Whale, Worm, Wind and Weed
2014 07 29 – Mennonite Church Native Assembly
Watch on YouTube here
Christian Peacemaker Teams works in partnership with indigenous communities engaged in nonviolent defence of the land against corporate or government exploitation without community consent.
This talk was meant to be me and Judy daSilva, Anishinabekwe of Grassy Narrows First Nation. Judy has been one of the key grassroot leaders in resisting the toxic legacy of mercury poisoning and the destruction of hunting grounds with clearcut logging.
Judy is in Toronto now, along with GN members, taking part in the River Run, a week of organising and advocacy events. After decades of protest and negotiation, the Ontario ministry of natural resources continues to plan clearcut logging which poisons the land and water that the people rely upon. Therefore, community elder Steve Fobister Sr, former Grand Chief Treaty 3 will begin a hunger strike today in Toronto.
Grassy Narrows is demanding that government:
1. Apologize, and take responsibility for allowing mercury to poison people in Grassy Narrows.
2. Compensate all mercury survivors, and make sure that they have quality health care.
3. Clean up the river.
4. Do not allow clearcut logging that will release more mercury.
How is it that such simple, basic requirements have to be framed as demands? Why does a severely disabled elder need to starve himself? Why do children need to stand in front of logging trucks? Each of us knows that something is out of balance, here.
This land is not healthy. Neither the physical environment, nor the lives of those that depend on it for their sustenance, nor the powers and principalities that are ordained for justice and the restraint of evil. Something is out of balance.
We have many responses.
The age of communication, yet increasingly our communication is mediated through technology, and technology replicates the values of the society that produced it. How often do we sit with our neighbour under the stars and communicate authentically. We do it less because we don’t have to do it. Technology lets us communicate with those who share our values and we can even forget that other people exist.
But a time is coming, and is already here, when we will have to communicate because creation itself is reaching out with a warning.
In keeping with our theme, ears to earth, eyes to God, we need to cultivate habits of attention. This starts with listening.
If anyone was listening last night they will have heard Stan McKay read from Matthew 12, as Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah. I certainly heard it. My ears pricked right up. Because that was the text I was planning to preach from.
I was naturally worried. Am I just going to say the same thing? Worse, am I going to say the opposite? One of the things he said was “We cannot limit the truth into little packages that we carry under our arm and call our own.” So that’s okay then.
The story of Jonah
We all know the basics – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs the other way, God sends a storm, the sailors throw him overboard, a big fish eats him, Jonah cries to God, three days later the fish coughs him up, he goes to Nineveh, preaches the word, everything is fine.
A simple story, perfect for Sunday School
But wait, there is more. Jonah is very angry that God saves Nineveh. He goes outside and sits in the sun and prays to die. God makes a plant grow up to shade him from the sun one day, then the next sends a worm to eat the root and kill the plant and the hot east wind to pester Jonah.
Finally God says “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
And that’s the end of the story. Weird! Odd ending? How did that get into Canon?
For one thing, Jesus refers to it.
He says on several occasions that the only sign that their evil and adulterous generation will get is the sign of Jonah.
In the Matthew text (12:38-42) we heard last night, that sign was Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the whale. His resurgence and appearance in Nineveh brought the city to repentance. Jesus, too, will be submerged, and will rise again
That whale was an instrument of God. But so was the worm. So was the wind, so was the weed. It is a powerful tale of wisdom in the smallest things, of God’s sovereignty throughout creation. Jonah becomes almost incidental to the story – God works through him, but God also works through whale, worm, weed and wind.
It humbles the human species, places us in relation with creation, and God’s final words are not about the supreme importance of the great city of Nineveh, but how many cattle there are.
Jonah doesn’t care. He wants to see Nineveh humbled, destroyed, to have revenge. So he cannot get the message of the plant in sheltering him, and even when God explains it all, we never know if he ‘gets it’. It’s like his email filter is discarding everything except what he wants to hear.
Whale, worm, wind and weed – these too are the sign of Jonah. God is speaking everywhere, but we don’t often have the wit to perceive it. We humans think that God cares only about us and forget the entirety of creation. In reality, it is we who care only about us!
Later in Matthew, Chapter 16:1-4
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
Jesus suggests that there are signs all around us – the signs of the times – but the Pharisees and Sadducees cannot interpret them.
Just as Jonah is too fixated on his desire to see Nineveh destroyed to perceive the wisdom, grace and compassion of God, he fails to understand the signs of whale, worm, weed and wind.
So what, then. Signs are all around us, in the great and bountiful created earth, among plants, animals, in weather and in the heavens. These things can teach us about their Creator and about our place in Creation.
We must be receptive to their lesson. We must be aware that they have a message for us. We must believe that God is speaking, or we will never hear.
A Mi’kmaq activist taught me something that has helped keep me sane as I have learned about the destruction of indigenous cultures across Turtle Island: “Knowledge is not destroyed, only lost, so long as the land remains.”
I want to close with a short story
Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.”
When the people were in Egypt, they lost their ways. They learned to be slaves, to make bricks, to build store cities for the kings of Egypt to amass their wealth. They learned to obey orders and rely on the empire to provide them meaning, place, purpose, protection, food, shelter.
When they came out of Egypt they brought that conditioning with them. God took them into the wilderness to break them of the lies of empire and slavery. In this short story you see them recovering the knowledge of the land. They learn a special medicine within a certain wood that purifies the water. In the next story they will receive manna to teach them to gather only what they need and not try to stockpile wealth.
Knowledge is never destroyed, only lost. As long as the land is there, it can be recovered, because it comes from the land. That is one reason why Grassy Narrows resists the destruction of its territory by clearcut logging – because their culture depends on the land. That is one reason why Christian Peacemaker Teams supports and accompanies their steadfast nonviolent resistance.
As we pray for their success, we also pray for a broad change in perspective. The signs of the times are all around us. Creation is groaning, weeping, rising. Those who are close to the land know this and face the consequences – poison in the air and water, sickness in the animals, fish and birds, strange weather, poor harvests. We could all see the signs if we had the knowledge and humility to know that God speaks through all things.
Let us pray that our ears and eyes would be open, that all people could understand the signs all around us, and not be like Jonah, resentful of God’s graciousness and ignorant of our shared world. Let us be like Moses, open to God’s leading, trusting in God’s faithfulness, and prepared to undergo God’s new regime as we are made ready to be the kingdom here in this place.