason for the little exercise at the beginning. I recommend you do at least once a day. Name one thing of beauty in the natural world – God’s good creation – and remember how your life would be effected if it were missing, forever. I would like to focus the rest of this sermon on one member of the community of Christ to which we all belong: birds. I could have focused on another member: bees, but we only have so much time.

What I hope is that we will be reminded of our membership in the community of creation and our role to sustain, protect and defend it as if the community belonged to God, which it does.

Fred Graham is the field editor of Audubon Magazine. In the current issue, he mentions a conversation he had with a friend whom he described as “convivial and God-fearing fellow.” Fred has made some enthusiastic comments about bird watching when his friend replied with a shrug, “It makes no difference to me whether I see another bird.” (Audubon March-April 2013) I read that on a day when we had just put up more feeders in our yard and got our water fountain working again in the hopes of attracting a few more birds since they actually seem to be declining and I can’t imagine a life without birds singing.

My life would be bereft of significant beauty if there were no more birds singing their way in the world as the dawn breaks each day. I would grieve if there were no more astonishingly loud songs of the tiny Carolina wren or the repetitive whistle of the Cardinal whose bright red is so beautiful whether against a snow covered branch or atop a tree in the summer. The peeta, peeta, peeta of the titmice in the woods by my home, or the geese honking as they fly by V shape or the sharp cry of the belted kingfisher: these are the sounds that summon gratitude from my heart when I need it summoned the most.

But this is not all about the joy of living with these creatures; though that in itself is worth claiming. Birds, like the bees, are a prime indicator of the health of the earth. When populations decline, as they certainly are, it’s a warning signal that life is dangerously out of balance.  As we protect the environments of birds, we are protecting the community of all creatures, including humans. I also discovered recently the value of birds for brain research. Few animals have taught neuroscience more than songbirds. This is partly because birds learn songs the way humans learn speech. This has helped scientists working on human speech disorders. Researchers studying the genes of birds have also discovered links that may help treat neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. There is more: attention being given to the remarkable way the structure of peacock feathers grow back easily has led scientists to promising work on the regeneration of toes and fingers.

It’s all so astonishing; this theater of God’s glory that we are blessed to live in. First, I thought it unwise to speak of such wonders when we are all disturbed and frightened by the violence in Boston. But I came to my senses. When violence reduces us to a bundle of fears and terror threatens our hope, it really is important to remember the beauty that is our original call. We can simply pay attention to this beauty without embarrassment or shame. Joy is not only permissible in the face of terror. It’s our calling. In fact it may be the best form of spiritual resistance.

In that same issue of Audubon is a reminder that is particularly apt for Christians who have a spiritual obligation to care for the planet: “To abuse, to waste, to overuse–that’s immorality. For me, it’s very much a question of doing the right thing. And I wake up every morning and listen to the birds and take their song to hear to go back and sing for them.” (Brian Rutledge, page 44.)

This poem by Wendell Berry is a fitting conclusion that will be followed with music by the Paul Winter Consort that integrates the songs of creatures with human instruments.

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

                        — (The Peace of Wind Things)