Consider the Birds

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | October 13, 2019

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s fall migration time!  So today we will look at the world of nature, as Jesus often did in explaining the Kin-dom of God.

Most of you know that I enjoy fishing.  And one of my favorite parts about fishing is…..bird watching!   Showy male wood ducks and the more demure mamas paddling by with their little fluff balls of young; ospreys catching fish when I am not, seeing them flying by with fish in their talons; the great blue heron lifting off with massive, slow wingbeats, the eagles soaring above, the busy shore birds, the crows cawing across the sky at dusk heading for their nighttime roosts.  And above all, the loons—feeding their young, the little ones sometimes scooting up on to the parents’ backs and, of course, their magical and maniacal calls.  

Genesis 1:20-21:  “And God said, ‘Let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.’  So God created…every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”

Let’s do a fun little quiz about your bird knowledge.   

1.  How many known species of birds are there on planet earth?  Almost 1000, almost 10,000, almost 100,000? B

2. Smallest bird?  Hummingbird weighs a little more than a dime

3.  Largest?  Well, the tallest is Big Bird from Sesame Street!  8 ‘ 2” tall. The heaviest, of course, is the ostrich–over 300 pounds.

4.  What makes a bird?  That is, what is the determining factor as to whether a creature is a bird or is not a bird?  Feathers!

5.  What percentage of baby birds survive their first year?  20%? 30%? 50%? 80%? 50.

6.  How many bird species have been sighted in Minnesota?  130, 230, 330 or 430? 430

Two more fun facts:  There are more chickens on the earth than human beings.  In fact, seven times as many.

And the second fun fact: In June of 1952 an Atlantic sea bird called a Shearwater was taken from its burrow off an island near Wales, tagged with a leg band, and taken across the Atlantic to Boston.  Here it was released, some 3100 miles from home. It was found safe back in its burrow off Wales 12 and a half days later.

Birds are amazing.

How many of you are serious birders, keeping birdwatching counts?  How many lifetime do you have?

I want to share a sweet story with you and then we will look together at three types of birds and see what we might learn from them.

My friend Suzanne went through the slow death of her mother, Kathy, from cancer some years ago.  Her mother stayed home with hospice help. One day, as Kathy was getting very weak, Suzanne was over visiting.  She spotted a beautiful cardinal on the feeder. She said, “Oh, mom! A cardinal—you’re favorite kind of bird. It’s just gorgeous.  Come look at it.”  

But her mom couldn’t come look at it. She was too frail.  A few days later Kathy died.  

Six months later Suzanne was not doing so well.  She was missing her mom so much! She kept asking God or the universe for some sign that her mom was okay, wherever she was.   Then one beautiful winter day Suzanne was cross-country skiing in her mom’s favorite park, Pine Point, just northwest of us. Suzanne came around a bend in the trail in the midst of the beautiful, snow-covered pines, and there was a cardinal, striking in its red plumage, and then a female, and then a few more cardinals, and soon dozens and dozens of cardinals, females and males (that’s very unusual for males to hang around together), all gathered in a cardinal choir.  Suzanne cried with joy!

Suzanne’s interpretation was “Mom didn’t just send one cardinal to say she was okay, but dozens!”   

So I Google “religious symbolism of the cardinal” and I find this: Many spiritual people will tell you that a cardinal represents death or afterlife.  Reports from loved ones and hospice workers often state that a cardinal appears just before or after a death, or that a cardinal frequently visits or appears in dreams after the loss of a loved one. 

I dunno…There’s a lot of room for mystery in my faith.

Any of you have a cardinal experience like this?   

Now let’s look together at three types of birds for some life lessons.

First of all, geese.  Some of you may have heard these geese lessons before.  

When we see geese flying across the sky in a V usually one side of the F is longer than the other.  Why is that? It has more geese in it. (That’s a third-grade joke and that’s why I love it.)

Okay.  Seriously now.  We see geese flying overhead in a vee. And when the lead goose gets tired, he or she falls back and another goose takes a turn at the front of the vee.  Geese rotate leadership. Just like we do in the Presbyterian Church, with elders and deacons usually serving three-year terms and expressly limited by our Book of Order to a maximum of six consecutive years before they must rotate

off.  Sometimes it is very painful for a pastor when an especially competent and wise leader finishes her term, but overall, it’s a good thing: to get new perspectives and to let new people get experience.

Flying in formation, the beating of the wings of the goose ahead creates an updraft for the next goose.  Scientists tell us that geese can fly 71% farther when flying together than a single goose flying alone. In life we need each other.  And in the life of faith, we need each other.  You can’t be a Christian alone.  You can’t follow Jesus alone, any more than you can play football alone.  We need each other for support, correction, education and encouragement.

That’s the fourth thing we learn from the geese: encouragement.  As they fly across the sky in those big vees, winging their way northward in the spring or southward in the fall, we often can hear them honking far above us.  The honking is coming from the geese in the rear of the flock. Ornithologists tell us, and I don’t know how they know this, but they tell us that when geese honk from the rear they are honking encouragement to the lead goose, to keep up the good work.  When we are honking from the rear, is it encouragement we are offering?

Next bird.  There are almost 10,000 species of birds on the earth.  If someone were to use a bird to describe you, which would you hope they would choose?  The majestic, soaring eagle? The tremendously fast and powerful peregrine falcon? The beautiful cardinal?  The amazing hummingbird? Which bird would you pick to describe yourself?

I think I would be a robin.  Common. Friendly.  

What bird did Jesus use to describe himself?  In the final week of his life, as he was about to enter the Capitol city, Luke tells us that the broken-hearted Jesus cried, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” 

Jesus did not choose the image of a beautiful bird with bright and flashy colors.  He did not choose a powerful raptor, with sharp talons and flesh-tearing beak. He chose a common chicken!  A mother hen at that!  

And isn’t it a beautiful picture of the compassion of God made known in Jesus?  Jesus was always trying to correct people’s understanding of what God is like. God is not the violent conqueror, but the suffering servant, the compassionate mother.

Debbie Blue is the author of a very interesting book entitled Consider the Birds, and she is also a founding pastor of a congregation in St. Paul called House of Mercy.  She writes this about our third bird this morning: Take the one bird everyone thinks they know: the dove.  In each of the four gospels, the Spirit of God shows up at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove. In the popular imagination this Holy Spirit dove is (… what color?)…snow white.

But the bird at the baptism was more likely a rock dove, a species much more prevalent in Palestine. These birds are grey with an iridescent green and violet neck. (Sound familiar?) They’re more commonly known as (…) the pigeon.

Though most of us have separate categories for pigeons (dirty) and doves (pure), ornithologists will tell

you the names are interchangeable.

That means the symbol for the Holy Spirit is just a hair’s breadth away from the symbol of urban trashiness.

The dove has come to seem a bit bland as far as Christian symbols go. Maybe it would be helpful to imagine the Holy Spirit as a pigeon instead of a dainty white dove.

Pigeons are ubiquitous, on the streets. They are forever leaving droppings on our sidewalks and windowsills. What if the spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow – always underfoot, routinely ignored, often disdained? End of quote from Debbie Blue.

“Consider the birds…”  

“Consider the birds of the air,” said Jesus.  “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?”

At Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist in the Jordan River, the gospel writers tell us that the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, a pigeon.  Is this a metaphor? A literal pigeon? We don’t know.

What also happens at Jesus’ baptism that is unusual?

A voice is heard from heaven, saying, “This is my son, my beloved.”

How did that voice come?  A literal voice? A feeling in Jesus’ heart?  We don’t know.

Who heard that voice?  Everybody there? Or just Jesus?  Just John? We don’t know.

Did most people miss it?  Were they unaware? John baptized many people, before Jesus and after Jesus.    Had that message from heaven been given every time? “You are my beloved son…you are my beloved daughter…”  and people were just unaware of it?

Jesus was special in many ways.  But I do not believe that God loves Jesus more than God loves you.  Think about how God feels about Jesus…

Yet I do not believe that God loves Jesus more than God loves you.

The Word from the Lord this week, and every week, is “You are my beloved daughter.  You are my beloved son.”

Receive that love.  Believe that love. Be that love.

Amen?  Amen!

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