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 her 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.
What is the best-known collection of Jesus’ ethical teachings? The Sermon on the Mount, right? I mean, everyone has heard something about the Sermon on the Mount, and many people, even those who profess to have no faith in Christ, would say that Jesus is on to something in those verses.
One of the most famous passages of that scripture contains Jesus’ advice to “consider the birds”. Do you remember that? “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (MT 6:26)
That’s what I do, folks. Jesus says “Consider,” and by golly, I will. I watch them…feed them…crawl up rocky trails for hours…endure unwarranted criticism about my allegedly erratic driving whilst certain feathered creatures are nearby… Hey, I’m just trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Persecute me if you must…
I love the birds. And I love Jesus. So when I saw a new book by Debbie Blue entitled Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, well, that just seemed like a good excuse for a little continuing education that I could not pass up. And when I read this volume, I knew that I wanted to share some of her insights with you, sprinkled in with a little of my own thought.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book for your own pleasure or edification, I have a few of them here and, of course, they are available in stores or online.
Consider the birds for a moment. If God were a bird, what kind of bird would God be?
Oh, jeez, Dave, that’s a softball. God would be a dove. Most often in scripture, when we read about some description of God as a bird, he shows up as a dove. It’s right there in Mark 1. In fact, early on – the Genesis reading – says that “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.” In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud adds the words “like a dove”.
And really, if you’re going to assign an avian identity to the creator of the universe, why not go with “dove”? After all, what do doves signify? Peace, purity, sacrifice, gentleness…
Remember when Noah wanted to see if there was any hope for the inhabitants of the Ark? He sent out a raven first, but everyone knows you can’t trust those birds. Then a dove, right? In all the paintings of the Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception, how is the Holy portrayed? With a dove!
Of course, the twenty-first century has continued the historical identification of the dove with the holy. Look at all the places that little dove sticker has shown up – on cars, tattoos, clothing, backpacks – you name it, and there’s someone willing to sell you a dove symbol to slap onto it in the name of “evangelism” or “testimony”.
Before going further, I have to say that as much as I like birds, I find that to be a little irritating – as if the Holy Spirit was a fragile, delicate, even dainty presence. As if Christians, like Noah’s dove, are too good for the “real world”.
At any rate, would you agree that often, we see the attributes of God in the image of a dove? Yes? Let me ask you, then, whether your concept of the divine would change if Mark said, “he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him like a pigeon…”?
The truth, as you may know, is that the family Columbidae consists of 310 related species that are called, interchangeably, pigeons or doves. There is no standard rule as to which label to put on which bird. “Pigeon” is from a Latin root that apparently refers to the peeping of the chicks, and “Dove” is of Germanic origin, and refers to the diving flight pattern these birds share.
I learned that these words are used interchangeably while on a trip to Malawi some years ago. I was visiting a very poor village, but one man seemed to be doing all right. He had invited me into his home for dinner, and I asked what he did for a living. He indicated that he was a farmer and a breeder, and he raised doves for a living – that they were a very good source of meat. “Well,” I thought to myself, “that sounds really interesting…” And, I will confess to you, I felt a little sophisticated that evening, sitting in his home, thinking that I was dining on freshly-harvested dove.
And then, after dinner, he took me to the rear of his home and showed me his coops – small cages, filled, not with the holy, innocent birds of my imagination, but with pigeons.
Flying rats. Pests. Dirty, dirty birds.
But the scripture says that the Spirit appeared like a peristeron – a word that is sometimes translated as “dove” and other times as “pigeon.” Is God like a pigeon? Seriously? Well, what do you know about pigeons?
Maybe you know that pigeons, or doves, are used as tools for communication. Three thousand years ago, the Greeks used homing pigeons to deliver the results of Olympic races. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was first delivered to England by means of a carrier pigeon. Thirty-two pigeons have been awarded medals by the US military for carrying important information across enemy lines. Before the advent of drones, both the German Nazis and the American CIA fitted pigeons with little cameras and sent them aloft to gather information about the enemy.
Pigeons are everywhere. The only places on earth without some form of pigeon inhabitant are the extreme polar regions. Otherwise, however, you will find these birds just about anywhere that human beings can be found.
And, interestingly enough, while some birds are quite shy and are apt to take flight if they sense the presence of humans, pigeons are the opposite: they actually prefer living in an environment that is well-populated.
Think of that: pigeons carry news, they can be found just about anywhere, and delight in the company of humanity. Aren’t all of those things attributes of the Holy? Isn’t God like that? I mean, the Holy Spirit brought a message in Mark: “You are my son, my beloved, and I am deeply pleased!” Psalm 139 reminds us that there is no place on earth we can go to escape God’s spirit. And of course the Bible is full of references to the delight and love that God shares in his creation of human beings. Maybe God is like a pigeon.
No, no, no! Doves, I can take. Pigeons are disgusting vermin. God is not like that. Pigeons are unclean. The Holy Spirit, and God moving through Christ – that is clean and pure.
Don’t be so sure.
The Annunciation and Incarnation announce the truth: God is enfleshed. The Almighty has become one of us. Do you believe that?
And you know the truth: that to be human is to experience, endure, and even to cause some measure of unpleasantness. There are smells and wrinkles and sounds of which we are not (or at least should not be) proud. You know what I mean: you people, in all of your human-ness and fleshiness and embodiment can be, well, disgusting at times.
And yet God the Father has sent God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to be one of us. God chose to participate in human-ness. And human-ness can be a messy business!
Just look at the Gospel reading for today. What is the first thing, according to Mark, that Jesus does when he’s starting off his ministry? He undergoes baptism. The all-powerful, all-pure, holy and obedient Son of God walks into a ritual that symbolizes death and renewed life, and commands us to do the same. That’s a funny way to launch a religion. Debbie Blue refers to it this way:
There’s something about the story of God becoming human, entering the body fully, touching all over everything unclean – eating, defecating, suffering, dying…that seems to be the thrust of the narratives.
Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized…a symbol of death and renewed life…Gods don’t generally die – nor would they stoop to being baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary.
To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. John the Baptist says he saw it descend as a dove – a pigeon. It lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit it with a stick all day long, but it keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.
Listen: the Spirit of God is hovering, like a pigeon, in your world. The good news of the dove-ish, pigeon-like God is that no place is too messy, and no person is too impure, and no part of your life is beyond God’s reach.
Ask Jason and Kelly, or Jason and Amanda, or any of our Cross Trainer staff if they awaken every day to see only sweetness and light, unadulterated joy and innocence, or beatific and delightful aromas coming from the children that they have been given to love for a lifetime or for a season.
That is not likely.
There is a lot of spit-up, poopy diapers, body odor, and general grossness involved with coming alongside of people in their human-ness. I am reminded of the time a few years back when one of the Cross Trainer staff come to me and said, “Um, Pastor Dave, will you come and take a look at this? Because this one little boy’s hair is, well, um, moving. I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that.” Yeah. Lice at the summer camp.
Being human is not for the rosy-eyed optimists, the unsullied idealists, the faint of heart, or those who are afraid to enter the “real world” for fear of being polluted.
And yet, God in Christ has identified with us so completely in our humanity that he undergoes a baptism.
Thanks be to God for his willingness to enter fully into where we are, and who we are, and what we are so that we might better glimpse where, who, and what God is.
In a few moments, you will be called to leave this sanctuary and enter into the messiness, the impurity, the ordinariness of life in your world. Don’t be afraid to mix it up with the messiness of life and love, and with people who are not as “pure” as you wish they were. Don’t be surprised when you discover that you are not as “pure” as you’d like your pastor to believe you are. God is, no matter how difficult you may find it to believe, with you.
[God] lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit [God] with a stick all day long, but [He] keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013) p. 18
 Blue, p. 18.