Sermon Illustrations on the Wild
Re-Wilding and Restoring Balance to Nature
In 1995, the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a seventy-year hiatus. Scientists expected an ecological ripple effect, but the size and scope of the trophic cascade took them by surprise.?
Wolves are predators that kill certain species of animals. But they indirectly give life to others. When the wolves reentered the ecological equation, it radically changed the behavioral patterns of other wildlife. As the wolves began killing coyotes, the rabbit and mouse populations increased. Thereby attracting more hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. In the absence of predators, deer had overpopulated the park and overgrazed parts of Yellowstone. Their new traffic patterns, however, allowed the flora and fauna to regenerate. The berries on those regenerated shrubs caused a spike in the bear population.
In six years’ time, the trees in overgrazed parts of the park had quintupled in height. Bare valleys were reforested with aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees. And as soon as that happened, songbirds started nesting in the trees. Then beavers started chewing them down. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, building dams that create natural habitats for otters, muskrats, and ducks, as well as fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
One last ripple effect.
The wolves even changed the behavior of rivers—they meandered less because of less soil erosion. The channels narrowed and pools formed as the regenerated forests stabilized the riverbanks.
My point? We need wolves!
When you take the wolf out of the equation, there are unintended consequences. In the absence of danger, a sheep remains a sheep. And the same is true of men. The way we play the man is by overcoming overwhelming obstacles, by meeting daunting challenges. We may fear the wolf, but we also crave it. It’s what we want. It’s what we need.
Picture a cage fight between a sheep and a wolf. The sheep doesn’t stand a chance, right? Unless there is a Shepherd. And
I wonder if that’s why we play it safe instead of playing the man—we don’t trust the Shepherd.
Playing the man starts there!
Ecologists recently coined a wonderful new word. Invented in 2011, rewilding has a multiplicity of meanings. It’s resisting the urge to control nature. It’s the restoration of wilderness. It’s the reintroduction of animals back into their natural habitat. It’s an ecological term, but rewilding has spiritual implications.
As I look at the Gospels, rewilding seems to be a subplot. The Pharisees were so civilized—too civilized. Their religion was nothing more than a stage play. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. But Jesus taught a very different brand of spirituality.
Foxes have dens and birds have nests,” said Jesus, “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So Jesus spent the better part of three years camping, fishing, and hiking with His disciples. It seems to me Jesus was rewilding them.
Farewell to the Known and Dear
St. Columba was an Irish monk and abbot, who is largely responsible for the evangelization of Scotland. He founded the monastery at Iona, which became a training ground and launching point for further missionary activity into Scotland. While most folks associate him with his adopted country of Scotland, it’s easy to forget that leaving his homeland-Ireland, was quite difficult for him. After once seeing the distant shore of his beloved Antirim coast, Columba had to steel himself to complete the work he had vowed he would to God. This included bringing the gospel to the Picts, a notoriously difficult and hard-edged people. To keep his vow, Columba prayed this prayer:
Cul ri Erin, the back turned towards Ireland;
Farewell to the known and dear,
Advance to the unknown,
With it’s formidable hazards,
Its sharp demands.
All of us are not called to leave a known land to plant the gospel. But we are all called to have the courage to face the unknown and the uncertain faithfully. Perhaps we can draw some inspiration from St. Columba and this prayer.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Celtic Daily Prayer, Harper Collins.
Are Churches Like Zoos?
A decade ago I spent an unforgettable week in the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of islands off the coast of Ecuador hasn’t changed much since Charles Darwin sailed there on the HMS Beagle in December 1831 and studied fifteen species of finches. The Galapagos may be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden left on Earth!
My son and I saw a two-hundred-year-old turtle weighing in at nearly a thousand pounds. We came face-to-face with giant iguanas that weren’t the least bit intimidated by humankind. We watched pelicans that looked like prehistoric pterodactyls dive into the ocean and come back up with breakfast in their oversized beaks. And we went swimming with sea lions, which we later learned isn’t altogether safe!
A few weeks after returning home, our family went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The National Zoo is a great zoo, but zoos are ruined for me. Looking at caged animals isn’t nearly as exhilarating as witnessing a wild animal in its natural habitat—it’s too safe, it’s too tame, and it’s too predictable.
As we walked through the ape house, the four-hundred pound gorillas looked so bored, so emasculated, behind protective plexiglass. That’s when a thought fired across my synapses: I wonder if churches do to people what zoos do to animals.
I don’t think it’s intentional. In fact, it’s well-intentioned. But I wonder if our attempts to help people sometimes hurt them. We try to remove the danger, remove the risk. We attempt to tame people in the name of Christ, forgetting that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. Jesus died to make us dangerous.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
That doesn’t sound safe, does it? That’s because it’s not. The will of God isn’t an insurance plan. The will of God is a dangerous plan. It takes tons of testosterone, and it produces high levels of holy adrenaline.
Sleepwalking in a Dark Wood
For many of us, life can easily become disorienting and discouraging. Existential questions often emerge that never have before. As stressful as modern life can be, it is somewhat comforting to know that we are not the only ones who have experienced the bewildering nature of life itself. The thirteenth century poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri experienced the messiness of life more than most, and when he sat down to write his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, this is how he began:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.
But to rehearse the good it also brought me
I will speak about the other things I saw there.
How I got into it I cannot clearly say
for I was moving like a sleepwalker
Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets, ed. Daniel Halpern, Translated by Seamus Heaney, Ecco Press, 1993.