Title: Nests and hope
Date: April 13, 2008
Texts: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
We have two blue birds living in our front yard. Last fall our neighbor gave Katie and me a bird house, and I put it up near the street this past January. That probably wasn’t the best place to put it. They said to install it as far away from our house as possible—since humans scare them. Well, I did that. And now it’s a couple feet from the street which is probably worse. People walk by with their dogs, and cars speed by. It’s probably the worst spot for the blue birds—a very threatening environment.
Whenever I go out to my car, or walk to the street to pick up the mail, the birds get anxious and fly away. Apparently, I’m dangerous. No matter how cautious I am, how quietly and slowly I walk, once I get within 15 feet of the house, the male blue bird leaves his perch on top of the house and flies to a nearby tree. And if I keep on walking, the female shoots out from the house and into another tree.
But when I go back inside, and after the dog walkers pass by, the blue birds return to their nest inside their birdhouse. They are stubborn with their nest.
This isn’t something necessarily special about the blue birds in the front yard. Birds everywhere build nests in the most precarious places, in the midst of danger: even with predators nearby, like neighborhood cats; or at UNC, in a corner of awning alongside a busy walkway. Nothing will stop them from building nests. And they can build them anywhere, in any corner, no matter how dangerous.
Birds live in a dangerous world, but that doesn’t stop them from building nests in the midst of it all.
Psalm 23 invites us to be like my blue bird neighbors. Psalm 23 tells an honest story about death and darkness—wandering in a valley of darkness. I’ll read a couple verses: “Even though I walk through the darkness valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows” (vv. 4-5).
The Psalmist is a realist. There’s no mistake about it: there are evils all around. We’re in a dark valley, surrounded by death. And the good news in the Psalm is that God sets a table for us so we can eat and fellowship in the middle of danger. The good news isn’t rescue. There’s no Star Trek tractor beam to beam us out of a danger zone, out from harm’s way. No. The good news is that God makes us a nest in the midst of danger. God sets up a table of life in the middle of death; we eat and sit and talk right smack in the middle of enemies.
God wants us to put our trust in a hope that’s precarious, that sits in the darkness and shines light. To live like those blue birds, who go ahead and build and return to a nest near the street where dogs walk and cats wander, and where I park my car.
That’s also the story of John’s Gospel. It’s a story about building a community of love in the midst of death. As I said three weeks ago at Easter, John writes a love story. It’s a story about God’s deep red love for Mary Magdalene, for Lazarus, for the Beloved disciple, and for us. It’s a dangerous kind of love. It’s about a life of love that gets killed; and the community of love, the beloved community, that lives on in Jesus’ wake.
John writes this story about Jesus to a people who are surrounded by darkness. John’s community is persecuted by religious and political authorities. They are a marginalized people, living on the edge, in the valley of the shadow of death—a persecuted people living in places that kill hope.
And to these people, John tells the story of a Jesus who is like a shepherd who gathers his sheep and watches over them. This is a Jesus who guides his sheep while in the valley of death. Like God in Psalm 23, John tells of a Jesus who leads his sheep into green pastures. Jesus is the good shepherd of Psalm 23 who sustains his people, his sheep, even while they live at the edge of death, in a valley of darkness.
When darkness is all around, when evil seems to have won, when danger lurks around every corner, the temptation is to think that mere survival is the only possibility. The best we can do is survive, to hang on, to barely get by. But that’s not what Jesus offers. Our passage from John closes with flourishing, life upon life, when mere survival seems like the best we can do. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant life.
Those blue birds that live at the edge of my front yard, they build a nest so they can have abundant life. A few weeks ago my neighbor told me to open up the birdhouse to see how the nest-building was going. That seemed a little too invasive for me—those birds already had a hard enough time finding undisturbed peace. But he insisted that we look. So he opened up the house and found six blue eggs.
Those birds build nests wherever they can, even in dangerous places, and provide space for abundant life—for life upon life.
In hospitals people live on the edge. It’s a place of tragedy and a place of second chances. It’s exactly the sort of place where birds would build nests. And that’s what I found this past week. I would walk into Cameron’s room, where he is recovering from his stroke, and find some of you already there. Or Cameron would tell me of all the people who had visited him since the last time I saw him.
We build nests around Cameron, in his hospital room, as he realizes that life will not be the same for him anymore. His hospital room could be a place of darkness, of despair, or of depression. But you all have turned it into a nest. Cameron can see, even if things are a bit hazy for him right now—he can see that there is life there too. Life displayed through your presence. And with your presence comes Christ: as Jesus promised, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with you.”
That’s how we build nests of hope; that’s how we turn Easter into a verb. We turn Easter into an activity of hope. We embody God’s presence. God weaves us together into the resurrected Christ’s body so we can be Easter, so we can shine God’s light, so we can live out the abundant life Jesus promises for us.
This kind of abundant life doesn’t mean that God wants to give us a lot of money. Or that we can have all our desires fulfilled. Abundant life is about people, it’s about a community, it’s about you serving one another, finding God’s life as you give your life. It’s about turning Easter into a verb, making hope into a verb, something we do through God’s enlivening presence.
Easter becomes a way of life in our passage from Acts 2. The followers of Jesus devote themselves to one another, to fellowshipping with God and each other. And for them to receive the abundant life Jesus offers means that they “had all things in common,” it says in verse 44. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v. 45). Abundant life means giving our stuff away for the sake of the wellbeing of those God adds to our numbers.
That’s how we build nests of hope. We live into Easter. We turn Easter into a verb, something we do, a hope we live out—we become a reason for hope. You are the light of the world; you have the abundant life someone else is dying for; you are Easter. Christ gave his life for you so that you can give yours to someone else. As it says in our passage from I Peter, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
To lose our lives is to gain life. To share all things in common is to find abundant life. To suffer for the sake of your love for each other is to follow Christ toward Easter.
Church happens when we build nests around each other, even when all we can see is darkness, even when we are shadowed by a valley of death, even when we aren’t sure how to take care of ourselves.
We nest. We provide for one another. We let God weave our lives together into a place where new life, abundant life, is born.
Psalm 23 ends with a hope. This Psalmist who walks through death, who eats in the presence of enemies, takes us into God’s abundant life. The Psalm closes with this line: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:6). And God’s house is a nest; we build it anywhere, like birds; our praying and sharing together is this nest. Nests happen in Cameron’s hospital room. Nests happen when we garden together at the Women’s shelter. And these nests are a sign of Easter—making nests of abundant life is how we turn our Easter hope into a verb, something we do, a way for us to participate in God’s life-giving presence.
In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven in the form of a dove. And like a bird, the Holy Spirit gathers our scattered lives from the darkness and weaves us together into a nest of hope, into the space where Easter still happens, into hope made flesh.