What are the children doing?
Come up here and join me on the quilt. I’ve never gotten to show you this quilt before—it was made by my great-grandmother, Erna Steger Bohls, many years ago. You can see all the colors and patterns, so many tiny squares of fabric. This one might have been a dress, or a shirt, or curtains! When clothes would wear out, people didn’t throw them away—they used the parts that were still good and made new things, like quilts. You can see the hand-stitching here, too, so much time and effort went into this quilt. My great-grandma made quilts, and I think that was part of her meditation and her prayer to God. She was also a Sunday School teacher, well into her 80s! We don’t have any Sunday School teachers that old right now, but maybe that’s a new goal! Faith was important to Great-Grandma, and she made sure we knew how much God loves us.
Great-Grandma Bohls is one of my faith ancestors, someone who knew about Jesus and told the next group of people, my grandma and her siblings, and then they told the next group of people, my dad and uncle and their cousins, and then they passed it on to me. We heard from the Bible readings about Timothy, a young man who needed encouragement in the faith, and the person wrote to him, “I knew your grandmother and your mother, and their faith lives on in you!” Ancestors are the people who come before us, who teach us, and someday it will be our turn to teach!
Today is also a day we celebrate a common faith ancestor, Saint Francis. He’s not our father or grandfather, but he is someone who lived and died a long time ago, and he taught a lot about having faith in God. St. Francis is someone who changed his whole life to follow Jesus, and he grew to really love all of God’s creation. St. Francis would study the Bible and he would go outside and preach sermons to the animals. Have you ever done that? I’ve never done that! Maybe we should try it sometime!
Whenever you see statues or pictures of St. Francis, you can tell it’s St. Francis because there are usually animals with him—what animals do you see here? Birds, a bunny rabbit. He’s feeding the animals with food and also with the Word of God!
I want to keep St. Francis up here today, here in the display for creation. We have green fabric to look like green grass growing all over the land, and some blue fabric to look like water, and there are a few animals, but we could have so many more animals! I want to invite you to think of a favorite animal and color a picture of it, and we’ll set it up here as part of our display.
I’ll give you materials, and maybe you want to go back to your seat to color your picture, so you can take a marker with you. I have a few animal pictures to color in case you can’t think of one to draw. If you stay here on the quilt, the only rule is that the markers and papers have to stay on the quilt—do you think you can make room for everybody?
Remember if you stay here on the quilt, this is a quiet activity, because I’ll be over there, preaching the sermon from the pulpit, and everyone wants to hear. But you are also part of the sermon, too—you’ll be telling about God’s love through your artwork! I can’t wait to see how God inspires your artwork, and we’ll come back together and pray after I finish speaking in the pulpit.
Do I have enough faith to leave a bunch of kids coloring while I step away and preach? Yes, my friends, I do! I am so excited for this privilege, since it has been a few years since I have had the chance to gather the children and give them an activity as part of the sermon. Some of you are thinking, this is weird, I’m not sure I like this, aren’t the children going to be distracting?
And the answer is yes, the children will be distracting, in the best possible way: they’re going to force you to consider what’s really important. Is faith important enough to put in the hands of children? Are kids worth devoting your time and energy and attention? If you cannot answer yes to those questions, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your priorities.
Also, this is fun. I have ten years of experience doing exactly this, and children are incredibly faithful proclaimers of the gospel, when given the opportunity. They frequently have deep insights into Scripture, using their words or their artwork or their joy in participation. They have much to teach. The real question is whether we are willing to learn.
Are we willing to listen to children as part of our faith growth? Are we willing to admit we don’t know all there is to know? Are we willing to humble ourselves?
Today we complete this series of the season of creation, and we take time to remember the animals of the earth, all the creatures fashioned by God. And as we notice the effects of climate change, such as weather disasters all around us, hurricane Ian being only the most recent example, could we humans possibly embrace humility? Could we learn from animals?
We remember St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is October 4th, and that’s usually a time when churches host blessings of animals, and people bring their pets for blessings, usually dogs and cats, sometimes fish. And those of you who have pets in your home, you know what a gift they are to you—the comfort they provide, the unconditional love, the connection with nature particularly if you have a dog who urges you to go outside for a walk.
But can animals assist with rehabilitating the damage done to the earth? And here I’d like to lift up an unlikely hero: beavers.
Humans have not always coexisted peacefully with beavers. Beavers are the animals who build dams in waterways, which sometimes causes problems for humans who want the water to stay in a single channel, with a clear boundary between land and water. Beavers gnaw down trees without asking people if they’d rather let that tree grow. Last year, in response to complaints, the federal government killed almost 25,000 beavers.
But what some people are noticing is how beavers care for the land. Two scientists who study beavers and hydrology—that’s the study of how water moves across the land—Chris Jordan and Emily Fairfax, wrote an article for a research journal, and they said: “It may seem trite to say that beavers are a key part of a national climate action plan, but the reality is that they are a force of 15-40 million highly skilled environmental engineers… We cannot afford to work against them any longer…We need to work with them.”
Especially in the western part of the United States, where water is increasingly scarce, people are paying attention to how to keep water on the land, for watering crops and for humans to use, sure, but also to prevent the land from burning in wildfires. California’s secretary of natural resources, Wade Crowfoot, said, “We need to get beavers back to work. Full employment for beavers.”
So what are beavers doing? These furry environmental engineers build huge dams, working together and living in families, that slow the movement of water across the land, which reduces erosion, recharges groundwater, and creates wetlands. Humans have not always appreciated wetlands, that marshy, muddy space that doesn’t allow for things we value, like planting crops. But wetlands create habitats for many species, like salmon and sage grouse, which promotes biodiversity.
So how are people coexisting with beavers? Agee Smith has a ranch in northeastern Nevada, and while growing up, his father blew up plenty of beaver dams because their dams would flood some parts of the land while leaving other parts too dry. When the snow would melt in the spring, sometimes the beaver dams would fail and send sediment into the hay fields, damaging the food source for the cattle.
But now Mr. Smith has approached cattle management differently, moving the cows around the land so that they spend less time around the creeks, which has allowed shrubs and trees to grow in along the banks of the creeks, stabilizing the land and preventing erosion, so now if the beaver dams fail, the water can stay in the channel. Beavers have rerouted a section of the creek, but Mr. Smith doesn’t see this as good or bad, just different.
The reporter on this story, Catrin Einhorn, writes:
“Over time, beavers expanded the wetlands. New meadows grew in. Willows sprout from beaver dams, having taken root where the animals anchored them. The water runs clear. Fish and frogs have returned.”
Is it possible that humans can learn to work together with animals to care for the earth? Can we begin to trust that God cares for all creation, even animals, and that animals have a part in restoring the earth? What if all the environmental destruction that’s going on isn’t just for humans to fix—can we trust God to help us notice where healing is happening?
In the Gospel lesson today, we hear the plea of Jesus’s followers crying out, “Increase our faith!” As if that’s what prevents a person from becoming a disciple of Jesus: their puny amount of faith. Throughout this Gospel of Luke, Jesus has issued increasingly extreme demands on his followers, telling them that none of them can be his disciples unless they give up all their possessions, hate their own family members, and carry their own cross.
Jesus is not messing around, and he’s not looking for half-hearted disciples. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and some of us would say, Okay, I guess, but only if it doesn’t inconvenience me or ask me to change my life in any meaningful way. No wonder some of these potential disciples are saying, “Increase our faith!”
As if faith is a product that can be consumed, given or used up. As if faith is the main ingredient in the recipe of discipleship, and because of supply chain disruptions, we just couldn’t access any faith. Or because of inflation, we couldn’t afford to buy any faith.
Jesus hears all of our nonsense, all of our foolishness, all of our sorry excuses and loves us enough to say: look. This is not so complicated. Even a tiny bit of faith is enough to make big things happen. Faith is not a thing to possess. Faith is a spiritual practice.
No, you can’t see the whole journey of faith before you decide whether this is right for you. You can only know the journey one step at a time, but the step is yours to take. God makes the itinerary, and Jesus says even the creator doesn’t show the whole plan to Jesus.
But what if you’re still afraid? Some people say faith and fear cannot coexist. But I don’t frankly know any other way to live life. The question isn’t whether you have enough faith; the question is: do you have a relationship of trust with a loving God? Can you trust God’s goodness, God’s grace?
The prophet Habakkuk notices all the violence and wrongdoing in the world and still notices that “the righteous live by their faith.” Not because they have everything figured out, not because they never despair of human destruction. But they keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting God as they go. I think faith gets easier with practice, but it’s never easy. Life and hardships will surely challenge you, but a tiny bit of faith can take you a long way.
What makes a beaver keep building dams? Maybe they’re just doing what comes naturally. Maybe beavers would tell you they’re just doing what they ought to have done. I wonder if we can look at their work and begin to see the wisdom of God at work in creation. I wonder if we can trust God’s wisdom.
You know, I first tried inviting children to the front of the worship space as an experiment while I was in seminary. Then as a new pastor, I tried it again, and every week, for at least a year, I thought, this might be the last time I do this. Some people complained. But some people said, we need this: we need to see the children. And I found the wisdom to listen to the kids themselves, and I learned. One step of faith at a time, we are formed by God’s love.
Put your trust in the Lord, the Psalmist writes, and just watch what God will do! May all creation sing God’s praise.