Consider the Birds of the Air

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Peder Stenslie
8th Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 6:24-34

I think today’s gospel lesson is quite beautiful. Jesus’ words are very poetic and he uses such vivid images from nature. Birds and wildflowers… two of my favorite things! The tone of the Jesus’ words is very comforting. I love to hear this passage and just let the words wash over me.

However, after the initial pleasure of this passage… and as soon as my brain engages… I always find it troubling… because what it seems to be saying just doesn’t seem right to me. It seems to be saying that I shouldn’t worry, because everything is going to be fine. Living is easy. Look at the birds and flowers, they don’t worry and they manage fine because God looks after them. And that just doesn’t ring true to me. It’s not true for birds… and it’s not true for us.

The other night I dreamed about birds. I dreamed about a special bird we get during the summer months in North Dakota. It is called the Bobolink. My family occasionally gets one nesting on the prairie right behind our house. It will sit on our fence and sing in the morning. It is striking both to look at and listen to.5-31-10 (Bobolink6--Kristian)

Bobolink photo by Kristian Stenslie, taken May 31st, 2010.

The Bobolink spends the winter months far away down in South America. When the time comes, it makes a 6000 mile journey to its breeding grounds on North Dakota’s pastures, hayfields and meadows.

The males arrive first and battle each other to establish their territories. The females arrive about a week later. Then the action really begins. The males give spirited courtship displays. They sing lively songs, give aerial chases, and battle each other relentlessly for mates.

Once pairs are established, the female Bobolink weaves a grass cup right on the ground, lining it with fine plant materials. The nest lays hidden in tall vegetation. After that, eggs are laid and incubated. After hatching, the parents feed the young in the nest for about 2 weeks. And continue to feed them for some time after they’ve left the nest.

Toward the end of the summer, Bobolink families begin to flock together and prepare for their 6000 mile journey back to their wintering grounds in South America.

Bobolink is a species of bird that has seen its numbers declining in recent years. There are many dangers that threaten these small birds. On their wintering grounds in South America they are shot in large numbers and they are poisoned by agricultural pesticides. The 6000 mile journey is strenuous and full of dangers. During their nesting time, they face many predators… fox, raccoons… and the worst of all, farm cats. The weather can also cause nests to fail. The worst danger Bobolink nests face is from the farmer’s mower. Frequent mowing of hayfields often destroys the nests of Bobolinks and other prairie ground nesters.

Birds do not lead an easy, carefree life. They have to fight, tooth and nail, simply that they might live and reproduce. Their lives are incredibly hard and absolutely filled with mortal danger.

Also, the image of birds as being worry-free doesn’t ring true. If you spend any time at all watching birds you realize how they constantly… and I mean constantly… are on the alert for danger. They are always scanning the skies, scanning the ground. The slightest movement or perceived threat either launches them into the air or gets them to call out the alarm.

So what does Jesus want us to understand when he asks us to consider the life of birds?

First, notice that Jesus never does state that birds lead an easy, carefree life… or even a worry-free life. Jesus only says that birds “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.” Of course they don’t. That’s human behavior. Jesus, for sure, was well aware of the hardships faced by the little birds of the world. He spent a lot of time out in nature and he certainly observed it for himself. On another occasion, Jesus mentions: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.” (Mt. 10:29) Both of those sentences imply the mortal dangers faced by small birds.

To get at the real meaning of this text, it’s helpful for me to start with something I know well… birds… and work back to the text from there.

What I have found truly remarkable about birds… and inspiring… is the pure boldness of their fight for life. With everything they are they serve the cause of life. In the midst of a hostile and dangerous world, they live with an undivided heart. They give truly all they have to serve the life God has blessed them with. In that way, they live as they were meant to live.

If we as human beings could only be so true to our calling to serve the life we have been given… to live as we were created to live… our lives would be so much richer… our world would be so much more wonderful.

But instead, we very easily get sidetracked. Often those whose lives are least threatened become most distracted with things and pursuits that drain them of life rather than serve it. We neglect the true treasures of life and become obsessed with things such as how we look… or… “Do others think I’m cool enough? Do I have enough stuff? Am I fun enough? Am I smart enough? Do others think I’m awesome? Are three garages enough… or do I need four? How do I compare to others?”

These kinds of concerns and worries sap us of strength. They cause us to make foolish choices and draw us away from real living. And that is tragic.

Life in this world is hard. It is filled with danger. Bad things happen. That is precisely why we need to learn from the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. They show us how we are called to live in the midst of such a world.

Birds and wildflowers are very small and weak in God’s vast creation. Yet in spite of hardships and mortal dangers all around them, these small birds serve life faithfully and boldly; and frail wildflowers grow to beauty. Humans, on the other hand… who are much stronger, more intelligent and live longer… we stumble about in life, worrying about this thing or that, forgetting who we are, losing sight of what is valuable, and therefore fail to live as a child of God.

We worry and are anxious about things that we think will make our lives complete and we lose our way. We get distracted by things we think are important, but are not… and so we neglect the most important tasks of our lives.

Toward the end of the lesson, Jesus indicates that there are two things to consider if we should want our lives to reflect the truth of the birds and wildflowers.

First, we need to stay true to what is worth fighting for in our lives. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” Jesus says. In other words, don’t be side-tracked by insecurities, petty temptations, empty treasures, and false promises… all the things that weaken and distort our living. Listen to voice of your creator… through his word and by his spirit… learn about God’s love for you and let it show you how to live and serve life.

Also, Jesus reminds us to trust the love of our creator. We need to trust, that whatever happens to us, God has us. We are safe. Jesus points out the care God shows to the birds of the air. They belong to him. He knows what they need. He knows what befalls every single one of them. He reminds us that we are more valuable to him than birds. God knows what we need, more than we do. He is with us through the hardships and the dangers of life. If we have faith… if we trust our creator… listen to him… he will work in us and help us live as we were created to live… even as we face death. And after that, he still has us.

We will not escape the hardships and dangers of this world anymore than any other creature of earth. However, God will anchor our being with the powerful truth proclaimed by Paul in his letter to the Romans: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 8:7-9)

Jesus asks in today’s lesson, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” The answer, of course, is “yes.” And the birds of the air and the flowers of the field show us the way. They show us the simple miracle of living life with an undivided heart. They show us what life looks like… and what happens… when a creature of God, with everything they are, strives to be what God created them to be. They face hardships and dangers with faithfulness and boldness. They become beautiful.

May those lessons be learned and lived by us.


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