Messy Metamorphosis

Messy Metamorphosis

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Good morning, friends!

I bring greetings from the Executive Committee of the Hampshire Association, where I serve as your Association Moderator, representing the fellowship of 23 United Church of Christ congregations joined in covenant in Hampshire County. I invite you to hold your covenant partners in your prayers and in your hearts.

 

Before I share my message with you all, I would like to thank Rev. Buteux for the invitation to preach, and I thank everyone in worship leadership today: Rev,. Dr. Peter Kakos for reading scripture, and Rebecca and the choir for sharing the gift of music; and all who make this worship service possible both in-person and online.

 

Above all else, I give thanks to God for this continuing call to ministry.

 

Prayer…

 

Have you ever longed for a chance to start over?

Find a way to just wipe everything clean and begin again?

Maybe keep this or that from the past — good lessons learned, promising seeds planted, beloved and sacred things.

But otherwise: scrap it all, start fresh.

Only this time do it better.

 

I’ll admit I kind of feel like that some days when it comes to our world.

This one’s busted and broken, the pieces are too fragmented, and there’s not enough glue to put it all back together.

Wipe it clean and start again.

Only this time, do it better.

 

Better still if I don’t have to do any of that work, myself!

Maybe I can call on God to come down and take care of everything.

I’ll sit back and wait for it to be sorted out.

Of course, that’s assuming I’m not one of those busted fragments that gets sorted out!

Sometimes I wish we could have an apocalypse.

 

There is something seductive about the idea of an apocalypse — some sudden divine action bringing about a radical reordering of the world. A renewed existence where the pains and transgressions of the past are healed. Where crying out and gnashing of teeth is limited only to those evil-doers who now suffer their punishment for oppressing and exploiting the faithful and good who now rejoice in their reward.

 

Again, of course, this assumes that I and everyone I love are among the faithful rejoicers and not the evil teeth-gnashers.

 

When affecting meaningful, sustained change and working for justice and righteousness seems to be in vain — like an unending game of injustice whack-a-mole where your head is the hammer — who among us isn’t tempted to fantasize now and then about a bit of an apocalypse?

 

O, that God would show up and set everything right!

Maybe just an “apocalypse-lite?”

Whaddaya think about that, God?

It might give us a better chance of establishing your beloved Kin-dom here on earth. 

 

No? OK.

We’ll have to figure out something else.

There must be some way we can bring about a radical transformation.

 

As we approach Advent, the lectionary presents us with this inspiring vision of a post-apocalyptic utopia: A new heaven and a new earth flourishing with joy, life, and justice. This is the word of God revealed through an oracle writing in the name of the Prophet Isaiah, most likely speaking to the Jewish community that had returned to their homeland after 70 years of exile in Babylon.

 

The trauma and shame of exile left the people fractured and frustrated: How could they live out their faith and devotion to the God that allowed for them to be defeated and captured, forcibly removed from what was supposed to be the Promised Land? The world they knew had changed, and with it, so too had their connection to the God who liberated their ancestors from the Land of Bondage. Had God abandoned them? How much longer would God hold onto anger and hide from them?

 

In their grief and despair, the people cried out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Come down from your throne, O God!

Restore us, your people.

Restore the glory of your Promised Land.

Let us know that you are there and that you still care![1] 

 

And so God responds to their petition with this promised vision:

 

“I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating:

No more weeping.

Long lives fully lived.

Shelter and sustenance for all.

Before the people even call out, I will answer.

A new creation so radically changed that even wild beasts will cease their predation, and shall graze and rest alongside their former prey.

When this new creation is established, nothing and no one shall hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain—

Thus says the Lord — creator and re-creator of all things.[2]

 

“O that God would tear open the heavens and come down!”[3]

Today, if you’ve got the inclination and the time, O God!

 

Really though, it’s not currently in my theology that God will “tear open the heavens and come down” to set everything right here on earth. I’m also not so sure that I’d want to be a recipient of an apocalypse. It might not go the way I think it would, and it all sounds a bit messy.

 

Better, maybe, to be a participant in creating a just and liberating reordering of the world. Not damning to destruction the world as it is, but envisioning and rebuilding the world as it could be.

 

What would it be like if we moved from longing to be recipients of an apocalypse to active participants in renewing God’s creation?

 

What would it take for us to transform our world into a just and abundant renewed creation where former wrongs are reconciled, lives are fully and richly lived, food and shelter are plentiful and equitably provided, where one’s labor does not determine one’s value and worth, where our connection to the Divine is so intimate and in-sync that even before the words of our mouth are spoken, God answers the prayers of our hearts, and where even our primal instincts for violence and destruction are put to rest for the sake of our mutual surviving and thriving?

 

It will take work. It will take radical transformation. It will take destruction of some former things. And it will take the break down and reforming of others. It will take time. Some parts will be messy, but the end result will be majestic.

 

It will require that each and every one of us become…

A butterfly.

 

Wait. That can’t be right.

Now hold on. Let me try to make that make some sense.

 

Consider for a moment the butterfly.

 

God really showed off with butterflies — the stunning colors, graceful flight, the delight they bring when perched upon spring flowers — a symbol and sign of new life and resurrection.

 

What’s more, consider the mysterious and miraculous metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

 

Grade school science taught us about the life cycle: first an egg that develops into a larvae — what we call a caterpillar. The caterpillar spends its brief life munching foliage, being a bit creepy, and generally causing havoc with no immediately recognizable indication of what it will become.

 

After one to three weeks depending on the species, the caterpillar instinctively latches to a branch, spins a silky hammock, then sheds its exoskeleton to form a pupa, or chrysalis, where it will remain for several days. It is within the protective hiddenness of that chrysalis where the transformation takes place.

 

From what was once a creepy-crawly wiggly worm grows colorful wings, distinct and delicate legs to perch upon flowers, a proboscis to drink sweet nectar from those flowers, full respiratory, circulatory, nervous, digestive, and reproductive systems — all with seemingly little sign of its prior form.

 

How can that squishy little destroyer-of-plants transform into this majestic symbol of new life? The secret lies tightly wrapped in that chrysalis.

 

What is mysterious from the outside hides the science on the inside. Those days in the chrysalis involve radical — near total — change. And we know that the change is not pretty — in fact, it’s downright messy and a bit…yucky.

 

Essentially what happens is that — inside the chrysalis — the caterpillar dissolves into slimy goo. All recognizable caterpillar shape and form melts into a gelatinous glop.

 

What remains are “imaginal cells” —which we all know are “tissue-specific progenitors allocated in embryogenesis that remain quiescent during embryonic and larval life.”[4]

 

We might think of them like stem cells — tiny powerhouses of potential, encoded with possibility, waiting for their cue to form and flourish.

 

But I do appreciate this term, “imaginal cells” — as if nature’s imagination is bursting with creative possibility, just waiting for the right moment to emerge.

 

This imaginal cell soup activates and slowly re-forms — bit by bit or perhaps drop by drop — into a butterfly.

 

And, behold! A new creation!

The former things have been forgotten.

 

But not entirely.

There are things that survive the whole dissolving-into-goo stage.

Back in the 1600’s, a Dutch scientist named Jan Swammerdam set out to uncover the secret of metamorphosis. When he viewed a carefully dissected caterpillar under a microscope, he could see the nearly-transparent, minuscule proto-structures of wings, antennae, and even legs. Signs of what was possible, what was waiting to emerge once all else had been broken down.

 

We hold within us fundamental structures that will endure when all else is breaking down.

 

More recently, Georgetown Professor Dr. Martha Weiss ran an experiment where caterpillars were exposed to a distinct odor, followed by a quick zap. Eventually, the caterpillars came to associate the odor with an impending zap, and would turn away from the odor source.

 

When these same caterpillars pupated and emerged as adult butterflies, the researches again exposed them to the odor — and guess what? The memory of that negative association remained, and the butterflies hastily flew away. That memory somehow survived when nearly all else was dissolved into goo.[5]

 

For all that will fall away, we carry with us the lessons of our past.

 

How might we transform the world as it is into the just and righteous Kin-dom of God that it could be?

What needs to be broken down, dissolved and re-formed?

What structures and seeds do we collectively and individually hold within us that will endure?

What sacred memories and vital lessons do we carry forward into our future form?

 

My friends:

We don’t need an apocalypse to punish the wicked and reward the righteous.

After all, apocalypse is destructive, and our outcome is unsure.

 

We need a metamorphosis — with all of its miraculous majestic messiness.

O that you would wrap us in a divine chrysalis to break down the exoskeleton of hardened hearts and change our destructive consumption to life-sustaining pollination, Creator God. 

Dissolve hatred, fear, greed, exploitation, and injustice into a divinely-inspired imaginal cell goop, awakening deeply encoded possibilities.

 

Yes, messy metamorphosis requires the breaking down of familiar former things.

But it is only through that breaking down that a reimagined majestic creation will emerge, a new and renewed creation bursting forth, entirely transformed.

Amen.

[1] Isaiah 64:1-12 wicked paraphrase based on NRSV[2] Isaiah 65:17-25 wicked paraphrase based on NRSV[3] Isaiah 64:1-12[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imaginal_disc#cite_note-6[5] Anecdotes and inspiration from Radiolab “Black Box” episode. Aired 10/21/22. https://radiolab.org/episodes/black-box-2210