Tag: birds

Testify to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28
egg-3
Rachael Djaba and Ben grin and show off a couple of the family’s hens. (by Heifer International)

Isaiah sounds as if he is writing a song of joy… saying things like “Good news to the oppressed!” and “I will greatly rejoice!” but Isaiah is actually writing a lament. A song of sorrow.

You see, returning is not restoration.

The exiles from Babylon have returned to Jerusalem and found the holy temple of God destroyed. The city and its surrounding cities destroyed. Ruins. And at first, they were so happy to leap into action. The returning Jewish population told the local population who were not exiled just what was what. The returning population were those priests and scribes and educated folk. The population who stayed were average people, and poor people. Over time, strife grew among them.

“Let’s build back the temple of God!” said those returning.

So the locals did… but the new temple was not as marvelous as Solomon’s. And the returned Jews grumbled, ‘You just can’t get good help! This thing looks awful!’

And the remaining Jews grumbled, ‘This is the best we could do. Who are these soft people to tell US what to do? WE who had to stay and try to survive in ruin?”

And the two groups bicker.

Isaiah brings the Good News to both: the oppressed locals and the brokenhearted returned exiles. He says God will gift them joy, garland, instead of sorrow and ashes. They, together, are a planting of the Lord and will be great trees to display God’s glory. Together they will rebuild cities and the devastations of many generations.

Indeed – returning is not restoration.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

Consider the families in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (among many other places). When they return home from evacuating from fires and hurricanes, they don’t find a HOME. They find a place, where once their home was. Houses are gone. Familiar trees and landmarks reduced to rubble. There is a long process of rebuilding the houses.

And even when the rebuilding is done, over months, there is still not restoration. Some people never come back and choose to live where they evacuated. Your neighbor of twenty years now lives 2000 miles away. Some buildings are not rebuilt. If, God forbid, we were to lose this church we’re in… you cannot build a new church and have it be 175 year old lovingly restored brick and slate. It is a new building, with a new history.

And our lives- their lives- are forever changed. All that time without work, all that money invested into rebuilding, all that effort.

The American Civil War was 152 years ago and yet STILL you can see its effects in our politics, in our buildings, in our church denominations even and so forth.

Returning to a place, or even liberating a people, does not mean there is restoration.

Restoration is a hard job that takes more than just being present.

Each Sunday I have been speaking about an alternative gift idea for your loved ones for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, I spoke about reusing, regifting, and also passing on your photos and stories as ways to live into hope and future-thinking.

Last Sunday, I spoke about ANERA, the American Near-East Refugee Aid, as a way to gift peace monetarily into the Middle East. I also spoke about working locally living peace by learning about and welcoming the stranger.

Today, I speak about Heifer International – who are bringing joy around the world and not just being in an area, but restoring an area. Today I ask you to consider giving a flock of chickens, or a pair of goats, to a family somewhere in the world in the name of a loved one for Christmas. Just as our Baltimore – Millersport kids gifted sheep with our Barn Yard Round Up VBS.

Now, if you don’t know the story yet, let me tell you a bit about the non-profit.

“Dan West, a farmer and youth leader, was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. While passing out powdered milk to children on both sides of the conflict, he grieved when the supply of milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He reasoned that these people needed “not a cup, but a cow.” He challenged his farmer friends at home to send heifers. Because he believed that everyone who receives should also experience the dignity of giving, West came up with the idea of Passing on the Gift. Every family who receives a Heifer animal, he insisted, should pass on one of their animal’s offspring to someone else in need.”

Heifer only enter communities upon invitation. They train project participants extensively on a host of topics that range from animal husbandry to gender equity. Even down to what kinds of grass produce the best milk. But the education and generosity doesn’t end there.

Each family who is given all this know-how AND the flock of chickens, milking cows, goats, or llamas or sheep are asked to pass this same knowledge and animals to another family when their own animals have offspring. This turns people who received, into givers, and empowers everyone. Also, “the impact of the original gift is doubled, at minimum, proving that small actions lead to big results” – lasting, transformative change occurs not just for one family, but for the whole community.

For instance, hear the story of Rachael Djaba, of Ghana, She and her husband and seven biological kids, live in “a rural area, populated mostly by subsistence farmers and fiishermen. For many of them, their income rarely stretches to cover much more than banku and fufu, traditional fare made of plantains, cassava or corn. These foods offer plenty of carbohydrates, but little else.” Many people in this area are stunted, anemic, and very ill. One day the family found a week old baby abandoned by his mentally ill mother. So they took him in as their eight child because, as Rachel says, “Even though we think we are poor, there are people more poor than us.”

This little baby, named Ben, seven months later, qualified the family to participate in a research project on nutrition with a university teamed up with Heifer international. The requirement was a family who had a child under the age of 1. And, because the Djaba’s chose to help out others even in their poverty, they, blessedly, now would be the recipients of aid.

All the families “who joined the project received 40 chickens and training on how to raise, care for and sell any excess eggs and poultry that were left after providing children in the family with at least one egg a day. Families also got seeds for home gardens. Because vegetables had been considered a rare luxury before, project participants had to learn how to cook with them and incorporate them regularly into their diets. By introducing eggs and leafy greens to the families’ diets and helping them set up businesses that produce a regular stream of income, Heifer and their partners hoped to curb malnutrition and give children a better start.”

In the Djaba’s case, baby Ben is THRIVING! And so are the 40 birds. They have turned into 170 birds on the little farm with another 80 birds already given or sold away. 20 crates of eggs are sold locally now. At one time, Rachel had to take out loans to buy medication for her constantly ill kids and they rarely went to school. Now, they haven’t been ill in two years and are in regular schooling.

And it’s because of generosity. People generously give to Heifer International, the Djaba family were generous to the little week old baby, and now everyone in their rural area has access to eggs and vegetables and are much healthier.

This is what restoration is. This is what the kin-dom of God looks like. This is fortunes reversed, the earth springing forth new life, and liberty from debt, release from poverty, comfort to mourners, and joy.

The joy of God.

The joy that loves justice and builds up others.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

John comes baptizing and calling people back to God. As you know, believers and doubters and the plain curious go out to meet him in the desert. They go out to the place. Most he calls vipers and snakes. Some realize the truth he is preaching and return to God.

To all, John says you’re here – at the PLACE – returning back to God, but that’s not the same as restored. “I baptize with water; but there is one who is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie his shoes.” As you know, other Gospels continue, “He will baptize you with fire, and the Holy Spirit.”

John says, I give you a cup of milk — but the cow is coming.

I give you a band aid, but the great physician is on his way.

I am not the light – but I testify to the light.

WE are called to do the same. WE are called to live into this light, to testify to it, and to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’

We are called to restore each other and lead one another to the ever-restoring waters of Christ. We are called to not just go to a place – not just go to church – but be the church that is restored, and restoring, others.

We are not the light, but we testify to the light.

And for this light, for this invitation to not just return, but to be RESTORED – we can rejoice!

The Lord has anointed you with water, and fire, and the Holy Spirit to bring good news, and proclaim the favor of the lord. Go and do so!

Amen.

 

All quoted text that isn’t Biblical is from Heifer International’s website, December, 2017, and their children’s Christian education flyer

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Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?

Maybe…

The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?

Amen.

House Sparrows

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11

Psalm 84

Great big monuments – monuments like the Statue of Liberty, like the Eiffel Tower, like Stonehenge and the Sydney Opera House- all share one big woe…

Birds.

Sparrows.

Like the little house sparrows who like to live in each and every little crevasse they can fit into within our own homes. I’ve got one family in a nest in a little nook between my chimney and my house; and another in between the beam and the siding of my shed. I can see a nest in the eaves of my neighbor’s porch, and I think there is one in each of the bird houses he’s put up all about his drive.

And still they want more nesting space. One keeps trying to turn a ledge against my window into a nest. There just isn’t enough of a ledge for her.

Today’s scripture is about the magnificence of the first temple. It is a sampling of pages of description. When it was wrote, the people were in exile and so wrote these remembering a fond building that was no longer around. It is a verbal tour of a remembered sacred spot. They wanted to record what an amazing building the temple was, and to keep its memory around.

The psalms about the temple, however, include humorous little insights about temple life. For instance — birds liked to nest in the temple eaves. Nations rise and fall, sacred buildings are built and destroyed – but sparrows continue to nest in eaves.

It doesn’t matter if that eave belongs to the first temple to God… or to a desolate ruin in a war-torn land… respectful or shameful, the birds nest there.

Although it is just a little insight, a small part of our reading, the lines about the sparrows nesting in the temple speak to me about God. Speak to me about who God is and God’s relationship to us.

Sometimes, I think I am a sparrow. In more ways than one.

For instance, some evenings I feel like I’ve felt the whole day flying here and there, to and fro. Like a sparrow, I’ve been busy all day but I don’t have anything to show for it. No stores of food gathered, nothing checked off my to do list, but yet I was busy all day it seems.

I know I landed on a few branches to take a breather just because it was so hectic!

But what did all this rush accomplish?

Other days, I feel like a sparrow seeking a dry spot from a storm. I huddle into this little eave but the wind buffets me here. I shoot over to that little branch and hope it is dryer, but it’s just as wet when I get there. I hide under a bush and cats startle me. I hide in places I thought were safe – like under a car – but it turns out they’re not. I go to people I thought were safe, friends or family – and it turns out they’re not. I’m weary to my bones and I feel like I’m dragging myself place to place but there is no rest.

Where is there safe shelter when it rains?

And some days, I am a sparrow below notice or care. The blue birds get special boxes made for them, the hummingbirds get special feeders made for them. I get chased out of my nests with brooms and angry curses. I get chased away from feeding on grain and feed by barn cats and yappy dogs. The green heron is protected and I am shot for sport. The cedar waxwing is photographed, the oriole praised for his song, and I am called a dull, drab nuisance bird.

Even the pigeon, called by some people a rat with wings, is said to sing prettily with those wings when it flies.

When everyone seems to get preferential treatment but me, I don’t feel special or wanted. Who cares about me? I’m not one in a million, but one OF a billion mes? As common as common can be.

Some days, we are sparrows. Pests. Getting into places we ought not. Rushing. To and fro without getting anything done. Common. Not flashy, not note-worthy, not on TV or YouTube. When we are sparrows – and we are sparrows more often than peaceful doves or proud cardinals I think – When we are sparrows, how does God feel about us? Where do we turn for comfort?

Usually we turn to the Bible for comfort. But it speaks of doves. Praises those rats with wings. It speaks of the dove of the Holy Spirit descending, the dove of peace with the olive branch in her mouth returning to Noah, the doves offered in the temple. But sparrows?

Because some days, I know I’m not a pure white dove. I’m a sparrow – common. I don’t stand out in the least. But I sing nevertheless. I raise my family. I sunbathe and splash in shallow pools. I gather thistle seed and millet. But this makes me common. A pest to some. A welcome song to others. And below the notice of most.

And yet, Jesus notices us.

The word for ‘sparrow,’ or a small bird, in the Bible is used by Jesus to represent the smallest of things. According to some scholars, sparrows were the meat of the poor. Hotdogs. Spam.

Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny?” and in Luke, “Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies?” So sparrows are a buy four get one deal! … we have buy one get one on hotdogs all the time. They’re not valuable. Other parts of the bible talk about snaring sparrows, and making them flee – catching and eating the little birds. But no one brags “I caught a sparrow for dinner!” Just like no one brags, “Come over for a Thanksgiving dinner of hotdogs!”

Cheap meat.

In Matthew Jesus continues, “Yet not one of these sparrows fall to the ground outside of your Father’s notice. Even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” In Luke, Jesus continues, “Yet not one of these sparrows is forgotten by God. Indeed, even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.”

You are worth more than many hotdogs, and yet God even notices and cares for that cheap meat, too. God knows how many sparrows there are, and how many hairs are on your head. God knows. God notices. God cares.

Our Psalmist writes how in the temple are sparrows making their nests up in the porch, and in the eaves. The very least of meat, the very least of birds, the most common and not noteworthy are right there, with God. Living right under God’s protection, nesting in a place of honor.

No one and nothing is beneath the notice and care of God.

And the least are the most important to our loving parent.

The least – the ones who are without honor. The ones who keep messing up. The ones who need assistance to get by. The ones who need God’s forgiveness and mercy. God gives them love, welcomes them in, and provides for them the honor and security they don’t have in the normal world.

The normal world is cruel. The person who tries to do good is often burned, hurt, because they chose to follow their morals. The people who lie, cheat, steal, and speak badly about others seem to get ahead.

In the normal world, those who forgive are call weak. Those who do kind deeds are said to be self-righteous, or out to get something. Those who call themselves Christian and go to church are mocked in the public eye. Those who call themselves Christian and go to church and disagree with some of the things other Christians do and say are alienated, isolated, and told they are not true Christians for not being so radical. In the cruel normal world, no good deed goes unpunished… right? And the nice guy finishes last.

But we – we who know the temple of God – we who see the sparrows in the eaves – we know God envisions a new world. God is making, is speaking, is dreaming a new reality. In this to-come world, there is harmony. There is peace. There is justice. Even the lowly sparrow, the cheap meat, the pest, has a place and purpose. Has honor. Is wanted and welcomed. Even the lowly sinner, the one who keeps falling short, the one who society scorns has a place and a purpose. Has honor.

We, here today, are invited to live in this new world NOW. We who call ourselves Christians are standing with the sparrows and the outcasts. We are standing with one foot in the new world. We are dreaming with God and working with God to make the kindom – the land of mutual kinship – NOW. Heaven is not distant, the kingdom of God, the kindom of creation, is not far off in the future: it is now. And the more we live into it, the more we welcome it, the more visible and accessible it is to all people.

We have eternal life – we have life always new, always abundant – we have the promise of rebirth, of life after death and defeats – we have the promise of God’s abiding presence and love. There is no need to be afraid, to be silent, or to hang our heads in shame. Let us praise our God like a sparrow tweets over seed – let us praise God with sheer delight – for our God is love! And in this love, all have a place!

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio, 8-23-15