Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, December 20, 2014
Wednesday morning I left the house early headed for Seattle. It was dark and raining. Headlights and tail lights reflected in the water on the highway. 3.64 miles from my house, heading down a slight hill, I noticed an animal dead on the shoulder of road just outside the white line. A wing was extended and my first thought was, that's an owl.
I sometimes remove dead animals from the road in our neighborhood. It's a sign of respect for the life, of reverence for the beauty of creation. I place the animals in the bushes where the ordinary processes of nature will recycle them. This seems more dignified than being turned into an ugly spot on the pavement. I have a special fascination with big birds. In addition to wanting to show respect by removing them from the ugliness of their highway destiny, I find the allure of getting close too strong to resist. Handling a hawk or duck, touching its feathers and examining its intricate coloring is pure magic. It's illegal to possess the feathers, but I don't think it's illegal to pick up a bird and examine it.
All this ran through my head in a few seconds. A half mile down the highway I turned into a side road. Did a U-turn and headed back to check out my sighting. Drove past the spot, did another U-turn and pulled off on the shoulder with my headlights pointed at the bird. I don't know why I thought it was an owl. In my lights it looked like duck. I went to pick it up, and the duck's head was missing. Then I realized, no, it really was an owl. It was lying on its back. A duck in that position would show off its long neck. An owl on the other hand is so compact, it's just a single lump of feathers. I spotted its beak and could make out the outlines of its face.
I had never touched an owl before. Never seen one up this close. Even though it was dead, there were no marks on it. I picked it up. It was still warm. Instead of putting it in the bushes, I put it in my car figuring I would show it to a few of my bird friends before disposing of it properly. (Carolyn, the church administrator is an officer in the Audubon Society. My friend, Brian, is an insane birder. I figured I'd show it to the kids in the Day Care.)
With the bird lying on its back on the floor on the passenger side of the car, I headed on into Seattle. The traffic was terrible. The trip took twice as long as usual. The sky grew lighter. Somewhere near Southcenter I happened to glance down at my dead bird and was startled to see him standing up. He was a bit wobbly on his feet, but he was clearly not dead!
Now what? I had visions of the headlines: Man attacked by owl. I-5 closed by the resulting accident. I had pictures in my head of massive flapping wings and sharp talons. This was not good! But what could I do, I was in the center lane of I-5. I had to keep driving.
Of course, I now glanced at my bird every few seconds to assess the risk of attack. He appeared to be pretty lethargic. He never lifted his wings. He faced away from me. Once or twice he looked my direction and opened his left eye. Other than that, he just stood there swaying a bit, looking like he might be a little drunk. Which would make sense given the fact I was pretty sure he had been knocked unconscious by a collision with a car wind shield.
Fifteen minutes later, he was still just standing there. I looked at the clock. Maybe Brian would be awake. Even if he weren't, this was important enough, I'd wake him up.
“Brian, I have a problem. I picked up a dead owl. But now it's resurrected itself. It's standing on the floor of my car. I don't know how badly hurt it is. Do you know if there is any place that rescues injured owls?”
Brian didn't know, but he promised to get online, find out and call me back.
Then I began thinking, I need some kind of container to put this bird in. Sooner or later if he doesn't die, he's going to try to get out of the car. He's going to be flapping against the glass. I called Anne, the director of the Day Care. She's an animal lover, maybe she had a dog crate I could borrow.
She did not have a dog crate, but she did have a cat crate. I explained my problem. She said she'd get to the church as soon as she could.
When I pulled up here at the church, Fred was still sitting in the same spot on the floor of my car. When I opened my door and got out, he didn't look, didn't move.
Anne arrived with big leather gloves, a pillow case and a cat crate. She cautiously opened the passenger door, slipped the pillow case over the owl, carried him inside, then transferred him to the cat crate.
I took him around to show the kids at the day care then got busy figuring out my next move.
When I picked up the owl, it was a dead bird. It was a beautiful thing which I was going to own for a few hours until I properly disposed of it. I was in complete control. I could of simply set it back down in the bushes at the edge of the road and left it to the crows and other scavengers. Once I put it in my car, as long as it was dead, I was free to dispose of it any time. It was not a problem.
But now, it was alive. Suddenly I was not in control. A living creature you have taken in suddenly imposes obligations. I was stuck. I couldn't just let it go. I had driven it 35 miles away from its home. I had taken it from the country into the heart of Seattle.
And besides, I couldn't just release it until I knew it could fend for itself.
Carolyn told me about a rescue place in Arlington. That was a long way away, but I called them anyway. At least they could advise me. No answer.
Brian called me back and told me about a rescue place in Kent—South Sound Critter Care. The lady there urged me to bring the bird in as soon as possible. I groaned. It was an hour's drive away. That was going to be two and half hours out of my day.
I began scolding myself. Why did I pick up the stupid bird? I should have just looked at it and put it in the bushes. Let nature take its course. But, I had picked it up. I had brought with me into the heart of the City. And now it was alive. It was my problem.
I remember years ago, I had visited some people who had a huge parrot or macaw. While they were out of the living room I had walked over to the bird, it climbed off its perch and onto my arm. The bird and I were having a pleasant conversation when the people came back into the living room.
I put the bird back on its perch and visited with the people. At the end of our visit they offered me the bird. The man was sick and facing a very uncertain future. “That bird never lets strangers approach him. He's dangerous. He obviously likes you. Would you take him?”
I was flattered. I was even tempted. He was a really cool bird. But I had the presence of mind to say that I should check with my wife before taking another animal into the house. Karin delicately suggested I do a little research on the care required by such birds. Thanks to google, I discovered that birds like that needed four or five hours of contact time daily with their person. FOUR TO FIVE HOURS!!!!!!!!
I told the bird's people thanks but no thanks.
Unfortunately, with this owl, I had not considered the possibility that it would resurrect itself and become a dependent, living creature and rearrange my entire day.
I briefly considered just keeping it in the crate until Thursday. But my schedule Thursday was no more convenient than Wednesday. I could take the bird back to where I found it and release it. But that was as far away as the rescue center.
I was stuck. What an idiot. I glared at the bird which was invisible inside the crate in a dark corner of my office.
I talked with Carolyn, took care of a few urgent phone calls, then carried the cat crate with its bird cargo out to the car and headed for Kent, wondering if the bird would still be alive when I got there, wondering if this whole thing was a waste of time. But what else could I do?
In the Christmas story there are some surprises like my owl who resurrected himself. Joseph falls in love with a young girl named Mary. Only after he is hooked, hopelessly in love, only then does he get the news she is going to have an inconvenient pregnancy.
Jesus is born. The angels sing. Rich men from Persia show up to honor the child.
Then King Herod gets in a snit and the holy family barely escapes slaughter.
Would Mary have agreed to this project if she had known the full extent of tragedy and horror she would confront?
Would Joseph have stuck with Mary if he had known her son was going to expose the whole family to the threat of death?
I like to think he would have. Every time we allow ourselves to love, we are taking a huge risk. We are exposing our hearts to the risk of disappointment and grief. Still, that's what lovers do. They take risks. They dare.
The decision to have a child is always a risky matter. Perhaps if you have your children when you are a teenager, you can avoid the scary awareness of all the things that can go wrong. Commonly, we parents dream our children will be healthy and beautiful and smart and ambitious and righteous. Of course. But especially if we are a little older when we have children, we know we are signing up for a risky adventure. Problems happen. Difficulties arise. Illness and accidents invade our lives. Knowing this, perhaps only vaguely, still we embrace the adventure. It's who we are. We become parents.
Let's take this the next step. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was the Son of God. According the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was the Son of generations of fathers going all the way back to Adam—who was the son of God. While the teenage Mary could not possibly have understood the challenges she was signing up for when she agreed to be the mother of Jesus, God the Father knew full well what was ahead.
The injustice and trauma in Jesus life were expected by God. God proceeded anyway. It's what parents do.
At the heart of our faith is the conviction that God has devoted the best resources of heaven to saving people. God sees the mess people are in and God responds. God neutralizes guilt so that wrong doers can imagine a new life beyond their moral failures. God promises healing to those who are harmed by intention or by accident. God gives special reassurance to those in poverty, those who suffer from mental illness, those whose irregularities have made them pariahs.
Our mess is not just our problem. It's God's problem.
The owl drunk with a head injury, standing unsteadily on the floor of my car, had a problem. Because of the culture I am part of—a culture shaped by the life-affirming values of this church, and the animal-affirming values of our house—I was stuck. Since my dead owl had come back to life, I had a problem.
The owl's problem was my problem. But here is the radical difference between the message of the owl story and the message of the Christmas story.
The owl tricked me into getting involved in his life.
The Christmas story declares emphatically that God gladly, boldly, deliberately got involved in our lives. We are not a dead owl that came to life in God's cosmos, bringing with us unexpected inconvenience.
According to the Christmas story we are the treasured, desired children of God.
According to classic Christianity, God knew the difficulties, the pain, the massive injustice that would arise from the life of human beings. God proceeded anyway. The challenge of saving humanity, of redemption, atonement, peacemaking, restoration—all of that—is not something God is stuck with. God did not pick humanity up from the side of the road, imagining that he was holding in his hands something beautiful and fully in his control only to be astonished when we came to life and disordered the tidy beauty of the universe.
Rather God looked ahead at the creativity and energy of humanity. God saw that we would pervert our freedom. God saw the full range of possibilities, and said, “Let's do it.” I hope this is not being too irreverent, but I imagine God saying, “What would my life be without my children? Safety and unruffled order is nothing compared to the wild adventure of having children.”
Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is redolent with sweetness and charm. Sweet baby Jesus, holy infant, tender and mild. Christmas also declares that our problems, our needs, our tragedies and struggles with injustice—all this is not a problem that has taken God unawares. These are not dead owls that have resurrected themselves in God's car and imposed themselves on God. Rather the heartbreak of humanity, and even the challenge of healing evil and restoring the world—all this has been freely chosen by God because this mess is your life, and you are God's prized son. You are God's precious daughter.
We are all baby Jesus. Loved and treasured.
This is what we mean when we say, Merry Christmas.