Easter 4/May 3, 2009

Keene Valley Congregational Church

Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

In God's Image

A sermon offered by Katharine M. Preston

So – this is what is happening near us: The male red-winged blackbirds insist "con-ker-ree", (which basically means "see-how-much-redder-and-bigger-my-shoulder-epaulets-are-than-yours!"); the mourning doves squeeze their nest in an outside crack of the hay barn and peer disdainfully on the construction going on in the adjacent tractor barn.

And then there are the swallows: they soar around with a lot of chatter, putting on this act: "where-shall-we live?" – as if they might not take up residence in the exact same nesting boxes they have been in for years! Between soars, the swallows line up, carefully spaced along the telephone wire, twittering a lot, catching up on the gossip. After a break, they grab blades of previous season's loose grass, pine needles and the occasional stray feather and busily disappear into the nest boxes.

I remember reading in some ornithological source how a group of swallows will play with a feather, dropping and retrieving it as it floats in the air, one to another. I found this hard to believe. But then one spring, outside our window, I saw it happening. I stood transfixed; the joyous reality of it all took my breath away.

I wonder why writers of scripture traditionally characterized God's Holy Spirit as a hovering dove. Unless those in the Middle East are different from ours, doves don't hover. Besides, hovering implies a pause, a suspension of activity, an unlikely option, I think, for the Holy Spirit. Doves always seem rather frantic and fearful; their wing beats noisy, rapid. For my ornithological and pneumatological bearing, I prefer the image of the Spirit as swallow, soaring with unrestrained diligence in a context of grace and joy.

Metaphor and image. Today's readings offer another beloved metaphor – of God and Jesus as a shepherd. Although most of us are not intimate with the ways of shepherds and sheep, there is little doubt in my mind that at times, this metaphor is powerfully soothing and reassuring. Let's face it – we love to be taken care of and sometimes even like to be told what to do.

But what of image? If God or Jesus is the Good Shepherd – that makes us the sheep and yet, we are told elsewhere, we are made in God's image. So – do you think God looks like a ewe or a ram?

In Genesis 1 we are told that humans are made in the image of God. Genesis 2, on the other hand – makes no implication that the "adam", the thing formed from the dust of the ground by God, looked like God. And although it is implied, I have yet to find a scriptural passage that explicitly promises that we are the only ones made in the image of God.

So – I think "in the image of God" is meant metaphorically, as a way to bring us, as humans, in closer relationship with the divine. It is easier to love something or somebody we recognize. More honestly, we make God in our image.

But unfortunately, as you know, many people take Genesis 1 literally, and thus the scriptural assurance becomes a hook upon which to hang our self-importance, a convenient way to sooth our insatiable egos. It serves to separate us from animals, or, at least from other animals. Are we animals? From the standpoint of science, of course. From the standpoint of the church, maybe, but ... not like the other animals!

But what about from the standpoint of God?

Doesn't evolutionary science flatten the playing field in this regard? It reminds us that as human beings, we are but a recent twig in the evolutionary tree of plants and animals, and not an ultimate end point. There is nothing that makes us intrinsically more valuable than any other species. Our success, after all, has yet to be tested by the crucible of time; indications at the moment are that our big brains may not be as acute and reliable an adaptation as we had hoped. Nomenclature of us as Homo sapiens, the "wise" member of the genus assigned to those primate beings most like us, might be too optimistic!

Some scientists tell us we are special because of our capacity for self-reflection, speech, reason. Two observations: First – every day we learn about other animals that have some form of these attributes – so the bar has to be constantly raised. (Do you remember when making tools distinguished us from other animals? Now we know that chimps and even crows fashion tools.) The second observation is that our speech, reason attributes may help us deal with our world, but it wouldn't help, for example, the fourth generation of a Monarch butterfly find its way back to Mexico from Canada, geographically retracing the extraordinary genetic relay of its ancestors. Self-reflection or reason might short-circuit the crucial instinctive genetic inheritance for the Monarch. And memories of ancestral routes of migration are not particularly useful to us.

So everyone's special. Everything is special. And of more importance to our musings today, why should one attribute – such as human reason, be more pleasing to God than the navigation equipment in a brain the size of a pinhead that brings an insect that weighs .5 grams 3,000 miles to the exact tree that its forebears came from, in a place it has never seen or been to?

We know and worship God, as humans know God. We know nothings about monarchs. Or swallows. Or their worship.

So where does that leave us – if humans are not the only ones made in the image of God, and are not necessarily the center of God's care and attention, perhaps only a passing phase of God's overall direction, how does that make us feel?

Well, it's different. Remember the revolutionary change in perspective that was induced by Copernicus who showed the Western world that Earth was not the center of the universe? I think the notion that we are no more important to God than any other animal is far more revolutionary. For God not to love human beings particularly, at least in the ultimate sense of being the center of God's attention, changes our relationship with God.

Understand – there is no doubt in my mind that God loves us. That is what Jesus is all about. But I don't personally share the church's position that Jesus was about the redemption of all creation. It is not that I think monarch butterflies may have a messiah of their own; it is simply that monarch butterflies don't need the same kind of loving and caring that God has shown to us through Jesus Christ.

If God's love shows no partiality, among all of God's creatures, creatures, does that change the way we live?

It had better. Of course, for us of the human species, a child's life must take precedence over the life of a virus or an ant or even a chimpanzee. And since humans have evolved as omnivores, we must take some lives to feed ourselves. But we can live as humans and also honor and enhance the health and vitality of the whole Earth community. And as creatures, ecosystems, and human beings "Other-than-us" are all threatened by climate change, we need to ask ourselves: If God is our shepherd, what is God to the insect- eating birds who may find themselves arriving too late for the hatch of the mayflies? What is God to the maple trees that will have to move northward to survive? And will God, as shepherd, protect and lead the millions upon millions of people that must migrate from their homes to survive the climatic changes?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that God is somehow in relationship with every species on the planet, and indeed, with the mountains, the rivers and the skies.

For my faith, strengthened by my understanding of science, it is simply too limiting to equate the divine image with only one part of creation, human beings. Add swallows, butterflies, koala bears and lupine. And it is too limiting to say that the full extent of God's love extends only to a species of upright primates that compose requiems and calculate logarithms. And it is too limiting to assume that a deity experienced by humans sometimes as thunder and other times as a still small voice, cannot in some way unknown to us, also be experienced by a soaring swallow playing with a feather.

It's just not all about us ...

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