Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
“I was never more interested in any subject in my life, than in this of orchids,” wrote Charles Darwin to his colleague, Sir Joseph of Kew. [Goodall, p. 122] And it is no wonder. Orchids show the most amazing capacity for adaptation and have evolved with prolific diversity. Of course they were appealing to the great scientist Darwin with whom we associate one of the most important theories of in all of human knowledge: the theory of evolution.
Orchids began in tropical climes and now are found in almost all geographies save true desert and ice fields. There are 13 species found north of the Arctic Circle. They account for 8-10 % of all plants.
Orchids are amazing in their adaptive characteristics. They have aerial roots and receive nutrients from air and rain. This allows them to live in densely forested areas in the tops of tree canopies where they receive light.
Then there is the unfathomable diversity of orchids. Some are as small as one tenth of an inch. Others grow to sixty-five feet. One has a microscopic flower; another a bloom the size of a football. Some bloom only at night. Some smell like chocolate, or rotten meat, or vanilla. One looks like a flying white frog. One like a German Shepherd with its tongue sticking out. There are orchids which resemble an onion, a monkey, Mickey Mouse, a butterfly, a nun’s habit, and even one that looks like an octopus.
The amazing diversity of orchids occurs because the orchid is a cross pollinator. They have to attract pollinators, insects, to take the pollen from one plant to another to ensure fertilization. And the plants go to great lengths to make this happen. They have one petal that bends over serving as a landing pad for the insect. They must make themselves irresistible to the insects around them to be sure that pollination occurs. Some orchids look like the female species of the insect to attract the male to come and get the pollen. When the insect comes to the orchid and investigates the bloom, it gets the pollen on its body. Then realizing this is not a female insect, the insect flies off, at some point to another orchid, delivering the pollen. The bee orchid looks and feels like a female bee and emits a pheromone like the female bee to attract the male bees to pollinate. One orchid emits a perfume at night to attract nocturnal moths to accomplish pollination. Some orchids look like an enemy of a local insect. The insect attacks the orchid, gets the pollen on it in the attack, then attacks another orchid, delivering the pollen. The lady slipper orchid attracts the insect, then a petal closes over the opening of the bloom trapping the insect, which then travels through the bloom and out an opening at the bottom, covered with pollen. One orchid was found with a very deep throat of about a foot. What could pollinate such a bloom? Sure enough, a moth was found with a retractable coiling proboscis that could reach deep into the orchid flower.
With all of the machinations needed for orchids to pollinate, it may seem miraculous that they have not died out. But when pollination occurs and a seed pod appears, one pod carries millions of seeds; up to 4 million. And orchids are extraordinarily long lived. There is one plant in the New York Botanical Garden which has been alive since 1898. So, orchids are an amazing example of the glories of adaptation and evolution. They are prolific though certain species are rare due to habitat loss and human collecting. And, as Darwin believed, cross pollination has led to greater survival because the exchange of genetic material provides for greater adaptation which helps foster a greater chance of survival. That has certainly proved to be the case.
So orchids show us not only the beauty of the bloom but the beauty of adaptation and evolution. This is the amazing system built into the web of life to ensure that life flourishes and thrives against all odds and in the face of changing circumstances. Creation is a dynamic, changing, re-creating enterprise. It is never static. It is always in the process of transformation.
And that brings us to Abram and Sarai. Old. Childless. Sedentary. Doesn’t say much for propagation. Until, as the story we heard this morning tells us, there is an encounter with God initiating a covenant. We are told that God has singled them out and God is going to do something new. It is time for a new adaptation in the world of religion. This something involves Abram and Sarai moving to a new land. Expanding the range of their habitat. Making a new start for their descendants. And there are new names given to signify the change. They are now Abraham and Sarah. Yes, they will have children, despite their advanced years. God is bent on the flourishing of life and will see to it that this couple is the progenitor of great populations. And these people that will come from their union will be a blessing to all the earth. They will help others by giving them a faith that supports life through cooperation, mercy, justice, and compassion. This new initiative is being introduced by God to perpetuate the species and to encourage flourishing life. The story seems very much evolutionary. And we shouldn’t be surprised because we know that God has chosen to work through evolution as evidenced in Creation.
From scripture and our faith tradition, we see a God that does not shy away from doing something new. God chooses to promote adaptation. New circumstances might require new approaches, different responses, and changing behaviors. We see this within the Bible itself. There is differing guidance depending on the situation. For instance, we can find in the Bible the insistence upon male circumcision. And we can find in the Bible that circumcision is optional. We can find teaching in the Bible requiring that a woman who has committed adultery be stoned. And we can find teaching in the Bible against that. There is the admonition to make animal sacrifices before God. And then a stern declaration against such sacrifices.
The circumstances have changed, so a new approach is called for. We see this again and again in the Bible. Jesus is another example of the evolutionary process of our faith tradition. His ministry is a new adaptation of the covenant with Abraham. A new initiative is needed to meet new challenges. This is the way religion evolves and adapts so that it can fulfill its function, flourish and thrive, as a blessing to the whole earth, all of Creation.
Our circumstances are in some ways a far cry from Bible times. We face different issues and challenges. In Jesus’ day, people couldn’t have conceived of weaponry capable of destroying the earth. They could not have conceived of the biological knowledge we have today about plants, disease, the brain, and all manner of things. They could never have imagined the learnings we have about the cosmos and the planets. They could not have foreseen our tools and technology, our knowledge and understanding, our numbers and mobility, our diversity and communication. Our reality would not have in any way been imagined by the people of Abraham and Sarah’s time or even Jesus’ day.
For the faith and the covenant that God made with Abraham to be a living testament, adaptation is required. There was change from Abraham’s era to Jesus’ day. There have been significant changes in the faith between Jesus’ time and ours. And we must certainly expect, given the exponential rapidity of change, that if this faith, a faith intended to be a blessing to the world, is to continue to serve God, more change is needed and it needs to keep pace with the circumstances or it will become extinct. The ability to adapt and change has been built into our faith and our tradition.
But unlike the biological world, humans have more conscious input into the evolution of our faith. We have the capability of more intentional choice than any animal or plant. It is also part of the human condition that the more things change, the more we want them to stay the same. We resist change. And this is very evident when it comes to Christianity. I will never forget an experience on our trip to Russia in 1993 to visit our sister church there. As you may know, the Russian Orthodox Christians stand for the entire worship service which may last three hours, unless they get down on the floor to kneel or prostrate themselves. But mostly, there is standing. No sitting. In a conversation with our hosts, we asked about the standing. We were told that it is simply tradition. There is no great theological argument for standing. There is nothing specifically sinful about sitting. But they said that there were many changes occurring in their society and people needed the church to stay the same for a sense of security and stability. I can understand that. But sitting or standing doesn’t really cause harm. There are many traditions and attitudes in the church which do cause harm. They undermine the intent of Christianity. And if the church of today does not choose to change there may be no church of tomorrow. And God will have to figure out other ways to bless the whole world.
When we think of our calling to be a blessing to all of Creation, we have to see that many of the ways of the church today impede this goal. Theology and liturgy that is blatantly at odds with intellectual observation needs to be adapted and changed. Attitudes and doctrines that lead to the exclusion of children of God need to be altered. Practices and beliefs that privilege one group over another foster contention and conflict that is dangerous. This must be changed. Subjugation of peoples in the name of religion must be eliminated. Religion that serves imperialism has to go. Any endorsement of violence in the name of religion can no longer be accepted. Christianity must stop enabling greed and serving the interests of the rich. These and other characteristics of traditional Christianity are in dire need of adaption and transformation for our species, let alone our religion, to survive.
We have in our faith tradition, as heirs of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and the ministry of Jesus, vast resources to draw upon that serve the interests of a God seeking to bless the whole Creation though us. We need to draw upon that heritage and foster the well being of the world. The church serves its best interests and the best interests of the world by promoting cooperation, mutuality, equality, acceptance, justice, and, most certainly, non violence. These kinds of values and teachings promote God’s desire to bless the world. They create community not division and conflict. Maybe other approaches were appropriate in the past given those circumstances and challenges. But today we need to evolve our religion to fit the circumstances of our current environment, to protect our habitat, to ensure the perpetuation of our species, and to promote our survival. Religion has the power to create contention and conflict. It also has the power to promote wholeness and well being. God’s intention in the covenant with Sarah and Abraham is clear. Be a blessing to all nations and all peoples and all of Creation.
Earlier, we looked at the incredible adaptability of orchids which has led to their flourishing the world over. People have been fascinated or maybe I should say obsessed with orchids for generations and given their prolific diversity, that’s hardly surprising. The orchid industry today involves over $44 billion a year. That’s quite a sum for a plant fascination. In addition to giving their money to orchids, people give their lives for orchids. Orchid hunters of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s scoured the earth facing environmental extremes that proved perilous. Some orchid hunters were ruthless scheming the demise of competitors. It was a cut throat enterprise. Today orchid smuggling and illegal trading continues. Florida is a hotbed for this kind of activity. And people are giving their lives and their fortunes to protect orchids and orchid habitat. One person sold his possessions and moved to Japan. Jane Goodall shares what he does: “There are a few species of very small epiphytic orchids in the forests there, but they are rarely seen, as they often grow high up in the trees. In the stormy season, however, many branches break off and end up on the forest floor. And that is when Tom sometimes finds tiny orchids growing on them. Knowing that these plants need fresh air and light to grow and are sure to die if he leaves them on a fallen branch, Tom collects the plants and nurtures them at home. Then, when the storms are over, he returns the orchids to the trees, each one to the correct host, since they are very selective and particular.” [p. 134] It is quite astounding to think of the risks and resources that people devote to orchids.
So, in this season of Lent, we ask ourselves how are we part of creating a faith expression that is a blessing to the world of today and tomorrow? How are we promoting the flourishing of all life? How are we holding on to what feels comfortable and safe afraid to change contributing to the extinction of the church as well as all of life? How are we devoting ourselves to Christianity and the ministry of the church and its adaptation to new realities? How are we investing ourselves in the good of the world? How are we promoting the adaptation and transformation of the body of Christ so that we can indeed be a blessing to all of Creation including the orchids? Orchids and other plants and animals don’t have to answer these questions because they are biologically driven to evolve. But our situation is more complex. And our choices about our evolution may very well determine their future. Amen.
The information about orchids used in this sermon comes from two sources:
Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants by Jane Goodall with Gail Hudson and The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean.