Ivory-Bill Witnesses

A couple of years ago, almost to the week, the bird-watching community throughout this country was in an absolute tizzy over sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – thought to have been extinct since 1944.  But several supposed sightings in 2004 and 2005 led to such excitement that even I (who has never once had the slightest urge to watch a bird) had learned about the possibility that this elusive species might still be among us.

I did not know that scientists (if not bird-watchers) have specific terminology for classes or species of animals that disappear for a time only to reappear again later.  Such creatures are referred to in paleontology as “Lazarus taxon.”  Considering our context this evening I’ll spare you an explanation of the biblical reference in that term.

At the time, two years ago, I took it as a hopeful sign that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (which carries the nickname, the “Lord God bird”) might have re-emerged, since one writer had asserted that “the most common explanation given for the bird’s disappearance was that it ‘could not stand the presence of mankind or association with advancing civilization.’”   The possibility that the woodpecker might have found a way to co-exist with us, despite the odds, seemed, as I say, quite hopeful.

From time to time over the last two years, it has occurred to me that I might check in on the woodpecker that captured the imagination of so many – even those of us who never think to watch a bird unless it flies directly into sight.  And I am aware that in the months that have passed no definitive proof has come out that can be said to establish the bird’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Teams have been dispatched to the swamps of Florida and Arkansas.  A $10,000 reward was offered for any information leading to the discovery of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest, roost or feeding site.  Films and videotapes have been scrutinized and analyzed frame by frame.  You can find people who will tell you that they are absolutely certain the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is out there somewhere.  But you can also find people who will tell you, sadly, that it is gone and seems to be gone for ever.

Tonight we are not here to discuss the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  And we are not here to discuss the raising of Lazarus, who, presumably, eventually died a natural death and went, finally, to his grave.  Tonight we are here remembering the stories that tell us that forty days after his miraculous resurrection from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth was lifted up on a cloud and carried into the heavens while his followers looked on.

This kind of story is hardly unique.  The prophet Elijah is said to have been carried to heaven in a chariot of fire in the midst of a whirlwind.  Tradition has it that the prophet Muhammad was taken up to heaven and then returned to Mecca.  And our own tradition suggests that Mary’s assumption into heaven may have been a somewhat spectacular departure from this earth.

So let’s just say we take the story of Jesus’ ascension at face value.  Let’s just say we believe that the apostles who gathered there that day looked up at the soles of Jesus’ feet as they got smaller and smaller, disappearing into the skies.  Let’s just say it happened – what does it cost us to believe this, after all?  It still leaves us with a difficult question: What now?

After all, we know that there are those who consider us Christians as nothing more than glorified bird-watchers, waiting for the return of a very odd bird who was last seen riding a cloud to heaven.

And we know that there have been expeditions launched, holy sites analyzed, and even rewards offered for some kind of evidence – any evidence would do – to prove or disprove the claims that this Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, is the Son of God and that in him lies the hope and salvation of the whole world.

And you can find people who will tell you that they are absolutely certain that Jesus is reigning from his throne in heaven and at work in the world by the power of his spirit.  And you can find those who will tell you, gladly, that he is gone for ever.  (And don’t think that they buy this story about him being taken to heaven on a cloud.  See Elijah, Muhammad, and Mary as a rationale for their skepticism.)

If you are going to believe what we say about Jesus tonight; if you are going to believe that he was killed on the Cross and rose from the dead; if you are going to believe that he walked and talked and ate with his disciples during the forty days that followed; if you are going to believe that he was carried on a cloud up into heaven where now he sits at the right hand of God… if you are going to believe any of this, you are going to believe it by faith.

And faith is a gift.  Faith is not proof positive.  Faith is not a videotape.  Faith often looks as though it does not hold up under scrutiny and analysis.  You would not want to believe in the continuing existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker just on faith.

But we are not talking about a woodpecker here.  We are not talking about some species of creature that might have dropped out of sight for a couple of thousand years.

Tonight we are talking about the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God.

Where has he gone?  What are we to do?  What now?

The Eleven – those crucial disciples who were left standing there – must have asked the same questions among themselves.  And what did they do?  They remembered his instructions: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”  And they did the oddest thing: they did what Jesus had told them to do.  Saint Mark, the patron saint of this parish, tells us that “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”

They preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them!

The answer to their questions came as they did what Jesus had instructed – and what so few of us Christians can bring ourselves to do anymore.  “Go!” he said to them.  “Get out of here!  Keep it moving, keep it moving, keep it moving!  Go!”

And so we hear of Saint Paul’s journeys and Saint Peter’s.  We hear that James went to Spain and Thomas to the subcontinent. They went and they preached… while the Lord worked with them!

And they did it by faith – that gift that had been given to them.  They did it, I suspect, because what else were they going to do?  Sit around a talk about it?  You can’t even find a woodpecker by just sitting around and talking about it.

They preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them.

Now you may be sitting there telling yourself that this passage has nothing to do with you since you have no intention of preaching to anyone – in fact you probably find the whole idea distasteful.  But I want to suggest that the most important word of Jesus’ instructions is the first word: Go!

You may not think you are called to preach the gospel: not in your church, not on a street corner, and not to the whole creation.  You may not think you have much to say.  You may not think you know much about the Bible or about Jesus.  You may not think you are a preacher.  And you may be right.  But no matter who you are, you can do what Jesus says if you can get up and GO!

In giving this simple command, Jesus created a missionary church.  He did not say, Wait here until people find you.  He did not say, Hang a sign outside that lets people know they can come in.  He said, Go!

And his apostles – who had trouble knowing how to answer their questions (Where has he gone?  What are we to do?  What now?) could at least do that: they could go!

And you and I can too!  And even if we don’t think we are preachers, we can always do as St. Francis, that wise saint, suggested: Preach the gospel everyewhere; use words if you must.

Which means that your life and mine can be a witness to the world of the way the Lord works with us even now.  Our prayers and our praise to God, our care for one another, our generosity to those in need, our commitment to the poor, our readiness to visit the sick and those in prison, our willingness to struggle for justice – especially with those to whom it is denied, our responsible stewardship of the good earth that we have been given, our openness to those who disagree with us, our readiness to welcome the stranger in our midst, our conviction that decent medical care ought not to be a privilege enjoyed only by the wealthy, our readiness to sit by the dying as witnesses to holy death and then to be patient and supportive of those who grieve... all of these can be eloquent sermons declaring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.  And we can preach most of them without ever opening our mouths.

And these are the signs that the Lord is working with us even now!

My friends, none of this is proof.  Capture every moment of it on film and watch it frame by frame and you will never see the mystical image of Jesus flash in front of you like some exposed subliminal advertising.

All we have is faith – that gift that compels us to go, and to keep on going, confident that as we go the Lord is working with us.  For many, faith is not enough – not even enough to convince them of a woodpecker’s existence.

But, of course, we are not looking for a woodpecker – Ivory-billed or otherwise.  We are looking for the kingdom of heaven, where the ascended Jesus already sits at the right hand of God.  And we know that there is nothing to be proved, and only one way to find that kingdom: it is to go and preach everywhere (using words if we must), while the Lord works with us to do what ever he will.

It is my honor and privilege and my joy to have been called here to work with you in the building up of God’s kingdom.  And it is my sincere prayer that God will always make us ready to go wherever he calls us, as compelling witnesses not only of his love, but of the plain truth that it is the Lord who works with us day by day, and who makes all things possible!

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is nicknamed the Lord God bird because it is a bird of such distinctive beauty and grace that on seeing it, people are said to have exclaimed that tiny creed: Lord God!

Although I doubt that the mere sight of a woodpecker could make a believer out of anyone, I know that if we will go wherever God calls us, with the Lord working with us, people will see in us the evidence of god’s beauty and God’s grace.  And if they do there is no telling what will happen in people’s lives when they get a look, and see what the Lord God has done with us!

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
The Feast of the Ascension: 17 May 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia

Posted on May 17, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.