August 21, 2016 – Like birds of a feather

Pentecost 14 August 21, 2016   Ps 133; Acts 16:11-15, 25-34; Ephesians 4:1-6  

Like birds of a feather

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Last week our family took a stay-close-to-home-vacation, during which we took some day trips – including three times to the Outer Cape. One day we took a long walk at Nauset Light Beach in Eastham…. And as we walked further, farther from the main beach area, we saw more and more herds of seals, fishing and playing together… Some swimming right alongside us as we walked, as if they were following us. It was a delight to watch – especially when they’d come out of the water, flipping tails in the air, splashing water, as if having a spectacularly good time enjoying each other’s company…

Another day last week, while my wife and daughter sat and played and read, I walked the beach at Race Point for a mile or two. As I got away again from other people, I noticed more and more of nature… And as I approached a series of flocks of sea-birds, spread across stretches of the beach, close to the water’s edge, each time I grew nearer, birds would rise together in the air, calling out to each other…Telling me off for disturbing their peace… Annoyed, but not angry, just squawking… Mostly enjoying their fellowship together immensely – acting as if with one mind… Rising up in the air, fluttering – then quickly settling back down behind me as I walked past… (The birds know how to flock together, without, apparently, even having any individual leader…. and…)

Back home Saturday a week ago, I went for a walk at the Canal by the railroad bridge…When I got there people were running to look at something in the water, taking pictures… I parked quickly – and here was a big school of dolphins – long fins sticking way out of the water – leaping in synchronized joyful feeding, playing, and traveling…. (and…)

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Our readings today from the book of Acts and Ephesians both affirm and expand on this theme of flocking, herding, and schooling together – something many species of birds, fish, and animals do…. Something we humans are also designed and equipped to do… Though we often seem to need reminding…

The similarities aren’t accidental… God makes fish and birds first, then animals, then crowns the work of creation, making human beings in the image and likeness of God… Not the physical likeness, obviously, since God is far beyond all physical limitations… But we are made in the spiritual likeness of God – endowed with spiritual gifts and graces – empowered to believe and hope and love – even as God our Creator has believed, hoped, and loved life itself into being… (and…)

If I seem to be obsessing today on the parallels between birds, seals, dolphins – and human behavior – it’s yes, partly because I’ve seen so many examples of flocking and schooling together this week that I can’t ignore it.

Sometimes God strings together events like this to make it harder for us to miss the point. And in my case, God had already got me started thinking along these lines several weeks ago, on the day I attended Rohi’s Junior Ranger class at Cape Cod Visitor’s Center. The adult rangers were teaching the kids that day about schooling and herding and flocking behaviors, as something fish, birds, and animals do – mostly for protection. They had the kids play a version of the old game Red Rover (red rover, red rover, I’m calling you over…) Only now it was fish, fish, I’m calling you over.

Most kids were designated to play the part of fish, who had to get from one place to another. A smaller number were designated to play the role of sharks, whose job was to catch the fish if they could, by tagging them. And a whole lot more fish made it to the other side, safely, when they all swam – actually ran, but in the game it was called swimming – together – as a school of fish swims together – compared to almost none of them making it, when they tried to run or swim alone.

And… Like birds, seals, and dolphins, only even more so – we are social creatures. Made for each other’s company… Made in the image of God… And God is a community of being – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Three-in-One. A community of love within the unity of the One God… A mystery that is foundational to all life…

And in the world of faith, we flock together like birds of a feather – school together like seals, liked striped bass – not just for protection and more efficient feeding – like the schools of striped bass I saw and heard last night at the canal, pushing the bait fish up against the rocks to make the eating thereof much easier – though safety and better eating are surely part of herding, schooling and flocking together – but even more so because…

The kingdom of God is all about beloved community… In the book of Acts there are many scenes (in addition to the two we’ve read today) in which someone comes to faith, then is quickly joined-in-believing by those around them…

In our first reading from Acts 16 a woman named Lydia comes to faith, and almost immediately her whole household is baptized along with her… Her faith was never meant to be just for her… It was always meant for all her household and her whole community too…

In our second reading, a few verses later in this same chapter, the traveling missionaries Paul and Silas are in jail for proclaiming the gospel, locked up tight. (This still happens, sometimes, but not often around here…)Yet their faith is so strong that they’re singing and praying… And the earth shakes, responsively, and the chains of prisoners fall off. (This still happens, too. Though most often it’s metaphoric, now. As God frees us from all manner of imprisonments of soul and spirit…) And the jailer-in-charge is just about to kill himself – because he knows he’ll be executed if any prisoners escape. But Paul hollers out and tells him “don’t worry, we’re all still here. We’re not escaping.” Which blows the jailer’s mind – he’s not used to this kind of grace – and on the spot he undergoes a conversion experience… Which again, isn’t just for him..

And as he comes to believe in Jesus, now again his whole family, his whole household,  comes to faith with him – like a flock of birds rising together in flight – like a herd of seals or school of dolphins leaping-together-for-joy…

There’s many examples of people coming to faith together at the same time in the book of Acts. Three thousand are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2). The whole household of Cornelius the centurion receives the Spirit and is baptized together (in Acts 10). A dozen more experience Spirit and water baptism together in chapter 19… We don’t have time to revisit these stories today, but the point is –

We are made for each other’s company. Jesus taught us to pray Our Father who art in heaven. Not my father, but our Father… Give us this day our daily bread. Not my daily bread, but our daily bread… Forgive us our debts, our sins, our trespasses. Not mine alone, but all our sins, debts, trespasses… And of course…

Not everything we or the animals do together is holy. There’s such a thing as mob behavior – crowd behavior that’s ugly as sin. Booing a player off the field for an error or strikeout… (That never happens in Boston.) A very mild example… compared to a lynch mob… a riot… or a war…

And of course, there’s also a right and proper time for solitude – being alone and apart from everyone but God for an hour, a day, or a season. Jesus spends a lot of time in prayer alone with God. We should too.

But our scriptures today are all about holy herding – sanctified schooling together  – faith-based flocking together like birds of a feather…

Our scripture readings all reinforce the biblical truth… that even when we’re physically apart… We’re always all part of the whole of humanity. As poet-pastor John Donne wrote four centuries ago: “no man is an island apart, from the main… Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee…” (It tolls for you, me, and all of us.) Each death diminishes the whole. Every choice to live for God brings delight to the angels in heaven…

Paul the apostle tells us in his letters – we are all members one of another… When any member of the body of Christ suffers, all suffer with it… When any member is lifted up, all are lifted also…

In baptism we become part of the body of Christ. As Ephesians tells us:        “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling – one Lord – one faith – one baptism – one God and Father of all – who is above all – and through all – and in all.”

Good news! Amazing news! Joyous news!

As members of Christ’s body we are like birds of a feather – able to fly, fly together. Able to soar high into the heights in the power of God’s Spirit…

Able to leap for joy like dolphins, like seals – like Olympic gymnasts doing triple back-flips… (Speaking in metaphors now – but–very truly –  )

The joy we have in Jesus keeps getting more and more real…

The more we realize… we have life, we have love, we have joy forever – with him, through him, in him…

Because he has invited us all… to come, live in his love forever, with him… and with each other…

Which should keep us singing the Lord’s song, together, forever…

in harmony with the heavens above, the seas below…

And all creatures great and small…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.