Hummingbird heaven

Read John 3:1-17

The way Nicodemus approaches Jesus—his words and actions—reveals Nicodemus’ frame of mind. First, he asks rhetorical questions. What are rhetorical questions? They are questions with an obvious answer. “How can someone be born again?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. Here is a question that has an obvious answer in its literal meaning: No, one cannot enter a second time into the mother’s womb.[1]

He’s not finished. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses and “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Nicodemus asks another rhetorical question: “How can these things be?”

Rhetorical questions reveal more about the one asking the question. When we ask rhetorical questions we are not so much expecting a direct answer. We are not curious and seeking understanding with an open mind as much as we are offering our question for effect. With these kinds of questions we are normally getting ready to have a debate, to have a fight. A member of the ruling council, Nicodemus the Pharisee may very well have been used to using this style of combative discourse. 

Then, there is his behaviour. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Maybe he is trying to hide from being spotted with the agitater, Jesus of Nazareth. As I mentioned, Nicodemus was a religious leader. As such, he belonged to the privileged establishment in Jerusalem. Was he worried about his reputation, being accused of cohorting with society’s riff-raff? 

Or maybe, being someone who achieved material successes in life, he reacts against the notion of not being in control of his destiny. Jesus says, after all, that God’s Spirit is beyond our capacity to direct and control.

Whatever the case may be, Nicodemus’ words and actions reflect his fear. He has a lot to lose in his encounter with Jesus. He resists. He defends. And he pretends that he is right and that everything is alright, living life out of fear.

The words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans paint another picture. “We are led by the Spirit of God and [therefore] are children of God,” Paul writes. “For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear …”[2]

Ever chase seagulls on the beach? Or run after sandpipers across grassy dunes and windswept plains? We perceive birds to react in this skittish, fearful way. Normally, they bolt as soon as we make a noise or come too close. Their behaviour is fearful and filled with foreboding and anxiety. These are primal instincts to which they are slaves. 

In the Zoom service last week, Beth shared a remarkable moment of grace she experienced while watering her flower garden recently planted. Something was blocking the end of the garden hose, so the stream came out a slow, gentle arc splashing into the ground a few feet in front of her.

All of a sudden she noticed a hummingbird approach the fountain of water at its crest. And then the bird started drinking from the stream of water coming out of the hose. The hummingbird didn’t just take a nip and skitter away. It stayed there for several incredible moments, satiating itself and filling its tiny body. 

What is more, next time Beth looked, it had sat itself down on the low retaining wall bordering the garden in front of her, bathing in the water dribbling from the hose. It dipped its little head and lifted its tiny wings to wash underneath and then shook the droplets of water off.

Beth marvelled with wonder. And she confessed that in that simple moment doing simple things she had but one purpose: In the moment of the bird’s greatest vulnerability, to offer a safe space for this bird, normally skittish and reacting to fear. Here, in that holy moment and in that space, human and bird were nourished and restored. 

In my life God creates this safe, trusting space where I can be nourished and where I can be restored, renewed, and given confidence to grow and engage the world, anew. Fear can ultimately serve a higher purpose of pushing me to try new things, things I need to do.

In God’s presence, however, I no longer need to speak and act out of fear and judgement. In God’s presence, I need no longer defend myself against another with self-righteous, rhetorical questions. 

In the presence of God I need only trust. In trust, I am honest and vulnerable with whom I am. And I know that in God’s presence, in all areas of my life and in every decision I make, I am offered countless moments filled with grace.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Thank you, Beth MacGillivray, for the hummingbird photos at your feeder.

[1] John 3:1-17, the Gospel for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary, May 30, 2021

[2] Romans 8:14-15

Let others breathe

My neighbor sat glumly on his front porch looking out over the grass in his front yard, and the patch of municipal green area across the street from our homes.

He loves to play golf. In the nearly twenty years of his retirement he has made golf his passion.  A couple days before the government lifted restrictions on golf courses he called out to me from his melancholic perch on his front porch, “Hey, you can work a little harder, eh?” He flicked his eyes to the sky. “Sure would be nice to get out on the greens when the weather is like this.”

Presuming my neighbor meant “God” when he looked up, and presuming he believed my prayers had extra pull with God when it came to affecting government decisions, I just smiled. “I’ll get on that right away.” I paused, then added. “But let me know how you make out getting ready for that day when it comes, ok?” He winked, and smiled back giving me the thumbs up.

He obviously responded to my encouragement to get ready. The next day, he trimmed a spot in the grass across the street. Throughout the whole morning – he is an early riser—my neighbor was across the street chipping golf balls with a pitching wedge over the street and onto the front yard of his house.

In the scripture today,[1]Jesus empowers his disciples to “teach” to the “nations” everything he had taught them. This Great Commission, as we have come to know this text from Matthew’s Gospel, is meant for all Jesus’ disciples including all who follow Jesus today. 

“Teach the nations.”

The only distinguishing mark of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching. Only Jesus taught and his disciples did not. Long before this scene on the mountainside of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, and even long before the events surrounding Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus had already given his disciples the power to cast out demons, heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God has come near.[2]

For the longest time while Jesus was with his disciples, he had been doing the same kinds of things alongside them. Except teach. Now, as Jesus commissions the disciples at the end, he adds teaching to their mission.[3]

Today we know that people are different in how they learn something. Some learn best by doing it and being active about it. Some learn best first by reading about it in a book or on screen by themselves. Others learn best in a group or with others to help motivate them, like in a classroom. Others learn best by observing and watching others doing it. Others will learn best by associating certain smells and sounds to activate and reinforce the memory. Still others learn best visually using images and pictures. Etc. etc.

Beware of presuming one way or style of teaching will accommodate each and every human being. To say the least, teaching and learning is complex. One size does not fit all. Maybe that’s why Jesus left this specific commission to the end.

As if this was not hard enough to grasp, Jesus ups the ante by instructing his disciples to go to the “nations”. Nations here is not our modern understanding of nation-states. But rather, more like ‘foreigners’ and people who are not like us.[4]

Matthew was writing primarily to a first-century Jewish community. And he was echoing the Gospel message of extending the mission of God to the Gentiles. The nations, for us, represents anyone who is different from us, who doesn’t share our lifestyle choices, ethnic background, traditions, and race.

The Holy Spirit is blowing to and among all people.

At this time in history, especially, we are called to let others breathe. And, especially, others not like us. When George Floyd lost his life in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, it was at the hands of someone who violently took away his ability, his freedom, to breathe. All because the colour of Floyd’s skin was not the same as the police officer’s.

When we build relationships with those who are different from us – because that is the call of Jesus – we can ‘teach the nations’ starting in our backyards, in our neighbourhoods and around our homes by simply letting those with whom we differ in some way breathe. Let them be who they are. Let them express what is important to them. Let them claim the space around them. Let them feel validated by your presence. Let them breathe.

I am not a golfer. Even though I tried on a few occasions, I never took to it for various reasons. Nevertheless I appreciated that even though my neighbor knows that golf is not important to me, he still reached out about his yearning to play golf after a long winter. He was still willing to be vulnerable with me.

A few days following our brief exchange about prayer and God and golf, the government announced that golf courses were to open the second last weekend of May. I have hardly seen him around the neighborhood since. I suppose he has been spending a lot of time at the local golf course several kilometres away.

But a couple of days ago I bumped into him in front of our houses. “How’s the golf going?” I asked. He wanted to let me know that golf was a game that you never perfected, that you always have to work at, that no matter how many years you’ve played it, it’s a process that never ends. 

“Some days you score a 76 when you could have scored a 68,” he said. “Other days you surprise yourself by doing better than you should have. There are so many factors and variables that go into each and every shot.” And the journey continues for him.

I think my neighbor taught me a thing or two about prayer, God and … well, golf. Jesus gives us a challenge. Being a disciple of Jesus feels overwhelming. We may resist its conferring upon us, as a result. The mission will disturb and take us out of our comfort zones. Life in Christ will continue to challenge us. And yes, we will at times doubt – as the disciples did even with Jesus standing right in front of them.[5]

Along the journey, however, let’s not succumb to the despair of assuming that being a faithful Christian, and teaching others about God, is a one-off, run-and-done deal. It’s not something we check-off a list. And let’s not assume it is our power that achieves God’s work. That strategy is sure to fail. 

I was going to tell my neighbor, even in a joking manner, that it was my hard work at praying for the golf courses to open early that made it so. But I didn’t. Because our life does not rest in our power and strength to preserve it, protect it, control the outcomes, or to make something happen. 

Being disciples is about relationship, the quality of each, unique relationship. Being disciples is a life-long journey of building relationships, of listening and watching, of risking and doing – a learning and a practice of letting others breathe and grow that never ends.

I didn’t do anything about my neighbour’s golf game except be present with him, to listen and affirm. Maybe our loving presence with another who is different from us can be an opening for the Spirit of God to enter and breathe into our relationships.

Because our life rests in God’s willingness and God’s power to be present with us, to sustain our lives and grow them with others who are different from us yet breathing alongside us. This, we can trust. Even to the end of this age.

[1]Matthew 28:16-20

[2]Matthew 10:7

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, “Matthew 28:16-20” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 3(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.44

[4]Thomas G. Long, ibid., p.47

[5]Matthew 28:17