Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on January 9, 2022:
Each winter, one of the pleasures of the season is watching wild birds gather outside our dining room window. Bob has a feeder that he keeps well-stocked, as well as a bird bath that has a heater in it. As the weather grows colder, the birds grow more numerous, a steady parade of cardinals, pine siskins, house finches, chickadees, and occasional downy woodpeckers that provide entertainment for both us and for our cats, who sit watching them through the windows with laser-like focus, their tails whipping back and forth in excitement.
I thought of the pleasure we take in those birds when I read the Gospel reading for this morning, in which a bird has a starring role. As Jesus is being baptized by John in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now the reading from Luke actually says the bird is “like a dove,” but as far as the church is concerned, it’s a dove. And that’s why countless churches through the ages have used images of doves in their stained glass windows and signs and logos. That includes New Song, which as I hope you recall has a dove taking flight in the stained glass window above its altar. So the Gospel reading for today is a reminder of the origin of this image—and a reminder, too, that birds can teach us some things about the Holy Spirit.
The dove that appeared at Jesus’ baptism recalls other doves in scripture. In the story of the Flood in Genesis, Noah sends out a dove to see if the waters are starting to recede. In Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves, and that they need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Doves also appear in the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many other books in the Bible. That’s not surprising, because doves were common in ancient Israel, and people would have been well-familiar with their beauty and gentleness.
Doves aren’t the only birds that get mentioned in the Bible. In fact, more than 300 verses include a reference to birds, many times to convey important spiritual teachings. Here’s one from the book of Job, for example: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” Or consider these lines from Psalm 91: “He shall cover you with his feathers, and under his wing shall you trust.”
And you’ll recall that Jesus used the humble sparrow in one of his most important teachings. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” he asked his followers. “Yet not one of them is forgotten by God…So don’t be afraid, for you are more valuable than many sparrows.”
It’s not just Christianity and Judaism that honor birds, or which associate them with the spiritual realm. Many cultures have stories of birds playing the roles of messengers, role models, guardians, healers, and elders. There are many stories, for example, of the souls of dead people taking the form of birds and of birds carrying prayers to heaven. Raptors, and eagles in particular, are regarded as sacred by many American Indian tribes, so much so that it’s a felony for any non-native to possess eagle feathers. In many Asian countries, cranes are considered sacred, where they’re associated with longevity, fidelity, happiness, and prosperity. In ancient China, Taoist sages were said to be able to transform themselves into cranes, and in Vietnamese mythology, cranes carry the souls of the dead to heaven.
Evan Pritchard, who is a descendent of the Mi’kmaq people of Canada, explores indigenous beliefs about birds in his book Bird Medicine. He writes that when birds sing at dawn, they are praying to the Creator, and we should pray with them. They teach us how to dance, too, with many tribes having dances based upon bird movements.
Another practice he writes about is what he calls the Eagle Telephone, which he says is a common tradition among many tribal nations. The sender places an offering such as tobacco, which is a traditional sacred herb, in the hole of a tree and offers it to the eagle (or some other species that might be willing to serve as a messenger to the Creator). Within a day an eagle will find the person who offered the prayer, wherever he or she may be, and show itself to them. And when they see the eagle, they will sense the answer to their prayer.
In my own life, some of my favorite experiences with birds have taken place at the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska that happens each spring. Each morning and evening the cranes fly back and forth between their rookeries on the Platte River and the surrounding fields where they feed during the day. With up to a half-million birds gathering at one time, the sound of their calls can be so loud it’s like having a freight train pass by overhead. I also love how during the day you can see them dancing in the fields. Suddenly in the midst of feeding a pair will start to leap and hop into the air with their wings partly opened, looking like ballet dancers moving to music only they can hear. They bow their heads to each other, toss pieces of vegetation in the air, and chatter back and forth in a language only they can understand. It’s magical to see this, even if the weather is always cold and blustery in Nebraska at this time of year.
Maybe part of the reason why we love birds so much—and why even God seems to share our fascination with them—is that they don’t seem bound by the same laws of nature as other animals. Most birds are more at home in the air than on earth, gliding on invisible currents across the sky. Many species, including small ones like hummingbirds, travel thousands of miles on their migrations, answering a mysterious call only they can hear. Some birds are incredibly smart, including ravens that will form friendships with wolves, alerting them to potential prey so they can share in their kills. Maybe part of what makes birds so remarkable is that they’re descended from dinosaurs, which are the only other creatures that have ever existed that have feathers.
And birds have another relative as well—angels. Think about it. Angels have wings and feathers, at least in many of the images created of them through the centuries. They like to sing. They swoop in without warning. They’re said to leave feathers on our paths to encourage us. About the only bird behavior they don’t do is poop on people, though I would guess angel excrement could cure whatever ails you.
So it’s not surprising that God chose a dove to send a message at Jesus’ baptism. You could say he was using a type of Eagle Telephone, in fact. And I like to think that we can get messages from birds, too. The ones that gather at our feeder outside our dining room window, for example, might be giving a message that even though the winter is long and cold, spring is coming. The eagles that gather along the Iowa River these days may be speaking to us about endurance, too, and of the need to fly high in order to see far. And maybe an angel will leave a feather in our path, too, with a message that we’ll know in our hearts as soon as we see it.
So keep your eyes open, because you never known when–or how–divine messages may come.