A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD
Homily for the 8th Sunday of Epiphany, February 27, 2011
Jesus says to his followers: “Do not worry about your life” and he suggests that when people become so overloaded with anxiety, responsibility and the pressure to conform that they are confused about their own identity and purpose, they need to step back, take a little field trip and spend time meditating upon simple things, to reconnect with their soul. By teaching people to look at birds and the wild flowers, Jesus was giving people simple steps toward a profound and balanced spiritual life.
Look at the birds …. consider the wild flowers. The American writer Lewis Mumford said: “A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.” “Look … consider” – these are contemplative words, which raise questions about how much attention we give to the devotional/contemplative side of life? Is our life balanced? Are we at peace with ourselves?
First, as Jesus says, LOOK at them, not to analyze or draw some little moral lesson, because you can have a million facts or pieces of information about something and still not understand its essence or its soul. Look, simply to see them, to notice. Many people are not even conscious of the hundreds and thousands of birds which are all around us – never hear them singing – never pay attention – and it’s often a great gift to people to help them see and notice. But further, once we’ve noticed, once they’ve got our attention, appreciate them, be present to them, and recognize their being. In the biblical sense, to know something is to love it, to enter into relationship, so it becomes no longer a thing, an “it,” or an object, but a being in its own right.
My life has been partly defined, or at least punctuated, by a number of significant bird-moments. Long before I ever heard this passage from the Gospel, I was quite happy to look at birds, and probably happiest when I found myself in one of those timeless moments that birds have created for me. Bird-watching has taught me to be focused, to be open to what a moment can bring, to pay attention to what is in right front of me instead of what happened at work or what’s going to happen when your excuse for getting home late is that you were bird-watching. Forget all that – just be present. People now always seem pressed by time. It seems like it was just Christmas a few days ago; now Easter is pressing. Jesus offers us a doorway from that sense of pressure into timeless moments – into eternity — offers a way of slowing time down and stretching it out.
Part of the lesson is to see how simply birds live, and how complicated our lives are by comparison. Once upon a time, human beings lived very much on a level with nature, but our lifestyle is now so cluttered with things we have come to believe are essential, that we have grown very distant and removed from the birds and the flowers and the planet itself. And the industry that sustains us in this lifestyle is making life much more difficult not only for the birds, but for fish and dolphins and frogs. Maybe in our world Jesus might be saying: Look at the birds, consider the wild flowers, and think about what our manic consumerism is doing to the environment, and ultimately to ourselves.
Maybe we have become too advanced, too proud, to allow a bird or a flower to teach us something. Ironically, in a world of billions of stimuli, people are bored and indifferent and rather numb. If they look at all, they tend not to see anything, and move on. But one of my favourite writers, Annie Dillard, urges people to persist in looking, whether at birds or at muskrats, to stay with things, to look at things more deeply, being more intentional about observing and paying attention, and allowing things to speak to you and teach you.
Coincidentally, this past Friday afternoon, I was working at home (on my day off), experiencing some anxiety about getting this sermon done, and something distracted me so I looked outside from our upper floor deck, and across the street in the open field across from us, sitting in beautiful sunshine, was a flock of about 40 Canada Geese. They seemed absolutely peaceful, just sitting there enjoying the sunshine, not noisy as geese often are, but calm and contented. I was drawn into their peace, and just got lost in it for a few minutes. I was reminded too of being at the ocean and watching geese just floating and appreciating their capacity to live so simply and gently on the planet. I stood watching them for a few minutes, and then came back in to write this. 20 minutes later, I looked out again and they were gone – the moment would not have been available then; it was only available when I went out.
To look at and appreciate birds and flowers requires a certain amount of humility – a willingness to identify with them in their brief and beautiful lives — instead of thinking of ourselves as superior and disconnected, instead of persisting in our whirlwind of delusion and denial, in which we believe that by surrounding ourselves with things we will somehow be insulated from death. Birds and flowers live with no such attachments and delusions, Jesus says, and they seem to get along fine. Through birds and flowers, Jesus is trying to teach us to deal with reality.
Be still, the scripture says, so that you can begin to be conscious of God’s presence, and of who you are in relation to God (see Psalm 46). Jesus knew that if want to see birds, it necessitates becoming still, because if you are agitated or restless the birds will be gone in an instant. Also, you have to wait on birds, like you have to wait on God, sometimes for a long time (I waited 50 years to see a Wood Duck). We get glimpses, inklings, moments, not a constant exposure. True bird-watchers may tell you that the time you spend in stillness, waiting for a bird to appear, is not wasted time.
A few days ago I saw a robin hopping around in the snow. That is an image of the incongruity of our life at times – looking for sustenance where there is none, finding the world a cold and unwelcome and rather sterile place, or feeling somehow we are out of sync.
You know how intensely you feel when you’re in love? Life is not cold and meaningless then! In fact, everything seems more intense, more meaningful – you find joy and delight and wonder in almost everything. It’s suddenly a wonderful world, in which beauty springs up to meet you at every turn. I often have felt that when you’re in love you are very close to God, because God is love, and love truly is what seems to make us fully alive. As the scriptures remind us, those who do not love do not know God.
Meister Eckhart said: “What we take in by contemplation we give out in love.” In contemplative moments, we can become more centered in God, and to be centered in God centers us in life. If you’re not centred you’re not present to anything, everything passes you by as inconsequential – you’re oblivious to it, or you don’t know enough to care until it’s too late. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it,” Jacob says (Gen. 28: 16—17). Jesus defined sin against the Holy Spirit as declaring that God is not present where God actually is.
Jesus asks: Is it possible to let go of tomorrow and just be available and attentive and faithful to the present moment? Learn to be present. The lilies Jesus was talking about have a very brief season – it’s easy to miss it. I think of raising children: you blink and they’re teenagers; you blink again and they’ve left home. As scripture reminds us, everything passes away quickly and is gone.
The point is: be alive and alert to the present moment; create dedicated Sabbath time in our lives; re-discover what the word worship really means. Spend some time each day as devoted time, whether meditating and praying, or just looking at the sky or listening to music or going for a walk, or to be willing to just sit and be open to whatever is that presents itself to us. There are quite simple and accessible things we can do to re-connect with our true selves, our souls.
We live in a manic, driven world in which people are expected to act like machines, and machines are taking over the roles of people, whether it’s those annoying automated voice mail systems or IBM gloating over its machine beating Jeopardy champions, or exercise, diet and medical programs that suggest our bodies are to be treated like machines. We are caught up in way too many processes which are mechanical when they should be human, personal, soulful. Jesus’ words are like a wake-up call to those of us who are walking through life like robots.
The reality is that we can’t just drop out of jobs and mortgages (Jesus knew that), so we can’t just open up a commune or arrange to be at a spa all the time. We have to find ways of re-connecting with our deeper self (of restoring our soul) and if we can develop a meaningful spiritual life, we don’t have to go to an ashram in India or Machu Pichu to be able to put things in perspective and find peace. As Psalm 23 says, God will lead us to still waters; God will prepare a banquet table before even in the midst of conflict; God will restore our soul. Psalm 131 suggests our soul is like a child within us, that needs to be revered and nurtured and matured.
“Is it really worth it?” That is a question I have heard many people ask, and it’s a good one to ask, because the word worship is derived from “worth-ship.” It is best to devote our lives to things we think are truly worth it. We live in a world of divided loyalties, but Jesus quite rightly says you can’t serve two masters – you can’t have two absolutes in your life. And your life can’t have true meaning if you are serving something mechanical, impersonal and inhuman (Mammon). Money never sleeps, perhaps, but it’s never awake either, because it’s lifeless, inert, and its value (and power over us) really depends on what we are prepared to give it. Jesus urges us to discern our priorities, because if we don’t, we create terrible conflict within ourselves and for those around us. Jesus points to the need for choices that give priority to that which is really important, and do not allow us to become slaves to things which are, in the long run, irrelevant.
We don’t have to drop out, but we can step aside, and indulge in what some may regard as useless activities or wastes of time. Remember that Paul said we may be considered fools when we embrace the wisdom of God. But do it anyway! Learn to pause, step aside, and savour the goodness of life, instead of being consumed with anxiety about whether we have enough, look right or are managing our diet correctly. Birds and flowers are just examples. It could be sea shells; it could be watching clouds go by or ants walking around; it could be walking your dog with no particular destination or return time; it could be time playing with (or just observing) your grandchildren …. The point is there are things right under your nose which, if you paid a little attention, could lead you back toward the freedom and peace you need. The practice of the presence of God is a step toward the kingdom which we continually pray might be made manifest among us.
What Jesus is offering is not just a simplistic “Don’t worry, be happy” bit of fluff, but a profound sense that in and all around us is the Spirit of the God who loves us. This is one of the ways in which we become stewards of God’s mysteries – in cultivating our spiritual life, we become capable of pointing to things with reverence, and proclaiming that God is present in all things, and that, indeed, we do not have to worry about our life.
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers
RCL appointed readings:
Isaiah 49:8-16a Thus says the LORD: In a time of favour I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
Psalm 131 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.
1 Corinthians 4:1-5 Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
Matthew 6:24-34 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”