If youíve been on my website or if you listen to NPR, which profiled the story a couple of weeks ago, youíll know I have some history with woodchucks.† My defense of the woodchucks when I served St. Johnís became the stuff of local legend with even the local paper in Dover running a front-page story on Groundhog Day about my efforts.† I havenít seen the first woodchuck at the parsonage here, but in this season of stewardship, I wanted to lift up the cause of my furry friends.† Stewardship is not just about money.† It is the attitude of the heart that recognizes that God is the owner of all that is.† That does include our money, but it also includes woodchucks and all those creatures we so easily label as ďpests.Ē
I will first say that I have a long history with woodchucks. Grandma Robertson, who lived with us, was best known for her compassion toward wasps. She fed them. Sugar water. On her finger. She accepted their stings as merely ignorance on their part, and even when she fell into a nest of them and was stung all over her body, she maintained their goodness and innocence. The only thing Grandma loved more than wasps, was her flower gardens. She had many, and she tended them from dawn until after dark.
Itís hard to say why a woman who would feed a paper wasp on her finger would turn on a cute, furry woodchuck, but when her forensic examinations turned up their teeth on her bulbs, the sentence was death. Into the house she came to find my father and his Army rifle. No matter that in our household we spent our time rescuing mice from our two cats, filial duty called and my father reluctantly went out to hunt woodchucks.
This was my earliest remembered trauma. Even now I can feel the horror in my heart at the thought of the woodchucks being shot. I remember screaming and crying and running to my room and putting my pillow over my head, feeling utterly helpless and filled with grief. Eventually my reaction ended the shooting and elaborate systems of fencing and netting began to appear, but it left its imprint on my soul.
What had those woodchucks done that they deserved death? They were hungry. They ate the food they were designed by God to eat. They were not eating small children, they were not bearing disease, they were not competing with our family for a scarce food supply. They were just eating a few of Grandmaís flowers. For that they died. To this day I canít find a suitable explanation for why that is right.
My next trauma was self-inflicted. Newly-married and an adult at least in theory, I awoke one morning to discover a spider much too close to the bed. I was terrified of spiders, but had been blessed in my youth with a mother who was not. Whenever a spider invaded my space as a child, I had only to call for my mother and she came and whisked it away, carefully taking it outside and releasing it. My mother, however, was not included in my current living arrangments, so I did the next best thing. I called for my husband. Being the dutiful husband that he was, David came rushing to my rescue. Squash. No more spider. He looked pleased.
I was crushed. I didnít mean for it to die. Something again seemed wrong with the world, and now with me. One of Godís creatures had been squashed, simply because it had more legs than I was comfortable with. The spider was no threat to me. It died simply because I didnít understand its beauty. It infringed on my comfort, and because I wouldnít touch it to carry it to safety, it died. I remembered the woodchucks and felt somehow that I had sinned, although I had no real sense of why.
The answer to that question came a number of years later in a TV commercial for pest control. There was Joe Pest Control, a kindly man entering a house to do his job. But when he got inside, the man suddenly was transformed into this techno-warrior, an armored agent of destruction shooting up every scampering pest like a Storm Trooper on the Death Star. And finally, as I watched that commercial, I understood what had bothered me most about the woodchucks and the spider.
It came in the form of a question. "What right," I thought, "do we human beings have to simply obliterate everything in our environment that troubles us?" It seems extreme to us to consider bugs as having importance, but doesnít it start there? Does the environment belong to me? We sang songs at church about Godís eye being on the sparrow. Was it only birds? Didnít God make the mosquito? I do mean to ask God about that choice someday, but the fact remains that every creature we see is part of what God created and called "good." On what day did God make "pests?" If God is in fact real and present and author of all life, if God made it all and called it all "good," who am I to refuse to live among certain forms of it? Worse, who am I to invade where others live and demand that my right to live there is greater than those who lived there first?
And as I thought about it more it seemed that the terrible atrocities we have perpetrated against Native Americans, against the Jews, against African Americans, against children...could perhaps all be traced to our non-chalance as we allowed the label "pest" to creep up the food chain, baby step by baby step. First it was the roach and the ants that had no business at our picnic. Then it was the mouse and the squirrel that shouldnít take up residence in our warm rooftops and walls. Then it was the woodchuck that shouldnít spoil the beauty of our gardens or the deer that shouldnít share in our crops or the coyote or wolf that shouldnít cut into our ranching profits.
Once we were up to labeling deer and wolves as pests, it is still only a small step to call the children "pests," since they shouldnít disturb our adult activities or demand attention. And then only a small step more to those who for reasons only of difference frighten us or make us uncomfortable. I know you may think Iím out of my mind, but I think the ability to kill a man because of the color of his skin begins with the ability to crush a spider merely because it has too many legs.
Now...before you go storming the pulpit, let me say that I am not saying that killing something is never necessary. I understand about disease, rabies, and real danger. When a mosquito bites me, I swat it. I am not even a vegetarian. But we have gone so far in the other direction...we have forgotten how to be grateful for the gifts of the earth. Take the Native American hunter. He killed animals. But he did so for a reason and with gratitude. He killed a buffalo or a deer because it was needed for food and shelter for his village. And when he killed, he gave thanks. He thanked God for the gift and he thanked the animal for the gift of its life to him.† It was about survival, not sport.† Killing should never, ever be a sport.
God is not about rules and law, and Iím not about to suggest that some rigid set of laws be set up for when itís OK to kill something and when it is not. But I will go to my death defending the reality that God is love, and I would be shirking my duty as your pastor if I didnít say that even in the smallest thing you do in a day, to put God in the center of your life means to do absolutely everything with love. If you can kill with love and gratitude, you may kill. I hold to that whether weíre talking about squashing a bug or executing Timothy McVeigh.
God is love and any action not taken in love is an action outside of God. Love is the ruling principle of all that is...there is nothing I believe more strongly. To the extent that we act with love, our lives will become more harmonious and healthy. To the extent that we exclude love from our actions, we will fall prey to the fears and diseases...both of body and soul...that surround us. Not because God has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned Godís love.
Now the Trustees at St. Johnís had no idea what they were stepping in when they innocently suggested that the woodchucks in my back yard be trapped and carted away. And I am not here to make anybody feel guilty or condemned. Romans 8:1 says "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." But I am here to help push all of us to a life with more love in it...to a life that consciously thinks about what we do each moment...to a life that really strives at all times and in all places to put love in the center.
There are plenty of places where I am still completely blind to my own sin and my own complicity in the sins of others. But God has given me eyes to see our lack of love for Godís earth and Godís creatures, and that sight becomes my calling to help those who are blind to see again all that God has made. The steps are tiny and often unnoticeable until some atrocity like the Holocaust is before us and we have no concept of how we got there. We didnít get there in one great leap, we got there small step by small step.
This principle is illustrated in a quote by Marton Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor speaking about the Holocaust and how it developed. He says, "In Germany, they first came for the Communists, and I didnít speak up because I wasnít a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didnít speak up because I wasnít a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didnít speak up because I wasnít a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didnít speak up because I wasnít a Catholic. Then they came for me -- and by that time there was nobody left to speak up."
Studies have shown that children who are cruel to animals grow to be adults who are cruel to people. Genesis tells us that we were created from the dust of the ground and in a very real way we are one with the earth and with every other creature that was created from it. What we do to the earth and its creatures we do to ourselves, and when we refuse to speak up for the others who are taken, eventually they will come for us. We prepare the way for both great acts of terror and great acts of love by the little acts of terror or love that we engage in every day. The choice is up to us. Choose woodchucks. Choose life.† Choose love.† Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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