The Song of All Creatures
The following sermon was preached by Kathleen D. Billman, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology, Director of the Master of Divinity Program, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, April 23, 2007.
When I read this text, the first thing I thought was, "What great good news we can celebrate as we launch Earth Week at LSTC!" The second thing I thought was that I wish Bessie Hunt could be here worshipping with us this morning and throughout this week. I think for her it would be like finding the church she longed for and could not find, even as late as the early 1980s, when I was her pastor.
Bessie Hunt, as far as I know, was the only parishioner I ever had who made the city news in Trenton, NJ. When she was getting quite old she waded into the freezing water of the Delaware-Raritan canal to rescue a dog that somehow had gotten into the water and could not get back out. Someone saw Bessie go into the frigid water and called an ambulance, and Bessie was taken to the hospital. She did not want to stay in the hospital because she had to get back to her apartment and get food ready to take to the dozens of stray cats she fed every morning out behind her apartment building where she lived alone and shared what little she had with the cats who came to depend on her.
To almost everyone, Bessie's care for animals seemed "over the top." It may be the case that she found in those hungry, vulnerable creatures a kinship she did not find with many humans, even at church, where she inquired about what kind of salvation was possible for animals—a question that seemed strange, if not laughable, to most people in those days.
Bessie was so strongly in my heart when I reflected on this text that I went searching through my box of memories from my years as pastor of her congregation, and found the letter from Bessie I vaguely remembered, dated February 1, 1985. In the letter, she expressed bitterness about the church and religion in general, followed by these lines: "If only the holy people of language, those who wrote the books of the Bible, had mentioned just once, kindness to all living things, not just people, I would be convinced. But never was this the case. I also look after birds, trees, flowers, anything alive. As I see it, people in their selfishness and greed, prosper."
Bessie was elderly when I knew her and has been dead for many years. But our Revelation text for this morning conjures such a vivid vision of creatures from heaven and gathering around God's throne, that it seems imaginable, as I strain my eyes to catch a glimpse of that great gathering and tune my ears to catch the far off sound of the whole creation singing, that I will see Bessie there with her beloved creatures, pressing close to that wondrous place of joy and grace. It seems possible, in the imagination of faith and the gift of worship, to dwell briefly in the mystery of being one assembly, beyond the geographical borders and time zones that mark our lives.
In that assembly that includes all living creatures there will no longer be any need of words. We will not need to preach the Word that God's love and kindness is for all living things, and that there is plenty of evidence for that in the Bible! From the story of Creation itself, which was named good, good, good, good, good before humans arrived on the scene late in the creative process… to the Creation hymns in the psalms… to Paul's image of the whole Creation groaning in travail, awaiting the salvation of God… to the breathtaking vision of all creatures from heaven and earth and under the earth and the sea all singing praise to the One whose creative will is at work every day in our midst, calling us to join the song…from all these biblical sources we hear that Word proclaimed. On that day the distinctions we have drawn between nature and history, word and deed, grace and action, giving and receiving, will no longer preoccupy us. We will be too busy singing.
And on that day it will not be necessary to find words for the grace that can enable us to face the depth of the damage we have done to the earth and to myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands of poor who have been exploited so that a few might have so much… or to articulate the understanding the author of Revelation holds before us—that all empires finally pass away, but God's purposeful vision and will for good does not. It takes grace to see and not despair; grace to live with the sadness for all we wished we might have said when the Bessie Hunts of our lives were alive to hear the words. But like Paul on the Damascus road, who saw the whole world differently after an encounter with the risen Christ, we know that it is possible to look and still live… to turn around… to be, in Christ, a new creation. Beyond all errors, we are reclaimed and re-invited, every day, to new life.
Yes, on that day it will not be necessary to strain to see… to tune our ears to hear… to find the words to say what is amazing beyond all words. But today, there are sermons to be preached, letters to write, protests on behalf of the earth to raise…changes in lifestyle to make—not because we believe we will save the world, but because we want to be part of that company which believes that God is saving us all and we want to be part of that great, singing multitude, which tries—in grand and feeble ways—to join our voices and bodies to God's purposes. May any of our labors arise from within us and among us like the song of the chat [a term used for a variety of songbirds] of Mary Oliver's poem, "The Chat":
the yellow chat
down in the thickets
who sings all night,
into the air
in curly phrases,
free verse too,
with soft breast
rising into the air—
meek and sleek,
with no time out
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
of his simple, leafy life—
how I would like to sing to you
in the dark
just like that."