Date: July 24, 2016
Sermon Title: Intelligent Life
Scripture: Luke 10: 25-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Are plants intelligent? Are they an intelligent form of life? There is an active, intense debate going on about this issue among biologists, botanists, and others that work with plants. This debate necessitates defining “intelligent life.” One of the factors that is considered in defining intelligent life is communication. That is considered a feature of intelligent life. As it turns out, it has been determined that plants actually do communicate with each other. They share information about various things like the presence of threatening insects. They do this by emitting chemical signals that other plants detect and react to. It has also been discovered that plants share information about water and nutrients in the soil. One plant will convey to another plant where to get the sustenance it needs.
An experiment documenting this process is outlined in the article, “The Intelligent Plant,” by Michael Pollan, in The New Yorker, Dec. 2013. Pollan discusses a study done by Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues. Simard’s research documents how “trees in a forest organize themselves into far-flung networks using the underground web of mycorrhizal fungi which connects their roots to exchange information and even goods.” Here is a description of one of the experiments Simard and her co-workers carried out:
. . . They injected fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes, then followed the spread of the isotopes through the forest community using a variety of sensing methods, including a Geiger counter. Within a few days, stores of radioactive carbon had been routed from tree to tree. Every tree in a plot thirty meters square was connected to the network; the oldest trees functioned as hubs, some with as many as forty-seven connections. The diagram of the network resembled an airline route map.
The pattern of nutrient traffic showed how ‘mother trees’ were using the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring – which the trees can apparently recognize as kin – until they’re tall enough to reach the light. And, in a striking example of interspecies cooperation, Simard found that fir trees were using the fungal web to trade nutrients with paper-bark birch trees over the course of the season. The evergreen species will tide over the deciduous ones when it has sugars to spare, and then call in the debt later in the season. For the forest community, the value of this cooperative underground economy appears to be better over-all health, more total photosynthesis, and greater resilience in the face of disturbance. [The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, 2013]
What this research tells us is that the fir trees take care of their own, and then they reach out and take care of other species of trees in their vicinity. It sounds pretty intelligent to me. Imagine how much better things would be in the world if the human species were able to master the same skills! Take care of our own, especially our offspring, and then reach out to others and beyond our own kind.
This morning we listened to a story that is very familiar to people of faith. It is a story about someone who is in desperate need of assistance after being a victim of a crime. The people we would expect to help, religious people, responsible people, community leaders, they walk by and do not help. Then a person who is considered “other,” enemy, sees the victim and helps. Maybe we can think about a young black male helping an older white woman who has been left under a bush after being mugged. Or an illegal, non-English speaking Mexican helping an old gent who was beat up waiting for a bus. And what about those we may think of as decent, white middle class working people who walked on by? The story is edgy. But it begins with the basics. A religious seeker is asking what to do be faithful, to be part of the life of God in the world. He already knows: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself. But this seeker still yearns for some pearl of religious wisdom from this esteemed teacher. So, we are given the story of the Good Samaritan, defining neighbor as anyone in need – no exceptions. And there is the twist that the one who shows the proper understanding of neighbor is an outcast, an alien, an enemy. But the heart of the matter is very simple: Love God, love yourself, and love everyone else. You don’t need a big rule book, a degree, a large bank account, or access to the Internet to do this. To be part of the life of God in the world love God and love your neighbor as yourself. No creed, no doctrine, no dogma required.
When we think about this story, we may tend to see the extreme. My neighbor is anyone on the planet, so I need to be concerned about the people on the other side of the world. And yes, we do want to feel empathy for the situation of someone on the other side of the globe, like the people in Beijing that are dealing with the terrible condition of the air and the effect it has on children and lifestyle and health. But the person who helps in the story just happens to be going down the road and sees the person who needs medical care. What about our neighbors, our neighborhoods? What about the person down the street? Who needs to get to the doctor. Or who doesn’t have enough food. Or who is struggling with an addiction. Or who hasn’t spoken to their son in 10 years. What about these neighbors right here on our path?
And then there are our family and friends. We have so many people who come to the church for help who have no family and no friends to turn to for help. That can happen when those relationships are abused. And some do not want their family and friends to know that they are in desperate circumstances. It is so sad. What if we were taking care of our family and friends? This loving your neighbor as yourself can start with our own households, our families, our friends, neighbors and communities.
Some years ago, the church sponsored a mission trip to Miami to do volunteer work for a week. Someone from the church asked me why we were going to Miami when there was plenty of need right here in Pinellas County. Why raise money for this trip when we could do mission work and stay right here at home and give all the money where it is needed? These are good questions. A mission trip has focus and other distractions are eliminated. We can be open to new experiences and growth when we are out of our normal context. There is a sense of community that develops among those who go away together. Bonds are strengthened. And sometimes seeing the need elsewhere can open your eyes to the needs in our own context.
But fundamentally, I think the person who questioned the Miami trip has a point and is further along the spiritual path than some of us. Think about it. What would the world be like, or let’s just say the United States be like, if every family and close circle of friends looked out for each other, helped each other, took care of each other, and supported one another? What if this extended to neighborhoods, schools, and faith communities? People helping each other. Encouraging each other. Listening to each other. Working together for the common good. Just this, seemingly simple as it is, would make a vast difference in our society. It would drastically reduce poverty, disadvantage, and suffering. It would also dramatically decrease violence, crime, anti social behavior, and fear. And as we learn to live this way close to home, I believe it increases our empathy toward others further away – either literally further away geographically or figuratively further away separated from us by race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity, nationality, or other differences. As the saying goes, charity begins at home but it doesn’t stay there.
Think about the case of the Good Samaritan. The person needing help was right in the path of the Samaritan. He didn’t go out of his way to find the injured traveler. But the others who passed by did go out of their way, crossed the road, to avoid helping the man. They felt they had valid religious and social reasons for doing so. They would stand by their excuses and their choices. But Jesus sees things a different way. He sees religion drawing forth compassion and help regardless of separation. He sees religion as a bond cementing our common humanity regardless of the religion of the “other.” We can move in this direction by starting close to home.
I know that many of you have read the telling best seller, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title comes from James Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time, which was written in 1962. While I was waiting to get Between the World and Me from the library, I read the copy of The Fire Next Time that I had inherited from my parents. In my opinion, Baldwin, too, should be on the best seller list. Not only does Baldwin address race relations but he talks about the evil that white people perpetrate against each other, citing, as an example, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. That was “white on white.” We can cite many other horrors that are white on white. White people do not reserve their hatred and evil only for people who have skin of another color. There is plenty of white on white abuse, oppression, and violence. And so, Baldwin observes, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
To me, this observation echoes the words we heard this morning, – love your neighbor as yourself. When we learn to love ourselves and our neighbors, the person next door and down the block, when we teach ourselves to truly love, to look out for the well-being of ourselves and those around us, we will be solving the race problem and many other problems facing humanity.
If we truly learn to love ourselves and our neighbor, then we will not only see that there is access to health care, and a safe place to live, we will also want to have clean air to breath, and a healthy environment to live in. So we will eliminate the use of fossil fuels, we will embrace conservation and environmentalism whole-heartedly. We will not only have great schools but convenient, affordable, pollution neutral public transport for all ages. The lifestyle we are living now is ultimately harming us, our children, and our neighbors near and far. We are not providing a sustainable future for the next generations. We are not loving our neighbors, near or far, or ourselves, when we continue to destroy the ecology of the planet.
So, this loving your neighbor as yourself is accessible to all of us, right here at home, in our own context whatever it may be, and you don’t have to be a philanthropist to do it. We don’t have to go out and look for a foreigner who is in need of attention. The glaring needs of our communities and of the earth itself are right on our doorstep. And we have the capacity to embody divine love for ourselves and for our neighbors. Right here. Right now. Not in some other reality, some altered consciousness, some heightened state of enlightenment.
Science tells us of plants networking to help each other. First the mother fir trees help their offspring, then the other fir trees around them, but they do not stop there. They go on to send life-sustaining messages to the birch trees around them. They extend their network beyond their own kind. This impulse to reach out and connect to help is part of their genetic imprint. They are created with this ability and they use it. Is that intelligent life? We, too, have the capacity to support each other and promote the health of the community especially the next generations. Certainly we consider humanity to be a form of intelligent life. May we put our intelligence to use. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.