Sermon, May 15

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, which we read together earlier, is the story of this holy feast: it’s the day when Jesus’ first disciples, his friends and followers, received the Holy Spirit of God in a new way, inspiring and empowering them to preach the good news of God in Christ. On Pentecost we share that Scripture and we reflect on the ways the Holy Spirit is at work in us, in our church, in the world around us.

Our church teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, the understanding that our God is one, yet also somehow three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; the One who Creates, the One who Befriends, the One who Inspires. That understanding took shape in the first decades of the Church’s life – but there are Scriptures in the Old Testament that talk about the Spirit of God as a sort of going-forth of God’s power, with its own nature and being. Starting in Genesis 1, when the Spirit of God moves over the face of the waters before Creation, right up to the Spirit’s appearance at Jesus’ baptism, immediately after which the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to fast for forty days. So it’s not that the Holy Spirit suddenly appears in the story of God’s people, in the second chapter of Acts. It’s more that the newborn Church is called to recognize, receive, and call on her, as a gift and tool for the work before them.

Our portion of John’s Gospel today names some of the ways the Spirit acts within and among the believers: teaching them; reminding them of what they’ve already been taught – I know I often need such reminders! – and bringing peace and calm, Christ’s peace blessing us through the power and presence of the Spirit.

The Greek word that John uses here is interesting: Parakletos, translated Advocate or sometimes Comforter, or sometimes left as the odd word Paraclete. It literally means one who is called to the side of another person. And in New Testament Greek it had legal overtones, as “advocate” can in English: one who stands with and speaks for a person accused or in trouble. There’s rich ground for theological reflection in that word, Paraclete. There’s also, of course, a fair share of parakeet jokes.

The parakeet, however, is not the bird we usually see used to represent the Holy Spirit. What bird do you usually see?…. The dove, right? It’s an image used by the first Gospel writer, Mark, who says that the Spirit “descended upon Jesus like a dove” as he rose from the water, having been baptized by John. Matthew and John follow Mark’s wording; Luke does too though he gets a little more concrete, saying that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove.” Not just a metaphor but a manifestation.

So the Church adopted the dove as one symbol of the Spirit, and has read that in various ways – as a sign of peace, gentleness, purity, innocence. But… wait a minute. Let’s turn for just one moment to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verse 24. Jesus’ parents are bringing an offering to Temple to celebrate the birth of their firstborn son. And they bring “a pair of turtledoves and two young pigeons.” Just about every translation says it that way, back to the King James Version. Only the word translated here as “pigeons” – peristeron – is the same word used at Jesus’ baptism. In fact, it’s the same word used EVERYWHERE it says “dove” in the New Testament. Why translate it as “pigeon” in one place and “dove” elsewhere? It’s almost like it’s totally arbitrary. It’s almost like there’s no difference between pigeons and doves. But of course there is! Doves are pretty and pure and sweet. Pigeons are gross and ugly and obnoxious. Right? ….

I heard something a couple of weeks ago that really tickled my imagination about that familiar image of the Holy Spirit as dove. And in honor of baby M’s mother, who is a wildlife biologist, I thought I’d go ahead and follow that thread today.  The thing I heard was an episode of a wonderful podcast called 99% Invisible. It’s a podcast about the interesting stories of things we rarely notice or think about. And this episode was an interview with Nathanael Johnson, author of a new book called Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.

Johnson shares the history of the pigeon. Keeping and breeding pigeons used to be, not something your quirky uncle does in his free time, but a hobby of the aristocracy. The pigeon – or dove; they’re basically the same bird – was first domesticated in the Middle East, then spread around the ancient world by the Romans. Johnson points out that “a common element of a traditional Tuscan Villa was a… lookout tower and pigeon house.” Kings and nobles, governors and dignitaries would keep and breed pigeons in their fine homes, and exchange them as gifts and tokens of honor. In the 1600s pigeons were brought to North America, and their fall from grace came as they became feral and propagated themselves in this new environment, becoming, well, common, in every sense of the word.

Johnson says that for many centuries, in English, the words “pigeon” and “dove” were essentially synonyms and were used interchangeably. “But over time,” he says, “the two diverged – dove was increasingly associated with positive things and pigeon became associated with the negative.” Consider, Johnson suggests, Pigeon soap beauty bars. Silky smooth Pigeon Chocolate. Or… the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a pigeon.

Then Johnson goes on to share some fun pigeon facts. So, just as the Church has taken liberties with the dove image, and read in ideas about peace and purity, I’m going to offer some thoughts about what imagining the Holy Spirit as a pigeon might do for us.

First, pigeons are everywhere. Madison isn’t hugely overrun, but we’ve experienced or seen images of the hordes of pigeons that reside in our great cities. And that tends to gross us out. We see them as dirty, diseased vermin. We ignore or resent them. We call them flying rats. (I also have a lot respect for rats, but that’s another sermon…!) Buildings are equipped with spikes and nets to try and keep pigeons from calling them home. But pigeons, undeterred, just fly on to the next building. We disdain pigeons because they are so common, but maybe we should respect them for the same reason. Pigeons are a very successful species, and co-exist well with human beings, in the in-between spaces we leave, in our cities and our lives.

Reflecting on the Holy Spirit as pigeon, I ask: Where is the Holy Spirit lurking around the edge of your life, hanging out on a windowsill while you brush your teeth, perching on a statue you walk past every day, even dropping a little gift on you on your way to work? Ignored or even kicked away, when there’s something here that really deserves our attention?

Second, pigeons are nurturing. We know that most birds care for their young and bring them food, but everybody knows that only mammals give milk and actually feed their young from their own bodies. But everybody knows wrong. Pigeon parents – female and male alike – actually produce a milky substance to feed their young. It’s secreted in a pouch inside their throats, and baby pigeons get the milk by sticking their beaks down their parents’ throats. So pigeons, like ourselves, give of their own bodies to nurture their young.

Reflecting on the Holy Spirit as pigeon, I ask: Where might there be something unexpected that wants to feed and nurture you? That’s offering you what you need to grow and flourish, in a place you’ve never thought to look?

Third, pigeons are beautiful. Seriously. Try, try to wipe your mind clean of all the associations and assumptions you carry, and do a Google image search, or go to your favorite pigeon-y location and just look. They have the same graceful shape as the dove, their more popular cousin, with that lovely fanned tail in flight. Their colors range from soft grays to warm taupes to pinks, with that sheen of iridescent green on the breast, and striking bars of black and gray on their wings. They have finely-traced eyes and delicate beaks. They are beautiful birds, rendered ugly only by overfamiliarity and inattention.

Johnson, the author of Unseen City, shared the story of how he stumbled into this project. He would walk his infant daughter to daycare every day – and there were all those elements of the urban landscape that he had long ago learned to ignore, but that she was very interested in. What’s that? Tree. What’s that? Tree. In fact, the same tree. Faced with a choice between saying “tree” a hundred times, or refusing to answer and earning her frustrated screams, he decided to make a shared game of noticing. Tree; bark; twig; leaf; flower; petal; stamen; seed pod… And the noticing went on to lead Johnson to discover, and share with us, a whole amazing world of plants and animals that live alongside us, even in, especially in, our densest human environments.

Reflecting on the Holy Spirit as pigeon, I ask: Where are we missing the beauty that the Holy Spirit has for us, because we’re not even looking? Because our preconceptions and preoccupations have closed our eyes to the wonder, the complexity, and, yes, the beauty of the world around us, and the ways that beauty might bless us?

Let us turn now to the baptismal liturgy, as we invite the Holy Spirit, the divine Pigeon, to descend among us and bless baby M as the newest member of God’s worldwide family of faith.