Genesis 1:20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
I read this story on BBC this week. I couldn’t really work it into the sermon, so I’m just offering it as a bit of fun.
A British wildlife park has had to remove five African Grey parrots from public view because of their foul language. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park adopted the parrots about six weeks ago and put them in quarantine together. Steve Nichols, the park’s CEO, said potty-mouthed parrots aren’t uncommon in his line of work.
“For the last 25 years, we have taken in parrots that have sometimes had a bit of blue language. Every now and then you’ll get one that swears and it’s always funny when they swear at you. But, just by coincidence, we took in five in the same week – and because they were all quarantined together it meant that one room was just full of swearing birds. “The more they swear the more you usually laugh, which then triggers them to swear again – and imitate the sound of laughter.”Nichols said the cursing birds sounded “like an old working mens’ club all just swearing and laughing.” He said he decided it would be best to move the cursing birds out of view before visiting kids heard them. The birds have each been moved to different groups, with the plan to put them in separate areas of the park, “so at least if they do swear it is not as bad as three or four of them all blasting it out at once.”
He said he also hopes the cursing parrots learn nicer words from their new enclosure mates ― because he dreads the alternative. “If they teach the others bad language and I end up with 250 swearing birds, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
From God’s perspective, I think Day Five must have been a blast! Creation began by organizing energy and mass and matter, then light and darkness – all very cool cosmic stuff, to be sure! And then on day three the water above was separated from the water below – an atmosphere was created – and waters gathered together as dry land appeared – and then soil and water and sunshine brought forth vegetation … day three was a loonnngggg day! Day four seems a bit out of order. Sun and moon and the stars in their courses. But maybe not. God tilted the earth a bit and gave it a spin, and twirled the moon, and behold! – day and night, seasons and hemispheres, jet streams and tides that really got things humming.
And then, Day Five! “Let the waters bring forth…” The waters of the deep, the waters of ponds and streams and bogs, became co-creators with the divine word bringing forth swarms of living creatures – the gelatinous goo of frog and fish eggs, starfish and snails and eels and leeches, schools of fish, and the great sea monster Leviathan, just for the sport of it.
Though the text doesn’t say, I put whales and seals and dolphins in day five – because of the joyful commotion of their praise! Great whales blowing and breeching and whomping down their flukes. Seals clapping their flippers. Dolphins laughing and leaping in and out of the wake. And penguins. I remember a penguin exhibit when I was a little girl. One after another, the little guys came flying beak-first down a stone waterslide into the water right at my 4-year-old eye level with streams of bubbles all around. The penguins popped out of the water, waddled around flapping their little wings and squawking, and bobbled back up the rocks to do it again. How birds became creatures like penguins and ostriches is a bit of a head scratcher. But they fit with day five. There was an ostrich – the Arabian Ostrich – that was native to Palestine and Israel until its extinction in 1966. The Bible lists a lot of birds by name – hundreds of them – and animals and plants. But, for all the talk of fishing, they don’t divulge the names of the fish they caught.
In Luke, Jesus says, 26Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Back then, they would have had a lot of birds to consider. Israel lies at a bottleneck along one of the world’s most important migration flyways. Twice a year, 500 million birds funnel through Israel; most are on their way back and forth from their nesting grounds in Europe and Asia to wintering grounds in Africa. Israel is vitally important to their successful migration. It is the last food source before crossing the Sahara desert – a 5 day flight with no food or drink. On the return trip, birds land exhausted and need to eat. Without the trees, bushes and ponds that these migrating birds need — tens of thousands of birds would not be able to complete their annual migrations to Asia, Europe and Africa. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel works to protect both the migrators and native birds by directly protecting them and their habitats.
There, as everywhere, extinctions, endangered species and habitat loss have diminished the number of native raptors and nesting birds since Jesus pointed his disciples’ eyes to watch them in flight. About 65 out of 206 species of native nesting birds in Israel are currently endangered.
World wide, more than 150 bird species have gone extinct over the last five centuries. Without human influence and interference, the expected rate of extinction of birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year. More than 1,400 bird species are threatened with extinction today. That’s 14% of all birds.
A bit later in the passage Jesus continued: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I wonder if he was still considering the birds at that point.
I’ve been doing a lot of my reading on the back patio this summer. My presence there unnerves the birds who fly in for the feeders. They do a double take and U-turn and land instead in the safety of the lilac. They perch there and sing at me, or fuss, or warn their companions about the monster. Eventually, a chickadee will make a move and the others will take courage from its success. But sitting there and looking up at the treetops or into the raspberry patch or back edge of the yard, I’m aware of so many little birds that never come to the feeders. I suppose they are warblers. And when I’m really quiet, when I quiet my own mind enough to listen, I am aware of such variety of bird song. So many little flickerings among the leaves and tweets and chirps and melodies half begun, then sung back from another tree.
Considering the birds – or fish, for that matter – is a very good exercise of being present to, connecting with the animal that we are, the equality we must recognize. Trying to really use our ears to guide our eyes, observing the incredible being of that ordinary chickadee or yellow warbler in the raspberries, or feeling the flight muscles of an eagle riding air currents, angling a feather or two to catch the updraft. We will be so much poorer for the loss of another species.
‘Considering the birds” – considering anything besides ourselves, actually – is a wonderful use of our human attributes. A positive thing. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” You’d think we’d be desperate to keep that hope alive.
I realize that I’m preaching to the choir in this. West Denmark is an environmentally aware group of people. Most of you spend time with your hands in the dirt and have a favorite parcel of woods or patch of sky or shoreline that brings you peace. You might consider ducks and pheasants and turkeys from a hunting blind, and be more invested in chickens and fish as practical food sources than interested in my flights of fancy, but you know what I’m saying. We have a deep appreciation – even love, of nature. We don’t really need a season of creation to bring the plight and joys of wild things to mind. It is a source and object of deep contentment and love and concern.
So what exactly am I hoping this sermon series will do?… I’m not sure, but it has to do with salvation. Now, this earthly repentance and redemption. It all needs protection. The water with its swarms of living things, the birds of every kind soaring in the air we need to protect, nesting in trees or shrubs or grasses of the ground we need to protect. It all seems obvious and natural in small, personal ways, and devilishly difficult in communal, political ways. How do we get anywhere? How do we do our little bit in ways that mean something? What’s the point of a sermon about nature and birds and fishy things?
To the first part, columnist David Roberts writes, “Each person views climate change from their own idiosyncratic angle — and that could be the key to making progress in fighting the problem: less like a movement and more like a federation, of groups that are climate-aligned.
“Climate is everything”, he continues, “which means everyone touches only a tiny piece of it. Let people care about their birds or their pipelines or their mountains or their tech startups or their research clusters or their permaculture farms. Everybody needs a Climate Thing, a close-by proxy through which they can express their climate concern in a way that has local effects and tangible rewards. It is these proxies, these rich anchors in our lived experience of nature and culture, that inspire us. The important thing is that we’re all moving our pieces in the right direction.”
Churches like this, where members practice gratitude for creation are retrieving things we lost along the way. We’re learning our place in the natural world. There isn’t another world like this within reach of human travel. The moon, Mars, everywhere else we could possibly escape to, wouldn’t measure up. We can’t use up the earth and discard it.
When we thank God for this world, our home, and all its creatures, we let go of our self-preoccupation and discontent; we set aside greed; we focus less on what we want and more on all that freely comes to us every day. We tell our own story in a different way. And the things we become consciously grateful for, we cherish more dearly, we value more conscientiously, and we protect more fiercely.
This home of ours is not indestructible, but under favorable conditions it is resilient. In the daily actions that gratitude inspires we find our resilience, our hope with feathers, as well.