In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, having been absent from the park for seventy years. In the 1800’s Yellowstone park rangers took it upon themselves to eradicate predatory animals like wolves, bears, and coyotes in order to sustain the viability of livestock animals for food. A hundred years later people began to have an awareness of how one species of life can impact an entire ecosystem. This led to fourteen wolves being reintroduced to the park in 1995 and another 25 within the next year. What has transpired since these wolves were reintroduced is a phenomenon known as “trophic cascade.”
Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur when predators limit the density and/or behavior of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level.[i] In the case of Yellowstone, the wolves impacted the ecosystem on every level.
As soon as wolves arrived there was a radical change in the behavior of deer. The deer began avoiding certain parts of the park. They left valleys and gorges and moved to higher elevations. When the deer moved, the height of trees increased. Other trees returned like aspen and willows. With the return of trees, more birds returned, and beavers returned. Beavers are ecosystem engineers because they create habitats for other animals like ducks and fish. The wolves killed coyotes, which in turn brought back rabbits and mice. The return of rabbits and mice enabled grasses to grow because their dens and holes provide a natural aeration that supports the growth of wild grass. The return of rabbits and mice and other small animals also brought back hawks and eagles. Bears increased too because there were more bushes and trees and therefore more berries. The presence of wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. With increased tress and grasses there was less erosion of soil, channels narrowed, more pools formed. The regenerating forests stabilized the banks, therefore they collapsed less often and the rivers became more fixed in their course. Less soil erosion restored the water ways. Some say it is amazing how, in a mere nineteen years a few wolves changed the ecosystem of Yellowstone.[ii]
We’ve come to the last Sunday after the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. A Gospel reading on the transfiguration of Jesus appears in Mark, Luke, or Matthew, which means the transfiguration is a powerful story from the ancient world. This year we also have the reading from Exodus on the transfiguration of Moses as he encounters God on the mountain top.
Moses ascends to the mountain top because God has called him there. On the mountain Moses is given the Ten Commandments. It’s important to remember that the commandments, and the laws that come from them, are less about legal requirements and more about relationship. They are guidelines on how to be in relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. Moses was called to the mountain, not so he could be changed, but so that he could become an agent of change for the Hebrew people. Moses teaches the people how to live in relationship with God, with other people, and even with one’s self.
In a similar way God calls Jesus to the mountain top. Jesus takes with him three disciples. While on the mountain Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is transfigured. Again, the transfiguration of Jesus was not for Jesus, but for the disciples. The disciples now know that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses, and that in and through Jesus they will come to know how to live in right relationship with God, with others, and with themselves.
When Moses encountered God, God was hidden in a cloud. When Jesus is transfigured God is visible for all to see. God manifests God’s self in human flesh. This means that we can come to know God in and through our relationships with other people.
Today we are here, in part, to celebrate our young people as they grow in their faith. The Rite 13 ceremony is a special part of Christian Formation in this congregation, marking not only the time when our kids become teenagers, but also a reminder of the role we play in their lives. These young people are being formed in their relationship with God, in their relationship with other people their age, in their relationship with adult leaders who are not their parents, and in their relationship with each of us. Their formation is intentionally designed to help them navigate the challenges and choices before them as a Christian. They are learning what it means to be a person of faith. Each of us participates in their formation, some in small ways, and others in greater measure. How we live and act and treat others models for them how to reveal God’s presence in the world.
Our youth are learning how to navigate the complexities of life. Our children are watching us and learning from us. What are we teaching them? This reminds me of an old sailing proverb that says, a one degree of change in direction can completely alter where one ultimately lands.
We are all on a lifelong journey. Each one of us influences the lives of others. If altering the course of sailing by one degree can completely change the destination and where one lands, and if a pack of wolves can change the entire ecosystem of a national park, imagine the impact any one of us might have on the world around us. Just look at was has happened in one year with the SCHOOL project in Liberia. No doubt this school will be a trophic cascade – not just for the people of Liberia but even for us - as we see the impact of this one small endeavor.
If altering one small thing in our lives can have this degree of an impact on a country across the planet, just imagine what other transformation is possible when we come down off the mountain top and let our faces shine with the love of God.