A Collective Murmuration, IV: Murmuration of Blessing
It is the season of Easter—this springtime season which asks us to draw near to the resurrected Christ. This feels easy enough today: the whole world feels resurrection-adjacent as we emerge out of winter. Thank God for these beautiful warm spring days, everything green, and verdant.
Today’s scripture passage takes place at the table, nominally the last supper, the disciples gathered round. In the scene just prior, Jesus sends Judas on his way (Judas, we know, heads directly for the authorities to betray Jesus. Jesus knew this too).
There is an urgency about Jesus’ final words to his disciples. His words about love are a matter of life and death. These are the broad sweeping grand gestures toward love that come from someone who knows he does not have much time left.
When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jewish leaders, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Christine Hides and I are preaching this Easter sermon series called A Collective Murmuration, drawing on the metaphor of a flock of starlings flying in concert, each bird listening to the seven birds around them, and those birds listening to the seven birds next to them, so that they might fly—synchronized—in flocks of a thousand birds or more. The synchronicity of starlings lives in the realm of miracle, especially as I consider the ways in which we (human beings) long for synchronicity, alignment but only (time and again) find ourselves divided, segregated, bifurcated, and detached from one another. Our disunity makes their unity look that much more divine, that much more holy, nearer to the heart of God.
Just when I thought this starling metaphor might become overdone, Bev Kirk called me to say she had just been given a copy of this book Motzart’s Starling, about the starling that Mozart kept as a pet, the starling named Star who came home with Mozart one afternoon because she was whistling (almost perfectly) Mozart’s Piano Concert Number 17 in G which he had just completed. Starlings rival parrots in their ability to mimic the sounds and noises of everyday life, including instruments, tunes, and even the human voice.
Mozart was in love. How could you not be? See here, Mozart’s motif and then the starling’s. He was enamored, the confluence of starling and composer beyond impossible, and yet there it was, as real as anything.
The starlings’ ability to mimic and impersonate, and in this case, even impersonate the human voice, is the sole reason that starlings were brought to America in the first place.
It’s an odd story about an odd, wealthy, pharmacist, and Shakespeare enthusiast—Eugene Schieffelin—who had emigrated to America in the 1800s and was a figurehead in one of New York’s trendy “acclimation societies” trying in every way he could to make his new home feel as much as his old home as possible. In pursuit of feeling “at home” in New York City, he became obsessed with a very eccentric idea: he wanted to ensure that every bird from Shakespeare’s works could flock not just in England but also in New England, not just in Stratford upon Avon but also in Central Park in Manhattan.
Shakespeare mentions starlings only once in all his works, in Henry IV where (after the king forbids Hotspur to mention the name Mortimer) Hotspur imagines a revenge plot in which he teaches a starling to speak “nothing but Mortimer, Mortimer, Mortimer” to keep the king’s “anger still in motion.” So for this one teeny-tiny plot point highlighting the parroting abilities of starlings, the Shakespeare-obsessed ornithophile Eugene Schieffelin insisted Central Park required a flock of starlings.
Of course this meant spending a fortune ensuring the birds were transported safely across the ocean, and it was particularly hard to establish the safety of starlings by transatlantic steamship.
He was finally successful on a snowy March morning in 1890, setting free 80 starlings in the heart of New York City. 80 starlings, and scientists think it took only 80 years for those 80 starlings to breed and spread from the east coast to the west, a population of some 200 million across the entire country today.
Most of the time the stories of starlings (and the story of Mozart’s starling in particular) are relegated to just a footnote, but Lyanda Lynn Haupt found herself truly enamored by the idea that Mozart kept a pet starling, and she adopted her own starling, rescuing it from the local park district at five days old.
Starlings are not a protected species in America, and her starling was set to be killed by the forest preserve employees when she rescued her and named her Carmen. Starlings are one of the very few species of birds in America that are afforded no legal protection. That’s because starlings are a nonnative species, despised (or according to birdwatcher Noah Strycker “the most hated bird in America” and “rats with wings”) because of the collective ecological damage they can spark.
They might invade another birds nest, take up precious breeding nooks, and without a doubt cause massive agricultural damage every year (to the tune of some 800 million dollars).
Lynda Lynn Haupt weaves a fascinating tale, and that’s all I’ll say about her starling musings for now.
The ever-loving point of all this is that our relationship with starlings is complicated. For me, written in red ink across all of it is the story of environmental destruction: not just because starlings themselves cause environmental destruction, but because in previous generations as well as today, we have not grasped the possible implications of moving one species from here to there.
Buckthorn in our forest preserves, algae blooms in Lake Michigan, the emerald ash borer felling a whole species of tree: our little corner of the world has more ecological reasons to scream and recoil than I can count.
The starlings evoke and symbolize then, in their own way, the Anthropocene, the human-centered geological age we are in, which is changing the world in damaging ways we have yet to even imagine (though we are beginning to imagine, yes?).
The metaphor of murmuration is a reminder that we can, should, and must work together, in collective synchronicity for the sake of God’s good earth.
In this way, murmuration is an imperfect metaphor: a metaphor with heartache at the center. And the same is true, I think of Jesus’ command to “love as I have loved.” Jesus is doubling down on his exhortation to love because he has just seen love leave the room, he has just witnessed one of his own, Judas, leave the table prepared to do the unthinkable, prepared to betray Jesus to the death. (Did you know that in the thesaurus, under the word “betray” is the synonym “to be a Judas”? In the English language, if we want to concur up an evocative image of betrayal, this story is the story we point to. This is the moment across all time and place to which the wordsmiths turn).
Jesus’ words of love have heartache at the center because Jesus knows what he is facing. He knows the betrayal he is about to endure. He knows instinctively. Maybe (yes) in some sort of divine-foreshadowing kind of way, but also in that human-attuned way in which someone just “knows” something is amiss. Jesus has been saying something was amiss this whole time. Not in relation to Judas of course but in relation to this whole human project.
The central message of Jesus’ ministry is “It shouldn’t be this way” and “don’t let it be this way” and “let me show you a new way.” The central message of Jesus’ ministry is “let me show you what love looks like” and “here is what love looks like” and “see me do the radical thing so you know what love looks like.” Then there he goes, healing the sick, and not just healing the sick but drawing close enough to those who are sick so they feel loved and beloved. There he goes again, standing up to the prejudiced, bigoted, discriminatory authorities by breaking the ecclesial laws, and violating the carefully trod but unjust social norms. There he goes feeding the hungry. Jesus knows the world-at-large is just like Judas saying one thing and doing another.
It is no different now. We say peace and know war. We say may all be fed and there is hunger. We say let the little children be beloved and yet they know poverty, domestic violence, inequalities, impossibilities. Jesus’ call to love is just as critical now as it was when Judas was out the door and on his way to betrayal. The barely 18 year old white supremacist gunman at Tops Friendly Market in the largely black neighborhood of east Buffalo yesterday
is testimony that Jesus’ words of love come alongside heartbreak. The nooses hung at Haven Middle School in Evanston on Friday (a clear and timeworn symbol of racial hatred, sending a threatening, frightening message at a middle school no less) is testimony that Jesus’ words of love come alongside heartbreak. The now-one-million who have died in the United States from COVID is testimony that Jesus’ words of love come alongside heartbreak.
Poet, theologian, and conflict mediator Pádraig Ó Tuama grew up in the Republic of Ireland, near Cork within and amid the aftermath of the Northern Ireland conflict. He calls reconciliation the “Sacrament of Goodness” which to me is just another way to express Jesus’ command to “love one another.” In a poem he writes:
When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
because each time
is the first time
that that life
has been taken.
Ó Tuama’s words are testimony that Jesus’ words of love come alongside heartbreak.
I said I wouldn’t say any more about Mozart’s Starling, but this passage was so beautiful, it feels like an apt ending here. Lyanda Lynn Haupt describes the embodied encounter of a starling flock, the power of their collective murmuration in this way, “Beneath a murmuration, I feel that I am kneeling in an ancient cathedral that ought to be silent but instead whispers overhead with the gathered prayers of hundreds of years of pilgrims. But here is a much greater cathedral—the entire sky—and the prayers are the light brushing of feathers.” Amid the heartbreak of this life, we need the imperfect metaphor of the starlings, who worship under the great cathedral of this morning’s bright blue sky, and who show us how to synchronize our lives toward the urgent heartbreaking love Jesus so longs for. May we find the blessing of such love together. Amen.