The Gospel in the Cocoon

At Church on the Farm one year ago, I announced that I would begin attending seminary last fall. That is neither here nor there, except that I now feel a greater responsibility to deal with Bible when I am invited to preach- something that does not often excite me. In the past, my sermon fodder has simply been my dreams or my backyard. Through this past year of seminary, two semesters of Old Testament and one semester of Jesus and the Gospels studies with renown biblical scholars under whom I was lucky to study, I can say that my both my capacity to appreciate the biblical text as well as my deep suspicions of using the Bible have grown. Before starting seminary, it felt easy to access the songs of my heart and what was bubbling up from deep within with a desire to be voiced and heard. That’s because, previously, I primarily stepped outside of the Bible and Christian tradition as I knew it, taking my cues from nature, experience and prayerful, contemplative moments. Now that I’m again face-to-face with the Bible, I am struggling to also listen more closely through the written words of an ancient community that was struggling to relate (or not to relate) to divinity as they understood it, because this is part of a faith tradition that I am part of, for better or worse. I still struggle with the question of whether the world would be better or worse off without the Bible. I often feel drawn to the option to “just not deal with it”. But I recognize that tendency…. whenever I wish to “not deal” with something, it’s often a bi-product of my privileged status. I don’t deal with something because it’s an option for me to not deal with it without any significant impact on my life – or so I think. This is not to say that those who choose to walk away from the Bible or church have succumbed to their privilege or are simply cowards. I have deep respect (and a little envy) for those who are able to walk away and say “no, this isn’t mine to carry”, but I also recognize that this option is not in the cards for me. The church, the Bible, and Christian tradition, for better or worse, are part of my life. So the question is: How will I deal with them?

Because of this, I have come to more deeply appreciate the biblical poetic books, works of fiction, a genre in which human imagination, voice and dissonance was permitted. Think of your favorite novel or fictional work. What doors did it open to you? What waves of mystery and imagination were you invited to ride? What characters were you allowed to try on? Which words were you able to voice that you hadn’t previously realized? What insights were you able to gain by stepping into a new world painted with words and imagination?

In this vein, I would like to take a look at the book of Job as a whole this morning. I know I have used Job in past sermons, but studying the book of Job was itself a transformational process for me – one in which I had to deal with my own hidden attachments to the Bible and learn to read it for what it was, not just what I wanted it to be. The book of Job offers a rich tale of human existence, faith in Yahweh, and the reality of evil and suffering. In fact, the story mixes all of these elements together in a way that allows both doubt and faith to be recognized in the midst of struggle. This text has the potential to liberate the voice, emotion and faith of those who struggle, those who have lost, those who have questioned the presence and role of Divinity in their lives. This book takes a stab at the God character, mixing “him” up with evil, and demanding a response. It does not allow for easy answers or any answer, save that of a God yearning to be known more deeply in the midst of the mess by a man who wasn’t willing to settle.

Imagine the experience of writing a book like Job, of putting it all “out there” in a fictional story. Imagine the permission it offered and still offers to readers who have struggled to validate their deepest wonderings, doubts, fears and anger. Imagine the possible controversy it brought – like an ancient DaVinci Code, opening up minds and hearts through the scandal of imagination and possibility relating to some experienced truth. Imagine the catharsis of the “maybe” it offers.

Well, not only was the author of Job able to imagine a god character who was mixed up in the evil of the world, but was also able to imagine one who could speak the words of this morning’s reading: Job 12: 7-13 (The Inclusive Bible)

But turn to the animals, and let them teach you;

the birds of the air will tell you the truth.

Listen to the plants of the earth, and learn from them;

let the fish of the sea become your teachers...

This is the response of one on trial (YHWH) offering the world as proof of goodness. So in a very biblical way, I want to offer The Gospel in the Cocoon this morning, as a way of gleaning wisdom from the very wings of nature.

Perhaps a more fitting title for today’s sermon would be The Gospel According to Caterpillars, but it just didn’t seem sexy enough. :) Truth be told, however, it’s the caterpillar’s role in the whole transformational process that has something to teach us humans. Actually I was going to name the sermon The Gospel According to Butterflies, but the study I am going to cite is actually about moths. Moths are usually mentioned in the Bible in relationship to destruction and death, so I wanted to steer away from that. But with respect to science, I didn’t want to overgeneralize. Moths transform in a cocoon, butterflies in a chrysalis, to name just one difference, so I’m still acknowledging the moths first and foremost. It’s complicated and coerced, but I’m willing to name that, as a good seminarian should. J But let’s just consider butterflies and moths symbolically connected for a moment.

Butterflies as a symbol are nothing new for Christians. They are often images of the risen Christ, or are used to portray the meaning of verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things have passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (KJV) That’s all well and good, but I’d like to put on my seminarian hat and challenge us to recognize that the context of this passage was greatly influenced by Greek language and culture, which included a great deal of dichotomy. Old and New. Passing away and Becoming. There is a great separation implied in this passage, and it has been used to incite a deep sense of unworthiness in people for simply being born and for being human. It implies that we have to be something other than ourselves. And the imposition of this on “the other” is at the roots of colonialism. I have learned to be suspicious of the language of “otherness”.

This is where the cocoon comes in. Having known for months that I was preaching on this date, I struggled to feel any energy to share. I think this had to do with my responsibility and struggle to apply the Biblical filters to my contemplative inner voice. Then one day I heard for the second time, a radio broadcast about a study of moths, and I noticed that something was deeply moved within me, so I paid attention. Many of you may have heard it too, if not earlier this summer, then perhaps a few years ago when it originally broadcast. It’s an NPR segment called Study: Moths Can Remember Caterpillar Days. Basically, the study was conducted to test the idea that moths that emerge from the cocoon are completely different creatures from the caterpillars that entered it.

The study, conducted at Georgetown University, exposed tobacco hornworm moths to ethyl acetate, a foul-smelling gas, followed by a shock. The gas exposure and shock was applied once an hour for eight hours a day. The caterpillars eventually learned to avoid the gas. The study was brought full-circle once the caterpillars underwent their metamorphosis in the cocoon and emerged as moths. The caterpillars that had been exposed to the gas were the ones who avoided it as moths.

What this study showed is that, despite the literal meltdown process that transforms the caterpillar into the moth within the cocoon, something remains. This moved me because it undermined dichotomous thinking. Furthermore, it validated the life of the caterpillar in its lowly, earth-bound state of struggle just to survive. Most caterpillars do not survive long enough to ever grow wings.

Perhaps I should also mention that the first draft of this meditation was processed during the week of the Mennonite Convention in Kansas City, while I listened to reports of what was and wasn’t happening there in support of our brothers and sisters that are experiencing oppression. I meditated as I mourned. I meditated in anger and confusion and frustration. My moments of contemplation called forth curiosity to know more about the process of transformation; this traumatic meltdown that takes place within the cocoon. It didn’t take long to stumble upon information about “imaginal cells” that resonate with a different frequency than “caterpillar cells”. Within the cocoon, the caterpillar is exposed to these new cells as a natural part of the process of transformation. But, not being familiar cells to the caterpillar, the caterpillar’s immune system is forced to resist these non-caterpillar cells. This process of resistance allows for more of the imaginal cells to survive. Eventually the imaginal cells begin to clump together and form clusters. The clusters transfer new information; information that allows the caterpillar to transform into something different. The caterpillar DNA, or essence, remains the same, but is rearranged to form something new. And as the study shows, not something altogether new, but altogether co-created with the caterpillar. There is a deep and surviving unity between the caterpillar and the moth/butterfly, and a completely vital role of the caterpillar within the creative process.

There are many striking elements of this process. One of them is that this act of resistance is simply what caterpillars do because they are caterpillars. They don’t exercise a choice of “not dealing” with the cocoon. It is the very fact that they are caterpillars that they move toward transformation. Being deeply in tune with who they are – which I would suggest is their divine caterpillarness- is what empowers them to both transcend and include what was.

What does this mean for us humans? Obviously we are born with the creative capacity for making choices and exploring a wide variety of possibilities. And we are, in our very flesh and bone, very worthwhile, very divine. And within that reality, we are called to transformation. As the author of Job invites us to imagine, the things we are called to resist and the things of God are mixed together in a great messy – and perhaps traumatic- meltdown. We can create separate, orderly containers for these in our minds, but the reality we are faced with is one in which the “things of God” have caused much pain, and the prophetic voice of Wisdom is found calling to us through conflict with systemic oppression. The world is a mess, the church is a mess, the Biblical story was a mess. The book of Job highlights this mess. And then it synthesizes the divine voice, calling us to listen, to learn, and to trust. Calling us to co-create by transforming into something new but not other.

So what does the caterpillar have to teach us? I think the caterpillar helps us to look at our humanity and to see within in a deep divine identity. And if we are to make the choice to not resist the oppressive forces, the anti-caterpillar or anti-human forces, like systemic oppressions that bombard us, then we need to recognize that we are living separately from our divine humanness. We are living in some sort of privileged dichotomy that is really an illusion. We are as much a part of the act of co-creation as the caterpillar. We are called to resistance so that we can be transformed by something that resonates at a different frequency. And we are not expected to lose ourselves along the way.

Let me drive the point home a little further, in case we are still seeing this as simply a clever metaphor. What would happen to a caterpillar that chose to never enter the cocoon? Can you imagine that? Does it seem absurd? It would just be a matter of time until the caterpillar was picked off. Certainly the caterpillar would never be able to reproduce or migrate. It would only uphold the status quo that acts against its very nature. So it is with us. When we choose not to resist oppressive forces, we do not simply withhold our vote for transformation, we cast our vote for the status quo. The status quo has power because it is what is. Whether we like it or not, systemic oppression is the status quo. Racism is the status quo. Colonialism is the status quo. Patriarchy is the status quo. Heteronormativity is the status quo. Classism is the status quo. Sexism is the status quo. Environmental degradation is the status quo. And thus it has been in the church and yes, even in CMCL.

Transformation is the only path away from the status quo into a new reality. And our privilege is what often blinds us from this realization. Embracing our humanity is what orients us toward our divinity. But because of dichotomous thinking, we have been led to believe otherwise; that our humanity is worthless. We are called to be co-creators, like caterpillars and every other part of this divinely created universe. Inside of us, we pulsate with the knowledge that transformation is possible and necessary. I think the author of Job knew that. I think that the character of Job was created to resist the oppressive forces and to transform the world with his maker, and perhaps even to transform the Maker in the process. The book of Job is an application of imaginal cells to support the earthly resistance of that which causes suffering. It’s a voice that says we are worthy of life and love and higher frequencies because we are here. If we are not listening to that voice, we must be willing to ask ourselves what is cutting us off from it. What is allowing us to live in the illusion that we are not or do not have to contribute to the transformation of the world? What is keeping us accountable?

Back to the study….

The suffering of the caterpillars left an imprint on them that transformed into wisdom for the moths. The transformational process is about resisting oppression and allowing all that we are learning to become Wisdom. It says that this life matters, and it is an invitation to continue the act of creation. Though it feels a bit strange to quote a white male European theologian, I think this quote by Martin Luther does underscore the abiding hope offered in this invitation. He said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

What we do today matters. It matters for our children and youth. It matters for our planet. It matters for our souls. It matters for Divinity. It matters to the marginalized. It matters for the church. Friends, it matters because the creation of the world didn’t end in the early pages of Genesis. The creation of the world has never ended. We are participating in it. Let me move from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is a voice from the margins, which believed that God was present in the struggle.

Finally, I would like to direct your attention to the artwork on the front of your bulletins. This is the last in a series of creation images by Melanie Weidner. I was introduced to this during a weekend of Spiritual Direction Training at Kairos in which we were talking about transformative energies, mainly communal energy. When I saw this something moved powerfully inside of me. Something resonated so clearly. I have held this image throughout the past year. As a social experiment at seminary, my Old Testament professor asked us to write a sermon in one or two sentences on a piece of paper. The “sermon” was supposed to articulate what we thought was the message that we felt was calling out to the world from all of this biblical, theological and societal work we were being called to do? This is what I wrote on my paper: Friends, be still and know: This is the eighth day, and we are the co-creators.