Union University Church
May 17, 2020
Reverend Laurie DeMott
During these weeks of the pandemic, our church has been meeting through Zoom every Sunday and during those live services, I always deliver a reflection, otherwise known as a bite-size sermon. Not everyone has access to Zoom church, however, and even among those that do attend, there are a few masochistic people who feel that bite-size sermons are not enough and want the full meal, so I have continued to post full sermons to this podcast. Now, I don’t really have enough to say to write two sermons every week, bite-sized or not, so I’ve been taking this opportunity to dig back in my archives and record sermons that I wrote in the pre-podcast era. Sometimes I re-write them and update them but sometimes I preach them just as I first wrote them bringing them to you through the miracle of Mr. Peabody’s Way Back Machine. (Google it.)
Today’s sermon is from 1997 and it is a story about the bluebirds nesting in my yard. Honestly, I didn’t really have to use the Way Back Machine because I am still obsessed with bluebirds and am watching a pair building their nest in my backyard even as I write this. I could have pretended that this was fresh off my laptop, but when our world feels so strange and unfamiliar right now, I think it’s good to see that some things haven’t changed in 23 years. So Sherman, set the Way Back Machine for June 22, 1997.
As I write this sermon, I glance out my window now and then at the male bluebird sitting in the silver maple tree in my side yard. He is silent. Feet locked onto the swaying branch, he sits motionless in the breeze gazing upon the world with mysterious bluebird thoughts. Unlike the mischievous chickadee, or the chittering goldfinch; unlike the ravenous purple finches that gobble down my sunflower seed as if I am a wealthy sunflower plantation owner with no other goal than to feed their hungry gullets, unlike any of the other birds flitting busily about my yard, the male bluebird is still. He doesn’t sing any longer; he only waits and I wait with him.
Spring, as we were all too fully aware, came very late this year. Every May, I begin watching for the arrival of the bluebirds and they have appeared without fail for the last five springs, ever since I erected my first bluebird house. Every year around May 15th, the male bluebird escorts his wife to the door of the house and then, in a persuasive show, he pokes his head in and out of the hole as if to say, “Come take a look, dear. It’s a fine little cottage, just the place to raise a family.” The female finally obliges her husband and takes a look inside, and, I hope, is impressed with the house’s solid construction and upkeep. Nevertheless, in a manner reminiscent of Christmases when I was young when my mother would drag us all over the Christmas tree plantation looking for the perfect Christmas tree but would inevitably choose the first one we looked at, the female bluebird always insists on shopping around some more, until after numerous trips, she and her husband inevitably return to this first house ready to settle in. Unfortunately by that time, the tree swallows have arrived from the south and, being less indecisive than the bluebirds, have already made a purchase offer on the house and are ready to sign mortgage papers. There is an unavoidable squabble over real estate between the swallows and the bluebirds and so a few years ago I set up an identical birdhouse fifteen feet from the first which differs only in color. I personally thought it was a pretty color when I painted it, but apparently the birds hold a different opinion because the painted house always goes to the losers … which are always the bluebirds. Nevertheless, by the end of May, the male bluebird has convinced the female that the color isn’t so bad if you look at it in the right light, and the couple is finally nest-building with enthusiasm.
This year spring was so late, however, that the bluebirds didn’t even appear until June 1st: the tree swallows had staked their claim two weeks earlier and had been busy carrying mud and grass into the first house. Pressed for time, the male bluebird went right to the second house, did a few obligatory house entrances for the female who was easily persuaded, and, skipping the normal house-hunting routine, they went right to work on the nest. For the first ten days of June the bluebirds dominated my yard: sometimes they’d be flying to and from the house carrying nesting material in their beaks; sometimes they’d be swooping down to my lawn to snatch insects. The song of the male perched on my roof overlooking his territory was a constant whisper in the breeze.
Then, on June 10th, the female disappeared.
For me, the bluebird has become the canary in my mine shaft, an indicator of the quality of my life. Unlike other birds that can be lured to one’s house by a hand-out, the bluebird chooses a site based on less obvious qualities: a secure nesting box, meadowland for foraging, the availability of drinking water. As I have shaped my eight and a half acres over the past six years, I have deliberately tried to create a habitat that can be shared with wildlife. My gardens boast columbine, bee balm, and other plants attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies; every tree I’ve planted produces fruit or nesting sites for songbirds; my lawn and garden are chemical-free, and, in an act of justified homicide that I never before would have imagined myself committing, I have even cut down dozens of baby pine trees on one part of my property to keep some open meadowland because the rest of my land is quickly becoming forest. Every bluebird fledged is a sign to me that the wild creatures have looked upon my land and declared, “It is good.”
But this year the female bluebird disappeared. I knew it was too soon for her to be incubating her eggs and her disappearance was so sudden that I suspected the worst. Many people might be saddened by her loss, but I admit with only a bit of embarrassment, that I am so involved with the lives of these bluebirds that the female’s disappearance upset me significantly. And in some indefinable way I felt responsible. You may say, “But so many things can happen to songbirds; how can you be responsible for their safety?” and it’s true. I can’t stop disease; I can’t melt the killing frost or completely thwart the predators that prey on the birds — there are hundreds of elements not within my control that absolve me of responsibility for the success of the bluebirds. All I can say is that through a peculiar aspect of my personality, I have allowed myself to become spiritually bound to these elusive independent birds. Their success tells the story of who I am — I don’t want to be the run-of-the mill property owner who puts out seed for the birds in order to enjoy a summer display; I want my connection to creation to be seen as more than that, deeper than that. The presence of the bluebirds each year affirms my identity as a stalwart keeper of the earth, and their whispered song christens my land as a place of peace. When the female bluebird disappeared, the peace was shattered; my identity as a keeper of the peace thrown into question.
In the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of the missionary journeys of Paul, a man who travels around Asia Minor converting people to Christianity with the power of his message. Paul, like my bluebirds, is self-reliant. He doesn’t accept hand-outs from the people to whom he ministers but depends on his own skills as a tent-maker to provide enough income to keep him clothed and fed as he walks the roads of the ancient Roman empire. In the city of Philippi, however, Paul meets his match when he baptizes Lydia. In what is probably a typical sequence of events, Paul preaches the gospel to Lydia, Lydia is converted to Christianity and is baptized, Lydia invites Paul to stay at her home while he is in Philippi, and Paul, in his self-sufficient way, declines the invitation. But this time, the story changes because unlike others before her, Lydia will not take no for an answer. She confronts Paul with this question, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” This is no ordinary invitation. This isn’t the obligatory polite invitation that says, “Hey, if you need anything, you know where I am, Paul. My door’s always open.” Lydia’s words are a challenge to Paul asking him to affirm her identity: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”
“Who do you believe me to be, Paul?” Lydia challenges. “Do you take me for the run-of-the-mill convert, a tally mark on your sheet of numbers converted, or is my connection to Christ something more than that, deeper than that? If you believe that I am faithful to the Lord, come stay in my home. Come and see how I have shaped my life to make it a welcoming place, a place of peace and hospitality.” Paul is Lydia’s canary in the mine shaft.
For me, loving nature means more than sticking a birdfeeder in my front yard. Loving nature, for me, bears a responsibility and means that I must actively work to create a peaceful haven for wildlife. Lydia, likewise, understood that loving Christ means more than getting dunked in a river and going to church on Sundays. Loving Christ bears a responsibility and means that one must actively work to create a peaceful haven for others in your life. The poet, Kathleen Norris, writes, “I have become convinced that hospitality is the center of the Christian faith — the bread of the Eucharist is called the “host” after all, and for good reason… [We] become inhospitable whenever [we] forget that [we] are not the center.” 1
Lydia only gets a few verses here in the book of Acts, but her words to Paul are a powerful testimony to the shape of the Christian life. If you truly love Christ, you will shape your life to make it a place of peace and refuge for all. Our society preaches the opposite message; it tells you to go out and try to shape the world to accommodate you and too often we take that message to heart and even carry it into our homes expecting our wives, our husbands, and our children to accommodate us. We want our children to conform to our expectations so that they will become who we want them to be instead of working to create a place of peace for them where they can grow up to be who they will be. We are afraid of inviting the stranger into our hearts, fearful that their differences may force us to change. We expect our loved ones to endure our vices and defects with the excuse, “That’s just who I am, and you’ll have to learn to live with it.”
But the Christian life calls us to learn hospitality. Hospitality means that instead of expecting the world to accommodate us, we actively shape our lives and our hearts and our habits to create a welcome and safe place for others. To quote the learned wisdom of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz”, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”
Consider your life.
Have you, through your openness to others, through your loving acceptance and patience, made your life a haven for other people?
Do you strive to make your home a place of peace?
Do you listen to your children more than you talk at them?
Have you worked to change the parts of your personality that hurt others, even seeking help if necessary, sacrificing your pride for the love of family and friends?
Do you consciously work to open your heart to those who are different from you, welcoming them instead of finding fault with them?
If Paul were to stand before you now and look upon your life, would he judge it to be a place of welcome and peace for all? There is the test of our faithfulness to Christ.
On June 14th, four days after her disappearance, the female bluebird returned to my yard. It turned out that because the weather had finally warmed up, the female had been coming early every morning to lay an egg in the sun-warmed box while I was still getting John ready for school. By the time I was outside, she had already left to enjoy a last bit of freedom in some distant area. My fears were unfounded; my identity as the keeper of the place of peace re-established. The female bluebird recently began incubating her clutch of eggs, and now the male bluebird waits quietly for the arrival of his offspring. He sits on his tree thinking his mysterious bluebird thoughts, and I wait with him for the blessed event.
Lydia said to Paul, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home,” and Paul — the self-reliant Paul who hated to depend on anyone — accepted her invitation and came to stay with her. His acceptance was an act of confirmation, proclaiming Lydia’s hospitality and celebrating her faithfulness to Christ.
May God look upon all of our lives and find them to be faithful places of hospitality where all those in need can find welcome, safety, and peace. In Christ’s name we offer this hope and prayer. Amen.
- Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk , p.162-163