It is part of my daily routine. I get up early and sit in silence on the back deck, sipping my first cup of coffee and watching whatever is going on outside at the time. Often, I am watching the sun rise through the trees. Sometimes the sunrise also burns off morning fog and starts to stir the creatures that live in the woods behind my house. It isn’t long after I have moved to the deck that the birds venture out to greet me, under the guise of seeing what I have put in the feeders. The blue jays line up on the branches and squawk at me. The male juvenile cardinals bravely come forth and look at me sideways, as they proudly boast their changing plumage from their young brown color to the bright red and the females boast the changing color of their beaks. Mourning doves don’t often come to the feeder, but they make themselves known by the cooah, coah, coah. Occasionally, the red of the red breasted woodpeckers flash as they hang on the bird feeders. The hummers buzz by my head on their way to their morning breakfast and no matter who else is out greeting me and eating their breakfast, the tufted titmouse family is constantly darting to and fro in the branches of the trees and the sides of the feeders.
Down below the branches, the squirrels begin to scamper up and down the trees, challenging each other to jump from the branch to the deck railing scaring as many blue jays away as they can. These days black walnuts fall from trees and cause much commotion among the squirrels. And as if on cue, at 7:00 am, a family of deer wander through the yard. With all of the activity, the woods are alive with the song of the wild.
One morning this week, there was a different song, a bird song that was loud and piercingly clear. At first, I couldn’t identify the wild one with the lovely voice. I just sat and listened and wondered.
Gradually, the tiny singer emerged from its hiding place in a basket of hanging red geraniums. It glanced at me sideways and then flew off, singing all along. For a long time, I listened to the song of the Carolina Wren as she sang from the trees in the wood and I wondered where her companion might be.
This is the day that we consider the flora and fauna in our observance of the Seasons of Creation. Actually, just Fauna would suffice, because one understanding of the word fauna means anything that is supported by the earth, so that means animals and plant life alike. Even you and I fit into this category. It is a day when we focus on the wild part of God’s gift of Creation to us and as with the last two weeks, words found in scripture help us focus on this gift and our relation to the wild.
Like last week, the book of Job, specifically from the second part of what is called the Divine Speech, where God is challenging Job with the God’s wisdom and knowledge of the blessing of the wild. We enter this part of the speech just after God has spoken about the phenomena of the weather, something that we will think about next week. In this part of God’s Divine Speech, God is challenging Job’s knowledge of the wild and God is challenging the ancient world’s understanding of the wild.
In one way, in the ancient world, the sphere of the wild was the “Other” against which human society defined itself. Therefore, the ancient attitudes to the wild were ambivalent or largely negative. The desert wasteland and the wildlife there were seen as hostile and dangerous. We find words in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that describe the desolate places and the wildlife that inhabited these spaces as taking on the nature of the desolate. Specifically, the lion, the raven, and the wild donkey are mentioned in Job to indicate the kind of wildlife that was found in the desolate places.
This ancient understanding of the wild, living in desolate spaces, goes back to just after the flood when God declared to Noah that all living creatures would be in fear and dread of humans. In the fifth chapter of Job, prior to the Divine Speech of God to Job, we find the notion of a covenant that illustrates just how dreadful the relationship between humans and wildlife was perceived to be. It is a covenant for the future, something that for the ancient world had not occurred:
For you shall be in league with the stones of the field
And the wild animals shall be at peace with you. (Job 5:23)
In another way, wildlife is presented in scripture as wise as they understand their relationship to God our Creator. Some of the psalms that praise God as Creator include references to wildlife and the provision that God has made for them alongside human beings. When we enter the Divine Speech, the conversation between God and Job, we find the words of Ps 104 sets the foundation:
“The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly
The cedars of Lebanon that he planted
In them the birds build their nests;
The stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
The rocks are a refuge for the coneys.” Psalm 104:17-19
In the second part of the Divine Speech God continues to ask Job questions to help Job understand the limits of his knowledge and ability, while underscoring God’s own power and wisdom. In God’s questions there are closely observed descriptions of animals in characteristic activity and it is only here in Job that sustained attention is given in scripture to the description of the animals. God’s questions do not present the traditional perceived human perspective of the ancient world where wildlife and the places they live are desolate. God challenges this human perspective.
Does Job know the lives of the mountain goat?
Does Job not realize that what humans call a desolate wasteland is home to the wild donkey? Does Job not realize that to God all creatures, even the wild donkey, have value?
These questions of God to Job reveal the mysteriousness of God’s provision for the wildlife. Migration, long distances and great heights, secure nests, secure food are mentioned. And at the end, a startling description reveals to Job that these wild creatures often clean up the mess that humans make, such as the blood and carnage of the battlefields. Job, and indeed us, cannot ignore the importance of wildlife to God. It is something important for us to think about.
Turning to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spoke of wildlife as a way of addressing the anxiety that humans have over meeting survival needs or even for having all that our hearts desire. The Greek word is translated as a verb, “to be anxious” or “to worry,” or “to take anxious thought,” but it can also mean “to strive after.” Jesus said:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22)
We must understand that these words are for a particular group of people. It would be sinful for us to say to someone who is starving that “Life is more than food.” Jesus addressed these words to persons who have enough food to eat and clothes to wear and yet spend their lives trying to acquire more and more. This is judgement from Jesus and yet, the prohibition against anxiety may be interpreted as his encouragement to us to begin making decisions that are not controlled by anxiety.
Jesus pointed to the wildlife to remind us that life is more than the things we spend our lives seeking when these things are not necessary for our survival or the purpose of our lives or the deep meaning that our relationship with God brings. Jesus pointed to the flora and fauna to help us refocus our energies on who we are rather than on what we have and on what we are becoming in relationship with God rather than on how we will get ahead. To consider the ravens, the lilies, the grass of the field is to remind us to renew our trust in God and renewed trust in God leads us to strive to bring about God’s kingdom where all of creation has been redeemed and where all of creation thrives.
It doesn’t take much for us to realize that our planet could very well be living with anxiety, that the flora and fauna could be distressed by what is happening to our planet. Instead, when we take time to watch the flora and fauna of the planet, we can easily discover ways to be less anxious and yet more attentive to what we need to do to preserve what God has given us.
On a recent Friday I took a hike. Since I had spent the week working on this sermon, I wanted to be out in flora and fauna, so I went to the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Williamstown, WV to see what nature could tell me about these passages of scripture. The flora and fauna of the preserve told me three particular things.
First, all creation belongs to God and in its own way praises God. This was something that God was trying to tell Job in the questions where the answers revealed that we don’t know everything about Creation that God knows. I was startled by the golds and purples and greens that filled the preserve and by the wildlife that colors attract.
Second, despite the ways that our planet is in trouble, the flora and fauna were not anxious. In cooperation with God and with each other, the flora and fauna continued to do what they do. The beauty of the colors that were soothing to my soul, were attractive to all kinds of pollinators. All kinds of buzzing sounds were going on around me.
And third, although the flora and fauna did not appear to be anxious, I was reminded that they could use as much help from us as they can get. The preserve has already prepared the ground to grow more flora to attract more fauna and therefore to continue to preserve life for all creatures. In considering the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the fish in the water, and all of life, we discover the desire within us to preserve life.
As I was ready to leave, a monarch butterfly flew by me ever so slowly and softly and of course I had to watch it. It darted to and fro among yellow blossoms until it found just the right one and it lighted there, almost as if it knew that it had an audience. It stayed there for the longest time opening and closing its wings. It was breathtaking.
After a while it flew away and I stood and watched where it had been. There were so many yellow blossoms that had been found by so many bees and they were fun to watch. As I was watching them I became aware of their buzzing. There was rhythm and harmony in those buzzing sounds. And those sounds were joined by the rustling in the trees and the sounds of birds calling back and forth to each other.
The beauty of that preserve was full of the song of the wild praising God and enticing me to join in. And so I did. I hope you will too.