Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series. To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein. For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work. If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me.
Do you remember that one kid at school that all the teachers seemed to love, but was, in fact, a real bully? The kid who you knew to be a schemer and a manipulator, but your parents thought was just the finest example of teen manners?
Some of you in the room will understand what I mean when I refer to Eddie Haskell. Eddie Haskell was Wally Cleaver’s friend on the 1950’s and 60’s television show Leave it to Beaver. He was a real weasel who would connive situations so that if something went wrong, someone else got the blame. A typical comment from Eddie might be something like this: “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna – oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.”
In spite of his good grooming and obsequious manners, Eddie Haskell was up to no good. Do you know the kind of person I’m talking about? You know he’s a schnook, but he seems to have snowed over everyone else.
As we continue in our exploration of Jesus’ command to “consider the birds”, I’d like to introduce you to the Eddie Haskell of the bird world: the pelican.
In all kinds of ways, these ungainly creatures are the class-A jerks of the avian universe. If you don’t believe me, go home and do a YouTube search wherein you will discover pelicans – who were built to eat fish – waddling around parks devouring pigeons, patrolling park ponds and swallowing baby ducklings alive, or raiding gannet nests. Not because there aren’t other sources of food nearby – but because they are just, well, jerks. In fact, my last close encounter with a pelican came while I was fishing in Florida. There was a bird who was hanging out right by the water, and as I was reeling in the fish, he would dive and attempt to swallow them while I had them hooked, but before they left the water.
I know, there are lots of animals that eat other animals, but pelicans are not fierce, majestic birds of prey like eagles or falcons. They are simply overgrown bullies. The only time that the word “pelican” appears in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible is in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving the Israelites the complete rundown on all the animals that are considered to be unclean. Pelicans are right there, alongside of owls, cormorants, herons, and bats. There is no scriptural confusion about pelicans – a contrast from the pigeons and doves about which we spoke last week.
And yet look at the State Flag of Louisiana. There is a well-known heraldic seal entitled “The Pelican in Her Piety.” Here you can see a mother bird apparently piercing her own breast with her beak and feeding her young with her own blood.
Let me be clear: that does not happen! Pelicans do not wound themselves and allow their young to eat of their own flesh. But this was something that “everybody knew” about pelicans back in the day. And so by the second century, early Christians thought, “Hmmm, the baby pelicans would die if not for the mother’s willingness to offer up her own blood…that sounds a lot like Jesus’ death on the cross.”
And so one of the leading churchmen of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, wrote a hymn to be sung in praise to Christ after drinking from the communion cup, the lyrics of which include “O loving pelican! O Jesu Lord!” Shakespeare and Dante refer to Jesus as a pelican. Medieval pilgrims would wear a pelican badge on their way to worship, with red gemstones signifying the bird’s allegedly life-giving blood.
As I said, none of that happens. Pelicans will feed their young from their enormous pouches, and often will pull their heads back and press that pouch against their necks. Since the feathers on a pelican’s breast and the tip of the beak sometimes have a reddish tint, the ancients – watching from a distance, we presume – wrongly assumed that the bird was attacking itself and engaging in a noble self-sacrifice.
For thousands of years the outward behavior of the bird fooled people into thinking that these ungainly and awkward creatures were, in fact, amazing examples of sacrificial love and care. And this is how it is that a bird listed as an abomination in Leviticus becomes the symbol for Jesus in the middle ages. It’s all a show.
Jesus is attending a little get-together at Matthew’s place not long after the old tax collector responded to the call to get right with God. When the so-called religious leaders started giving him an earful about the shaky company he was keeping, Jesus laid into them. “Look,” he says, “You may think that the best way for you to keep your status as ‘holy’ people is to make sure that everyone sees you doing super-religious stuff. And, to be honest, those kinds of shenanigans often look legit to the people without binoculars. But I have to tell you, God isn’t impressed with your song and dance…”
Then, Jesus tosses out a quote from the Old Testament book of Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” He’s driving these religious teachers back to the story of the time when God’s people knew that God was really angry with them for their constant disobedience, but rather than dealing with the main problem, they tried to come up with a clever way to impress God with some extra-sacred behavior.
Jesus cuts them off at the knees and says flatly that God is not fooled by what he sees – he knows our hearts.
The other night, a few of us were talking about heroes. I asked, “Who are your heroes? Who do you admire?” As the conversation began, we talked about some of the big, splashy names in the hero industry: your Nelson Mandelas, Abe Lincolns, or Rosa Parks. But I could tell that folks were reaching. Finally, someone said, “Look, Dave, does it have to be someone famous? Because the people that I respect and admire the most are people like my mom – and nobody’s ever heard of her.”
The best heroes and role models are not the people who wake up every day and decide to go out and be heroic. They don’t wait until everyone is looking and then all of a sudden act nobly. No, the best heroes are those people who do the right thing because it is the right thing. They get up every day and act like people with integrity and love, and if they do it long enough, it changes reality.
That led me to conclude that the reading we’ve had from Romans 12 is actually an instruction manual for everyday heroes. It’s a list of rather mundane, fairly attainable behaviors that have great power to change the world.
I hope that when you heard the passage from Romans, you thought, “Wow, that sounds like the charge that Pastor Dave says every week before we leave the sanctuary.”
That’s no accident, friends. The charge and benediction that I use are molded after this passage precisely because I believe that these ordinary and simple behaviors are the best way that we have to really live like followers of Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong! I am all for the huge, grandiose gesture that changes history and makes everything different in a heartbeat. However, those are difficult to come by and, really, the result of a process. Defining moments are elusive, to say the least.
But this: cling to the good…be devoted to each other…honor everyone…be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer…share with those in need…do not repay evil for evil…live at peace with everyone…
WOW! What would happen in the neighborhood, or in the city, or in the world if a small group of people could actually live like that every day?
I’ll tell you what would happen – the neighborhood, or the city, or the world might not notice behavior like that…but they would be changed nevertheless. What I mean is that if on any given day, I choose not to strike back, or I decide to share what I have, or I seek to be at peace – well, in and of itself, the action is small and the day is short.
But if somehow, by God’s grace, I was able to cultivate that one-time choice into a habit, and that habit grew into a discipline, and that discipline became a characteristic – and if it wasn’t just me, but you and you and you as well…then there might be some long-term affects that could be measurable.
But back to the pelicans.
Perhaps you’ve been to the southern beaches, and maybe you think that my characterizing them as the “Eddie Haskells of the bird world” is a little tough.
Those same YouTube video sites that feature pelicans in all their obnoxiousness also present images of parents who bring back food to children who are in need. The parent returns to the nest and allows the baby to put its entire head into the beak. Mom or dad regurgitates a little fish and the baby is satisfied. In providing this food, the parent bird offers herself freely – she gives of her food, her effort, and her essence to sustain her young. It should be noted that the young are not always appreciative of this. Just imagine have one, two, or three entire heads in your mouth and gullet, reaching for that which you’ve already eaten, and then yielding it back.
The young are sometimes so voracious in their feeding that they forget to breathe and they pass out for a few moments. It’s as if they don’t fully trust that the parent will feed them, and so they work themselves into a lather, they don’t come up for air, and they just faint dead away. There’s something about watching a baby pelican thrusting so desperately into its parent’s gullet, not entirely believing that there is enough to sustain it that reminds me of my own faulty trust in God.
So in one respect, I like the pelican because in its awkwardness and greed, it reminds me of me. But the main reason I like these birds is because of the way that they fly.
Have you seen it? They soar and glide and rocket through the air, often inches above the water. I have sat for hours (usually with a fishing pole in my hand, to be perfectly honest) and watched pelicans cruising over the waves just waiting for one of them to fly a couple of inches too low and crash headlong into the surf.
But it never happens. They skirt the waves endlessly – and silently. They don’t yell about it, like gulls do. They just cruise with grace and beauty. They make it look easy.
That’s what I want. I want to be the kind of person who can grow up from the guzzling, suffocating greed and incapacitating distrust and somehow be able to put on those behaviors listed in Romans 12 and just glide through them…I want to love without calling attention to myself, and to extend grace as though it’s second nature…I long for us to be a community where living like that looks easy.
Not because I think that God will be impressed and somehow like us better if we get good at it…but because it seems like an appropriate way to respond to the one who feeds us in every way possible, who gives himself to us daily, and who sends us out to love the world with his power. I don’t want to live a charade, or get credit for something that is not true. I want to move through the world he’s given to us in the way he made me to move, and to honor him that way.
I mentioned Thomas Aquinas and his hymn about Jesus the pelican. The last verse of that song stirs something within me about living faithfully and gracefully, realizing that we do not do it because God needs to see it, but because it’s how we are wired.
Jesus, whom, for the present, veil’d I see,
What I so thirst for, oh! vouchsafe to me;
That I may see Thy contenance unfolding,
And may be blest Thy glory in beholding.
Jesu, eternal Shepherd! hear our cry;
Increase the faith of all whose souls on Thee rely.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spiirt, amen.