Jesus suggests that to understand how God cares for us we should be mindful of the earth and observe its creatures. Ancient Israel had always paid attention to the land, its frailty, its rainfall, its possession and its distribution, and its fragile ecosystems. The very life of Ancient Israel was a way of living lightly on the earth and in complete dependence upon the gifts from the earth which God provided every morning. Every time Israel forgot the earth, and God’s sustenance of them through the earth, they suffered, and, as the prophets tell us, the earth suffered too.
Yesterday in White Plains we held our third annual Blessing of the Animals. It’s a profound experience to worship with animals. To hear their rustlings and voices, to feel the warmth of their bodies or the tickle of a claw or horn or beak upon our hands reminds us of how connected we are to the rhythms and processes of the natural world. Just this morning the Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded to three scientists who have demonstrated this connection at the cellular level. There is something that feels “right” when the animals are with us. The biblical world as well as much of the church’s history involved animals and nature and revolved around their rhythms; when they pasture, where they wander, where they are kept, how they are fed. In famous cathedrals like Chartres we find animals of all sorts and images of nature – wheat, fruits, olive trees, shrubs, deserts – represented as a natural part not only of the biblical story but also of the church’s story. Animals were valued possessions, providing essential subsistence for ancient families; food, clothing, milk, warmth, dung used in building. They were usually kept inside the house with the family at night for the animals’ protection.
So it is unsurprising that when looking for an example of God’s provision for our needs, Jesus calls attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He lifts up what later theologians would call the Book of Nature, God’s first book; God’s revelation in the natural world.
As we sat with our pets –animals which bring joy to us, show love, demonstrate curiosity, make us laugh, and remind us that we too belong to the animal kingdom – as we rejoiced that God’s love redeems not only human beings but all creatures and the earth itself, we were reassured. And yet in this precarious time, when earth’s life hangs in the balance, as animal species are made extinct and natural disasters increase because of our human carelessness and greed, what do Jesus’ words “consider the birds” have to say to us? When we can no longer look to the Great Auk, the passenger pigeon, the Dodo or the Bachman’s Warbler because they no longer have one surviving member living on our planet? When we can no longer consider the Rio de Janiero myrtle, Thismia Americana, or the Falls of the Ohio Scurfpea because their beauty and their pollen have been eradicated utterly?
First, Jesus’ words remind us of the gravity of our situation. His words were offered in a context that no longer exists. So his words invite us to a reckoning of what we human beings have done.
Second, his words invite us to remember and recreate patterns of life that are mutually beneficial, as God intended. We cannot just think of what makes human life easier – a kind of mindless, so-called “progress” that destroys the very ground upon which we live. We cannot allow titans of industry or ambitious politicians or greedy developers to say these concerns are “for the birds.” We must think about how our human well-being is entwined with that of all creatures and the earth. We must develop a mutual mindset that truly IS “for the birds” and the fish and the topsoil and…us!
Jesus’s words point us to God’s desire to sustain all life through this beautiful, fragile world in which we live; to provide for all creatures what we need. So, as we trust God’s promise, may we do our part – in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our community, and in our world – acts that are small (like composting), acts that are sustainable (like planting trees), acts that set a new direction (like if the PC(USA) were to finally divest from fossil fuels), acts that are wide-reaching (like policies to slow climate change), that we may join God in creating a world that is truly “for the birds.”
The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary is Pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church, a GreenFaith Fellow, and a member of HRPGreen.