Over the centuries people of many faith traditions have been captivated by the transformation that happens in the chrysalis stage of the butterfly and have compared it to spiritual transformation. I don’t know if you have ever really thought about what happens during the chrysalis stage. I guess I always thought it was something like hibernation - except during this hibernation the caterpillar grows wings. It turns out, however, that the process is much more startling.
If one were to cut open a chrysalis one would not find a caterpillar growing wings. Instead one would find nothing but a gooey mess. It’s shocking, actually. The caterpillar completes dissolves and there remains no distinguishing features of either the caterpillar or the butterfly. Then somehow this gooey mess reforms itself and a butterfly is released from the shell.
Scientists who have studied butterflies have wondered how this gooey mess becomes a butterfly. There is no firm answer to this and other questions. For example, are the caterpillar and butterfly two separate beings? Or does the butterfly retain some of its memory of being a caterpillar?
To figure this out scientist subjected caterpillars to a strong, offensive odor which made the caterpillar move away from the scent. After the caterpillar had metamorphosed into a butterfly they subjected the butterfly to the same scent, and the butterfly moved away from the scent. Despite all this disintegration into a gooey mess there remained some kind of conscious memory from caterpillar to butterfly.
In addition, if one were to slice open a caterpillar, before it formed the chrysalis, one would see that the inside lining of the caterpillar skin contains the beginning structure of the butterfly, its wings and skeleton. So when the caterpillar constructs the shell and disintegrates into goo, some aspect of the butterfly it will become is embedded within the walls and goo of the chrysalis.
The caterpillar contains everything it is and ever will be inside of itself just waiting for it to be revealed. Spiritual mystics of all faith traditions have alluded to this very idea for human beings as well. We contain within us all we will ever be, given to us by our creator, and it is revealed in and through our lives. As Christians we understand this as a process, a gift, of the Holy Spirit.
Our readings today all point to the idea of lives in transition, lives being formed and transformed, some growing in faith and maturity, others falling to their own failures - as God says in the reading from 1 Kings, you reap what you sow. Whether one is like Jezebel, who will do anything to help her husband feel better, each of us have times in our lives when we want to ease the anguish of a loved one or friend, even at the expense of good judgment, choosing to stop anxiety rather than fix the real problem. Edwin Friedman, a noted author and rabbi who studied families in congregations even wrote a book on the topic and titled it, “Failure of Nerve.” The point of the book is that leaders, people of faith, often choose the comfortable route of easing anxiety rather than have the courage to do what is really best for all. Its human nature to respond like Jezebel. Its human nature to want to ease suffering, even at the expense of doing the mature healthy thing. This is like disintegrating into a gooey mess, undefined and unable to live into one’s true purpose. To this God says, you reap what you sow.
In another example, like the woman who anoints Jesus with nard, some of us are comfortable with our physical bodies, with the sensuous touching that this woman offers to Jesus, while others are more like Simon, wanting to reduce her compassion to selfishness by minimizing her actions, limiting her behavior, and shaming her. Jesus sees her for who she is, someone who can be authentic in her decisions and actions, unafraid to make the right decision regardless of the consequences. Here, even in a gooey mess, there is an integrity, a sense of purpose and clarity of one’s self. You reap what you sow.
Today we celebrate the end of a program year in which this parish has done many wonderful things, but most notable our music ministry and the organ refurbishment. We can be most pleased with our effort to care for this fine instrument that feeds us spiritually each Sunday morning. We also celebrate all those who are experiencing life transitions this year, graduating from high school or college, beginning new jobs, retiring, or starting on a new path. It is especially delightful to celebrate the Steiner family, who three years ago, we blessed and sent off on their transition to seminary. Today we get to celebrate the fruits of that effort, Scott’s completion of seminary, his ordination to the priesthood, and his call to be the assistant priest at St. John’s in Royal Oak. We celebrate Katie, Rachel and Colin, who now make the transition back to Michigan to begin life as priest’s family.
Regardless of where any of us are today, some in profound transitions others taking baby steps on the journey of faith, God invites to keep growing, transforming into mature, healthy, loving Christians. Our Stewardship Commission is symbolizing this today with the release of butterflies during the picnic. Did you know that you can buy butterflies by the dozen and release them into the world? Did you know that butterflies, like bees, are endangered from all the pesticides we use? So releasing butterflies serves a variety of purposes: Symbolizing the transitions in life that we all experience, symbolizing the Christian process of maturing in faith, marking our year long effort to grow as stewards of God’s creation, a green initiative to help the environment, and while the list could go on, it’s also just a fun idea. Because most of all today is a day to give thanks, to be like the woman with the jar of nard, wildly extravagant in our love for God, to remember that even when we are a gooey mess, we contain within us, everything we need to be a mature, and with intentionality and integrity, refusing to give into a failure of nerve, we can transform into who God has called us to be. You reap what you sow.
a reflection on the readings for Proper 6C: 1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Luke 7:36-8:3