Genesis 28:10-17 and Matthew 10:24-33
When I was the pastor at the Lower Miami congregation in Dayton Ohio, the parsonage had a wood stove in the living room. Not a fire place, but one of those stand-alone wood stoves, like a Franklin stove, a couple of feet out from the wall. One day Julia and I were relaxing in the living room when all of a sudden we heard a terrible noise. A very sudden and very violent scratching noise. It sounded like it was coming from over toward the woodstove. I got up to see what kind of mischief the cats were getting into, and the noise stopped.
I looked around, didn’t see anything that the cats had pulled down or torn up, and sat down again. A few minutes later the noise came back again, but this time the cats were in the living room where we could see them. They ran over to the woodstove itself and looked all around it. Finally it dawned on us that there was something inside the woodstove trying to get out.
While it was good to know what the noise was about, we had a couple of problems. First, what was it that was in the stove? Probably a bird, but maybe it was a squirrel or some other animal. Was it something that would bite us? Something that would spray us? Could it hurt us? I don’t know if wolverines like to live in woodstoves or not, but I was willing to consider the possibility right then. The second problem was, what do we do about this, this whatever it is in the stove? How do we get it out and get it where it belongs without hurting it or letting it hurt us?
We listened a while longer and figured out that it had to be a bird in the stove. Along with the scratching and the thumping we could hear the flutter of wings, and a bird really did make the most sense. It must have fallen in from the chimney or something. So we got a big trash bag, the 30 gallon kind, and sort of draped it around the front of the stove. We held the edges of the bag tight around the stove so nothing could get out, and slowly opened the door on the stove just a little bit at a time. And we waited.
About the third or fourth little bit we opened the door, the scratching and the thumping and the fluttering started again. All of a sudden the trash bag was alive – or at least, it was moving like it was alive, and there was even the outline of a bird trying to push through on the bottom of it. We shut the stove door and we squeezed the trash bag shut at the top, Julia opened the front door, and then she and the cats watched from the front window while I ran outside with the trash bag and tried to gently dump the bird out of it onto the ground.
Just when the bag had opened enough to let a little light in, all of a sudden a little bird comes shooting out of the bag and makes a beeline for the branches of one of our tallest trees. The bird lands on the branch, and begins singing it’s song. It was very beautiful, and very moving to watch this little bird which had moments ago been imprisoned, frightened, lonely; and now suddenly it was flying free and singing a joyous song just as God intended it to.
I think that’s how God must look at us sometimes. God must hear our scratching and our thumpings as we try to make our way through life and wonder what’s going on. God must sometimes look at the decisions we make and the actions we take and say, “What in the world are they doing down there?”
God cares about us, and so I guess God must sometimes look at us the way Julia and I looked at the woodstove when it started thumping. God wants us to be free, to be fully human, and so God tries to think of ways to reach out to us. Just as Julia and I tried to figure out how to rescue the bird in the stove, God’s done lots of things over the years, but it wasn’t until he came to earth through Jesus Christ that we could really see the light, really see a way out of our sin and our darkness.
When we become what God wants us to become, when we start to achieve some of our God-given potential, when we start to be truly happy and truly free, God must look at us the way that Julia and I looked at the little bird as it flew to the treetops and sang it’s song of joy and freedom. Like us, God must have a smile on his face and a tear in his eye as we become more completely free.
That’s not the end of the story. We went back to the living room, we sat down and talked about the little bird, we were happy and content, and we started to read. Suddenly, we once again heard a scratching and a thumping from the other side of the room. Once again we looked up. Once again the cats ran over to the stove and started jumping up on it and sniffing it. Once again we heart the beating and flutter of wings. Once again the sounds stopped as quickly as they had started. There was another bird in the stove.
We tried the thing with the trash bag again. No luck. This bird was too weak or too frightened or too something, but it didn’t do anything. It just sat in the stove. After a couple of minutes of holding the bag around the door, the phone rang. Julia went to get the phone, and I continued to hold the bag. Nothing happened. Julia spoke on the phone, and I tapped the side of the stove every once in a while to try to scare the bird into moving. Nothing happened.
I guess I was starting to get tired or bored or something because suddenly the trash bag gapped a little bit, a little space opened between the bag and the stove, and the bird was out of there like a shot.
It headed straight to the living room window, towards the light and the sky and the trees. But it couldn’t get through the glass; it couldn’t get through the window. It kept trying, flying into the window, bumping into the window, fluttering against the window. The cats had noticed all the motion – back then our cats were Albert and Myshkin – and Albert jumped up to try to get the bird. I yelled at him and he jumped down, and the bird fluttered its way along to the open part of the window, where it ran into the screen.
By this time Myshkin had jumped up to see what this fluttering thing was, and she had forced the bird down to the end of the window, between the window and the drape. There was no place the bird could easily go. We moved Myshkin away and tried to hold the bag around the bird. Then Julia kind of reached through the bag, she used the bag like it was a glove, and picked the bird up in her hands and carried it outside to let it go. She got outside, released her hands, and the bird flew higher and farther and faster than the first bird. It flew to an electric wire, sat there a moment, looked at us, and then flew on
I talked earlier about how Julia and I felt, but I wonder how the bird must have felt. It was sitting there in the stove with the other bird, dark, dirty, trapped. It had probably exhausted itself trying to fly out of the stove and running into walls wherever it turned. It was confused and knew nothing but to keep trying to fly. It was exhausted and could only flutter in short bursts against the walls of the stove. It was frightened for it had never been in such a place, never been in so dark or so scary a place that it couldn’t just fly right out again.
And then the first bird left! There was hope! The second bird tried to follow the first, but couldn’t see where it had gone – the darkness was still all around. It couldn’t feel anything but the walls anyway – how had it’s friend gotten through? It was too tired to try for very long, so finally it settled once again into the dirt and ashes of the fireplace – still confused, still exhausted, still frightened, and now, alone.
Suddenly, suddenly the bird sees a crack of light – it’s not much, but it’s enough. The bird heads straight for it, and wriggles its way out of the stove. He looks around, and off to the side recognizes the blue of the sky and the smell of the breeze and the warmth of the sun and heads straight for it. At last! Freedom!
But wait… there’s something here. The bird can see the sky and feel the warmth and smell the breeze, but there’s something here, some kind of barrier or something that keeps him from reaching it. He tries frantically to fly, he hops and jumps and flutters and flaps but it’s no use. And now big furry things with fangs and claws are coming at him. He moves down the window, trying to find a way out, but he can’t. Finally the bird is cornered, unable to move in any direction. And then the darkness closes around it, and a pair of hands hold it tight, and the bird is trapped all over again.
We are often like the birds. We are often alone, in the dark, uncertain. And when we least expect it, we find God. We have a glimpse of the light. We catch a whiff of the breeze. We feel a bit of the warmth. Like Jacob, we are surprised by God’s presence. We are surprised that God knows us, surprised that God cares about us, surprised that God would try to help us.
And sometimes, like that second bird, we feel trapped even when we try to follow the light. We’ll strike out in ways that aren’t good, in ways that might lead to danger, in ways that won’t bring us to our goal. Just as Julia held the bird tightly, so too does God sometimes block us from where we want to go. We may not recognize God. We may not know that it is God holding us back, that it is God keeping us from where we thought we were heading.
But we can trust, someplace inside, that God loves us and cares for us and wants to help us. Even when we don’t recognize it as God, even when we don’t feel God’s presence, even when we don’t believe God cares anymore, God is there. Caring for us, caring for his sparrows. And a flash of something comes to us, and we are surprised. Surprised by God’s presence, by God’s care, surprised by God’s love.
Darkness closes in around the second bird, and a pair of hands hold it tight. It is trapped all over again. The bird is held tight, and it can’t move. But wait, what’s this? Instead of just a glimpse of sky, the bird sees nothing but sky before it. Instead of just a hint of warmth, the bird feels the full force of the sun on it’s body. Instead of just a whiff of the breeze, the bird feels a wind under it’s wings, trying to lift it up and carry it on.
And suddenly the bird is free. Suddenly it can stretch it’s wings again. Suddenly it can fly, not just flutter, but really fly without bumping into things. The bird goes up and up and up and up, and as the bird lights on a wire, it sings. It sings loud and long. It sings freedom and joy. It sings happiness and love.
And when we are free, when we reach our God-given potential, when we become the creatures that God created us to be, we too will sing of freedom, of joy, of happiness, of love. Like the bird, we will look back at where we were, and we will see what it was that released us from our bondage. We will see what it was that saved us from the cats, that kept us from crashing into windows, that held us tight in strong and caring hands. We will see what it was that rescued and saved us. We will see God. We will see God watching with a smile on his fare and tears in his eyes. We will see God, and we will be surprised. Amen.