“Live Like the Birds”
May 25, 2008 - Second Sunday after Pentecost
Our garage is filled with boxes and furniture and that’s just the beginning. As we prepare to move to Eugene from our fifteen year old home in Springfield, we are painfully aware of how much stuff we have. We’re wondering how we will ever get it boxed, get it moved, and get it put away again in our new house. We’re worried about doing it in time to turn our old house over to its buyers.
So today’s text is challenging for me. Live like the birds, like the flowers, says Jesus. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just trust God who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, and He will take care of us like He takes care of them.
I know Jesus is right when He says in verse 25, “Is life not more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” but it’s hard to hear it right now, when I’m contemplating how to move a freezer full of food and several closets full of clothes. What are we supposed to do? Just walk away from it all?
One of my spiritual heroes, St. Francis of Assisi, did just that. Every two years in Confirmation class I show a little snippet from a movie that has become an old friend. It is Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a 1970’s version of St. Francis’s life. It has beautiful cinematography and wretched music by Donavan. I show the scene in which Francis has decided to give up his riches and live poor. He is the son of a wealthy textile merchant, and he begins to throw bolts of his father’s finest cloth out the window of their storehouse as a happy crowd gathers below to catch the falling treasures.
Francis’s father catches hold of him, beats him, then drags him before the local bishop for judgment. The father lays claim to everything Francis owns as well as the goods he’s thrown away. He demands repayment. Francis’s response, much to the giggles of my Confirmation classes, is to take off his clothes and walk away naked, to live like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. A peasant gives him a worn-out, cast-off old brown tunic and Francis finds a piece of rope to tie around his waist and hold it together. G. K. Chesterton says, “Ten years later that make-shift costume was the uniform of five thousand men; and a hundred years later, in that, [as a sign of honor], they laid [the] great [poet] Dante in the grave.”
The birds and St. Francis are all very well, but I still have a hard time with all this. I can’t just walk away from my house, from my responsibilities. I do have to worry about food and clothing and shelter, not just for myself, but for three other people whom God has given me to love. Living like the birds doesn’t seem to be an option.
Living like the birds doesn’t even seem to be right. People like Francis can be parasites upon society. We have birds right now living in our attic. Pesky starlings have once again pecked their way through the screen on one of the vents in our eaves and made a nest there. We hear the little babies chirping away above Joanna’s old bedroom.
So, yeah, sure, the heavenly Father takes care of the birdies, but He does it by using our house. If not for us, those little creatures would have to find their own spot in a tree, like any good, self-respecting, hard-working birdy should.
In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, we meet a character named Harold Skimpole, who comes across as a simple-minded innocent, unable to care for himself and manage his life. But he is actually sponging off the generosity of others, failing to pay for anything, letting his friends account for his debts. He pretends he doesn’t even understand the value of money. He says, “And how can I pay? I never have any money. If I had any money, I don’t know anything about it. Suppose I say to a man, how much? Suppose the man says to me seven and sixpence? I know nothing about seven and sixpence. It is impossible for me to pursue the subject, with any consideration for the man. I don’t go about asking busy people what seven and sixpence is in Moorish — which I don’t understand. Why should I go about asking them what seven and sixpence is in Money — which I don’t understand?”
Is that what Jesus is asking of us here? Shall we all suddenly pretend that money matters not at all, that we don’t understand it, that we can do without it, because God, through the goodwill of other, hard-working people will just take care of us? Is that what the Lord means when He tells us, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”
No, when Jesus says in verse 31, “So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” He does not mean us to be starlings or Skimpoles, living careless, irresponsible lives which are parasitical on the efforts of those who do worry about such things. No, he means for us to put the stuff we have, even the stuff we need, in its proper place. We have more important matters to attend to.
Harold Skimpole and our starling friends aren’t concerned about money and food and clothes, but that’s only because they aren’t concerned about anything, even the people who provide their needs. But Jesus wants to make us more concerned about others, not less. He wants to turn our passions away from stuff so that He can turn our passions toward the needs of the world. He wants us to be less concerned with food and fashion, so that we can be more concerned about kindness and His kingdom.
With lovely images of birds and flowers Jesus was trying to teach us an attitude. In the language of the Veritas marks of a healthy, missional church, it’s the basis of “sacrificial and generous living and giving.” When we put less store by the importance of our possessions, we grow into people who can make sacrifices and give to others in generous ways. That’s what Jesus means when He says we are to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” When we sacrifice what we thought we needed for the sake of God and others, we suddenly discover that we have plenty. God has provided what we truly need.
Yet sacrifice sounds gloomy. It’s easy to get and give the impression that Christians who take this sacrificial giving thing seriously are going to be dour, unhappy sorts of people. Going without nice things so that you can give to God and to the poor seems like a somber, sad, hard sort of business.
It feels hard to me sometimes. I don’t find it easy. The prospect of an evening at the food bank instead of at home watching a movie can be tough. I enjoy fine food. Cutting back what I spend on a meal or going hungry for a day so I can give money to feed someone else is difficult. I like clothes that fit well and look nice. Wearing a second-hand shirt or worn-out shoes so I can share with people that have none is unpleasant. I have 11 or 12 fishing rods sitting in my garage. Giving even one away to the church garage sale would be painful. Living like the birds can make me unhappy and resentful.
Jesus taught us not just to make sacrifices, but to learn the spirit that makes sacrifice easier and joyful. As I’m sure some of our shelter guests will tell you about Christians they’ve met along the way, we can be superficially generous but mean about it. Whether rich or poor, if we are constantly worried about money and stuff, we will be gloomy and sad. Those who have learned to trust God and hold possessions lightly are truly happy.
St. Francis chose to give up his life for God and others. He went hungry. He walked around barefoot and in second hand clothes. He washed the sores of lepers. In the heat of the crusades he took a long hard journey to the Muslim Sultan to try and convert him to Christianity. The stigmata, the wounds of Christ, appeared on his body, causing him great pain. He suffered much. It could have made him grumpy and mean.
Yet Francis wasn’t gloomy. That’s one thing the Zeffirelli film gets absolutely right, even if it’s with silly images like running through a field of flowers. Barefoot and homeless, Francis was insanely happy. G.K. Chesterton compares him with the cynic who says, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” But Francis said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” There’s a kind of wild, wonderful joy to living the way Jesus asks us to here. Living like the birds is meant to make us sing like the birds, to fly high, to soar into the heavenly happiness and joy of God’s love.
Chesterton tells how Francis died. When he knew his time was near, he took off his clothes again and laid down on bare ground to wait for God. And Chesterton writes that when the stars passed over him dying there they “had for once, in all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down upon a happy man.”
Another of my spiritual heroes, Izaak Walton, writes about the happiness and contentment that is born out of learning the attitude Jesus teaches here. The ending of The Compleat Angler concludes all its fishing lessons about finding bait and tying flies with lessons on thankfulness and contentment with whatever God has given. Walton tells about Diogenes wandering through a country fair, seeing ribbons, looking glasses, nutcrackers, fiddles and hobby horses, along with all the other gimcracks sold at fairs. He remarked to a friend, “Lord, how many things are there in this world of which Diogenes has no need!” That’s the attitude to cultivate—not sad-faced resentment of what we’ve missed, but delighted wonder at all there is which we do not need. If only you and I could walk through a mall or read the ads in the Sunday paper with a spirit like that.
Walton closes his book with thoughts about how to learn to be content with what we have, to not always be chasing after riches and stuff. He says that a pious man advised that we mortify fleshly desires by going to church cemeteries, viewing grave stones, even visiting funeral homes where corpses were being laid out, and “there consider how many dead bodies time had piled up at the gates of death.” Then Walton offers his own, and I think much better, suggestion saying,
when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the power, and wisdom, and providence of Almighty God, I will walk the meadows, by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures that are not only created, but fed, man knows not how, by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him. This is my purpose.
Walton was right. Jesus was right. Ask our folks who’ve spent a Tuesday evening at the food bank or a Saturday afternoon feeding people under the bridge or even a morning hiking on Mt. Pisgah. Letting go of that time or food or money you gave produces a wonderful experience of happiness, a sense that you are living the way life was meant to be lived. And you are. Sacrificial and generous living and giving is the way to gladness, not gloom.
It’s not easy to be happy in this way. Mortgage payments and doctor bills creep up on us and we start to worry. We start to fret. We start down the path of gloom. But whenever we give what we have willingly or whenever we allow ourselves the time and place to be quiet and trust in God, we find joy gently creeping back in instead.
Let us find more ways like today, when we are worshipping outside, to remember how little we need and how generous God is. And like birds and flowers may we grow up bright and beautiful, giving joy to those whom we serve, and finding our own happiness along our Lord’s path of giving. May we seek first His kingdom and find that everything else has been given to us as well.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj