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.
This morning at 8:30 a.m., there were 269 people watching one of the most popular webcams in the city of Pittsburgh. Since January, computer users have taken nearly 3.5 million opportunities to visit the bald eagle nest on the Monongahela river in Hays. The eagles’ Facebook page has more than 15,000 “likes”. In recent weeks, when I have put my boat in the water, the most frequent request from visitors has been, “Can we see the eagles?”
We love us some eagles, don’t we?
Of course, the bald eagle clenching 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other is the national symbol of the USA, but did you know that the eagle is also featured on the flags and crests of dozens of other nations from Albania to Zambia? And, as I mentioned last week, the eagle is the number one mascot for sports teams in American schools.
And, really, what’s not to like or admire about the bird? Oh, sure, Benjamin Franklin famously charged the bald eagle as being a “bird of bad moral character”, but he’s clearly in the minority. Those birds are just amazing.
The golden eagle has been clocked in a dive at 120 miles per hour. The eagle’s brain is small – about an inch cubed, but its eyes are the same size as yours – and 3.6 times more powerful. Of course it uses that eyesight to find prey, which it will snatch and grab with its amazingly powerful leg muscles and sharp talons. The razor-sharp beak will pierce the fur of a victim and often snap its neck.
As a hunter, the eagle is ruthless and efficient. In fact, many eagles are hunters from birth: the first hatchling in the nest will often murder the smaller, weaker newborn as the parents look on. Eagles will eat and attack just about anything: their diets are varied by species, but around the world you will find eagles who eat fish, small mammals, birds, wolves, and antelope. The Steller’s sea eagle has the ability to carry fifteen pounds of meat while flying. A 1929 newspaper account told the story of eight-year old Jim Meece, who was picked up and carried two hundred feet by a bald eagle on the hunt. In the course of researching this message, I came across accounts of eagles attacking full-grown humans, hang-gliders, and even airplanes.
There is one other tidbit that will tell you how fierce these birds are. One well-known reference book on raptors includes this passage: “They have at least one singular characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey (or shortly thereafter); predation is after all a two-edged sword. All hawks seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not the Eagles.” That is to say, the eagle is sure that nobody – nobody – is going to mess with it.
For those reasons, and more, I’m sure, our most powerful and threatening weapons are called “eagles”. There is the F-15 Eagle fighter plane, one of the most lethal weapons ever employed by the US armed forces (and now exported to many other countries around the world). A single BAe “Sea Eagle” missile is powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier. The “Desert Eagle” is one of the world’s most common semi-automatic handguns. The “Gray Eagle” drone can carry deadly Hellfire missiles and stay aloft for more than two days.
Eagles – both biological and mechanical – are remarkable killing machines, and we find that fascinating.
Last week we mentioned that the word that is often translated as “eagle” in our bibles, nesher, probably refers most often to the vulture, rather than the bird of prey we imagine. However, eagles themselves do appear in the bible from time to time, and then, as now, they are most often used as a symbol of Empire.
Our reading from Habakkuk, for instance, describes the Chaldean military force as one filled with “shock and awe”, characterized by might and strength. When the eagle does appear in scripture, it’s not usually good news – in fact, it’s often accompanied by the word “woe”. Eagles are fierce, terrible, punishing forces that are unleashed upon those who are powerless to resist them.
But we love them.
We want to be them.
We long to be the fearless titan at the top of the food chain who doesn’t even look back when striking; who will go where it wants when it wants doing what it wants without interference.
From the Anheuser-Busch logo on our beer cans to the symbol of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle to American Eagle Outfitters to Giant Eagle grocery, we (pardon the pun) flock to this image of power and success and freedom. The way of the eagle is attractive and seductive.
It is a mistake, though, for us to consider that as our identity. Because the way of the eagle, however alluring it may be, is not the way of Jesus. Oh, they tried to make him into an eagle. The Zealots, in particular, sought to make the presence and cause of Jesus into the symbol of their nationalistic pride. Jesus, however, refused to carry that mantle.
He chose to be weak and vulnerable – starting in a stable and finishing on a cross. He called us to measure our power by different standards than does the world.
That’s not to say that Jesus was – or is – powerless, weak, or ineffective. Indeed, I can think of no force greater than that which he embodies and shares – the force that healed the sick, that challenged the mighty, and that opened the grave.
But that is not the power of arms, wings, talons, or weaponry. It is the power of love, service, and vulnerability.
Parents know more about this than most others. What happens when your seventeen year old stays out late and drives the car without permission? You use the power that you have: you throw down the gauntlet and begin to tell that child what he or she will and will not do. If you’re not careful, you get into a spitting contest, as each side in this conflict becomes increasingly entrenched: you ground your son and he goes out anyway; you take the keys and he finds the extra set; you yell “no” and he yells louder.
We know it, we see it all the time – in our own homes, in our neighborhoods, in the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians or along any nation’s borders. Bombs become more powerful. Stones are met with bullets are met with rockets are met with jet fighter strikes. Fences get taller, detention cells get bigger, and the power of ME gets louder and louder.
Martin Luther said that there was such a thing as “right-handed” and “left-handed” power. Right handed power is the kind of power that the eagle uses, the kind of power that we find to be very helpful when pushing a load of barges up the river, or trapping the groundhog that has been tearing up our garden, or pulling a toddler away from busy traffic. But that kind of force is not usually effective relationally. “Because I’m the boss…” is not a great way to build cohesion at work; yelling louder is not usually the best way to “win” an argument, and so on. Left-handed power is intuitive and paradoxical; it is strength that often looks like weakness and force that sometimes sounds like invitation.
Earlier this week I read an account by 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In talking about her technique to bring beauty from stone and wood, she said,
My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand. This holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this hand into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses of flaws in the stone; for the possibility or imminence of fractures.
Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is the ultimate practitioner of left-handed power. He modeled, and then called for his followers to adopt, the role of the servant. He made himself the vulnerable one. The Lord of all creation died as he forgave us on the cross.
And I can hear you and our world, and you make sense as you cry out: “But that’s foolish! That’s no way to get ahead! That’s no way to get where you want to get! How are you ever going to stop evildoers, teach someone a lesson, or establish the rule of law with that kind of power?”
You won’t, of course – no more than Jesus stopped those who were asserting their power and strength over him. Jean Vanier puts it this way:
Trusting people are vulnerable and can be easily crushed, as Jesus was crushed. A community which trusts in God rather than in the righteousness of its ‘cause’ can always be crushed, but from that crushing will come resurrection. There is a hidden strength in being vulnerable, open and non-violent, in being a people of the resurrection, knowing that we are loved and that God is guiding us, in all our fragility and littleness. We are not a people who think we are better. We are not an elite. We are people who are poor, but who have been drawn together by God and put their trust in God. That is what a kingdom community is about: a community that knows it has been called by God in all its poverty and weakness, and that God is love.
Just to be clear, I love the eagles. If we’re out on the trail or on the river, I’ll show them to you. They are majestic creatures…but they are not helpful to me as a model of faith or behavior. If I seek my identity in the might of the eagle, I am making a terrible mistake. In her consideration of this bird in the book that has inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue hit on one way that the eagle can be a model for those who seek to follow Christ.
She points out that although this ferocious predator has few natural enemies, it was almost wiped out a generation ago by the use of certain chemicals and pesticides. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was writing about the ways that this avian superpower was vulnerable to forces outside its own control. In the early 1700s, there were more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous states. By 1963, the species was on the verge of extinction with only 487 pairs. The immense prowess of this raptor was no match for the factors in the world that proved dangerous to it.
And yet, we chose to act. The environmental movement was launched, we learned about the power and danger of synthetic pesticides, we established sanctuaries and protections for these birds. And the species has rebounded, as you can see while walking the South Side on a clear day.
Debbie Blue writes,
Maybe the eagle is a good national symbol after all. Not because of its capacity to do violence or to fight. Not because it’s such a good, strong killer, but because it shows how when we pulled together we helped bring something back from the brink of extinction. It turns out to be the symbol of what we can do when we work together – the resurrective value of cooperation. Maybe we can do this again.
We nurtured what was vulnerable as a nation and brought something beautiful to life again. I say, let’s embrace the eagle as our symbol after all, to represent not our allegiance to power, but our commitment to hope.
We follow a Rabbi named Jesus who said that the greatest people are those who serve, and that love is stronger than death, and that forgiveness is more powerful than our ability to destroy each other. Together, we saved the bald eagle from being wiped out. What if we chose to use the power of love, service, and humility in bringing reconciliation to South Sudan, or the Middle East, or along our nation’s borders, or in our political discourse, or in our own homes? My prayer is that in my life, and in our lives together, we might be found to be faithful to Christ’s call to serve, to love, and to forgive. For the sake of the world, may it be so. Amen.
 Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Sutton, C.; Dunne, P.; Sibley, D. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989).
 Robert Farrar Capon discusses the notion of right- and left-handed power eloquently in The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985).
 From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p. 51.
 Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 102-103.