For the birds
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?-Matthew 6: 26
I went to seminary well past adolescence, but you wouldn’t know it based on my behavior. In the most somber theology classes, I’d sit in the back row and as I took notes, would often draw cartoons in the margins, usually about my professors. Pretty soon, I was not alone in the back row, as peers would look over my shoulder and giggle. They were so immature.
Another antic grew from the time I spent in the impressive library at Union Seminary. I came across a book called “Bird Walk Through the Bible.” It detailed all the times birds were mentioned in scripture. I was so taken by this book that I figured out a way to include it in every bibliography in every paper I wrote. I remembered that significant theological opus as I read today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount. When teachers would ask me why I included the book in my bibliography, I would refer them to Matthew 6.26. Clearly, Jesus thought that birds have something to teach us. What might that be?
Let me take a stab at it. Jesus seems to notice that the birds of the air don’t exhibit the kind of anxiety that human beings do. They rise above it. That carefree quality apparently has something to do with them knowing their value. They trust that God is providing for them. Thus they can get on with their high-flying lives. Jesus wonders: Aren’t we at least as valuable as those birds? Jesus asks us to think about our own value, our own worth.
How do people speak about their value? For many folks, knowing their value has to do with work, with compensation or title or positive feedback. For some, value comes from the possessions or investments or the zip code in which they reside. Some people derive a sense of value from their families, their parents or their children. In his book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel notes how in our culture value is equated with level of education. Many people who embrace all kinds of disenfranchised groups are unkindly dismissive of those without college educations. Education as a value.
Even when we screw up, we are given opportunity to think about our value. Brene Brown frames it in terms of the difference between shame and guilt. She says that shame is a focus on self. Guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad” (i.e., of little value). Guilt is “I did something bad.” With guilt, there’s still a sense of value. We are redeemable.
Given all that, where do we as people of faith find value? What would it take for us to live with the carefree attitude of the birds of the air, in a time when the news can crank up anxiety in unprecedented ways? I suspect it comes with a sense of our identity as persons created in the image of God. It comes from our baptism, as we note in one of the baptismal promises that we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. That phrase “all persons” includes us. How do we embrace our value indicated by the belief that Christ is in each one of us? Another baptismal promise calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. How do we embrace that notion that each one of us is sealed with a God-given dignity?
Once we’ve wrapped our minds around that aspect of our value, we are then free to recognize the value in others. I’m aware in myself of the anxiety that can preclude a life lived in the freedom of the birds of the air. It comes from my need to establish myself as more valuable than somebody else. More valuable in the work place. More valuable in the family system. More valuable in the church (of all places).
Jesus says to let all that go and fly free, to remember who we are. A child of God. A friend of Jesus. A temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe as much as we are called to remember who we are, we are called to remember whose we are. Again, in baptism, we say that the person being baptized is marked as Christ’s own forever. Now that’s value.