The Swallows of Philadelphia

It’s been a good few years since the swallows that used to dependably stop at Mission San Juan Capistrano actually showed up in significant numbers.  Some people think it’s spreading suburban development that’s kept the birds away as they make their annual migration.  Who knows?

Here in Philadelphia we have our own mysterious swallows to contend with, but their story is sort of the reverse image of the romantic pattern of the swallows who would swoop into the picturesque adobe Spanish mission church in Orange County the same week of every year and then wing their way south on their continuing annual pilgrimage.  In our case, we have swallows, the Philadelphia Inquirer tells us, who have moved in for good, giving up their migratory habits in favor of Philly real estate.  But they have not chosen a picturesque site, a place of beauty, or of spiritual significance.  No, these swallows have made their home in a sewage treatment plant in Northeast Philadelphia, which they have decided is a pleasant enough home year ‘round to break them of their snowbird pattern, and so they stay put there all year long, in increasing numbers.  The Northern Rough-winged Swallows are supposed to migrate south for the winter to the Gulf states or as far as Central America.  They forage on the wing, as the birders say, usually flying low, snatching insects in mid-air as they zoom along.  And the allures of a Philadelphia sewage treatment plant have apparently proved to be so thoroughly delightful, that the birds will not budge, even though they ought to be hard-wired to move south for the winter.  Such are the mysteries of nature.

Who can say whether or not God created humans to be migratory creatures?  I suppose I have heard somewhere of long-ago ancestors who led nomadic lives following food – be it herds of animals or the availability of nuts and berries.  But the story of human spirituality is certainly a story of migration to and from the heart of God.  Gestated in the divine womb, and incubated in Paradise, the very next chapter of the human story tells of our migration to other climes of self-assertion that we thought would suit us better, where we supposed we could escape our newly discovered shame, and make good on our own.

On the contrary, we quickly learned to slaughter one another: brother lifting up his hand against his own brother to take his life – which he knew had been given to him by God.  The story that the Scriptures tell traces such prodigal migrations away from God, followed by regular pleading returns when things go badly and the sweat of our brows reminds us that once all was beauty and ease.

By the time God sent his Son, the Beloved, in whom he was well pleased, to live and work and teach among us, even he would migrate for a season into the wilderness to be tempted – as though he was only one of us, just another migratory bird on an annual journey that would bring him safely home.  But, of course, his unique migration pattern is a story that unfolds in the weeks to come.

Suffice it to say that, spiritually speaking, we humans are migratory creatures – we have lived out a pattern of rejection of and return to God: fleeing away, and then flying home when the weather gets cold, the going gets tough, or our shame is more than we can bear.

The ancient rabbis knew why we lived our lives this way: we are sinners, prone to wander, prone to indulge ourselves with things that are not good for us, prone to take what is not ours to take, prone to assert our power just because we can and not because it is right to do so, prone to spill blood as though it was ours to spill, as though God had not measured out every teaspoon of it in our veins with care when he made us, as though he had not aerated that blood with his own breath, and prone to worship other gods – especially those mode from gold.

Your sins and mine may be less colorful, less drastic, less imaginative, but they are no less real, no less selfish, no less insulting to the true and living God.  Do you need me to suggest what yours might be?  Do you need me to air mine, still in need of yet another cycle in the washer, in front of you in order to get the point?  Do you need me to show the other gods you and I have worshiped, do you need me to measure out the gold that tempts us, and count is hefty weight?  Can’t you think of what you’ve done that you ought not to have done, and what you’ve left undone that you ought to have done?  If you can’t, see me later; I may be able to help jog your memory.

But some homing mechanism in our souls is meant to draw us back, when we remember our sins; to bring us home to God when we hear the frost melting to the north and imagine the cool breezes that await us there, and remember how we can cavort on the wing when we are free from these burdens of our own making.  God does not mind that we have made this journey over and over; it is the consequence of our choices, the result of living east of Eden, and he knows us for what we are, for who we are.  And if a soul must migrate for its own well-being, then so be it.  Consider the swallows, how they peregrinate, returning again and again to their places of refreshment.  Except, of course, these days in Philadelphia.  Where the swallows have preferred to stay put in the sewage treatment plant, where, it would seem, they can find everything they need.

And what about you and me?  Have we given up on migrating to and from the heart of God?  Have we found it tiresome to make the journey year by year that requires us - at least for forty days and forty nights - to try to find a minute or two in all these hours to acknowledge our sins, to see our wretchedness, to call ourselves miserable, to know how we offend?

I suppose the swallows who have moved permanently into the sewage treatment plant have gotten used to the stench, or at least they can blame the foul odor on the trash heap, and pretend that none of it comes from them.  How dare we suggest that the foul odor comes from ‘neath their rough feathers!

I don’t know if it’s good for the swallows or not to have given up their migratory life; I have no idea.  But I suspect that we - if we begin to live like these swallows, and give up on our migration to and from the heart of God - I suspect that we pay a price for it, as we begin to think that it’s perfectly alright to live in the sewage, as though God had never meant us for Paradise.  And I think this is what we risk if we make light of Lent, which is meant to be a season of migration back to God, knowing that we are prone to wander away from God.

So many of us have decided to just stay where we are.  We have built mansions for ourselves in the sewage plant and invested heavily in Glade products, because, actually, they do a reasonable job of masking the odor.  But Lent comes to tug at some ancient string of our hearts that wants to take wing so we can find our way out of the sewage and back to God.  Lent comes to remind us that although the way was hard and long, it is invigorating to remember how far we could fly.

This is what we call repentance: being honest about our sins, stopping long enough to realize that too often we have chosen the trash heap, and sometimes it seems as though we have decided to live there permanently.

We don’t come here at the beginning of Lent to make ourselves miserable; we come here because in our selfishness, we have actually already done that.  But eventually the Glade wears off, and we begin to notice a funny smell, as we take account of ourselves and the lives we have chosen.   And even though we have become fat on the insects that thrive amongst the sewage, we begin to remember the view from above, and the way the coastline passed beneath us as we made our way home in the old days of our migration.  And we hear a voice calling us to come home, come home.

And we wonder if the burden of our choices – the burden of our sins – has become too much for us to carry all that way.  But we realize that there is no harm in trying, that there is nothing keeping us here in the sewage treatment plant except our own stubbornness – what the Scriptures call being stiff-necked.

And we stop to say a prayer that might be only one word long – Sorry – but which seems like it needs repeating over and over again.

And we find that far from leaving us out of breath, we are strengthened now, and ready to lean into the breeze that is already lifting us up, and to take to the wing, and to fly, God being our helper, our pardoner, our Salvation, and our true home.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

26 February 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 27, 2012 .