Sermon March 8, 2015 "Up Close and Personal"

Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Orcinus orca is one of the most magnificent creatures to grace this planet. Scientists who study the orca whale are stunned by its beauty and intelligence. They even use the word humor in reference to the orca. In addition, orcas in different parts of the oceans are known for having differing cultures. Their behaviors, actions, and relationships differ depending on what group they are part of. Orcas from separate groups treat each other as strangers while orcas from the same areas are quite familiar with each other. An orca from near Iceland, for instance, has different habits, diet, and communication than an orca from the northern Pacific Ocean. Orcas from some areas eat mainly sea mammals while others eat only fish. The ones that eat mammals often play with them and toss them around before eating them. The fish eaters might work as group and corral a school of fish and slap them with their flukes to stun them and then eat their fill. This is highly social, cooperative behavior. Orcas are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators.

Orcas are observed frolicking, jumping from the water, and rubbing against each other all in delightful play. They have been seen swimming onto a stone covered beach and rubbing their bellies on the stones – as a massage, or to scratch themselves, or to hear the sounds of the stones rubbing together? We don’t know. The whales make an extensive array of sounds including whistles, clicks, and calls which they use to communicate with each other. They navigate and find food using echolocation.

These huge mammoths are known for helping each other. They will share food. A female will help another female in the birthing process. When an orca is injured, others will support it from either side and see that it gets to the surface for air until it has recovered.

The pods of orcas in some oceans are matriarchal with groups including infants, juveniles and adolescents as well as aunts and grandmothers. The young stay with the natal family. The male orcas stay with their mothers. A male orca 10 years old will still spend 40-75% of its time within a body length of its mother. And it will help its mother care for subsequent calves.

It is clear from observation in the wild that Orcinus orca is a highly developed, social creature with a magnificent life in the oceans. They live together, they play and take pleasure in life. They help one another and communicate in complex ways in a rich and stimulating environment that provides for all of their needs. They thrive and flourish living a glorious life.

Orcas have been much in the news in recent years in the wake of terrible occurrences at marine life theme parks. We hear much about this due to our proximity to Sea World. In captivity, orcas will bang their heads repeatedly against the cement wall of the tank, cut and scratch themselves on metal nodules developing skin lesions, float motionless for hours, grind their teeth on the bars of the gates to the pen, and interact with each other with hostility. And then there are the attacks on humans.

Taken away from their natural setting with all of its stimulation and freedom, removed from their social network, placed in contact with orcas of other cultures and habits, forced to breed repeatedly at a much younger age than in the wild and far more frequently than in the wild, problems develop. And the problems are compounded for the males that are removed from their mothers. In an environment that is unnatural, deprived of the appropriate social structure, the whales develop unnatural and aberrant behaviors. It is completely understandable that these amazing whales with a highly complex social and communication system, used to living with all of the space found in the ocean, would flounder when removed from that setting. Then there is the stark boredom of the tank compared with the involved undersea environment with its richness of sights and sounds. My intent is not to go into the roiling debate about whether or not such creatures should be kept in captivity, but just to note that when an animal is not in the intended setting, behavior can go askew. Problems may occur. And we should not be surprised.

This same kind of comparison can apply to humans as well. People who are in settings where they are familiar and comfortable, where they know the culture, and where they have an appropriate social system of relationships, can thrive and flourish. They can take delight in life and find abundance and joy. People who are in situations that are alien to them, that are unfamiliar, that separate them from their intended social and environmental setting, may behave in unexpected ways. There can be problems.

In our tradition, it is our understanding that the ten commandments were given to the people of Israel as a way of defining the social, spiritual, and cultural setting in which they will thrive and flourish. These ten decrees describe the intended environment for this group of people that will foster their well being. Adherence to these commandments will result in a community of justice and joy. Living by these commandments will lead to a strong community in which the people will take delight and prosper. These laws describe an intended environment in which people will grow and live in a healthy manner.

Thus we also note that to ignore these commandments, to deny their significance, can result in humans being in an environment which is alien. It can lead to the disruption of the intended social and spiritual community, and then behavior may very well be unpredictable and dangerous. We ignore these commandments at our own peril. They are not intended to be punitive. In fact, just the opposite. They are intended to help us live out our highest good in solidarity with all of humanity and all of Creation. They are intended to keep us close to God and one another in relationships and balance which leads to our deepest joy and peace.

Teachings such as the ten commandments are found in all major religions because they point us toward our best selves and a beautiful life. And they prevent us from straying in ways that cause peril for us and for others.

The teachings of Jesus and his ministry are also intended to describe and define an environment – social, spiritual, and economic – in which humans thrive and flourish. In the gospels we are told that Jesus brings abundant life, the realm of God, that our joy may be full. He has not come to punish or berate, but to bring to the fore once again Divine intentions for the health of humanity. He shows us how to create communities of mutual support, connected to one another, to God, and to Creation in ways that are life-giving and life-sustaining. His teaching is intended to create an environment that is conducive to human life that is rich and full.

In the gospel of John, after the prologue Jesus is baptized and calls the disciples. Then his ministry begins with the story of the wedding at Cana. Jesus is at a wedding and the wine has run out. In the story, Jesus sends the servants to fill several huge urns with water and when they taste the contents, it is wine. Very fine wine. Right at the outset, the gospel writer wants us to see the rich, full, and abundant life that God intends. This is a beautiful image for the life that God desires for humanity.

And right after that story is the one that we heard this morning: the story of the money changers in the Temple. Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for a festival, an important religious holiday. People come from far and near. It is crowded. And there are offerings to be made and sacrifices to be attended to. That is part of the observance of the holy day. Coming from far away, people cannot bring the animals with them for sacrifice. And since they are in the Roman Empire, the money they have bears the image of the Empire and cannot be used in the Temple precincts to buy the pigeon or goat to be offered in sacrifice. So, there are money changers who will take people’s Roman coins and exchange them for Jewish money which can then be used to buy the needed animals for sacrifice. And, just like people of every time and every place, there is the temptation to take advantage. To give in to greed. To capitalize on this influx of people who must use these services. And so the money changers and animal sellers take advantage of the those who have come to fulfill their religious observance. What should be a celebration of freedom and Divine deliverance, the Passover, has become a travesty of greed. The money changers and animal sellers have a captive audience and they abuse their power and let their greed hold sway. They incorporate huge profits into the exchange rates and the prices of the animals for sacrifice.

Now Jesus is well acquainted with injustice and greed and selfishness. He is familiar with abuse of power and authority. After all, they live under the thumb of the Romans who are bleeding them dry at every turn.

But what really gets Jesus going in this story is that these are Jews taking advantage of other Jews and in the name of religion: Religion which is supposed to be creating a healthy environment for the flourishing of all life. Religion which is supposed to lead people to the joy and abundant life that God intends for all people. Religion that is intended to be a blessing to all creating communities of justice, compassion, and generosity. What these money changers are doing in the name of religion, no less, is skewed behavior that needs to be corrected. They are exhibiting the very problems that religion is supposed to be working to overcome. It is full-fledged hypocrisy, betrayal, and irony. So it is not surprising that in the story this really sets Jesus off. It is going in the opposite direction of what religion should be offering to people and Jesus can’t abide it. He is furious. This is the one story we have that shows us an angry Jesus lashing out with hostility which disrupts things but does not do harm to life. This corruption of religion, the very thing that should bless, is more than he can stand.

Jesus is angry because he knows that when the environment is out of balance, or disrupted, or askew, things go awry. People suffer. Life is not healthy for all. Human behavior becomes aberrant and abhorrent. Harm is done. People are robbed of the flourishing life that is part of the Divine design. They are denied the life God seeks to give.

Jesus is about setting things right. Getting the balance back. Drawing us away from that which prevents and deprives us of the rich and full life we can enjoy. Jesus’ ministry is about restoring the conditions of justice and compassion that bring out our best.

We are here because we are called to be carrying on the ministry of Jesus creating the ideal conditions for life to be all that it can be for the whole human family and all of Creation. We are not here to feather our own nest while others are left out in the cold. Our faith is intended to connect us to God, the sacred, and one another in ways that create a culture that fosters goodness and health for all. The gospel is intended to free us from captivity to the forces that deprive us of full life and joy.

In the book, Death at Sea World, David Kirby tells of the life of orcas in the wild. He tracks the history of orcas in captivity. This information culminates in the story of Tilikum. Tilikum was taken from the waters of Iceland at two years of age and has lived in captivity ever since. He is the whale that killed Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, and finally Dawn Brancheau. Kirby ends the book: “Tilikum was trying to tell us something. It was time to listen.” [p. 424]

We have been given teachings in scripture that are trying to tell us something. Jesus is trying to tell us something. Something about our situation and our captivity. Something about the appropriate environment in which humans thrive. We have been given these stories that invite us to freedom and release so that we might live as we are intended to live in right relationship with God, one another, Creation, and, yes, Orcinus orca. It is time to listen. Amen.

The information about orcas in this sermon comes from the book Death at Sea World: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby.

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