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The Birdbath

July 12, 2020
Mark 4:26-29
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

In the 1980s, psychologists became interested in the way that human beings understand and cope with our experiences by telling stories about those experiences.  When you relate an experience that you have had, you choose what slant or interpretation to put on that experience as you shape your telling of it, and that in turn will reinforce your fundamental view of yourself and the world.  Say, for example, a person encounters a challenging setback: they might tell the story of that setback by starting with, “Terrible things always seem to happen to me,” and thus in their story they reinforce their belief that they are a helpless victim of circumstances.  Someone else, encountering the same setback, might tell it as a story of how much they learned from that challenge, and in so doing will reinforce their belief that they are resilient and strong.  The two people have gone through similar experiences but have reacted differently due to the stories they carry in their head about themselves.  Narrative psychologists work to help people recognize those narratives and when necessary, develop healthier stories about who they are so that they might cope better with life’s challenges.

Jesus was way ahead of our modern day psychologists.  He understood the often debilitating stories that we carry in our heads about ourselves — stories of defeat and hopelessness, stories that make us believe that we are not worthy of anyone’s love, stories of guilt that keep us chained to our mistakes, and stories that convince us that we are incapable of change.  And Jesus challenged those narratives by giving us new stories to replace those old worn out ones that have been weighing us down.

“You believe that you are so inconsequential that no one notices you are even alive?” Jesus said to the people.  “Let me tell you this story —  God loves you like a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go to find the one that is lost.  You believe that you have committed unforgivable acts?  Let me tell you the story of the prodigal son.  You believe that the rich will inherit the earth?  Here is a story for you: God is like the man who threw a banquet and invited the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to sit at his table.”  Jesus didn’t just “tell stories;” he used stories to give us a whole new way of thinking about ourselves and the world, and he invited us to step into the pages of a different narrative, God’s narrative, one in which we are loved and loving people, living lives of hope, blessing, and significance.  The world might tell us a story of human beings as mere specks of dust in an uncaring universe but Jesus tells a different story in which we are hitched to the hands of God so that what we do and the choices we make have tremendous meaning. 

“You are like the farmer who sows the seed,” Jesus says, “and then sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, he does not know how.  When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

This parable, this story of Jesus, is one that we especially need to hear right now when the challenges of the world feel so huge that it hard to see how any one of us can make a difference.  And the problem is that with our limited human sight, it doesn’t feel like we do make a difference.  In our limited human sight, we spend our lifetimes working to feed the hungry, but there are hungry people still.  We spend our lifetimes trying to practice love and acceptance, but cruelty and bigotry remains.  And, forget trying to change the world — just look at what abject failures we seem to be at changing ourselves.  How many times have we confessed our faults and failings and yet still we have not achieved the perfect character we desire?  With our human eyes, we look at the landscape of our lives and we are tempted to tell a story of absolute insignificance, a narrative of discouraging powerlessness.  Jesus, however, insists on telling a different story and invites us to live within that story, within God’s narrative: “The seed sprouts and grows,” Jesus’ story says, “even though we do not know how.”  In Jesus’ story, everything we do will make a difference whether we can see it or not because God will always be able to bring fruit forth from our efforts.  God calls us simply to continue to plant seeds, to continue to serve, to continue to try to bring our lives and the world into conformity with God’s love, and to continue to have faith that even when we have no idea of how any of it will make a difference, God will bring a harvest from our planting.

Let me tell you a story that I carry in my head.  Many years ago, when I was first trying to attract bluebirds to my yard, I read that birds are more likely to nest in an area where they can hear the sound of fresh water.  Accordingly, I constructed a homemade water dripper from an old liter plastic bottle with a small hole that I punched in its bottom, and I hung this rather ugly contraption over a bird bath so that over the course of the day, the liter of water would slowly drip into the basin.  Every day before breakfast, I would clean out the leaf litter and dirt that had accumulated in the bird bath overnight, fill the plastic bottle with more water, spend several minutes fiddling with it to get the drip just right, and then would hang it over the basin again, and every day I watched for bluebirds — or frankly for any bird — to accept my offering and take a drink, but every day, the basin remained deserted.  The only thing I ever saw drinking from the bird bath was my dog, but I persisted, day after day, for three weeks until one morning, I said, “This is a stupid waste of time,” and I gave up and left the basin dry.

The next morning, I heard a scrambling noise in my wood stove.  Sometimes starlings try to nest in my chimney and fall down into the main stove, so I closed all my curtains, opened the front door, and reached into the wood stove to free what I thought would be a starling.  To my dismay, it wasn’t a starling; it was a female bluebird.  She was covered with soot, and so exhausted by her efforts to escape that she didn’t move when I picked her up in my hand.  I carried her outside to my front yard and opened my hands but she just sat panting for a few moments, obviously confused and weak.  And then, and I swear this is absolutely true, she launched herself from my hands and flew right to the empty bird bath where she sat panting and immobile in her thirst.

I ran into the house and grabbed a pitcher of water.  She fluttered to the side while I filled the basin and as soon as I stepped away, she flew back and drank greedily from the water.  I may not have seen her or any bird at my basin over those past few weeks but the female bluebird knew where water was to be found.  Somehow — I knew not how — the water I had offered had been received, and my work yielded a harvest.  That summer, the bluebirds raised a brood of babies in my birdhouse.  

That is the story I carry in my head whenever I get discouraged.  It is a story of trusting that our efforts can be making a difference even if we can’t see them.  It is a story of persisting in our service because we never know who might be the unseen recipients of our compassion.  It is Jesus’ story of the sower who sows seeds trusting in God’s ability to bring fruit from our offering, and to change our world and even ourselves through our faithful persistence.  

This is the story I choose to live within.  The world may try to tell me I am insignificant and nothing I do can make a difference, but I remember the thirsty bluebird; I hear the words of Jesus, and I choose to live within a narrative that assures me that God can take every seed of kindness, every planting of compassion, every word of justice, every effort to become better people, and bring forth a harvest, even if I know not how.  

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