A sermon preached at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate
Kitchener, Ontario on March 3, 2021,
and Breslau Mennonite Church,
Breslau, Ontario on November 3, 2019
by Carol Penner.
Texts: Psalm 104:10-23, Deuteronomy 22:6-7
I grew up singing a children’s song, “God sees the little sparrow fall”–a song that tells us God cares about the smallest animals–but I can’t remember a single time that I ever heard anyone in church talk about caring for creatures in a concrete way. I never saw any practical application of how that might apply in today’s world. How Christians should relate to animals seemed to be a big blank. I saw the church caring about people who were hurting, but there was no indication that we should care about animals or birds or insects or fish.
I think that we need to care for creation, and so this morning I want to tell you two stories. The first story is about pigeons. I can guess that you already think that this is a boring story because who cares about pigeons. Pigeons are everywhere, and most people don’t give them a second thought. You aren’t really interested in pigeons, are you?
Well, let me tell you about this very special pigeon, a pigeon named Martha. Martha lived in the Cincinnati zoo, and at 1 p.m. on September 1, 1914, Martha died. She was the last passenger pigeon in the world, as far as we know.
Passenger pigeons were beautiful birds, they were related to the pigeons and mourning doves we see today, but they were actually a different species. They were named by French explorers after the French verb passager, which means to pass by. This magnificent North American bird travelled in flocks that passed by overhead. Their name is ironic now because they have passed by us.
They were the most numerous bird species that this planet has ever seen. They migrated in groups bigger than any other migrating creature on earth, second only to a type of locust. Researchers estimate that when Europeans came to North America there were 5 billion passenger pigeons in North America. They lived in the woods, and North America was covered in woods. We had the largest forest in the world. Passenger pigeons spent the winters in the south, near the gulf of Mexico, and the summers in Canada near the Great Lakes. In Canada they were found from Saskatchewan to the Maritimes. They travelled in giant flocks. Have you seen giant flocks of birds? Around here maybe you have marvelled at flocks of starlings.
One of the most amazing experiences of my life happened one cloudy October morning in south western Manitoba when I witnessed the migration of snowgeese. They are huge white birds, like Canada geese, only white. They filled the sky. It was more birds than I have ever seen in my life. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. A holy experience. But snowgeese migrating was nothing compared to the size of passenger pigeon flocks.
Here in Southern Ontario in 1866 someone documented a flock that was 1 and half kilometers wide and 450 km long ….it took 14 hours to pass by one point. You might not believe it, but it’s true. There are numerous accounts of flocks from different parts of North America that talk about the size of these flocks. These are not exaggerations, that’s how big the flocks were.
What did passenger pigeons look like? Their backs were a metallic gray, bluish gray head and tail, with iridescent feathers around the neck and a dark red or purply chest. They were a bit bigger than the pigeons we see today, and they were big enough to eat. Passenger pigeons reproduced and travelled in such large numbers as a way of surviving. They simply outnumbered and overwhelmed their predators.
They were easy to kill, but their species could absorb a lot of deaths, because there were so many of them. The great migrations of caribou and buffalo were similar; the herd is just so big, they can absorb loss from predators.
This all worked for the passenger pigeons until Europeans came along. They started cutting down the forest, which affected their habitat, which decreased their numbers somewhat. But the main problem with European human beings was that we had advanced transportation and communication. The birds had adapted over centuries to be so plentiful they every living creature near them could eat them till they were full, and the passenger pigeon flocks would still be plentiful. But human beings had railways, and they started killing the birds not just to feed themselves, but to feed large cities far away. Hunters started killing the birds and shipping them by the train car load to major cities. There was simply no end to how many passenger pigeons could be eaten. And human beings had the telegraph. They could tell each other where the birds were, and the hunters could find them. Professional pigeon hunters travelled extensively over the whole of the United States and Canada. Whenever someone found a flock the word would get out and hunters would come.
The hunters kept records, and between 1866 and 1876, when the passenger pigeon species was already in serious decline, they harvested 10 million pigeons a year. Even when flocks started getting smaller and smaller, and some regulations came into effect to protect and conserve them, people disregarded the rules and kept killing them, tracking them down even in their nesting areas. The last large flock was noticed in Petoskey Michigan in 1878, and 50,000 birds a day were killed every day for 5 months. After that only smaller flocks were seen, and professional hunters tracked them down and killed them before they could reproduce
Conservationists captured some and kept them in captivity and tried to breed them, but they were a type of animal that needs extremely large flocks to reproduce, and the birds would not reproduce in captivity. And so before long the birds in the wild were all gone. The last recorded sighting in Canada, was of a lone passenger pigeon in Penetanguishene in May, 1902. The last passenger pigeon documented alive was Martha in the Cincinnati zoo. And then on September 1, 1914, at 1 p.m., Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died.
God made passenger pigeons. God sees the little passenger pigeon fall. Human beings saw the passenger pigeon fall. We made them fall, we destroyed them. We thought, “Who cares? It’s just a bird.” Or maybe we thought, “There are so many of them, there is no way we can make a dent.” Or maybe, when their numbers dwindled, we thought, “They’ll bounce back.” Or maybe, all we thought was, “There’s a tasty dish,” and “Who cares if they’re gone.” We did not feel responsible for passenger pigeons, we did not treasure them. We knew so little about the life cycle of that bird, and how it fit into our shared environment. We didn’t understand about catastrophic decline: how species can have a tipping point, beyond which we are helpless to undo the damage we have done.
Why did God create passenger pigeons? We may never know. The whole North American ecosystem balanced and supported the most amazing bird population the world has ever seen. And within 100 years that bird was gone: hunted to extinction by human beings. James Audubon, the great naturalist and artist who painted birds, wrote about the flight of passenger pigeons: “…the dense mass which they form exhibits a beautiful appearance, as it changes direction, now displaying a glistening sheet of azure, when the backs of the birds come simultaneously into view, and anon suddenly presenting a mass of rich deep purple.” No one living today has seen that. God meant that we should see that. We not only haven’t seen it, we have almost forgotten that we are not seeing it. Who cares about the passenger pigeon today? Who knows that a pigeon named Martha existed, alone in a cage, the last of 5 billion birds, the last bird of the largest population of a bird species this world has ever seen?
There was a voice here and there that said, “Hey, save the passenger pigeon.” But churches didn’t say anything, it wasn’t their business. They didn’t make it their business. .Maybe we didn’t do anything because we don’t have a specific verse in the Bible that says, “Extinction is a sin.” There isn’t a commandment that says, “Thou shalt not cause extinction.” There are a few verses here and there that give a nod to taking care of animals, like Deuteronomy 22:6-7. But I have never heard any sermons on those verses, or had a Sunday school lesson on them.
Extinction in biblical times was really unthinkable. Human beings were simply not that powerful. They could push animals away, and move them from a certain area, but they didn’t have the power to eradicate them. Extinction as a concept is modern, only coming into our vocabulary and our understanding in the last 200 years. Before that everyone assumed that the animals we see are the animals we have always seen, and always will see. I think, for the most part, the Christian church has turned its back on other living creatures Many species have become extinct in the last 100 years, and the Christian church has done nothing about it. It’s somebody else’s problem. Christians have been busy saving souls, we don’t have time to think about blue whales and tigers and polar bears and western chorus frogs and lake sturgeon. Someone else should do something about it.
Here is my second story. A few years ago I was in Mexico, and a friend who lives there, took us out fishing around three miles off the coast, one of their lines caught, and he gave the fishing pole to my husband. It took around ten minutes, and a lot of muscle power, but eventually my husband pulled in a big yellow fin tuna. A twenty pound tuna: a beautiful fat fish with yellow fins and glistening scales. Even after we brought it in the boat, it wasn’t a given that we had caught it, it was strong and slippery and it wanted to get away. We kept fishing, we moved down the coast, and while we were going to the next place we passed some huge ships. I asked our friend what it was about, he explained that they were tuna boats. We watched and saw a helicopter lift off from one of the boats. It was going to look for a school of tuna…and when it saw a school of tuna, it radioed back to the ship and the ship would motor over, and drop a net 1.5 km long, 150 metres deep, then circle the tuna, and close the bottom of the net, and haul it all up. They can store 4,000,000 kg of fish on the boat. Of course they haul up everything in the sea, including dolphins, turtles and other types of fish. As I watched these big boats, I started to feel sick. Those tuna didn’t stand a chance…and there were three big boats. Yet I had been fishing tuna too
After that experience, coming home to the supermarket, I just did not have the appetite for tuna, I did not have the heart to buy any tuna. I have pet cats, so I buy catfood all the time, often in the past I’ve bought seafood catfood. i never gave it a thought once in my life. But now when I buy catfood, I won’t buy the ones that say they contain tuna because I keep thinking about those big boats. There are 100 million pet cats in Canada. Why should the oceans be drained of fish to feed pet cats who would never in their natural life be able to catch a tuna? Of course cats can’t catch a cow either and we feed them beef, but at least cows are not wild animals that we are pushing to the edge of extinction. Fishing wild tuna is 42 billion dollar industry, and over half the species of tuna are endangered. Scientists think that tuna populations may be on the verge of collapse, just like cod were.
As I’m talking, maybe you are thinking about yourself, “I’m anxious about so many things already, NOW you want me to care about every living creature?” Animal extinction is a big problem, but maybe God isn’t asking us to care for every animal, just the animals that God puts in our way. I simply personally cannot care for every endangered animal…but God has brought the tuna to my attention, and so now I care about it. Have you ever seen a wild creature and felt a special connection? Maybe that is an invitation to care—to learn about that one creature and its ecosystem and to let that creature shape the choices you make. Can you tell others why you do what do?
I think God wants human beings to be animal lovers. bird lovers, insect lovers, fish lovers, amphibian lovers. People who take responsibility for creatures, treasure them, care for them, and listen to their voice. They are God’s creatures, just like us, and they praise God with their whole being.
I love Psalm 104, which we read together today. It’s a hymn for the earth. I love how animals, and human beings and nature are woven together again and again, in this psalm they are linked together, singing praise to God: the goats & badgers, lions & trees, men and women. While the word “ecosystem” had not yet been invented, I believe we see a good reflection of this here. We are joined at the hip in this world; it’s our world together. If we eradicate species, I believe it’s blasphemy. It’s taking something holy and beautiful, and saying, “You’re worthless, you’re garbage. We can throw you away forever.”
Mennonites are part of a peace church tradition which means we don’t believe violence is the solution. We will not use violence to kill and we stand up for the defenceless, for people who are being attacked. Will we stand up for creatures that are under attack? They are truly the most defenceless. They cannot speak for themselves. The passenger pigeon could not write articles in newspapers to defend itself,or start lawsuits about their own demise or stage public protests in big cities. All they did was disappear. Martha took her last breath in the Cincinnati zoo, and their species was over. Will we stand up against the violence that is done to creatures who are the truly defenceless?
I invite you to think about whether you have a connection to one non-human creature in the world. Not a domesticated creature, a wild creature. Will it be the monarch butterfly? the rhinoceros? snow monkeys? polar bears? blue whales? frogs? Maybe you will inform yourself about that creature, maybe you will find out more their environment, maybe you will see how you can change the way you’re living to help them. Maybe you can find out who is helping to conserve their environment and join with them. How can we be more connected, how can we be more at peace with the creatures around us? Remember, God sees the sparrow. Will we?
–I hope that we can stand up and say something about animals, to be a strong voice for conservation.
Psalm 104:10-23 The Message
You started the springs and rivers,
sent them flowing among the hills.
All the wild animals now drink their fill,
wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Along the riverbanks the birds build nests,
ravens make their voices heard.
You water the mountains from your heavenly cisterns;
earth is supplied with plenty of water.
You make grass grow for the livestock,
hay for the animals that plow the ground.
14-23 Oh yes, God brings grain from the land,
wine to make people happy,
Their faces glowing with health,
a people well-fed and hearty.
God’s trees are well-watered—
the Lebanon cedars he planted.
Birds build their nests in those trees;
look—the stork at home in the treetop.
Mountain goats climb about the cliffs;
badgers burrow among the rocks.
The moon keeps track of the seasons,
the sun is in charge of each day.
When it’s dark and night takes over,
all the forest creatures come out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
clamoring to God for their supper.
When the sun comes up, they vanish,
lazily stretched out in their dens.
Meanwhile, men and women go out to work,
busy at their jobs until evening.
Chambers’ pocket miscellany,