August 16, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Introduction to scripture:
The reading today from Proverbs comes from a biblical tradition that scholars refer to as the Wisdom tradition and before I read that scripture, let me talk a little about what that means.
Sometimes on chalice communion Sundays, I use the Prayers of the People from the Book of Common Prayer, and the last prayer in that liturgy says, “That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.”
All of us hope that when it comes our time to die, we might die with the least amount of suffering both for ourselves and for our loved ones, but every time I say that prayer, I think also of those words, “without reproach.” To come to the end of our days without reproach means to me that when we look back on everything we have done in and with our lives, we will have no reason to be ashamed. We will have no regrets about choices we made, and that there will be no lingering hurts that we haven’t worked to repair. To live life well is to live life for the long haul so that whether your days on earth are short or long, people will cherish your days and remember you without a whisper of reproach.
In the Bible, someone who is able to do that is considered wise, and wisdom was so valued by the Hebrew people that they personified it and imagined wisdom as one of the faces of God similar to the way we think of the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit doesn’t have a gender, however, the Hebrew people personified Wisdom as feminine, probably because they thought of Wisdom as that aspect of God which nurtures a person into maturity, just as a careful mother brings up her children to be good and whole and useful and loving people.
Lady Wisdom — the feminine personification of Wisdom — is a complicated idea and I don’t want to get into it all today in a sermon but rather, I want to focus on one tradition about Lady Wisdom found in this passage of Proverbs, namely that the Israelites believed that Lady Wisdom was with God at the very beginning of time and even worked alongside of God as God created the earth. What the biblical writers were trying to say with that image is that wisdom — the understanding of how to live life well and faithfully — has been woven into creation from the very beginning of time. In other words, they believed that wisdom isn’t elusive but that we can all learn how to live in goodness and beauty just by looking at nature and learning from what we see in God’s creation.
The Israelites were not the only ones to believe that. The concept that nature can teach us about God and right living has been part of human thinking for several millennia. Aesop looked at the ant and grasshopper, and the tortoise and the hare, and found life lessons in their behavior. Isaac Newton believed that the more he could learn about the laws of the universe, the more he could understand God. And I am going to argue that all of us carry in our heads ideas about nature that directly influence the way we think about faith and our lives and God, and some of those ideas are just downright wrong and even dangerous, and that a correct understanding of nature will bring us greater wisdom about our lives.
Today let’s put on our scientist hats and talk for a moment about ecological succession. In the early 1900s, a botanist named Frederik Clements proposed a theory of ecological succession that went something like this: Imagine you have a 12 year old son whose chore it is to mow your lawn every week. One day, however, your son decides that he would rather play computer than do chores and he stops mowing the lawn. Soon dandelions and clover crowd the grass in your back yard and in a couple of weeks, chicory and thistles begin to grow. Your son continues to neglect his mowing chores, and in a month or two burdock, golden rod, timothy, and ragweed take up residence in your yard. Eventually the sloth of your son, and obviously your ineffectual parenting, yield a meadow where your yard once was. Now, not only do you have a great array of wildflowers in your back yard but you also have bunnies bouncing through the long grass, and butterflies, beetles, and all sorts of bugs. Years go by and your son goes off to college and you decide that you enjoy watching the wildlife in your new meadow so you continue to leave it alone, but the process of succession doesn’t stop. One day you look out the window and notice small buckthorn shrubs growing among the grasses. Red osier dogwood creeps in along the edges of your new field. Fawns romp through the daisies and song sparrows nest in the thickets. Your meadow is turning to brush. The years continue to roll by as well as your benign neglect of your yard and by the time you retire, the shrubs have given way to pine trees, spruce, and sugar maple and you spend your golden years living in the deep shade of a forest.
This is ecological succession. It is the process that we try to prevent every week with our lawn mowers and weed whackers. When Frederik Clement described this process however, he also theorized that ecological succession would eventually lead to a “climax community”, a stable mature ecosystem where everything is in balance and remains finally unchanged. In other words, your lawn, he said, would turn into a meadow which would turn into a tangle of brush, which would turn into a forest, and then the process would stop because it had reached maturity. Nature, Clement said, wants to move toward an ultimate final state of harmonious balance and when it reaches this stable equilibrium, it will remain that way forever unless something enters to disturb it and send it back to start.
You may never have heard of Frederik Clements or ecological succession but his ideas have affected the way all of us think about nature. Just think about how often you hear the phrase, “the balance of nature.” We have this idea in the back of our heads that if we human beings would just stop messing things up, nature would achieve this perfect stability where plants and animals all live in harmonious balance with each other. A Disney film from 1951 called “Nature’s Half-Acre” used time-lapse photography to show life in a meadow over the course of one year and as the camera focused on a spider eating a fly, the narrator intoned, “Some must die so that others might live. In this way, [nature] keeps her world in balance, and makes it a place of order and beauty.”
This understanding of nature first proposed by Clements in the early 1900s continues to be the way that the average person thinks about the world around us. We have come to believe that nature’s ideal state is one of stability and balance, where the needs of individuals are sacrificed for the sake of order in the system.
And if Proverbs is right, and we look to nature as our model for understanding our life, what has this view of nature done to our thinking about life and the world?
It has left us believing that order is good and disorder is bad.
It has left us believing that balance is beautiful and chaos is ugly.
It has left us believing that the needs of some must be sacrificed for the needs of the whole.
It has left us believing that the ideal state of our world and our lives is one in which nothing changes and nothing disturbs the status quo.
And so when our society is disrupted by angry young black men protesting that they are treated unfairly by the police and our justice system, we become afraid. Even those who might think they have a point, worry that the protests are too chaotic, too unruly. A commentator recently wrote that the Black Lives Matter movement needs to develop a platform and get its people in line, as if protests against the prevailing order are only acceptable if they themselves are orderly.
Or if someone suggests a change in our workplaces or our churches, we resist because in the back of our heads, we have the idea that mature well-functioning systems shouldn’t need to change.
A pastor once tried to convince her congregation to buy a new chandelier for the sanctuary. She wrote about her proposal in the newsletter and mentioned it during the worship announcements and finally called a congregational meeting to discuss the issue. The conversation went back and forth with people voicing opinions on both sides. Finally, the pillar of the church stood up and declared: “I don’t think we need a chandelier. We can’t afford one; we’ve gotten along just fine for years without one, we don’t have anyplace to put one, and besides, no one here knows how to play one!” The congregation agreed and resoundingly rejected the proposal.
Whether it is in our society, or our workplaces, or our churches, or our own lives, we resist change and are afraid of any whiff of discord because we have been taught to believe that equilibrium and balance and order is the way of the world; that a sign of maturity is resistance to change.
But it turns out that Clement was wrong. He was right about what will happen to your yard if you stop mowing it but he was wrong when he said that eventually your yard would achieve a state of maturity where everything remains in a nice harmonious balance forever and ever, amen. Ecologists now know that chaos and disruption happen continually in nature. An exceptionally rainy spring might loosen the soil under the roots of the trees causing them to topple in a high wind. A hard winter might kill off a lot of deer and without deer to browse the underbrush, new plants might take hold. The whole forest might be consumed by fire. Rather than being the exception, it turns out that change is the ordinary way of things in nature. Nature is fluid and dynamic, growing and shrinking, maturing and dying, struggling one day and thriving the next. It is a chaotic place and often the greatest diversity of life is found exactly in those places where the status quo has been disturbed. Twice a year, I mow the golden rod on the fringes of my yard so that an abundant diversity of wildflowers can spring up where I have disturbed the stability of things. Life is found not in order but in chaos.
If we get rid of this wrong headed idea we have about nature and see it as it truly is — a place where disruption happens continually, where chaos reigns, and where life often takes hold best in the places where change has intruded — we discover that God is quite comfortable with change. In fact, God knows that sometimes stirring things up some is exactly what we need to allow life to take hold. Isn’t that why Jesus deliberately set his face toward Jerusalem? He knew perfectly well that he was not going to be welcomed with open arms by the powers that be but he was not afraid of upsetting the status quo. He overturned tables in the Temple and deliberately flouted the purity codes and challenged the carefully preserved peace that the authorities had achieved and for awhile, even the disciples were thrown for a loop. Everything had changed and they weren’t sure what to make of it.
And that was good. Because once they got their heads out of the old way of thinking and wrapped around this new way of thinking — this new way of living — they were able to become new people. And a new faith was born.
This then is the wisdom that we gain from looking at the world around us: Everything changes.
The wise person is not afraid of chaos and disruption, but sees those times of disorder as opportunities to grow and become something new.
The wise person knows that society needs to be shaken up now and then if life is to flourish.
The wise person knows that God has promised that what looks like death may in fact be life. So be patient. Be courageous. And be open to change because in the chaos you may discover beauty.