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Order of Worship | Easter 2
We acknowledge we are gathering on land where Miami, Osage, Shawnee, and other Indigenous peoples have lived and labored, fought, and loved. We continue to work and pray for justice and conciliation.
Call to Worship (adapted from Job 12:7-9)
VT 22 | What is this place | Virginia Mennonite Assembly
VT 162 | The Love of God | Laurelville Mennonite Music and Worship Leaders Retreat
Scripture | Psalm 104:1-2, 10-23, Mark 1:9-13
Sermon | The Holy Pigeon
VT 539 | God Speaks to Us in Bird and Song | VT recording
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Christian Education | 11:00 am
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Sarah Werner
Worship Leader: Mark Rupp
Music coordination: Phil Yoder
Children’s Time: Diane Mueller
Peace Candle: Hoke family
Scripture Reading: Shakita Kabicek, Judy Hartzler
Zoom Host: Mike Ryan-Simkins
Good morning on this the second Sunday of the Easter season. Some of you might be joining us from your back porch or near an open window as we soak in the beginning of spring. I want you to take a moment to breathe deeply and listen. Wherever you are, outside or inside, you probably heard the sound of bird song. Birds are literally all around us, part of the daily fabric of our lives whether we notice them or not. Even the most urban of neighborhoods has its share of pigeons and house sparrows. Birds permeate our lives to the point that we often don’t even notice them; their song is the constant background soundtrack to our lives. And it is these common, even boring birds that I want to talk about this morning, starting with a few stories of my own sacred encounters with birds.
My first experience of avian divinity was at the age of sixteen. I was hiking alone at a Texas state park in late fall. Many of the leaves had fallen from the deciduous trees but the cedars and live oaks were still a dark green canopy just above my head. I was scrambling up a steep section of the gravel path, looking down at my feet the whole time as I tried not to fall. As I crested the top, I looked up and right into the eyes of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. He was perched on the low branch of a cedar tree not six feet from me. We watched each other for a full sixty seconds and then he took flight. The thing is, he had watched me the entire time I was climbing the hill. I stood where he had been perched and saw the path laid out below me. He hadn’t flown away until I had seen him. I felt immensely blessed by this encounter, and began to notice Red-Shouldered Hawks everywhere I went, on fence posts along the road, soaring over the lake where I kayaked, even perched high on a neighborhood tree. I felt intuitively that I had been visited by the sacred, but I didn’t have a framework for making sense of it, so I kept it to myself.
A second powerful bird encounter was with Great Blue Herons. I was living in Maryland, working as a research technician in a microbial ecology lab, my first job after graduating from college. I had been there for a few years and I was starting to wonder about my next move. I could go back to school and continue my education in biology, a requirement for moving up in my job, or I could go in an entirely different direction. As I was pondering all of these things, I started to see Great Blue Herons everywhere I went. They would watch me from across the water as I sampled mud from the marsh, or fly over as I ran through the forest in the evenings, their prehistoric call reverberating in my chest. I was always moved by these encounters, seen, pierced by their gaze. And I paid attention. The heron sits in stillness for hours, watching the water underneath her feet, until just the right moment, when she lunges down and stabs a fish from right beneath her. These herons taught me the value of standing still, and watching, and waiting until just the right moment, and making a swift, decisive move. I decided in my last winter there to make a move in the opposite direction of science and attend seminary. I felt deeply in my soul-gut that this was the right thing to do, but I couldn’t articulate why either to my puzzled science friends, or my family, or my new religious friends in seminary. I just knew, and I saw Great Blue Herons during the whole summer of my big move, in Texas, in Colorado, and waiting for me in my new home in Georgia. They were watching, reminding me to be still and listen, and wait, until taking action at just the right time.
These holy encounters with birds have deeply shaped my spiritual life, but I was hesitant to share them with anyone because I couldn’t fit the sacred gift of their presence into the language of my own faith tradition. For the longest time I didn’t think Christianity had anything to say to this holy vital mystery I felt embodied all around me. But I am starting to understand that the idea that the Bible has nothing to say about this innate animist sensibility of mine is incorrect. My new awakening to the spiritual presence of birds in the Bible is the result of reading Mark Wallace’s book entitled When God was a Bird. Wallace argues, among other things, that bird imagery permeates the Bible from Genesis all the way to Revelation, including being the embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels.
This new awareness has come just at the right time as I struggle to feel connected to the sacred and indeed to other humans as the pandemic stretches into its second year. Even though I teach theology and edit academic work in the field of religion, I often feel a lack of faith for not experiencing the deep intimate connection with God that many Christians often describe, a being who they converse with daily and who talks back to them. I have never heard God speaking in my life in the form of a human voice. In my despondency and doubt I realized that I have in fact had many startling holy encounters with animals, especially birds, throughout my life. And the Bible, Wallace points out, is chock full of such encounters with the sacred in nature.
Take for example, the verses from Psalm 104 that were read this morning. The entire psalm is a bit long, but I encourage you to read it because it frames a splendid vision of creation that has very little to do with humans. God lays out the heavens like a tent, the trees are watered abundantly, providing shelter for all manner of birds, with habitat for each animal—wild goats, lions, even the sea creatures of the deep. Or Job 12, our other Old Testament passage: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” In these Old Testament passages and many others too numerous to name this morning, the earth and living organisms, are sentient participants in the creating acts of God. It is clear that God created all living things for their own benefit, not for ours. Job is one of the oldest books of the Bible, and the message is clear—humans are only the latest animals in creation and we ought to pay attention to the sacred world all around us.
One of the main points Wallace argues in When God was a Bird is that the animist heart of Christianity is completely lost on us modern, urban humans, who are for the most part disconnected from the pulsing rhythms of the natural world. We don’t recognize the holy aliveness of the landscape in the Bible because our relationship with nature is often mediated through technology. It is easy in our modern hyper-advanced society to forget to pay attention to the natural world altogether. We spend most of our lives indoors, looking at screens, reading words. We buy much of our food at the grocery store, and we venture out to the forest or to the beach as a vacation from our daily lives. I include myself in this assessment. Even though I love being outdoors, it remains a fairly small part of my day except in sunny perfect weather like this. But in the time of Jesus, most people spent most of their time outside, and perhaps few spent as much time as he did, wandering from town to town homeless, preaching and spreading the Good News. He was surrounded by the natural world, accompanied in his wandering by wild animals and no doubt plenty of birds. The baptism of Jesus is only the first example of the Holy Spirit breaking into creation. Nature imagery permeates his message, from his cryptic parables to the Gospel-writers accounts of his life, preaching on hills and in fields, praying in gardens, taking refuge on lake shores.
It’s hard to know what to do with all of this though, since we can’t all become homeless wanders like Jesus, or hunter-gatherers, or even all farmers even though many of us are only a generation removed from it. I think that this is where the omnipresence of birds is a helpful place to begin, and to paying attention to the soundscape of our lives.
During our poetry small group a few months ago, we were discussing birdsong. It was the last week of February, and the snow was finally melting and giving way to green grass and the first snowbells and crocuses of the season. The birds, also, had recently woken and were singing for the first time after months of snowy winter silence. Several of us mentioned how uplifting it had been to hear these sounds after such a bitter cold spell. And we feared to anthropomorphize, but it’s hard not to feel the birds might be singing to us, urging us to acknowledge that spring was on its way and that they were indeed celebrating. One of us said, and really we have to remember the bird song isn’t about us. All bird song is territorial calls, each bird announcing, I am here. This is my spot. There’s nothing more to it than that. And another said, it seems a bit hubristic of us to presume to know that this is all that the birds are saying. This conversation has stayed with me for weeks. And as I have thought about it, and as I have listened to the birds, it has struck me what a profound call it is, for each tiny sparrow or robin or cardinal, to be sitting in its own place, announcing, I am here. This is my spot. I was created for just such a time and place, right where I am meant to be. The psalmist describing how each creature praises the Lord isn’t anthropomorphism. It is a recognition that creation isn’t about us.
The earth and all that is in it was created for its own benefit, not ours, so that each organism can say, here I am, this is my spot, this is where I belong.
And so few of us can sing that same song. We don’t know who we are or where we belong, where our spot is. We are descendants of immigrants, living on stolen land, unsure of our place in this complicated created world of mixed motives and thorny truths. We are not the inheritors of place-based religious traditions. We don’t inhabit the same landscape as the founders of our faith, and even they didn’t inhabit the same landscapes, scattered as they were throughout the Roman world right from the beginning. I cannot go to the holy mountain that is just up the road from my homestead to make an offering to my ancestors. We are in many ways adrift. But at the same time, all we have to do is step outside into sunlight or rain or biting wind to be reminded that God surrounds us, us wrapped in a whirlwind of holy creation wherever we are. It is easy to feel this way in spring, when even the flowers seem to proclaim the glory of life. And it’s fitting that this is the season when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the mysterious power of God that is stronger than death.
So, to begin with on this path down the road to finding our spot in the place of creation, I would like you to consider the humble city pigeon. It was likely a similar mottled brown avian who came down out of the heavens, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, and rested on Jesus’ shoulder, announcing “you are my Child, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” It wasn’t a dazzling white dove as countless sacred images would have us believe. The Greek word for dove here actually refers to the lowly ordinary Palestinian pigeon, an earthy creature endemic to the Middle East. When you hear the Mourning Dove calling from the power line or see the common pigeon scavenging in the city park, I want you to remember that these are the creatures God chose to be the earthly container of the Holy Spirit. And like the Holy Spirit, they are indeed all around us, to use the words of Mary Oliver, announcing their place in the family of things.