Turning to Wonder
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-30
So, here we are at last: my final sermon in the pulpit here at United Parish. I can’t believe the whirlwind journey we’ve been on together over my time as a seminarian with you.
Not only is this my last sermon, however; it is also the next sermon in our Eastertide series, “Co-Workers in God’s Service.” Throughout this series, we are taking a look at the lives of other co-workers in our faith, both past and present, who have inspired us by their example– especially as we prepare for next Sunday, when we will have the opportunity to show up as co-workers in God’s service by making our financial and service pledges for the upcoming ministry year.
As I’ve begun to reflect on my time here at United Parish, I’ve started to do a lot of thinking about who in this community served as my mentors and teachers throughout this experience. There’s Pastor Kent and Pastor Amy, of course, and far too many of you sitting in the pews today to name individually. There are those of you, for example, who invited me to lead Bible study, or encouraged me when I was feeling nervous, or took the time to greet my visiting family and friends with open arms.
Each and every one of you, in ways big and small, have taught me something new, and I am so, so grateful.
However, If I’m being honest, I do have one more group of teachers to thank, and many of them are probably flapping their wings and hanging out on tree branches all around us right this very minute.
For your sakes, I hope none of them are hanging out above your cars.
That’s right. As of this moment, I’m officially counting the neighborhood birds among my mentors in this position. Let me explain.
As part of my work as seminarian, I had the privilege of helping to coordinate our weekly dinner churches during the Lenten season. Each Thursday evening, I had the honor of helping to create a space for all of us to gather around a meal, to share pubic confessions, and to carve out quiet moments in the midst of busy weeks.
It was beautiful work, to be sure, but as Lent progressed, I became tempted to focus more on the logistics of the meal rather than the holy meaning behind it. Indeed, it sometimes became easier for me to focus on what would happen if the soup or the volunteers didn’t show up versus what would happen if and when God did.
One night, I found myself cleaning up in the kitchen after most of our guests had gone home for the night or moved on to choir rehearsal. Suddenly faced with baskets of communion bread I knew that I could never (responsibly) consume on my own, I decided on a whim to venture out into the early spring air to see if any of our feathered neighbors might be interested.
At first, I was disappointed. The only thing keeping me company was my own breath, still disappointingly visible in the New England chill. Despite this, I decided to half-heartedly sprinkle a few bits of the bread across the lawn, take a few steps back, and wait.
Sometimes, all you have to do is set the table.
After a few moments, a handful of little brown birds appeared, approaching the scattered piles of bread with cautious curiosity. Following a few exploratory pecks, they realized I was safe, and began to really chow down, making small chirps and murmurs of appreciation to one another in between bites.
In that moment, as they ate scraps of bread from our dinner church, those little birds didn’t care whether I had started the service on time or printed enough orders of worship. In that moment, those birds simply expressed pure joy to one another at a humble miracle: that they were being nourished to sing and fly and stretch their wings once more.
On the lawn that night, those little birds joined together in a tiny feast of thanksgiving for life and for one another– and what is that if not a window right into the mystery and the beauty of Communion itself?
Immediately afterward, I texted Kent about the experience, only to have him reply: “That was very Saint Francis of you.”
The comparison caused a huge grin to leap across my face– after all, which seminarian wouldn’t want to earn a comparison to Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most-beloved saints within the Christian tradition?
Even if you don’t know the history of Francis or the many stories and folktales associated with his ministry, I guarantee that he has shown up somewhere in your life– the long shadow he casts over our culture is simply impossible to ignore.
Ever since his death and canonization in Italy in the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi has appeared on postcards and coffee cups, in some of the world’s most-valuable works of art and in the bargain bin of nearly every garden supply store. Countless hospitals, veterinary clinics, schools, and monasteries worldwide owe their titles to him.
And, even if you do not know his story, you may have heard the words of his famous Peace Prayer, which we shared together earlier this morning as our Prayer of Confession.
Over the course of his life and ministry, Francis accomplished many feats, including the care of the sick and the poor, the founding of a global religious order, and even an early attempt at international peace talks to try to end the bloody Crusades.
However, perhaps more than anyone else in the history of our faith, St. Francis of Assisi is widely known for his deep relationship with animals and the natural world. In 1979, he was even declared by Pope John Paul II as the Patron Saint of Ecology, though the close connection between Francis and the Creation had already saturated our imagination long before then, mostly due to popular folktales and stories about his life and ministry.
Animals and other living things of all kinds– bees, trees, fish, flowers, crickets, rabbits, and even a very hungry wolf– are all guest stars in these stories, and often the primary witnesses to Francis’s acts of preaching, teaching, and healing.
Thomas of Celano, a medieval monk and member of Francis’ religious order who knew him personally, recounts one famous story about the saint’s encounter with a flock of birds: One morning, as Francis made his way down a valley road, he came upon a great multitude of birds assembled in the trees. Delighted, Francis ran to greet them and touch their heads, and they did not fly away.
Once Francis had greeted every bird, he addressed them all and began to preach to them, saying: “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love Him always. He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings for flying. Among all His creatures He made you free and gave you the purity of the air. You neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless governs you without your least care.”
According to legend, at these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way. They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at Francis. They did not leave their place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.
Afterward, upon returning to his brother monks in the order, Francis scolded himself for never having preached to birds before, and from that day forward Francis made it a point to preach to every animal he came across.
Now, if you remember the Gospel passage from Matthew just a few minutes ago, the content of Francis’ sermon to the birds should sound familiar.
In this Gospel lesson, just like in the story of St. Francis, Jesus draws on the image of birds to make a point about God’s care of every living thing. But it’s not just in the content of these stories that Jesus and St. Francis share something in common; indeed, what strikes me as similar, as we read these stories back-to-back, is not necessarily the what of Jesus’s teaching and Francis’ preaching, but the how.
In Jesus’s case, he does not wait to rely on religious authorities or people with expensive degrees and credentials to share wisdom about the way God works. Instead, he looks closely at and listens to every part of God’s Creation around him– even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, those little miracles we might just miss if we aren’t paying attention.
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus recognizes every atom of the Creation for what it is–a source of deep insight into the very heart of God– and approaches it from a place of wonder.
Likewise, what stands out to me about St. Francis’ sermon to the birds is not that he speaks to them, but rather that he also learns from them. Indeed, like all the best sermons, Francis’s sermon to the birds is less of a lecture and more of a conversation. In their neck stretching and wing spreading, in opening their beaks in a chorus of thanksgiving for their Creator, the birds speak back to Francis and remind him of the glory of God’s unfolding love for Creation, every bird and tree and rock and valley.
In their response, the birds remind St. Francis once again that they are his brothers and sisters, and that they, too, have something to say about who God is and where God shows up.
The miracle and the legacy of St. Francis– the reason we count him so highly among our Co-Workers in God’s Service– is not simply that he preached the Gospel to the Creation. Indeed, Francis’s real legacy is his insistence on treating every created thing of God as a co-participant and companion in the miracle of this life, right here and now.
The birds and trees, the dogs and cats, the greatest whales and the smallest honeybees we encounter in our lives are not there simply for our own use, abuse, or even entertainment. They are created by God, Co-Workers in Her service of beauty, joy, creativity, and liberation. They bear the spark of the divine within them. And, if we wait and we truly listen to them from a place of wonder, just as Jesus and Francis both did, we might just learn something.
This, I think, is why my encounter with the birds might have something to do with St. Francis. It wasn’t that I was feeding the birds, or even speaking to them. Instead, it was that they gave me the chance to look at them in wonder and learn something new about God.
The miracle of St. Francis, and the radical message he continues to bring to us today, is not only that he is our Brother and Co-Worker in this faith, but that everything created by God is our companion and Co-Worker, too.
In fact, I think both Jesus and St. Francis would echo a piece of wisdom, first written by Parker Palmer, that we shared as a group agreement before each section of our Lenten study: “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.”
It is wondrous that we exist at all, and that we get to share this universe with plants and animals and sunsets and thunderstorms. When we take the time to stop taking the Creation and its inhabitants for granted– when we stop and turn in wonder toward the birds of the air and the lilies of the field all around us– we can learn something new about God and about ourselves.
As we close, I want to turn us toward one more sign of wonder in God’s Creation. I want to tell you a story about Betsy.
Betsy was a dog– a miniature border collie, to be precise, with all the energy and cuteness to boot– who belonged to a family in the church I grew up in.
Like many border collies, Betsy could be quite a handful at times. She was known to attempt many infamous Escape from Alcatraz-style runs from her family’s backyard, culminating in one memorable morning when her dad flashed his boxer shorts to the entire neighborhood while trying to chase her around the cul-de-sac. Her exploits quickly became the stuff of church legend, and one night, she shared something with us that I don’t think I will ever forget.
For several days prior, someone in Betsy’s family– a pregnant woman– had been experiencing concerning symptoms. Despite her worries and her physical pain, however, her worries were largely dismissed by her medical team, who used every word shy of “hysterical” to describe her growing anxiety.
Exhausted from frustration, fear, and her growing physical discomfort, this woman decided to lie back on the couch while the rest of the family scrambled, bickered, and attempted to decide what to do next.
At that precise moment, in the midst of the family chaos, the notoriously high-energy Betsy changed. She jumped, gently, onto the couch, crept softly toward the reclining woman, and serenely wrapped her short, furry body around the exact width of the woman’s belly.
The room slowly grew silent as each family member, one by one, pulled their focus away from bickering about doctor’s appointments and emergency room wait times to notice instead, just for one second, the scene of a small dog looking back at them from a woman’s pregnant stomach with warmly curious brown eyes.
On that night, Betsy did not try to “fix” anything. Betsy did not ignore or minimize the woman’s pain, nor did she try to explain it away. All she did was remain beside a human she loved who was suffering. All she did was show up.
That is how I believe that God shows up with us when the going gets tough, how God already shows up for us each and every day. On that night, it didn’t take a dusty textbook or a master’s degree in theology for anyone to understand that.
Instead, all it took was a little dog, a masterpiece of God’s creation, finally being paid the attention and wonder she already deserved.
Everything– every thing, every sunbeam and amoeba and octopus and daffodil and, yes, human being– everything in Creation is a co-worker with us in God’s service, a companion on the road, a potential teacher and guide for us on the path. St. Francis, like Jesus of Nazareth before him, understood this. He understood that when we treat the Creation without wonder, when we take anything God has made for granted, we risk missing out on a central lesson of our own spiritual education.
This is the gift, and the responsibility, given to us by St. Francis now, all these centuries later. May we rise to meet the challenge. Amen.