“The Gospel of Petey”
Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
at the Church of the Intercession, NYC
Sunday February 4, 2018
Primary text: Mark 1:29-39
When I was growing up in New Jersey, our family had a series of low-maintenance, “starter” pets that led up to us getting a real pet, a cat, years later. We had a series of fish aquariums which all wound up smothered in algae, and we had a small turtle that lived in a plastic bowl with a fake island and palm tree who for some reason would only eat bologna. Eventually we got a little bolder, and bought a parakeet from the pet section at the back of Woolworth’s. He had bright blue feathers on his breast and his head, and he was a little guy compared with other parakeets. Even after he grew up and the adolescent stripes on his head molted off into adulthood he remained small. My brother and I, not being very imaginative at ages 10 and 7 respectively, named him Petey, Petey the Parakeet.
Petey was a sociable sort, he loved attention, and he enjoyed people. He would come right up to anyone who visited him in his cage, nibble on your finger a little bit, and sing you a song. If you took him out of his cage he never flew anywhere, he was content to perch on your finger, where he would march back and forth, rubbing against your thumb – he liked when you rubbed his breast with your thumb – all while singing. Petey was very vocal, he sang all the time, and once you got to know him you realized that he had different songs for different occasions. He had a song to greet a new friend; he would sing a different song when you took the cover off of his cage in the morning. Often he would sing just for the heck of it in the middle of the day. And most nights he would sing himself a lullaby under his cage cover at night, softly and calmly, until he fell asleep.
My brother and I thought it was strange that Petey never flew, even though we took him out of his cage frequently. One day we decided to encourage him to take an exercise period. So, with parental permission, one Saturday morning we opened the door of Petey’s cage and just left it open to see what he would do. After a few moments of poking his head out of the door to check it out, Petey hopped out onto the perch that was just outside the open door. And of course he started singing.
There were two purposes to this particular song: to announce to the world that he was about to do something great, and to nerve himself up to fly. I don’t speak parakeet, but I’m sure that this song was the parakeet version of “Look Out World, Here I Come” from the Broadway musical Gypsy. He sang louder and louder and faster and faster until finally he blasted off from his perch, and headed up towards the curtain rod that held up the living room curtains high across the room.
Now it turns out that Petey, being a Rubinson, had lousy eyes like the rest of the family: he couldn’t judge distance when he flew. He could flap his wings and fly just fine, but he had no depth perception, so he zoomed off toward the curtain rod, missed it, and zonked himself – at high speed – into the wall right above the curtains. Whereupon he slid down the wall, behind the curtains, flapping wildly and squawking as he slowly made his way down the wall. It was excruciating to watch – you could following the flapping, screeching bulge behind the curtains as he descended down the wall, and disappeared behind the living room couch. Finally there was a little “thunk” under the couch, and then dead silence.
Uh, oh. This wasn’t good. My brother and I slowly slid the couch away from the wall, and there was Petey, confused, frightened and eerily quiet. You know how birds look when something isn’t right, how they kind of forget how to hold their feathers together, and start looking kind of mangy? Well that’s how Petey looked. And he was so scared you could see his little heart beating double-time under his bright blue breast feathers. So I picked him up, put him on my finger, and stroked his little blue breast with my thumb until his heart slowed and he straightened back up. Eventually his feathers smoothed out, and he got his birdie bearings back, so to speak. But he just sat there, dispirited, and silent.
Now we could have just taken Petey back to his cage, put him in, and shut the door, but we had a different idea. So with further parental permission, I handed over the bird to my brother, moved the couch back near the wall, and my brother climbed up the back of the couch with Petey on his finger. He stretched really hard – and lifted Petey up to within a few inches of the curtain rod. Well, this distance Petey could handle, and he happily hopped off my brother’s finger to his destination, the coveted curtain rod.
Whereupon the most amazing transformation took place. Petey forgot all about his failure, and if his head was hurting, he didn’t show it. He started marching back and forth across that curtain rod like he owned not only it but all he surveyed, singing his heart out as he went. This song was the most hubris-filled arrogant song you could image – like the parakeet version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Look at me! See what I did, all by myself? Ain’t I great? My brother and I looked at each other with some shock and a good deal of outrage – wait a second! We put him up there! Petey had nothing to do with it! If it were up to him he’d still be dizzy and frightened on the floor.
Now before we judge Petey too harshly, let’s take a look at ourselves. How much credit do we give others for our successes – and for that matter, how much blame do we give others when we fail? We love to puff ourselves up and blow our own horn whenever we accomplish the smallest thing – and, unless we are accepting an Academy Award and are forced to publicly acknowledge others, we are generally loath to ignore anyone else’s contributions to our successes, let along God. We zonk ourselves into walls all the time! – and it is God who picks us up, it is God who raises us up from the depths, it is God who places us on our perches in life.
Today’s readings show us what it’s like to live with that awareness. They also show us how low many of us moderns have fallen from the high sense of wonder our ancestors had at the marvels of creation, and how far many of us have strayed from the sense of gratitude our ancestors had at God’s loving attention and constant renewal of our strength, at every moment sustaining our lives with every breath.
Isaiah begins with a challenge to the arrogant among his listeners:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Isaiah goes on to address the proud, cautioning them not to believe that their ways are hidden from God. I don’t need to tell you how badly many in our world need to be reminded that God is always watching; the fact that many seem to be getting away with destructive, even evil behavior does not mean that God isn’t watching, only that eventually, whether in this world or the next, everyone will be held accountable for their own behavior.
But I love the way that our passage today from Isaiah ends the most:
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
This is the difference between those who have faith and God and those who don’t, those who rely on themselves and those who wait on God: not only do the faithful renew their strength, but the renewal is far beyond anything that we can accomplish on our own, even if we make use – as we all should – of food, sleep, exercise, and medicine. There is another level above what we call health, and the faithful can experience it, for even if our bodies are not necessarily cooperating, we can still experience strength.
Next we come to the epistle, in which Paul – who admits to having problems with his own ego and temper – gives us the remedy for such problems, which is to submit to the gospel. Now Paul’s way of submitting to the gospel – preaching across the world, suffering imprisonment and torture, eventually being martyred – is not necessarily the way we need to submit to the gospel; each of our callings in the kingdom will be different from his and from each other’s. But the way he submitted is the same as ours, which is that he always put others first. It didn’t matter who you were – elsewhere Paul says that Jews, Greeks, males, females, in other words, everybody, are all offered salvation by Jesus. The way to preach this gospel to the world is to put yourself in another’s situation, become as they are, and put your own tastes, preferences, even identity, aside for the sake of the gospel.
Finally we come to the gospel reading from Mark, which is about healing. What we need to note here is that this gospel repeatedly ties healing to the preaching of the gospel, and this is something that we don’t always realize. We think that our healing was accomplished by medicine or a doctor or an operation, but behind the medicine or the doctor or the operation is always God. This is why Jesus says that he came out to proclaim the gospel, and the way he does that is by both preaching in synagogues and casting out demons – which is another way of saying that he healed people.
Also take note that when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, he takes her by the hand and lifts her up. That is what we are to do for those who are suffering – offer our hands to lift them up. Anger and demonstrations are helpful in our quest to heal the world and they have their place, but we can preach the gospel and help heal our world in myriad ways if we simply offer our hands to those in need. Like Petey our little dizzy parakeet, all of creation needs a hand to help the world to reach the heights that God intended for creation. And it is our job to preach that gospel, heal the world, and love all of God’s children, because, like Jesus, that is why we are sent out.