The Birds of the Air

The Birds of the Air

November 29, 2020 | Sarah Stewart

So, who else wants to roll their eyes, or maybe even laugh out loud when you hear Jesus and Rumi telling us not to worry?  What kind of spiritual masters are they anyway? Don't they know that we have many, many things to worry about? We have the coronavirus pandemic, which is wreaking havoc in our lives and our families, making it hard to do our jobs, hard to stay healthy. We are worried about our own employment, how it will continue? We are worried about our health and our loved one’s health. We're worried about our children's education, almost no matter what situation they're in, online, or hybrid, or in person. We are worried about the health of our democracy. We are worried about racism in our community. We're worried about environmental degradation of the earth. So much to worry about. And our spiritual masters say, don't worry. I try to keep in mind though, that Jesus and Rumi also had things to worry about. They did not live in magical times when everything was fine. Jesus lived during the Roman occupation of Israel in Judea. The vast majority of people were living in poverty. When Jesus says to people; says to his followers, do not worry about what you are going to eat, he is talking to people who need to work every single day to get enough money for enough bread for one day. If these people don't work, they won't eat that day and their children will go hungry. He is talking to people who worry about what they're going to eat almost constantly.

There was rampant disease and disability at the time. In fact, that's part of the importance of Jesus’ calling as a healer is that he was able to heal people of chronic illnesses and disabilities at a time when nothing else could. And Rumi certainly lived in a time when people had things to worry about. He lived in Persia in the 13th century and spent many years of his young life on the road, living in a caravan, fleeing Mongol invasions. During Rumi's life and Jesus’ life, people suffered, as they do now, in fact, perhaps they suffered more than people do now. They didn't have the benefit of modern medicine. They didn't live in a time of widespread peace. So, we know that Jesus and Rumi understood how much there was to worry about, and still, these men, who were recognized as spiritual masters during their time, who had followers who loved them and learned their teachings, these men said, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Leave the future and look at the past, you have always had food, do not regard what is to come and do not be miserable”. Even though people have so many worries, then and now, perhaps we have to look at this point of view; that worrying, per se, doesn't help us. What does worry feel like? It gnaws at us, it keeps us up when we should be sleeping, it's always a sign for me that I'm ignoring this advice and worrying too much, when I go to lie down to sleep at night and all of a sudden, I can't sleep, even though I'm exhausted; just the worries going through my mind. Worry worms its way into our closest relationships, that anxiety gets in the way of what we mean to say, causes us to question other people's motives. So, is worrying helping us? Does that feeling do anything for us spiritually? I think there is a difference between worrying and preparing, and what I hear Jesus and Rumi telling us is that what we need to do instead of worrying is prepare mentally and spiritually to face the challenges of our lives. It's interesting to me that Jesus uses birds as an example of the easy life and that Rumi tells his human story of worrying by picking on a poor cow. Because when we think about animals, we really don't think that animals worry, at least not in the same way as we do. As far as we know, animals are not kept up in the night by anxiety, maybe dogs are accepted. But animals do prepare for their lives, and especially in the winter, in the northern climate where we live, animals prepare to get through the winter.

So, take a chipmunk as an example. To get through the winter, a chipmunk digs a long tunnel under the ground, and he will dig many side channels where he plans to store seeds and nuts and then a sleeping nest at the end of the tunnel. And in the fall, the chipmunk will run around finding nuts and seeds, maybe hanging from your bird feeder. And he'll run back to his tunnel and go to all those pantries that he's dug out along the sides of the tunnel and store all the seeds and nuts in those pantries. All together a chipmunk can store a bushel of provisions in the pantries of his long tunnel. And he knows what he has too, he keeps an inventory because he needs diversity. One kind of seed might spoil, he can't have only that kind of seed, so he needs lots of different kinds. And he knows that storing all these seeds might mean that a raider or another animal will come and steal everything that he has carefully saved. So above ground, he's hidden more seeds all around his area. He keeps doing this as the nights get colder, keeps doing this through the fall and then finally, it's too cold. And that cold says to the chipmunk’s brain… stop. The chipmunk goes down the tunnel to the leaf lined sleeping chamber and curls himself up into a ball. His heart slows down from 350 beats per minute to just 15; he barely breathes; his body cools down. He won't sleep like this the whole winter, just in snatches, because he's still vulnerable to predators, maybe a few days, maybe as long as a few weeks, on a very cold spell. But he gets up from time to time to inspect his tunnel, inspect the exits, keep them clear and to eat from his pantry. On a warm day, he might go up and try to find some of those other seeds he stored elsewhere. The chipmunk has to prepare, all fall, to get through the winter to last until another spring; prepare by storing his food and digging his tunnel. Or we could take the example of the birds, which Jesus gives us.

I used to live in New Hampshire with my family, in northern New Hampshire. And, one very cold March morning, we got up and went to a science center in a nearby town and helped the folks there with their bird census for the year. So, they would put out treats in wire cages and the bird would come in and get trapped in the wire cage. And then the ornithologist would get the bird and bring it inside, just a little chickadee, or a black-eyed Junco, maybe a nuthatch, the winter birds of the New Hampshire forest. And they would measure them, we would help, my children would help do this, we would measure the wingspan, weigh the bird, tag the bird and then this is the part I particularly remember, pinch the flesh on the bird’s chest to measure how much fat that bird had. Now, a little chickadee weighs about half an ounce. So, this bird, it's a tiny bird, with a tiny amount of fat, and if you can pinch any fat at all, that's a sign that the bird found food yesterday. If the bird ate well yesterday, it would have some fat on its body today, and if it didn't eat well yesterday, it will have burned through all of its fat reserves, and then there's nothing to pinch, and you can just see the pink skin of the bird underneath its feathers, and even see the shape of the bones underneath.

This is a reminder of our bare dependence that all of us have on the earth and its gifts. What we eat one day is what we have to live on for that day, it turns out, that birds’ brains know this about themselves. And so, they prepare too, to make it through the winter. That chickadee, it doesn't sleep the winter away the way the chipmunk does, it needs to eat almost constantly. during the daylight hours of the winter days in order to stay alive through the night. Those chickadees burned everything they ate the day before, during the night. What I find fascinating about a chickadee in particular, is that a chickadee has been storing up its food similar to the chipmunk, getting those seeds out of the bird feeder, getting berries, and hiding them all over a territory of about half a mile. And the chickadees’ brain actually grows bigger, in order to accommodate that knowledge and that memory, that map of where it's hidden its food. And then during the winter, as it goes to those places and eats that food, its brain will shrink, as it doesn't need that information anymore. Here is a model of preparation to actually let your brain grow bigger when it needs to in order to account for your survival and to let it shrink when you don't need that information anymore. We can't think about the squirrel from this morning’s story, or a chipmunk, or a chickadee, and think that those animals are worrying; those animals are preparing. This is the contrast I hear in the teachings of Jesus and Rumi; worry spins its own wheels. Preparation is what we can actually do to get ready for what might happen. The recordings of Jesus’ teachings include his warnings to prepare. And this is the Christian season of Advent, beginning today this Sunday, and those warnings, those preparation warnings, are often included in the Advent readings. So, if we were a church that followed a lectionary, we might have read this morning this passage from Mark when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be. Let the reader understand then, those in Judah must flee to the mountains, the one on the house top must not go down or enter the house to take anything away, the one in the field must not come back to get a coat. Now, Jesus probably did teach about the coming Kingdom of God, but this passage is written by somebody who lived maybe 40 years after Jesus died, and who witnessed the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. And the moment when Jews were forced to flee Jerusalem for their lives, those followers of Jesus experienced this catastrophe, this moment where they had to run into the mountains, in order to stay alive. And they said to themselves, this is what Jesus was talking about. And so, they put these words into Jesus mouth when they wrote the Gospel of Mark. They said, “this is what he was telling us to prepare for this catastrophe, we didn't see it coming, but now we need to run. We need to prepare for the kingdom of God, we need to build our community tighter, we need to support each other, we need to be there for each other”. This theme of preparation runs through the gospel. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare a place in the stable, prepare your heart for Christmas, prepare for the completely unexpected, which is usually catastrophe, but might just be the thing that saves the world.

And I think that we in our time, none of our worrying what we have done in our lives prepared us for this moment, of the coronavirus virus pandemic, we were not prepared for this catastrophe. And the worrying we did, did not help us to get ready for it. So, we have the same question as Jesus’ or Rumi's followers, “what can we do to prepare when we don't know what's coming”? Like them, we can prepare our relationships and our communities, individual people, atomized and alone, are prone to panic, but connected people support each other, and help each other through, and we have found this to be true during the pandemic, during these times of COVID, we take care of each other. Check in with each other, find out, does your neighbor have the groceries they need? Is there a way that you can help your family even from afar? Be part of communities, like this church and other religious communities, that provide structure for care and concern. We prepare by loving one another, by remaining open to one another's truths, by knowing one another. We prepare by taking care of ourselves, by enjoying and being grateful for that food that we need every day, our daily bread, by getting enough sleep, by exercising our bodies, by giving of the excess that we have, so that we can make sure everyone has enough. And by staying in, even when it's hard, caring for ourselves becomes caring for others. We can, without worrying, think through possibilities, think through what might happen, think through how we can be prepared. This church, you know, we have many churches in downtown Worcester and all across the city; we have registered with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. And in case of a regional or city-wide emergency, we would be here with our large building, and our downtown location, in case of an emergency, a place for the emergency workers to come and gather and find respite. That's a form of preparation, we can prepare in community and we can prepare spiritually, with spiritual practices that connect us with the holy, and quiet that voice of anxiety and worry, and help truth speak to us. Through walking through meditation, through prayer, through mindfulness, we do the thing that calms our soul and sends us grace that connects us to that still small voice. We didn't know that this pandemic was coming, and we don't know what's coming next. We know neither the day nor the hour, no amount of worrying prepared us for the coronavirus pandemic. It never adds an hour to our span of life, but we can prepare our hearts and minds for resilience. We can practice grace. We can make a way in the wilderness and create in our hearts and our communities a home for love. This is how we get through the winter; this is how hope is reborn. I love you all. Amen