Voices crying out in the wild-erness | 8 December 2013


Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

 The psychologist Carl Jung once said: “When religion stops talking about animals it will be all downhill.”  I wonder how we’re doing with that – if the nonhuman creaturely world has a strong enough presence in our psyche, our souls, or if we have been headed downhill for decades, or centuries.

If we are in danger of losing touch with animal nature, today it’s Isaiah to the rescue.  Although you wonder if Isaiah could benefit from learning a little more himself about how the natural world really works.  He presents a picture, populated with all sorts of animals that no one in their right mind would put in the same room together, or the same pasture.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

From where I stand, literally, right here, I have noticed that this congregation has one major banner in the sanctuary.  And that this banner is based on this very passage from Isaiah 11.  It fits well with our core value of peace, and I was curious where the banner came from and how it got there.   Here’s what I found out, the story of the animal banner at Columbus Mennonite.

It was made around 1990 by Jhan Yoder-Wyse and her mother Jean when they attended South Union Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio.  It was created for a peace conference put on by the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission and each congregation in attendance was asked to make a banner for the event.  So it began its life as one among many peace banners.  After the conference there wasn’t room for it in the South Union worship space, so Jean hung it in her cathedral ceiling home for a number of years.

In the meantime the family moved their membership to this congregation and when Neil Avenue Mennonite Church moved here and became Columbus Mennonite Church in the late 90’s there was this wonderfully large wall.  This banner fit the spot, and has been here ever since, keeping watch over you all.

Jhan wrote to me in an email and said, “I have fond memories of working on the banner. Its size and weight made it a bit unwieldy, so when it was finally sewn together, we hung it on my parents’ wall to finish the appliqué and needle work. We spent days on it, and when friends visited, they often picked up a needle and gave a helping hand (quilting bee style).”

The images for the banner are based on the painting called The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks, painted in the first half of the 19th century.

An ancient Hebrew prophet’s vision becomes an American folk painting becomes a banner at a Mennonite women’s peace conference becomes a fixture in this church building in Columbus, Ohio, reminding us that we too hold to this strange and marvelous hope of peace.

Also reminding us that religion should never stop talking about animals.

The words of the Peaceable Kingdom appear in Isaiah when the prophet is speaking of an inspired leader to come, who brings justice to the poor and equity for the meek of the earth.  Isaiah says that “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  This perhaps serves as a later inspiration for the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Ephesians about putting on the whole armor of God for a battle that is not against people, but against spiritual darkness.  The belt of truth, the shield of faithfulness, the breastplate of righteousness.  Both Isaiah and Paul use violent images to speak a message of nonviolence.  For Paul, the battle is explicitly not against flesh and blood.  For Isaiah, the weapon of choice is a rod that comes out of the mouth: words, language, truth spoken powerfully and boldly.

And then come the animals.

One way of reading these pairings of animals historically at odds with each other, now dwelling together in peace, is as predator and prey.  But it’s a little more nuanced than that.  If it were just predator and prey, it might say that the wolf will live with the deer, its prey in the wild.  Or the lion will eat together with the gazelle.  Instead the wolf is living with the lamb, and the lion eats together with the ox.  The pairings are not only predator and prey, but also the wild and the domesticated animals.  The leopard lies down with the little goat, the cow and the bear and their young graze together.

These are two sets of animals that we as humans have had very different kinds of relationships with.  For most of our existence as a species, it seems, just about all animals were wild to us.  Go back far enough and we were even wild to ourselves, which we still are in some ways.   We hunted and gathered, we moved around, we ate what was immediately available from the earth, we much more naturally lived out Jesus’ words of the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin.  Therefore do not worry about your life.”  We did not sow or reap or store in barns in any systematic kind of way that we’re aware of. We foraged, and the earth sustained us, at least enough to keep some of us alive.  Animals lurked at the fringes of our communities are were sources of wonder, honored for their spiritual energy, recognized for their danger, needed for their meat and skins.

And at some point, maybe 12,000, 15,000 years ago, or earlier, or later, we embarked on this grand experiment of domestication.  To be overly simplistic about it, rather than mostly conforming our lives to our environment, we began more and more conforming our environment to our lives.  We found plants and animals that were more useful to us than others, and with each passing generation those traits that we found most favorable were highlighted and expanded.  We changed plants and animals, and they changed us.  We became dependent on them in a different kind of way.  The evolutionary process became conscious of itself through us, and through us started making new kinds of choices about who thrives and who barely survives, or not.  Creation became humanized and the human imprint spread around the globe.  Humans became powerful.  Human creativity and culture flourished.  Humans became wealthy, or not.

This is all a relatively new thing for planet earth.  This is our wonderful and complicated heritage.  Move into a 21st century city or suburb and one could go days, or years without giving much thought to animals.

But there is a wildness that remains.  There are animals and plants that did not, do not, conform to human domestication.  Whose lives flow on without any intervention on our part.

It is significant that when John the Baptizer appears he does not appear in Jerusalem or another city, or even the smaller villages of Judea or Galilee.  Instead, we are told, he appears in the wilderness, a place untamed and undomesticated by human technology or imagination, at the very outer edges of habitable space, off the grid, in the wild.  He’s some form of a hunter and gatherer, depending on locusts and wild honey for food, clothing himself with camel’s hair and a leather belt.  This is not the lifestyle of a “civilized” person.  He is, we are we told, an echo of none other than the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of “the voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

He hangs out by a river.  To anyone who will listen, he preaches a message of repentance.

Surprisingly, people come from everywhere to hear him.  Matthew says, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

It’s significant that Jesus is among those who go out to be baptized by John, and that Jesus sticks around in the wilderness even after his baptism.  The Spirit drives him deeper into the wilderness.  Matthew mentions that Jesus fasted this whole time and gives details about the temptations Jesus faced while in the wilderness, but Mark simply says this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  I’ve heard people talk about those temptations from Satan, but I wonder what kinds of encounters Jesus had with the wild beasts.  I wonder how this shaped his ministry.  His humility.  His sense of himself as a participant in the creatureliness of creation.  I wonder if he meditated on the dream of Daniel that we talked about last week.  Where the wild beasts representing empire have their power taken away from them and creation is ruled by the Human Being, a name he immediately starts using for himself, his name of choice for the rest of his life.  The Son of Man, the Human Being.  I wonder if he thought that wild beasts get too much of a bad rap in Daniel’s dream and that human beings could learn a thing or two from them.

When Jesus is born he is famously placed in a manger, a feed trough of domesticated cattle.  His ministry in his adult life is spent immersed in a culture that those cattle and other domesticated plants and animals have helped, with all its beauty and wisdom as well as its massive wealth and power imbalances. He will begin to enact the words of Isaiah: “with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”  He will say: “The Human Being came to seek and save that which is lost.”

In between his birth and his ministry, he is in the wilderness.  His vision for who he needs to be and the temptations and forces of what others want him to be, are all confronted and purified in the wilderness, among the devil, the angels, and the wild beasts.

The wilderness is a spiritual reality, but it’s not just a metaphor.  The wilderness is a very real place.  It might be one of the most important places we have.  A place we need to visit to learn who we need to be.  A place that teaches us about repentance.  A place where we encounter animals not so marked by our own fingerprints, who can help show us a way forward.  We are more and more aware, with Isaiah, that there is only one pasture, for us all to live in, the wild and the domesticated.

There is a small but exciting project going on in the Mennonite world called The Anabaptist Bestiary Project.  It’s the name of a band, based out of Bluffton University, a couple hours from here.  It’s headed up by Trevor Bechtel, a professor of theology, musician, and personal friend.  Many students contribute.

On their website they note: “Bestiarys are documents that flourished in medieval Europe. They collected the best natural science of the day, reflections from the bible, and developed a moral about how the animal revealed God’s will. Natural science has changed a great deal over the last 700 years, and it’s time for a new bestiary… We reflect on the things that scientists, primarily ethologists and naturalists, discover about the world and its creatures and then engage in a theological reflection about the behaviour and place of these creatures in the world.”

Each song by The Anabaptist Bestiary Project is about a different animal.  Sea turtles, honey bees, sloths, house cats, lions, and mosquitos are just some of the creatures that get their own song.

I want to close by reading the lyrics to a song called Murmuration.  A murmuration is a group of starlings that do all sorts of amazing synchronized patterns of flight, ballet in the air.  The brief description of the name of the song says this: Murmurations of  (starlings) have been studied because the collective behaviour that they show reveals deep patterns which all manner of creatures from small bacteria to large animal herds show. (Starlings) move in a murmuration by tracking their seven closest neighbours .. This way of being together gives body to the deep intelligence of the universe; to the mind of God.

Here’s a video of a murmuration.  To see video image, you may need to play in full screen mode.  It starts getting real interesting around 1:20 and then keeps getting more so.



Start off slowly and see, soon, how
everyone’s joining in

Dive to the center but see, soon, how
it’s never stable

In phase transition, we, turn, now
and everything changes

In perfect sevens we, turn, now
a quick rearranging

We’re a murmuration

Still then in waves, see, soon, how
continual movement

will keep us safe, and see, soon, how
we’ll never break apart

and trusting each other, we, turn, now
we are stronger than numbers

Warmer and warmer we, turn, now
Before the night cools us to sleep

We’re a murmuration

This is the mind of the universe
We are the ones who set it free
This is the mind of the universe
Who give it shape and wit and body

In tight formation, we, learn, now
just what we need to know

about tomorrow, we, learn, now
where we can be fulfilled

in swoops and soaring, you, learn, now,
collective behaviour

in every life form, you learn now
the answers you’re looking for

We’re a murmuration