Just after the global #climatestrike and just before the United Nations Climate Action Summit, I preached the second in a series of sermons called, “Cooperation Not Exploitation: Finding Our Place in the Great Web of Life.” All meditations drawn from the creation poetry of Psalm 104, this sermon focused the ways God’s animal kin-dom can teach us as human beings to become wise again, embrace natural climate solutions, and become participants in nature rather than exploiters of nature. The sermon began with a reading of the scripture texts while this video played in the background giving visual texture to the way the psalm imagines a human presence in and among the creatures of God’s animal kin-dom.
“Make Us Sapiens Again”
Second in the Series, “Cooperation not Exploitation:
Finding Ourselves in the Great Web of Life”
Psalm 104.24, 10-12, 17-22; Luke 12.24a
1. Homo sapiens: on losing our vocation
We have a name for ourselves: Homo sapiens. “Homo” means “man” in the old language, “human being” in the new. And “sapiens” means “wise.” Together, “homo sapiens” means “wise human being.” The question is, are we?
Never before has a species, so new to the earth, caused such disequilibrium. Never before has a single species altered the earth so greatly. Never before has a single species held so much power.
With that great power comes great responsibility.
The biblical tradition teaches that homo sapiens have a vital role to play; humans are wise when we live as guardians and stewards of the earth. God has given us great power, but we have used that great power to exploit the earth. Today, there is an uprising of younger homo sapiens telling us that “Our house is on fire.” They are young, but there are signs that they are sapiens: they are calling us to love, protect, and restore nature for the common good. They are part of the planet’s auto-immune system, agents of healing—and their vision is contagious.
Is it enough? Or is it too late?
2. The gift of wild things: on rediscovering a participatory presence
Here’s the farmer-poet, Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I come into the peace of wild things. I come into the presence of still water. I rest in the grace of the world.
Can the world, can water, can wild things teach us humans how to become sapiens again? Can the world, water, and wild things lead us into the recovery of our vocation as guardians and stewards? Can the world, water, and wild things coach us in the ways of cooperation and participation rather than exploitation? Can the world, water, and wild things awaken us to a more benevolent way of life on the earth?
Wendell Berry says the world is a sacrament of God’s grace.
And here’s what the poet, Mary Oliver, says about water:
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
Finally, here’s what Jesus says about wild things: “Consider the ravens…” When we’re harried and hurried and worried, Jesus says wild things point the way back into our humanity. They help humans become sapiens again.
The world, water, and wild things are our teachers.
If wolves can change rivers, what can homo sapiens do?
If we are wise, we will let the world, water, and wild things be our teachers. We will become part of nature again: cooperative, participatory, humble, benevolent. We will live in and among the world, not apart from or above the world.
3. Homo sapiens: on recovering our vocation
The praying poet of today’s psalm knows all this:
By the streams the birds of the air
have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees. (Psalm 104)
When we pray like this—when we notice that “the earth is full of God’s creatures”—wild things become our teachers.
Jesus too knows all this:
“Consider the ravens,” he says.
When we live the wisdom of Jesus, the birds and bees, rocks and trees teach us how to live our vocation as partners and participants, servants and stewards of the earth in all its wildness and wonderfulness.
Our problem is that we have forgotten that we’re part of the animal kin-dom of God. We’re intelligent but we’re not particularly wise. Capitalism and technology, for all the good they may have brought us, have impoverished our souls. We’re more alienated and insulated from nature now than at any time in the history of our race. It’s no wonder we exploit, no wonder we’re paying the consequences.
Over a hundred million years ago, granite began to form deep under what we now call the Sierra Nevada mountains. Millions and millions of years ago, the granite began to find itself pushed upward. Later, glacial erosion exposed the granite and formed the mountains and valleys that make up the great Sierra Nevada and the water and nutrients that feed our valley.
The rivers and lakes, the trees and wildlife all came into being during the last one hundred million years. And we, homo sapiens—the wise species— appeared last, in the span of a single heartbeat on the grand timeline of Earth’s history.
The natural world we’re a part of calls to us for a response: “Humans, will you become wise and take your place and help tend the great web of life? True, never before has a species, so new to our planet, caused such disequilibrium and disruption of the natural order. Never before has a single species altered the earth so greatly in such a short amount of time. But if wolves can change the course of rivers, what might you humans do to help heal God’s earth?
Protect. Restore. Fund. What you and I do counts.
We are homo sapiens.
We can become wise again.
Our planet will flourish, not because a few people do something big, but because a few million people do something wise, no matter how small.
Here’s the truth nature wants to teach us humans: if we sit still enough before a flower or a sunset, a hummingbird or a bee hive, we’ll get the kind of education that leads to real wisdom. We’ll learn that million tiny steps give birth to the kinds of transformations no totalitarian regime captive to human foolishness can overpower for long. And what comes to be through a million tiny steps taken in the same direction can give birth to a goodness and beauty no one has ever seen before.
God, we are willing. The time is now. Make us sapiens again.