I love to watch swallows in flight. Actually, I enjoy birdwatching, generally, but there’s something about watching swallows dipping and diving, reveling in the freedom of the sky, that makes me smile every time I see it. Another cool thing about swallows is that you can find them in almost any environment: in cities and suburbs, as well as more rural areas. There’s a one-mile loop trail around a pond on the Kennesaw State campus near our home, where Honey and I like to go walking. It’s a pleasant stroll through wetlands and woods, especially when there’s a breeze, though it can get a little warm during high-summer. It’s within the University’s “sports precinct,” near the football stadium, and is surrounded by a variety of athletic fields and facilities. In early to mid-Spring, when the weather begins to turn warm, the air above the earthen dam forming the southern end of the pond becomes positively alive with swallows. They come from scores, perhaps even hundreds of mud nests plastered to the concrete beams and piers on the underside of a couple of nearby highway overpasses. Their location is ingenious really… out of the weather, beyond the reach of most predators, and yet proximate to the food swallows crave most… bugs! A veritable cornucopia of bugs… drawn to the various ecosystems of the pond and the woods and the artificial lighting of the sports fields.
Even during the winter, there is a certain amount of activity around the nests: adult swallows going about their daily routines… eating… sleeping… improving the nest by adding grass, hair and feathers in preparation for… you guessed it… the arrival of young’uns! Activity around the nests picks up during April and May and then in mid-May… the young swallows are fully-fledged, and ready to fly! It’s the most amazing thing to watch: literally swarms of adolescent swallows zipping through the air over the dam, skimming the pond’s surface, slaloming back and forth between nets and fences and light poles – lighting on branch or wire for a few seconds to catch their breath – before testing their wings again… and again… and again.
I wonder if the seventy who were sent out in today’s Gospel lesson felt a little bit like the young swallows… just testing out their wings. They were followers of the one Peter had called the Messiah (the Christ) of God (Luke 9:20). It had only been a short while since the return of the twelve from their initial mission “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (vv. 9:1-6), and they had likely bragged about how much they had accomplished. They argued about who was greatest among them (vv.46-48) and the Sons of Thunder, James our patron and John, apparently felt they could “command fire to come down from heaven” to roast some folks who had been unfriendly to Jesus (v. 9:54). Of course, Jesus didn’t think too much of that idea. Being a follower of Jesus seemed to offer an unlimited number of possibilities. And then, like the twelve, the seventy went out and came back changed… empowered. “Lord [they said], in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus responded… gently teasing, I think: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Ha! I love that line… because it shows Jesus has a sense of humor. But then, Jesus went on to remind the seventy that all of their newfound power was not their own… that it came from being servants of God.
Last Thursday was the Fourth of July… our Independence Day. It’s a day when the United States commemorates its independence from tyranny, and extols freedom as the ultimate state to which we humans can aspire. And there’s no doubt that being free is a good thing. I wonder, though, if in our near-deification of freedom—which is tantamount to idolatry, really—we forget that, like all of God’s gifts (and make no mistake: freedom is God’s gift to humanity), our freedom is to be used for a purpose. We, like the seventy, have been granted power, authority and wings of freedom… to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God and help bring love and healing to a world in need of hope.
“[W]hat is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? [asked author and statesman Edmund Burke] “It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
Pope John Paul II adds, “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society.”
“There are two freedoms [said nineteenth-century Anglican priest and scholar Charles Kingsley] – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; [and] the true, where he is freeto do what he ought.”
“Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be,” opined noted historian and head of the Library of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin.
We can’t earn God’s gift of freedom. And, like grace, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing we could ever do to deserve it. It’s just a gift. It’s a gift that you were born in the richest and safest nation in the history of the planet, and that you have somehow landed—made your home… raised your family—in one of the sweetest, most comfortable and affordable regions of the country. By the grace of God. Your career, your pension… What are you going to do with all of this unearned, undeserved largesse from your Creator? I hope you pay it forward. I hope you get up every morning thinking about new ways that you can be better…and then go forth into this community, to the places you work or shop or play, to do your part to “proclaim the nearness of the kingdom… and to heal.” You’ve been given wings of freedom for this purpose, you know. And, perhaps, one day together with Jesus, we’ll stand and watch as Satan really does fall from heaven, “like a flash of lightning.” Not because of our puny efforts, but because of the power of the Spirit working within us, and through us, to help bring about God’s plan for the salvation of the world. To him be the glory.
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1995), 404.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution,in Vol. XXIV, Part 3, The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14), para 403. Bartleby.com, 2001. https://www.bartleby.com/24/3/16.html(accessed July 7, 2019).
Pope John Paul II, in a homily delivered at St. John’s Cathedral in Hertogenbosch, NL. E.J. Dionne, Jr., “Pope, on Dutch trip, firmly calls for Church unity,” New York Times,final edition, May 12, 1985, https://www.nytimes.com/1985/05/12/world/pope-on-dutch-trip-firmly-calls-for-church-unity.html(accessed July 7, 2019).
Charles Kingsley, as quoted in Dictionary of Burning Words Of Brilliant Writers: A Cyclopedia of Quotations From The Literature Of All Ages (1895),eds. Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert and Charles S. Robinson (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2009), 377.
Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Homage to An Exile, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Knopf, 1961), 103.