Let us pray:
God of mercy, grant that the Word you speak this day may take root in our hearts, and bear fruit to your honor and glory, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, as printed in the 2018 Book of Common Worship)
Hope is a Thing with Feathers
Cardinals kept me from failing my ornithology class.
So. I took an ornithology class in college, a class about birds. I mean, I was a biology major, so of course I did. And it was wonderful and interesting, the kind of thing that I loved learning about. It was all evolution and migration patterns and types of feathers and I loved it.
I did not love our practical section, where we went out and learned to identify birds. I mean, I loved being outside and getting chocolate as a reward for waking up at four in the morning, but I was so bad at identifying birds. SO BAD. They all look the same!! I mean, not quite, but… I don’t remember if that slightly more squat shape is a house sparrow or a house finch! And don’t get me started on bird song, which I will grant sounds different but doesn’t mean I can say which different kind of bird it sounds like.
Bird identification just bounced right off me. I routinely got zeros on our identification quizzes.
Which is why cardinals saved me. They are BRIGHT RED. I can do that! That is definitely a cardinal! And, I mean, yes, it’s only the male cardinals, but the females look enough like the males, with the same crest and very triangular beak, that I can do that, too! I could even identify their song: it’s this very distinct string of short notes that our teacher said sounded like drums, I think, but in my head sounds like sci-fi lasers.
But having that one bird that I could absolutely identify was enough to give me hope that I really could learn all the others. They are all different, identifiably different, and my sometimes stubborn brain really could learn to identify different kinds of birds.
Hope comes from small, unexpected places. It comes out of nowhere. It comes from little things.
Like in our story today. This is the story of the birth of John the Baptist; after Elizabeth’s long journey through infertility, after Zechariah’s vision of an angel and his time of speechlessness, after Mary’s visit and the knowledge that this baby was part of something larger… after all that, Elizabeth at last gives birth. She holds her new-born son in her arms, and names him John. At last Zechariah can speak again, and he bursts into prophetic song praising God and what is to come.
This is a story of hopes fulfilled: after so many years of childlessness, Elizabeth at last gives birth. After so long without an heir, Zechariah can at last look to his son and know that his legacy is assured. And it’s a story of larger hopes, of the hopes of a nation and a people as they look to the prophecies of a messiah: and maybe they didn’t realize what was happening yet, but the news of what had happened spread through the land, and people heard it and had hope, and stored that hope in their hearts. That’s how “ponder” is often translated, and I love that image of storing things in our hearts. It’s slow and intentional; it leaves time for reflection, time for seeds to grow and flower into fullness as we prepare ourselves to hear the fruit of those seeds. It stores the good and wonderful and strange for when the pieces fit together into a fuller picture, or for when the pieces all shatter and you’re left in the midst of grief and pain. Then there’s still those stories and images that you’ve stored in your heart.
And I wonder about what Zechariah and Elizabeth had already stored in their hearts, before this story began: before Zechariah was visited by an angel, before Elizabeth became pregnant. How had they prepared their hearts, that they were able to accept this strange, wonderful circumstance that God gave them? That they were able to accept this word of God about their son? That Zechariah was able to accept his speechlessness but then also show enough faith to name his son John as instructed? That he could then glimpse what God was beginning to do and prophesy faithfully? That he and Elizabeth both could raise their son in a way that he could go and fulfill this word that was spoken over him before he was even born?
And I wonder what to store in my heart, that I, too, may be faithful when God comes and gives me a word for this time and this place, or may see what God is doing in other places. Because we need the eyes to see hope. We need the eyes to see what God is doing, how God is moving around us. It takes a certain way of looking to see hope instead of despair, movement instead of apathy. And I don’t mean physical eyes: It takes faith; it takes God’s grace.
Both are a gift; both can be nurtured and grown, stored in our heart through prayer and reflection, through the courage to love and let our heart expand, to see ourselves and others for who we are, to see both our sinfulness and our belovedness. Both take practice and perseverance; they take faithful repetition, day after day after day, of the practices that give us life and those that stretch us, of the things that must be done and the things that bring joy.
My prayer for all of us today is that we will go and find those practices and places that give us life, that stretch us and grow us and give us joy and break our hearts; that we will persist in them, day after month after year; that we will let them go if we outgrow them, but keep them if they are just hard; and that we will find the bits and pieces of hope and joy, the glimpses of God moving around and through and in us, and store them in our hearts.
When we each find our own version of a cardinal, in situations that are probably more serious than a college class, may we be reminded that what we need to do and are called to do and long to do is not impossible, for nothing is impossible to our God. When we see our own brilliant burst of red, whatever that looks like for you, may it give us hope. And may our hope keep us looking for God, moving toward God, loving others, and loving ourselves.
Amen, and Amen.