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That Bird Don’t Fly
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
March 4, 2018
Audio not available.
A Reading from the Gospel of John:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
This past week at the conference that you all graciously let Pastor Matt, Pastor John, and me go to, I found myself in the midst of a big family reunion. Folks I had not seen in years made pilgrimage to Baltimore to learn and grow together through worship, workshops, and standard conference food that you would expect in a hotel ballroom. The questions of what is NEXT for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are bubbling right underneath the surface of this conference, but what sits on top of that is a big family reunion. I saw my friend Jana, whom I had not seen in over 6 years. We squealed with delight as we passed the peace together because the last time I saw her was in Glasgow, Scotland. We had just been on a trip to Iona together, to spend a week in the Abbey. When we were in Scotland, we talked about John Calvin and yoga and social activism as we scrubbed toilets together. We prayed together and sang together and shared bread with one another. We walked the green rolling hills together. All of these memories came flooding back and we embraced and through teary eyes, I said to her, “Peace be with you.” Through her infectious smile, she responded in the warmest, Jana-way, “And also with you.” She asked about Lorelai and church. I introduced her to my husband, and she told me about work. Then she stopped and looked at me and reminded me of a story.
We were walking through a grassy field next to the Abbey, when a saw a flock of wild geese. Now mind you, as a native Texan, I don’t think I had ever seen a flock of geese, especially not a flock of Scottish geese. Jana and I watched as they were fluffing their feathers and grooming themselves. And this overwhelming feeling enveloped me. I just wanted to see them fly, and I said that out loud. We tried hollering at them, but to no avail. We clapped and waved and wiggled, and I’m pretty sure they honked with giggles at us. And I thought, I know how to get them to fly, and then looked at Jana. “Hold my coat,” I said. And I ran full speed down the grassy hill toward this gaggle of geese and they burst into the air. I had never seen anything like it.
Probably a goose would have told the story from a completely different perspective. “A wild woman came right at us, running at top speed. I have never been so afraid in my life. We had to flee, immediately. We didn’t know what she was going to do. I had never seen anything like it.”
And the people in the temple courtyard had never seen anything like Jesus overturning tables, though it has become quite commonplace for us. This is the story where Presbyterians often get permission to get angry. As we get passionate about things and the overwhelming feelings start coming up, we find solace in our biblical passage for today. We talk about Jesus’ anger as righteously angry. We talk about Jesus getting onto the religious leaders of his day. When we get frustrated in a session meeting, this is the permission-giving passage. Overturning tables is now a loaded term, functioning not only in a literal sense, but also a figurative one. We talk about Jesus overturning the system, flipping over ideas, first shall be last kind of stuff. And I see those things in this passage too: the anger, the frustration, the passion, the overturning. But the gospel of John is written on several levels, with layers of the years in between the actual events of the life of Jesus the Christ and a generation of hiding for Christians. So, I don’t know if he meant to leave these Easter eggs, these little hidden gems in this passage, but I had never seen anything like this before.
Jesus drove out. Jesus poured out. Jesus turned over. He was angry. Jesus stormed in there, whip in his hand, causing the cattle and sheep to stampede, causing fear as he scattered the people. They ran quickly as he drove them out like animals. The cattle stampeded. The sheep fled. Money was everywhere. Tables were broken. A disturbance in the small corner of the temple courtyard seemed actually welcomed by most people, as Jesus protested the abuse of the money-changers on the backs of the poor. And he turns to the dove-sellers, and leaves the harshest verbal attack for them, “Take these things out of here.”
Now I don’t know a lot about birds, but I did learn from my experience in Iona that if there is a disturbance, like a wild, raving person in the middle of a space where birds are just trying to have some peace and quiet, those birds are going to burst into the air. They are going to spread their wings. They are going to get out of there. The cattle and sheep were driven out. They with their handlers. One whip-crack and they were like, “Peace!” But the doves. They were supposed to fly, right? I mean, you don’t have to go back very far in the gospel of John to remember the story of a dove flying. At Christ’s baptism, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove. What happened? How could two chapters of the gospel story cause those doves to be so content to sit in their birdcages? What clipped the wings of the doves to cause them to not even budge at the sound of an angry God with a whip?
My friend posted an article from Business Insider about Peter Funch’s book “42nd and Vanderbilt,” a book of 10 years’ worth of photography at the same New York intersection between 8:30 and 9:30 in the morning. Turns out July 3, 2012 and July 17, 2012 looked like the same day at 9:09am. And a man will wear the same shirt and the same expression on June 11, 2012 at 9:16 as he will on June 27, 2012 at 9:09. Two men who presumably don’t know one another will also walk together on June 27th and July 10th. Our migration patterns tend to be predictable: our clothes, our backpacks, our facial expressions. The repetition of life makes us look a little more like animals than we may realize. We migrate to work and back home, many times quietly, oftentimes tired, without question. We stay with our own kind. We find our routine, and we stick with it. And, certainly, it’s not always bad. I love a good routine. I wouldn’t be a part of a high liturgical tradition if I didn’t. But, when my habits become the only norm, the binding agent, the predictable, the following of the car ahead of me, I may find that the living that I thought I was doing looks a little more like surviving.
Lent was never about giving up that which fills you with life, but it’s about sensitizing you to remember where that life came from. It’s a holy interruption. The driving out of the normal. The pouring out of food and drink. The turning over of social media. The holy interruption of these things that we don’t even realize are clipping our wings. It’s not that we have become terrible people, it’s that we forgot the people that we were created to be. Lent sensitizes us to the voice of Jesus Christ, the wild man who can’t seem to get the attention of the folks that are going through the motions.
Jesus can’t release the doves because they forgot how to fly. The doves were bred and placed in pigeonholes, just ready for a sacrificial moment. They lived their lives not in flexible patterns but in literal pigeonholes. The Roman Empire would eventually use these pigeonholes for the ashes of the dead, creating what people would call a columbarium.
At presbytery yesterday, the Pastoral Care committee went over the necrology—those who were a part of our body that had died in the past year. We sat in silence because the music wasn’t working, well, sort of silence. There were three women behind me who felt it was appropriate to comment on some of the names mentioned. “Oh, I didn’t know she had died.” “Wow, that’s a lot of names.” “We really are the dying church.” And in the row ahead of me, a leader in our denomination leans over to another person, and all I hear through the whispers are those words again: dying church.
It’s interesting to me because my name wasn’t on that necrology. Your name wasn’t on that necrology. You are not ashes. You will be, but you’re not today. And I don’t know what gets your blood boiling, what forces you to speak from your gut, what news story pulls you back into the present moment, what Lenten practice wakes you up, what word of God is so jarring that you can’t help but fly…
But you do.
We get so pigeonholed into believing that we don’t know who or what the Holy Spirit is. Fine. She’s mysterious. But here are some things I do know about that Spirit:
She’s the truth when we interpret Scripture.
She’s goosebumps during a hymn.
She’s the giver and renewer of life.
She’s the redemption in the water.
She’s the words of prophets from Israel and Ferguson and Parkland.
She is a gentle dove who knows how to get home.
She is awake.
She is inside of you and me.
She is the Amen.
And she is the holy interruption.
People of God, as we journey during Lent, as we go through the motions, as we go through the rest of this service, may a wild human allow his love to disturb us enough to fly.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.