Groaning with geese and God | September 22

Texts: Genesis 3:16-21; Romans 8:19-27

She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze.  A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before.  It took her a long time to fall.  In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.

Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below.  But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light.  They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam.  As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them.

The geese nodded to one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music.  She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall.  Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward.  And so it began.

The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do.  Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds.  A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon.  Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell.  The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need.  The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some.

Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts.  One by one, the other animals offered to help – Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon – but the depths, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers.  They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing.  Some did not return at all.  Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all.  He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully.  His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time.

They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small limp body of the muskrat.  He had given his life to aid this human.  But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud.  Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.”

Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle.  Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth.  The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made.  Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animal’s gifts coupled with her deep gratitude.  Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.

This is how Robin Wall Kimmerer begins her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (pp. 3-5).  She’s a Professor of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.  The story goes on to tell how Skywoman had brought with her a bundle of seeds and fruits from the Tree of Life.  She scatters and tends these until the world goes from brown to green and the animals come to join her atop Turtle Island.  This story – the Skywoman story – is told by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes region, part of the teachings they call the Original Instructions.

Like any good story, there is much to notice.  Skywoman, the first human, is a newcomer, dependent on the gifts of animals to keep her alive:  Geese in the air, Turtle in the water, Muskrat to bring her earth.  Skywoman has the marvelous ability to multiply the generosity of the animals, to stretch the bit of mud into an expanse of fertile soil.  She brings her own gifts from the Tree of Life.  She’s an immigrant, a dancer, a planter, a landscape artist.  It’s a story of vulnerability, generosity, sacrifice, home-making, interdependence, and abundance.

Kimmerer’s suggestion is that the Skywoman story is best understood “not as an artifact from the past, but as instructions for the future.”  She asks: “Can a nation of immigrants once again follow her example to become native, to make a home?” (p. 9).

She goes on to comment about living in a world that includes both the story of Skywoman and the story of Eve’s exile from Eden.  In the biblical story child-birth, the land, and labor bear a curse of pain and brokenness.  This story has permeated Western consciousness to the point that even if you didn’t grow up hearing it, you have felt its effects.  It’s a story that reflects some basic facts of life – child birth is painful, the land doesn’t always produce in the way that most benefits humans, and it takes hard, sweaty work to make it in this world.  It’s a story that has been misused to shift blame and shame onto women, and set all of us up for an abusive relationship with the land.  I’m guessing there are those among us who have a complicated relationship with this creation story.

Of course, the exile from Eden isn’t the only biblical creation story.  Scholars point out that those opening chapters of Genesis contain two creation stories, told one after the other.  The first is that one with seven days, each day like a movement in the divine symphony of creation, each movement adding another layer of complexity, harmony, and individuality.  Humanity, male and female, is created in the likeness of God, and they are blessed.

Throughout this creation story we are told the Creator saw that all the material world in all its creaturely physicality was good, very good indeed.  That’s how it begins.  In goodness.

We’ll come back to this creation story in two weeks when we begin the month-long Health Sexuality worship series.  For now, we’ll note one other feature – one you’ve likely heard me name before.  Which is that the mechanism by which the Creator creates creation in Genesis 1 is language.  The very utterance of words such as Light, Dome, Dry Land, Vegetation, Living Creatures, corresponds to their coming into being.  When God tells a story, that story is enacted in its telling.  So suggests Genesis 1.  The Creator speaks, and it is so.

And we who bear the likeness of God know a thing or two about this.

We know that the stories we tell, and the language we use to tell them, shapes our reality.  Ask any advertising firm or political campaign.

Robin Wall Kimmerer did not grow up speaking Potowatami, but committed herself as an adult to trying.  She soon noticed that while verbs account for 30% of English words, they make up 70% of the Potawatami language.  Saturday, for example, is a verb.  To be a Saturday, to do Saturday.  Which also means that now we are Sundaying together.  Hill, red, a long stretch of sandy beach, and bay, are also verbs.  That earth is being a hill.  Isn’t it beautiful how that long stretch is sandy beaching? The sky is being red.

Kimmerer describes how learning this language slowly changed her way of seeing, re-animating the world.  She writes, “’To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.  Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or an ocean, or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that too.  To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive” (p. 55).  She has come to call this “the grammar of animacy.”

To loop back to the Garden of Eden story, Adam is given the authority to name the creatures, and, as cultures have evolved and migrated and adapted, the way we name the creatures, the way we speak of our world, has a direct impact on the kind of relationship we form with these persons, places, and things or verbs, or something else.

The language we’ve chosen for our sixth Commitment goes like this: “Care for the gift of creation out of gratitude and responsibility.”  If you’ve been here the last couple weeks you may have noticed that we’ve been talking up how important these commitments feel.  “Share our time and resources” – now there’s a big one.  “Loving our enemies” – now there’s a really tough one.  “Care for the gift of creation” – now that’s huge.  We feel the weight of it.  We are seeing the tragedy of it unfold through species die off and resource depletion.  On Friday, students around the world reminded us how urgent this all is.

We usually focus on what we see, and at least what we can change that’s in front of our eyes.  The relationship between creation and language, deeply embedded within the biblical imagination and present in the cultures throughout the world, invites us to focus on not just what we see, but how we see.  To acknowledge the limits of our perception, and the divine possibilities when we learn the grammar of gratitude, animacy, and life.  To change not only what’s in front of our eyes, but what is behind our eyes, that which derives deep within us and makes its way out of us, shaping how we see and thus how we relate.

As far as I can tell, the Apostle Paul was no nature mystic.  I can’t imagine him sitting quietly and pondering the Divine in a blade of grass.  But in Romans 8 he does offer us a great gift for how we might re-imagine our relationship with the created world.  It’s a relationship that goes deeper than language.  Paul calls it a groan, or a sigh.

In the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans Paul says that creation is groaning.  And this is a particular kind of groaning.  The whole creation, he writes, has been groaning in labor pains until now.  When you groan in labor pains, you’re not groaning because you’re on your death bed.  You’re groaning because you’re on your life bed.  And this something new that has been forming within you is trying to get out, and it’s painful.  It just is.  And Paul goes on to say that we ourselves also groan inwardly for the redemption of our bodies.  These bodies of ours that the Creator has declared good are groaning, because we too, like creation, have this sense of something being born through us.

So creation is groaning and we’re groaning, and then Paul says that the Spirit, the Divine Spirit is involved in all this with sighs too deep for words.  The Spirit also is caught up in this pre-linguistic expression of ooommfff, and Paul calls that prayer.  He writes: “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So there’s this communion of ooommmfff going on between the world, and us, and the Spirit, and it’s prayer, and it’s groaning, and it’s labor, and it’s painful, and it’s what you’ve got before you’ve got the words for it.  And out of that, Paul assures the Romans we are becoming conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God, who is the Creator Spirit giving us new and old language, new and old stories, new and ancient ways of seeing that better reflect the fullness of the goodness of all this.

So go ahead and get some energy efficient light bulbs, and some solar panels.  Be inspired by the Hart house and go and do likewise; walk, bike, and bus more and drive less; plant some things and enjoy their beauty; advocate for renewables; skip school and join the movement (better check with your parents first); vote with the planet.

And also learn some new and old stories.  Consider Skywoman and her many animals helpers; make your peace with Eve and Adam; watch Arrival (that one’s probably the most optional); listen for the groan and the deep sigh of creation and find its resonance within you as you lay on your life bed, and know that resonance is the Spirit alive within you praying, drawing you into communion with the Creator and creation.  And then, caring for the gift of Creation out of gratitude and responsibility will be like caring for Christ, like caring for a sibling, like caring for yourself.  And we will become verbs in the mouth of God, who is still creating.