My daughter Diana Mae likes to play a game called Baby Bird.
It’s a game she invented. She tells me what to do.
After her bath but before she goes to sleep, I have to pick her up and carry her to her bed,
And wrap her up in the middle of the bed like a little egg.
Then I have to hold her for a moment, all wrapped up, and say,
“Little egg, you’re safe and warm, here in the nest. I’m going to go and get some worms for you so they will be here when you’re ready to hatch.”
Then I fly away, and she will call, from inside her blanket egg, “Remember to flap your wings!”
And so I obediently flap, feeling a bit silly, as I collect worms from the hallway.
And then I return, and wait for my little egg to hatch.
She peeks her head out from the cloth, and then she emerges into my arms, and I say, “Oh, baby bird, I’m so glad you’re here!”
And then we go to search for worms together.
It’s not really a game at all actually; it’s more of a liturgy,
A ritual she created to celebrate our relationship as mother and child.
Human beings have, as long as recorded history exists, identified with our feathered friends.
Each of us could probably name an enthusiastic bird watcher we know, yet I’ve never heard of “reptile watchers” or “crustacean enthusiasts.”
For some reason, we see the life of a bird as metaphorical of human life.
After you hatch, you’re a little duckling, growing and learning until you spread your wings and fly the coop.
Then you spend a few years living as a crazy night owl, just free as a bird, on a wild goose chase seeking a mate for life or just cute chicks.
You know about the birds and the bees, but one day you just get goose bumps, because you’ve found the person with whom you’ll build your little nest, and you’re just as happy as a lark.
You know that the early bird catches the worm.
You’re not going to chicken out with this one.
And so you preen your feathers and do your little mating dance, and when she responds you feel like the goose that laid the golden egg.
You don’t want to count your chickens before they’re hatched, but hey, you’ve got your ducks in a row;
You’re moving up the pecking order at work, got a couple of little nestlings on the way    .
But then one day, your chickens come home to roost, and trouble comes your way.
No worries. You’re not one to affect a fowl mood.
You’re in fine feather whatever comes your way, and trouble is like water off a duck’s back.
But before you know it, you’ve got an empty nest,
You turn around and you’re no spring chicken anymore.
And so you start to think about your life and what it means,
You look to the heavens and your spirit soars; you sing your swan song and you fly away.
Why do we think of ourselves in avian terms?
Heaven knows, but we are like birds, unique in our capacity to communicate through sound.
Birdsong has been shown to have nouns and verbs just like human speech.
And birds seem, like us, to have some kind of preference for sounds that are musical;
In Why Birds Sing, David Rothernberg claims that birds vocalize traditional scales used in human music, such as the pentatonic scale and diatonic scale.
Birdsong has inspired the music of our greatest composers, including Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Wagner.
But there’s even more to it than that;
Like birds, we are able to soar above other animals; they literally so, we through our intellectual capacity to soar to new heights.
We have been captivated by the ability to fly which they physically have and we do not, and so thrilling was the moment in our human history when we were finally able to join them in the skies.
We humans are crazy as loons about birds.
Bird references are frequent in Scripture,
Including Psalm 84 which we read today;
“Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
   ever singing your praise.”
When I read the words, “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God,” I thought of this image,
Of the sparrow finding its shelter, being nurtured and cared for in its nest,
The warm shelter of the house of God.
Psalm 84 is a song of pilgrimage.
We know that the People of God would sing this and other songs as they approached Jerusalem, preparing to enter the Temple for Passover, the feast of weeks, and the feast of booths, required journeys under the Law of Moses.
These journeys, the psalms themselves tell us, could be physically taxing and dangerous,
With snakes, hot sun, and highway robbers to worry about.
Without radio to listen to in the car, pilgrims would sing these psalms to encourage one another.
As they neared the Temple, singing these songs, their excitement increased,
Beholding the awe and wonder of the city and its shining Temple.
And so the psalm exalts, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,”
The people sang, “it would be better to be a humble doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than a guest in the tents of the wicked.”
Do we feel this way today?
Do our souls long for the courts of the Lord?
Although church is not always a place of perfect shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship,
I do love the church, and I believe you do as well.
People might think we are strange because we would rather be doorkeepers in the house of the Lord than guests in tents of wickedness,
Because we would rather hold open doors for folks at church, than, say, spend the morning at Greektown Casino,
Speaking for myself anyway, I’d rather do work for free in the church than spend money on something like that.
For church people, the church is our home, and its nurture and care is vital to our very existence.
We need church.
There’s a saying that you can’t be a Christian on your own.
Although so many people try, we need church to guide us, to nurture us along the way,
And more than that, we need church because the church needs us.
The church is Christ’s body here on Earth, and if someone is missing, well, Christ could be missing his ears, his eyes, his hands, his feet.
You might not be getting anything out of worship on a particular Sunday,
But the person next to you needed you to be there.
And another day, you will find yourself in need of her prayers and support.
I know we have all felt this.
As a teenager in Grosse Pointe, I never really felt like I fit in in my high school.
Adolescence is difficult, and I had moved into a pretty tight-knit community where people could be sometimes unwelcoming of newcomers.
The church became a refuge for me.
I found shelter and nurture under its wings.
I found opportunities to serve others through mission trips to Israel and downtown Detroit.
And more than that, people saw me.
When Rev. Nancy Mikoski mentioned to me that I should apply to be a church intern as a summer job,
I was so honored that she should see something in me like that.
During those important formative years, I was cared for like a vulnerable baby bird,
The church fed me and raised me and helped me find wings to fly.
And no matter where I go, when I am in church, I know I am among people who love me, because they love God.
In the black church, there’s a saying, “It’s great to be in the house of the Lord.”
I’ve heard it often, but it’s especially important if a guest is visiting from another church.
The guest will say, “It’s great to be in the house of the Lord,” and the church will shout “Amen!”
The visitor is saying, you are the house of the Lord.
You are church. God is here. This is home.
And the church is saying, yes, thank you for seeing that we are church,
God is here, welcome, you are home.
Here is the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
This is the second great end of the church.
I like that we place it second. Our first calling is to proclaim the Good News.
We can never let caring for ourselves replace that.
And often, I think that churches today do spend too much time and money on ourselves and not enough time and money reaching out.
Yet the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God is essential.
You can’t be a Christian on your own because you need shelter.
You need a safe place.
Each of us, like my little girl, need to know that there is a safe nest for us to fly home to, with someone waiting to care for us.
Or it may be that someone needs you to create a safe place for him.
I believe Starr Church is literally doing this by providing a shelter for people in need,
A safe place for them to go, through the Welcome Inn mission and through our warming shelter in the coldest months.
You also need nurture.
The baby bird needs to be fed.
And we need to be fed on the Word of God.
Bible studies and small groups in the church are so necessary,
So that we can really learn, ask questions, and dig deeper into what God has to say to us.
It is my belief that everyone in the church should belong to some kind of group or partnership like this that helps him grow spiritually, because like the little bird, we are called to grow up, growing more and more into the image of Christ.
And third you need spiritual fellowship.
Is there any stronger image of family togetherness than mama bird and daddy bird, feeding hungry mouths in the well-kept nest?
Our church, too, is a family, and we need spiritual fellowship.
Not just coffee, cookies, and potlucks,
But fellowship that is rooted in our relationship with God.
When we fellowship in the church, we are called to go beyond small talk,
To remind one another through our words and actions to trust God, to follow God’s direction, to pray, to remember that God loves us.
When we are doing church right, our conversation is Spirit-filled, and our actions even more so,
So that when members and visitors come here they experience the presence of God.
And we are all in need of that presence.
Our hearts long for the courts of the Lord.
Why?
Because God is here.
We are, all of us, weak and vulnerable as baby birds.
Even though we like to pretend we have it all figured out, this Great End of the Church reminds us—we are, at heart, children. Children of God.
Who is the church’s mama bird?
Certainly not me.
The Word of God says in Psalm 91, “he will shelter you under his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”
And Jesus laments over the city, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how have I longed to gather you, as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
The Lord is the mother bird, who gathers us in, shelters us, feeds us, nurtures us.
We long for the church because God is waiting for us there,
Ready to welcome us, to keep us safe and warm.
And God is here;
God is in the hymns, the words, the caring faces, the warm hugs,
The Holy Spirit is among us.
And so when we come here we know we will never be turned away.
When we come here we know are safe in the nest..
Like a mother bird, the Lord opens his wings, and wraps us up, whispering, “Oh my child, I’m so glad you’re here.”
And we are home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“Under the Shadow of His Wings,” by Gladiola Sotomayor. Available at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-under-the-shadow-of-his-wings-gladiola-sotomayor.html

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1 COMMENT

  1. As I was preparing a Sunday school class on this 2nd Great End of the Church, I ran across your sermon. Not only did this give me some direction for leading the class, but I was blessed in the reading of it. What a beautiful, thoughtful, expressive sermon. I can only hope that those who had ears truly heard. This not only was a sermon, but as I read it become a shelter from the madness of our world, a time of nurture for my soul, and a fellowship with the community you serve who were privileged to hear this word spoken. Thank you.

    Blessings,
    Tom

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