Isaiah 49:8-16; Psalm 131; Matthew 6:24-34
Pr. Scott Kramer
(Preached at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Seattle)
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about the “birds of the air.” My wife and I just returned on Friday from a few days in Arizona, which included some fine bird-watching. It’s too early for spring migration but we saw and heard some amazing, beautiful birds that we’d never seen before.
Of course, you don’t have to travel all the way to southeastern Arizona to appreciate the birds of the air. Our yard, for example, has no fewer than eight bird feeders, one of which is this one. It’s a highly specialized feeder and even if you’re not a bird person you can probably figure out the purpose of its design. It’s squirrel-proof and predator-proof! The “good” birds can get in but not the “bad guys!” It is secure.
One of the birds that is able to fit through this wire mesh is the black-capped chickadee. It flies in, grabs a sunflower seed, flies out, comes back later, grabs a seed, flies back out—over and over again. Now, a chickadee is very aware of danger. The “D” in chickadee stands for danger—the more “dee dees,” the more danger. It’s true! So imagine that one day our chickadee friend flies in, grabs a seed, but instead of flying out it thinks, “I’m afraid of what might be outside—I think I’ll stay a little longer.” Well, a few minutes turns into a few hours and our chickadee friend is enjoying its security. It’s safe, and it keeps eating sunflower seeds. Other birds come and go, but not this chickadee.
After a few days of this our chickadee friend decides it needs to fly out. But there’s a problem. Over several days it’s gotten so much food and so little exercise that it’s gotten too big to fit through the security barrier. This feeder that had provided so much security has gradually become a cage.
Jesus invites us this morning to Consider the birds of the air. On the face of it, he’s talking about food and clothing, but at a deeper level, he’s talking about security. What is the source of our security? How much security do we need? What impact does our personal need for security have on other people who have less security? And this question: Is there a difference between security and freedom? Jesus insists in today’s reading that we cannot serve two masters. Our imaginary chickadee friend thought it was free. But spending too much time at the feeder meant that it sacrificed its freedom for the sake of security.
We all need a certain basic amount of security. But when security becomes paramount there is a terrible spiritual price to be paid: We lose a bit of our God-given humanity; we cease to fly. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1755, Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. In the years following 9/11, we as a nation appear to have forgotten or ignored that wisdom.
Consider the birds of the air. The birds of the air know the dangers of their world but they were not made for security. They were created to fly, to soar! Our God created birds to be free, not to be locked up in some cage.
So it is with God’s human creation. We also were created for freedom, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
One important difference between birds and people, it seems, is that birds—and the rest of creation!—seem to understand clearly the difference between freedom and security. The chickadee that I described is purely a product of my imagination. In the real world, chickadees and other birds spend no more than a few seconds inside this feeder before flying back out into the risky and sometimes dangerous world that they were made for and where they are truly at home.
In southeastern Arizona my wife and I visited a wonderful wildlife sanctuary called the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. This is an unbroken, undammed strip of paradise that runs for 40 miles until it meets the U.S.-Mexican border. There, of course it runs into an impenetrable wall which is a formidable obstacle for land-based creatures, including humans!—which, of course, is the point of the wall. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have much problem; they just fly right over! Consider the birds of the air.
Border walls have been in the news a lot lately, and have been a source of some (!) controversy. But this border wall business is a symptom of a much deeper spiritual problem, which is that when push comes to shove, we Americans increasingly tend to choose security over freedom. This past week in the Arizona desert, for example, my wife and I drove to our little B&B outside of town. But to get there we drove past gated communities—which, by the way, seems to me an oxymoron. If it’s surrounded by gates and walls, how in the world can it be a community, except in the sense of “affluent, like-minded, fearful people hunkering down inside a frontier fort?”
Now, not many of us live in gated communities. But we all live in a nation which powerful people appear to be making into a gated community for privileged people of a certain religion and nationality and color. God help you if you’re an immigrant or refugee. Or, God help you if you’re not white, like the guy in the news yesterday who, before shooting and killing a man of Indian descent in a Kansas bar, shouted, “Get out of my country!”
Violent fanatics, open racists and wall-loving leaders make headlines. But these only hint at something far more troubling, and that is a spiritual malignancy in our nation’s very soul. How else, for example, to explain the endless walls and gates that make up our nation’s prison system? On Friday, as we drove from Tucson to the Phoenix airport, there on the side of the road were a dozen men in orange jumpsuits. They looked free but of course they weren’t. They were state prisoners cleaning up highway trash.
You no doubt know that the “land of the free” has more prisoners than any other country in the world–even privatized to encourage incarceration—and disproportionately people of color! Is this the “freedom” that the prophet Isaiah describes in today’s reading? Like the chickadee who sought security at the enclosed feeder, so also without realizing it our obsession with law enforcement and prison building and military might is a symptom of a people who have become prisoners of our own fear. Prisoners of fear, it turns out, tend to lock other people up.
Consider the birds of the air. Birds don’t willingly give up their freedom for the sake of security. And in today’s reading Jesus states clearly that we must choose between freedom and security. What will it be that organizes the habits of our hearts? Will it be security, in the form of national identity? Racial identity? Religious identity? Cultural identity? Wealth? Power? Or, will it be freedom?—which is our baptismal identity!
To be a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ means to choose freedom. To choose Christian freedom means to choose love, which is always risky, and even dangerous. Christian love among God’s people is a reflection of the expansive, unconditional love of God for all people.
This week, as you know, we begin the season of Lent. Lent is known as a time of giving something up. Where in our lives have we remained so close to the feeder that the feeder has become a cage? What if each of us were to prayerfully ponder which areas of our lives have become too attached to security based on nationality, race, religious identity, wealth, or privilege of any kind? What if during this season of Lent each of us took new steps to stop eating at the feeder in order to fly out and risk being free?
My confirmation verse from 43 years ago has stayed with me and has helped me to remember that I am always at risk of allowing the feeder to become a cage! In John, ch. 8, Jesus says, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. What he didn’t say was, “The truth will make you secure!”
Dear friends in Christ, our Christian faith–the truth of God–is about freedom. And true freedom is not about building walls. It’s about life outside the cage. True freedom is always about love—risky love—especially, as Jesus taught and practiced, for the powerless, the outsider, and those who have no voice.
As we move into the season of Lent, let us therefore…consider the birds of the air.