Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jeremiah and the Monarch

Proper 19C

“A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people…I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert.”

These words are from Sunday’s lesson from Jeremiah 4, one of the Revised Common Lectionary lessons for this coming second Sunday in September. This week coincides with the fall migration of monarch butterflies in Nebraska.  This migration doesn’t get as much attention in central Nebraska as does the spring migration of the sandhill cranes, but most years it is a marvelous event to observe.  The butterflies traveling from Canada to Mexico are not the individuals that left the forests of Mexico to fly north; these butterflies are at least a couple of generations removed from those, yet these fall butterflies find their way back to the ancestral winter home. The size and seeming fragility of these beautiful creatures makes their long journey all the more amazing!

Tuesday morning I found a monarch butterfly resting on the screen door between our kitchen and the porch where I sometimes eat breakfast. The butterfly stayed where it was, occasionally opening its wings, while I ate breakfast and snapped some photos of it. After breakfast, while I was reading the Daily Office and also looking ahead to the lessons for Sunday -- including this passage from Jeremiah -- it was still keeping me company.  

It was still there when I had to leave; by lunchtime, it was gone. I looked at my photos of this single butterfly and started watching for more monarchs. According to Monarch Watch from the University of Kansas, we should be beginning the peak monarch migration period for Nebraska; in my 25 years in Nebraska, I’ve learned to watch for the monarchs in early September. The year I had a garden bed full of tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) I couldn’t count the number of butterflies hanging on the plants over Labor Day weekend! Most years, once we spot the first one, there are usually several more passing through that day. When no more came along Tuesday or Wednesday, I started to wonder where the others were!

Monday’s Lincoln Journal Star  carried an AP story  about backyard volunteers helping to track numbers of fireflies in North America; the Journal Star’s headline for the story was “Are fireflies on the verge of just fading away?”  Remembering that headline, I became more curious about what we might know about the monarchs.

Milkweed: the breakfast of larval survivors
There is indeed concern about the monarchs. They are one of the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species   A USA Today article from last March, “Monarch butterflies, battered by weather, no longer rule”   talks about severe weather in the form of hailstorms and heavy rains in their winter home taking a toll before the northward migration even started.  It quotes Lincoln Brower, a monarch specialist at Sweet Briar college, listing three specific environmental pressures on them: 1) illegal logging in Mexico that has destroyed some winter habitats for monarchs, 2) severe weather caused by climate change, 3) fewer milkweed plants in the Midwest because of herbicide use on corn and soybean fields (the larvae eat only milkweed).  A July population update on the Monarch Watch blog  sounds a hopeful note that the population might recover some; one factor is that heavy rains in Texas this year have increased the number of milkweed plants there.

I hope to see more monarchs in the next few days, and to see them again next year and all the years after that. It’s very difficult to imagine that the day could come in our lifetimes when they would no longer show up in Nebraska in September. But we haven’t cared very well for God’s creation, and there are natural consequences to that lack of care. As a nation, we continue to ignore climate change, allowing lawmakers to get away with dodging this difficult issue and failing to figure out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a people, we continue to focus on short-term economic goals without thinking about the effects of resulting changes of habitat and climate on creatures like butterflies.

The words I read from next Sunday’s Jeremiah passage while sitting with this lone butterfly still speak to us today. Jeremiah was speaking about the approaching invasion of Judah; he spoke of the invasion and the desolation of the land as judgments of God against God’s disobedient people. The environmental pressures on butterflies and other living things on the Earth aren’t a judgment or punishment meted out by God, but the natural consequence of our failure to care for the Earth as God commands us to do. God doesn’t need to make our land desolate to wake us up; we are already doing that.  Earlier in this chapter from Jeremiah, we find this (Jeremiah 4:9): “On that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail the king and the officials...”  The king – the monarch -- in Jeremiah’s time ignored all the prophetic warnings; when the time came to act, courage failed the leaders. Our leaders seem to be ignoring the warnings from the scientific community, and seem to lack the courage to lead us in addressing global warming.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Luke 15:1-10) reminds us that every single human being is important to God; God cares very much what happens to each one of us. Surely the God who cares for all of us, the God who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, cares about what happens to the butterflies.