Acts 11:1-18 |Psalm 148:1-14 |Revelation 21:1-6|John 13:31-35
According to local legend, the largest octopus in the world lives below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Some say it’s a 600-pound creature, once named King Octopus by The News Tribune.[i] Others say it lives among the ruins of Galloping Gertie, the wreckage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that collapsed during the November 7th, 1940 storm into the white-capped waters of the Puget Sound.
“They try to scare you,” says commercial diver Kerry Donahue of these big octopuses. “Their big defense mechanism—they get bigger than you are.” The first time it happened to Donahue, it terrified him. He continued his story: “Because your radio is to the surface, you take a lot of flak for screaming like a 2-year-old when you run into an octopus.”
They can also get small, though. National Geographic set up a tank and shot a video to demonstrate how malleable these creatures are.[iii] They have an arm span of up to 20 feet, but because the only hard part of them are their beaks, they can squeeze their 600 pound bodies through small cracks and holes the size of a quarter.
Another time Donohue was working underwater with a team cutting metal with a burning rod. Another diver had a stack of rods nearby, but they kept disappearing. “He’s like, ‘I’m losing my rods. Where are they going?” Donohue said. And then he took a rod from his hand, held it out into the murky water, “and this tentacle comes snaking out and grabbed the rod and took it from him.”
The New York Times did a piece this week on a controversial research project called DareWin that has combined sophisticated video and sound recording with free diving—that’s underwater diving without breathing equipment. Divers are underwater for up to five minutes and down hundreds of feet on a single breath of air. This eliminates all the noise that scuba gear or robots or subs typically make that causes the dolphins and whales to scatter. For DareWin free-divers enter the ocean to observe sperm whales and record their clicks—echolocation sounds and coda clicks that allow these mammals to investigate their world and talk to each other.
Here’s what the Times article said:
Sperm whales’ brains are the largest ever known, around six times the size of humans’. They have an oversize neocortex and a profusion of highly developed neurons called spindle cells that, in humans, govern things like emotional suffering, compassion and speech…Sperm whales live in close-knit societies; they are raised by matriarchal units that can include three generations; they appear to share regional dialects and family nicknames.[iv]
The researchers suspect that since these animals are already viewing their world through echoes, they may also be able to send these echoed images to one another. The divers suspect the whales may actually be greeting them as they descend near them. And the researchers wonder if they might ultimately learn to interact with them in a way, by creating “artificial clicks containing three-dimensional sonographic images of things in our world—a tree, a human—and send these as well, prompting…a kind of dialogue.”[v]
It’s not clear what these scientists will find out, or how successful they will be, but we do know this: In the past 150 years, humans have killed off about 70 percent of the sperm whale population. Around 360,000 remain. That number is expected to decline, quickly, as the ocean warms and acidifies.[vi]
Research has long established that chimps and elephants are among many species of animals with elaborate mourning rituals. We know that many animals have what we understand to be culture. For example, scientific research has noted that West African chimpanzees crack open hard-shelled nuts with rock and stone hammers to extract the protein inside, and chimpanzees with the identical genetic makeup in East Africa don’t. They could if they wanted. It’s just not their way. This doesn’t have to do with genes, but culture, tradition, practice—what these communities have passed down from one generation to another.[vii]
When I think about the profound cultural shift that the Acts story represents, and really the whole of the gospel story tells, I think about one more story, a personal story. One of the events that led to my break from the fundamental church of my childhood was a conversation I had with a dear friend and mentor back home after being mesmerized by a lecture at Seattle Pacific University about animal intelligence. The lecturer, a biologist and researcher, and an evangelical Christian, as I remember it, spent the evening fuzzying the boundaries I had been taught to hold between what makes humans special in comparison to other creatures, and therefore fit to tame and till and use the earth and all its creatures in the name of God. And I found this new perspective thrilling.
But my mentor friend was nowhere near as thrilled as I was. She had every right not to be, and that’s not really the point. That conversation, though, marked a transformation for me in my own spiritual development that I think helps me understand the significance of what Peter is suggesting to his community in Acts. This story, you see, changes everything.
“You see all these unkosher things?” God says to Peter and us in his vision. “You see all these things that have defined your spiritual self at a fundamental level for your rejection of them? Well, start eating.” And stop making these bone-deep distinctions you’ve been making for millennia, and imagine yourself part of a new creation, a broader family that includes everything you thought unclean or even to be despised. It all changes now.
And here’s the thing I want you to hear about this story today. The Spirit calls to each of us. And we know the voice. We hear it, even if quietly underneath our self-doubt and resistance and uncertainty. But the response is ours, and our response shapes the future. Maria Montessori, the mother of the Montessori method once said, "Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create."[viii]
This is a dizzying time. Everything is shifting. So much of what we once knew with such confidence is up for debate now. We’re so unsettled and uncertain. I’ll admit I get scared and discouraged at times. I’ll suspect you do to. Which is to say, this is no time to give up or to pull away or to despair. It’s a time to double down. It’s a time for courage. It’s a time to learn from the Spirit that we see playing in whales that do backflips in the air and dancing in giant octopuses under bridges. It’s time to reach once again toward the Alpha and Omega like a giant sequoia stretching to the sky, even as our living always happens in the uncertain middle.
We need courage now. We need leadership. We need faith. The future is in the balance, and it will be made by those of us who are willing to make it, who are willing to give of ourselves and be wrecklessly extravagant with our gifts. What do you hear? Listen. Do you hear the Spirit calling you? What will you do for what is precious and fragile in this world?
you call us to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i] See “Giant Octopus Revealed”, September 25, 2015 in Sound Magazine: http://southsoundmag.com/giant-octopus-revealed/.
[ii] See “Is there really a giant octopus under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?” April 19, 2016: http://kuow.org/post/there-really-giant-octopus-under-tacoma-narrows-bridge.
[iii] See http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/octopus_cyanea_locomotion.
[iv] James Nestor. “A Conversation With Whales” April 16, 2016, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/16/opinion/sunday/conversation-with-whales.html.
[vi] James Nestor. “A Conversation With Whales” April 16, 2016, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/16/opinion/sunday/conversation-with-whales.html.
[vii] See Adam Frank, “Do Animals Have ?Culture?” April 19, 2016: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/04/19/474788082/do-animals-have-culture.
[viii] Quoted in UCC Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_24_2016.