July 12, 2020

Only The Lonely, IX: The Loneliest Whale

Passage: Psalm 68:1–10

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in God’s holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in; God sets the lonely in families;
—Psalm 68:5–6

If you were a troublemaker and wanted to raise a ruckus, you could go to a conference of zoologists and ask which is the smartest animal.

You’d get heated debate and all kinds of answers: chimpanzees, elephants, goats, ravens, octopi. Some would suggest the cetaceans—whales and dolphins.

By some measures, dolphins have the second largest brains proportional to body size.  One whale expert said that the only reason dolphins aren’t running the world is that they don’t have opposable thumbs.

In many ways, cetaceans act just like humans. Whales live in families called pods. And here’s something interesting: whale species that gather in smaller pods have smaller brains. That’s an important lesson for us: the more people we hang out with, the smarter we get. If your network is tiny, well, I just don’t know what to say for you.

Whales work together, teach each other how to hunt and use tools, play, grieve, and foster parent. If a whale mother gets sick or dies, another whale mother will adopt her calf.

Famously, whales also talk to each other. Did you know that whales have distinctive regional accents? One whale sounds like she comes from Mississippi, and another whale sounds like he lives in Boston, like John Krasinski maybe in that Hyundai ad for Smaht Pahk.

Years ago, The US Navy developed a hydrophone for locating and tracking enemy submarines. As you can plainly hear, a hydrophone is a microphone in the water. In 1989, when a cetologist was using a hydrophone to track whales, he picked up an odd signal.

It was a whale singing at a pitch of 52 Hz, which is a very low frequency, just above the lowest note on the tuba, but way above the normal frequency of a blue whale or fin whale song, 15-25 HZ. It’s almost like his voice hadn’t changed yet, even though he’s at least 40 years old.

They call him 52 Blue. Whale experts guess that his, or her, vocal cords are damaged or genetically malformed, or perhaps he’s a mongrel whale, a cross between a blue whale and some other kind of whale, which happens.

Deaf people write the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and suggest that he might be deaf. He’s never heard the songs of his pod mates, so he doesn’t know how to mimic them.

Cetologists have heard this unique whale song off the West Coast of the United States almost every summer since 1989. Nobody’s ever seen him, but they speculate that he is probably alone, because he can’t communicate. They don’t know that for sure, but the media have had a field day with this odd whale. He’s going to have his own movie. He has become known as The Loneliest Whale.

Scientists scoff, because we don’t know much about whale emotions and nothing about this particular whale, but lonely hearts all over the world identify with him, turning him into a cipher for their own aloneness.

People who feel they are not part of the pack keep writing Woods Hole, pleading with them, “Can’t you help this animal?” A 19-year-old college student calls 52 Blue “the epitome of every person who has felt too weird to love.”[1] These folk are legion. Maybe all of us have felt too weird to love at some point in our lives.

“Father of orphans and protector of widows,” says the Psalmist. “Father of orphans and protector of widows, so is God in God’s Holy Habitation.” That is to say, when God is most definitively being God, when God is at God’s holiest, God is protecting the abandoned. That protectiveness and companionship are integral to God’s very essence. That is one of God’s main jobs. It is central to God’s meaning and identity.

This all started on March 13. I have not seen most of you for 121 days. I miss you. Jo and Katie miss you. We feel isolated from each other.

So on Sundays we’ve been looking with you, from a distance, at a few of the literally hundreds of Scriptural promises of God’s close, constant, conspicuous companionship. Over and over and over again, God has promised God’s very self to the orphan, the widow, and the lonely. Whale or human. But more than that. God has also given us each other.

“God gives the desolate a home to live in,” writes the Psalmist. “God gives the desolate a home to live in, God sets the lonely in families.” The family comes from God. It is and always has been and always will be the fundamental unit of human socialization.  And whales too. God sets the whales in pods. Most of them anyway.

And so this is a preposterously simple sermon. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. Well, maybe a little about whales. You’re welcome. All I want to say is: If you love the people you’re stuck with, what are you complaining about?

I’m stuck with the love of my life. We adopted Doogie on January 5. How prescient was that? And then my daughter and her husband came to live with us. And she got a job in Chicagoland! I hope you love the people you’re stuck with too.

I know it’s not always easy. Five-year-old twins were squabbling loudly and rambunctiously all day long, and finally Mom had had enough. She pulled them apart and said, “Stop it right now! How would you like it if your Father and I argued like that?” One of the twins said, “But Mom, you and Daddy chose each other. We didn’t get to choose.”[2]

He’s right about that, isn’t he? You get to choose your spouse, but not your parents and not your children and not your sisters and brothers. We’re stuck with each other in more ways than one: in quarantine and in families.

But look at it like this: Americans, Brazilians, and Russians are banned from traveling to the European Union. If you’re an American married to a European, you can travel there. But not if you’re not married. Thousands of Americans engaged to Europeans, thousands of Americans who are supposed to be planning their weddings, thousands of Americans in longtime relationships to Europeans cannot touch their partners.[3] So what are you complaining about? God is very good. God gives the desolate a home to live in. God sets the lonely in families.

And not only that, but now we’re expanding our understanding of what family looks like. Neil Gorsuch, for crying out loud! He is supposed to be the defender of conservative, traditional values. Who would have predicted that he would vote with the liberal Justices for gay rights? Everyone who knows him.

Justice Gorsuch belongs to an Episcopal parish in Boulder which welcomes gay people.  In 2008, when now Justice Gorsuch was serving on the US Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, he interviewed a law student for a clerkship. The law student decided to get brutally honest. He said, “Listen, I’m a liberal gay Jew from New England, and you were appointed by George W. Bush. Will I be comfortable here?” He got the job. When that law clerk married his partner years later, the Honorable Neil Gorsuch was thrilled.[4]

Justice Gorsuch voted that way because he knows and loves gay people. He knows that they’re part of the family and deserve to have their own families. Justice Gorsuch is “enlarging his sacred universe of moral obligation.”[5] And so should we all.

This coronavirus is a terrible thing, but at least it is teaching us how to enlarge the family. In the fields, dairy farmers are dumping millions of gallons of milk into manure pits, and farmers are plowing under acre after acre of potatoes, onions, and vegetables.

That’s in the fields. In the cities, the line at the food bank is literally miles long. It just breaks your heart. Hungry people over here and surplus produce over there that was destined for the now desolate restaurant industry.

But I have archived at least a dozen newspaper articles about mostly young people who are pairing up hungry people and surplus produce. They’re like Match.com; they’re making beautiful unions.

One article was called “We Had to Do Something.” These college kids transported 50,000 onions from a farm in Oregon to a food bank in Los Angeles. It is just a sliver of the pile that is rotting in the fields, but you gotta do something. Then they rented a truck and delivered 10,000 eggs to another food bank.

Papa John’s is putting extra cheese on its pizzas to help the dairy farmers.

The US Department of Agriculture is spending $300 million a month buying surplus produce for food banks; this turns out to be a double benevolence; it rescues the farmers and feeds the hungry.[6]

American Airlines donated 25,000 airplane meals to food banks.

Delta donated 200,000 pounds of food to hospitals.

Southwest Airlines donated $400,000 worth of airplane snacks. How many tiny bags of peanuts and pretzels is that? Five million?

United Airlines converted a cargo hangar at the Houston Airport into a food distribution center for food banks.[7] United is in desperate straits, but it is doing what it can.

This collaboration between government and business and college students: it just makes my soul take flight.

In Denver, volunteers load dog biscuits, Oreos, and spaghetti sauce into their cargo bike and trailer and deliver it to people who can’t get to the grocery store. A bike trailer.

In Berkeley, two women recruited 750 volunteers to deliver groceries to high-risk neighbors: 750 Good Samaritans! One of these women explains: “This is not charity. This is solidarity. None of us is okay unless we’re all okay. None of us is safe unless we’re all safe.”[8] Did you listen to how she put it? Not charity. SolidarityFamily.

Coronavirus is a terrible thing. But it’s helping us find our brothers and sisters.

“Defender of Orphans and Protector of Widows is God in God’s Holy Habitation.  God gives the desolate a home to live in.  God sets the lonely in a family.” And the family is huge. We’re going to be okay.

[1]Chris Baraniuk, “The Loneliest Whale in the World May Not Be Alone After All,” BBC, April 15, 2015, bbc.com/earth/story/20150415-the-loneliest-whale-in-the-world; Andrew Revkin, “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered,” The New York Times, December 21, 2004; Keiran Mulvaney, “The Loneliest Whale in the World?”, The Washington Post, January 26, 2017.

[2]Jane Livingston, Reader’s Digest, August 2009, p. 186.

[3]Megan Specia, “Couples Separated by Europe’s Travel Bans Fight to Be Reunited,” The New York Times, July 8, 2020.

[4]Michael D. Shear, “Gorsuch, Conservative Favorite Appointed by Trump, Leads Way on Landmark Decision,” The New York Times, June 15, 2020.

[5]The phrase is from sociologist Helen Fein, in Accounting for Genocide, and is quoted by Richard Rubenstein and John Roth in Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), p. 191.

[6] Michael Corkery and David Yaffe-Bellany, “‘We Had to Do Something’: Trying to Prevent Massive Food Waste,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020.

[7]Drew Jones, “Airlines Are Donating Unused Inflight Meals to Hospitals and Food Banks,” The Washington Post, April 30, 2020.

[8]Cathy Free, “People Across the Country Are Delivering Groceries Free.  It’s ‘Solidarity, Not Charity,’” The Washington Post, April 27, 2020.