Homily for Sunday, July 12 – The Pressure Sparrows Feel

Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Creator God, in the loveliness and intricacy of your world may we see the beauty of your infinity.  

Canadian birds have recently made an appearance in the New York Times (and the Smithsonian Magazine, the CBC News, ABC News, Popular Science, NPR and even the Technology Times of Pakistan). All of these news outlets have recently run stories about Canadian birds, specifically, about the white-throated sparrow.

In the New York Times Cara Giaimo tells the story this way: several years ago two ecologists were together in some forest in western Canada. One was Scott Ramsay from Wilfred Laurier University. The other was Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia. Scott, the fellow from Ontario, noticed something strange. The birds were singing something weird. His ear had caught the song of the sparrow.

Apparently, the traditional sparrow song sounds a bit like this: “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody.” But what Scott, the ecologist from Ontario, heard out west was more like this: “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” It was a different kind of syncopation. The weird new song ended with a series of doublets instead of the traditional series of triplets.

We’re talking about the male white-throated sparrow. While each bird begins his song in its own, individual way, the ending has, more or less, followed the same traditional pattern: “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody.” That is, until a few birds in western Canada began using the new ending: “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” The researchers found that over the last couple of decades the new style of sparrow singing had gradually spread across Canada from west to east. Now, here in eastern Ontario, our birds have finally latched on to the new trend.

The theory is that when all these birds winter together in the southern United States they observe trends and borrow ideas. It’s possible that the new song made those who sang it a bit more popular. I imagine the same things happens when human snowbirds from Canada winter in the southern US. They come back with all kinds of strange new ideas.

Anyway, this story has been featured in so many news outlets in the past couple of weeks because the researchers just published their study in the journal Current Biology. You can look through it when it arrives in your mailbox if you want to learn more.

So it seems that sparrows respond to social pressure (or something like that). I find this very interesting. Imagine the poor older sparrow who just wants to stick with the song it knows. Imagine another sparrow pressuring its partner to change: “Everyone’s doing it. It’s so much better.”

I don’t know if we should congratulate the sparrow for being part of the socially-pressured crowd or if we should feel sad that even the little sparrow in the bushes can’t escape this kind of influence. It’s always nice to have more creatures on your team, but when your team’s experience kinda stinks, you wish others could avoid it. Social pressure is a part of being human. And it isn’t just true for teenagers.

We might each be able to pinpoint the first time we really felt motivated by social pressure from outside our family, but I’m quite certain that none of us will ever be able to pinpoint the very last time we feel that pressure. It is with us up until the end. Sometimes it is a pressure to be like others, sometimes a pressure to be distinct from others. Sometimes it is a pressure from family, sometimes a pressure from professional colleagues. Sometimes it is a pressure to do certain things, sometimes a pressure to have certain things. It’s ever present. It’s not new. And apparently it isn’t just for people anymore.

This is a bit of what Jesus is getting at in our reading from Matthew 13. In this passage we find Jesus, having just went outside and taken a seat beside the lake, engulfed by a crowd. So many people gather around him that a buddy offers Jesus his boat for use as a makeshift speaker’s platform. Jesus gets into the boat and then tells stories to the people gathered on the beach. Matthew tells us that Jesus told “many parables.” One that is recorded is about the farmer and the seeds.

I think you know the story. The farmer scatters seed. It falls in different places and in different types of soil.  What concerns us today, I think, is the seed that falls on the rocky ground and the seed that grows up among the thorns.

The way Jesus puts this can make it seem like we have no say in the matter. At first glance there’s nothing the soil can do about how it receives Jesus’s message. But that would actually miss the point.

Jesus teaches with parables to inspire action. I hope, in your mind’s eye, you’ve joined the group gathered on the shore of the lake listening to Jesus. If you have, you’ve probably realized that this story of farmer, seed and soil is intended to prompt some critical self-reflection on our part.

Jesus says that some of us might not have allowed the good news to penetrate very deeply into our lives. We might be doing everything we can, just under the surface of our awareness, to prevent God’s Spirit from going to work in or hearts and in our habits.

Or maybe our souls are redirected from communing with God simply by the endlessness of the mundane loop of work and entertainment.

Maybe we have allowed other things that call for our attention, even other valuable things, to crowd out the most fundamental thing. The most fundamental thing is to reciprocate the love God extends to each of us, to bounce it back to God and to the rest of God’s creatures. Perhaps we have gotten distracted from that.

There is social pressure in all of these situations: the shallow roots and the strangling weeds. If the sparrows are shaped by such influence, how much more are we? If they have been changed, how much more us?

This ancient teaching of Jesus is an invitation to think again about how we respond to the social pressures that surround us. It’s an invitation to be aware of these influences in our lives and to measure them against our calling to love God and our neighbours.

Maybe, in the weeks to come, the birds can remind us of this invitation. Amen.


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