Neighbors, Near and Far Part 2
“Neighbors, Near and Far, Pt 2”
October 23, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
‘But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.
Here at Cobleskill UMC we think loving our neighbors is a pretty big part of what it means to be Christian. In fact, we see loving our neighbors as a way of loving God. Our faith isn’t all about ourselves and our own salvation, but also about our solidarity with those around us and our mutual flourishing together. And sometimes those neighbors are on the other side of the country like we talked about last week with our siblings in Central Appalachia, but sometimes those neighbors are really close. And when I say really close, I mean, REALLY close. This was my situation yesterday as I was trying to write my sermon. My cat, Lionel Pants, who ignores me most of the time except for when I’m trying to work on my sermon and then all of sudden the small space between my head and my computer is the PERFECT and ONLY spot to lay. Never mind those arms and hands. She doesn’t need those.
I consider Lionel Pants and myself to be neighbors in this world and we love each other, despite the fact that he shows his love by drooling on me. When Jesus says love your neighbor and the follow up question is, who is my neighbor? Do animals come to your mind? How about trees and birds and rocks and streams? Today we’re talking about how when we love our neighbors we aren’t just talking about humans, but also the other parts of God’s glorious and wonderful creation.
When Queen Elizabeth II died last month there was a curious headline that circulated: “royal beekeeper has informed the Queen’s bees that the Queen has died.” Maybe you saw it. You see, there has been a tradition in England and also in rural parts of America that the bees one keeps need to be kept informed of your major family events. It sounds silly, right? But this tradition is taken quite seriously because if you don’t “tell the bees,” as it's called, something grave may happen. Tradition says bees that were not told about deaths in the family, or births, or marriages, they would sometimes leave their hive, stop producing honey or die themselves. Others believed something additionally grave might happen to the family. While I kind of like the idea that a bee might be concerned about the details of its human family, I can’t personally speak to the truth of folklore. But I can say there is significant truth to the idea that humans and bees have some kind of critical symbiotic, neighborly relationship, even if it doesn’t hinge alone on sharing our life stories. We depend on each other to survive. About 90% of the nutrition humans get come from food that depends on bees to pollinate them. Agriculture experts say, though, that bee populations have declined by more than 60% in the last half century. The decline is due to things over which humans have responsibility: pesticide use and habitat loss.
Caring for the created world as though they were our neighbor means being concerned about something like this. And not just because humans stand to suffer if we keep making life hard for the bees (that would be self-serving). We ought to care about the plight of the bees because God created them and loves them just as much as God loves us.
“Ask the animals and they will teach you,” says the scripture. The hand of the Lord has made this world, from the smallest bee to the largest mountain. Do we see ourselves as neighbors with, or do we see ourselves as consumers of the natural world?
“Ask the animals and they will teach you, the birds of the air and they will tell you.” These lines were uttered by Job as he wrestled with personal tragedy in his own life. He was swirling in questions. Why was life unfair? Why did bad things happen to good people? Where was God? Job was beginning to learn that his life and his problems could only start to make sense when he expanded his frame of vision. God was bigger than Job, and his human life. Ask the animals and they will teach you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
The earth has wisdom and perspective to offer. How to find stillness when we’re too busy. How to sit with our suffering when we’re quick to move on. How to be humble, when we think we know it all. How to care, when apathy makes us numb. How to have courage when we shrink behind our fears. How to show restraint when our pride gets the best of us. How to let go when it’s our turn to step back.
Being a good neighbor sometimes means just listening to what the neighborhood of creation has to say.
Do you know much about St. Francis? He’s probably one of the saints you’ve heard of, but what do you know about his life? St. Francis lived over 1000 years ago in Assisi, Italy and he is known as the patron saint of animals and also ecology. But it took a huge shift for him to get there. Francis grew up in a “religious” family that glorified wealth and status more than it did charity and generosity. He was sent to fight a “holy” war in one of the crusades in which he was told to fight and kill in the name of God. And Francis realized none of these things reflected the true nature of God. In a bold move, Francis left his family and his inheritance and gave up all of his worldly possessions and lived instead among the animals and fellow humans who were outcasts. Francis called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters” and is said to have even preached to the birds. He is largely considered to be one of the most Christ-like people in our church’s history, in part because of his vow of poverty and a life given totally to compassion and gentleness alongside the most marginalized, humans and animals alike. He didn’t see himself at the center of the world God had created. He saw himself as a neighbor and friend in solidarity with the natural world.
One year at Christmas, Francis was visiting a small village on a mountainside in Italy. He realized that the small chapel was not going to be big enough to hold all of the community for the Christmas service. Yet church was always held inside buildings. Francis decided to do something different. He found a niche in the rock near the town square and he had the idea of putting an actual manger from a barn into the niche, full of hay and all, and then he actually brought a donkey and an oxen from a nearby farm and stood them beside the manger. And from beside these animals and their hay, he preached the Christmas story to the whole town who could gather around. Through this “nativity” scene, as it later became known, Francis not only brought the story of Jesus’ birth out the buildings where it had been kept and into the community making it accessible to average people, he also emphasized the humanness of Jesus and the humility of his birth amongst the hay and animals. Hay in a manger standing next to a donkey in the crevice of a rock, was Francis’ way of showing what mattered about Jesus Christ. He was born as a little baby into a precarious situation, yet surrounded by the gentleness and wonder of God’s creation. He was born to be a friend to all, even those who are not human. This was the first time animals and a manger had been used to celebrate Christmas and the idea quickly took off with the use of nativity scenes and creches and has become one of the most recognized ways of celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Francis of Assisi lived nearly 1000 years ago and Job’s story is more than 6000 years old. Yet their truths still speak volumes.
When you are stressed, when you are overwhelmed, when you feel trapped by your surroundings, when you are faced with grief and loss, take some advice from Job and St. Francis. Go outside. Ask the animals. Inquire with the birds. Have a conversation with the falling leaves. Put yourself in nature. Because it is there where we realize how big God is and how integrated into creation we are. The wisdom of the mountains and the tenderness of the breeze have a way of putting our lives into perspective.
Job and St. Francis found this perspective themselves and it saved them. It gave them new purpose in their lives. But God’s creation was not merely a respite for them to sort out their personal problems. The natural world had an importance that had been forgotten by humans. The wisdom of creation had been trampled by more selfish priorities of humans. Changing that narrative has been their legacy.
And yet here we are, living in a world that still is trampled by human priorities. Our selfishness and greed has led to widespread natural devastation. The bees are just one piece of a much larger picture. Humanity has stopped seeing the natural world as its neighbors, and instead sees it as something to be used for its own gain.
There is hope, though. Scientists are alerting us to the scale of the harm we are causing. That is a good first step. But actual change in our behaviors will probably not effectively come from the scientific community. Because our neglect of the natural neighborhood is not a scientific problem, it is a spiritual problem. It is a distortion of priorities. It is a failure to see the earth as belonging to God, not us.
We must do better. It starts with wonder and perspective shifting. And it progresses to listening and eventually to caring. We must do this on an individual level, and we must also do it on a community level. And the enormity of the problem can be overwhelming. So let me suggest two simple things you can do this week: 1. Go on a walk and listen to the sounds of nature. And 2. Throw one less thing away, because there actually is no “away.” Try Styrofoam. Did you know our church has a Styrofoam recycling ministry? You can bring in your clean Styrofoam of all kinds and we’ll make sure it gets to a place where it’s reused, not put in a landfill.
And I hope you’ll also hug those creatures a little closer, even when they drool and interrupt your life. The wisdom of God has been there all along. Just ask.
Let us pray.
Grace and Peace,