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Freeing the Caged Bird

Date: 05/10/2003

October 5, 2003
Freeing the Caged Bird

Man proposes God disposes. When Eric asked me after last Sunday’s service whether I could preach this Sunday I declined because I had a previous commitment. Usually on the first Sunday of the month I assist in the Holy Communion service at the Covenant Community Methodist Church. But last Wednesday after a fine vegetarian lunch hosted by an Inter-Religious Organisation Council member, I gave Sister Theresa a ride home to her convent where she is the Mother Superior and we had a long conversation till tea time. When I reached home my wife told me that the church had called to confirm whether I was available for the Communion service, but since I had not reverted to them they went ahead to find someone else to take my place. To me it was providential and I called up Eric the next day to tell him that I was available. He was also working on someone else to preach and was waiting for a reply. That did not come through and so here I am with you this morning.

This morning’s sermon is not the kind of sermon I normally preach. New occasions teach new duties. New situations demand new approached. Most of you must have read Peter’s classic report of the recent IRO Walk for Peace and Harmony at which Inter-Religious colleagues in their robes were surprised to see me appearing in short and tee-shirt. But I went there prepared to walk and was dressed for it. But when the inter-faith prayers were being said, Sister Theresa called me on my handphone. I was with your group and had just changed into the limited edition Safehaven tee-shirt for the walk. Brother Michael Broughton did not show up and I was at the very last minute called to give the Christian prayer. When I went up on stage, the other dignified members in their religious attire were lined up and I edged to the side with my shorts and Safehaven tee-short. I must have shocked those on stage and not a few in the 1000-strong crowd!

When I read Peter’s write-up of the walk, I and my friends to whom I forwarded it, were so impressed with that creative piece of writing. When I was driving Peter home I complimented him on his skills. Much to my surprise I found out that he holds a PhD in Chemistry. Science and the Humanities are wedded blissfully. I did not tell him then that my undergraduate degree is a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. You will wonder too what I am doing in the matters of the Spirit and Soul. I told Peter that I will feel intimidated when I preach next time for I don’t have the literary flair that he has exhibited to me. Next time is now, and I am intimidated by his presence. I will try and give it my best shot.

I need to go back to the IRO Walk again to give you the genesis of this morning’s sermon – Freeing the Caged Bird. After the Walk was over and the crowd had dispersed, a few of us remained behind. At the beginning of the Walk there was the symbolic act of freeing some pigeons that were bought from a pet shop. With a flutter of their wings they flew up and away over the treetops. But one came back at the end and was hopping around at the foot of the tree. It did not fly away when the people


went near and some began to take pictures with the bird in their hands. When they let the pigeon again to the ground it did not attempt to fly away. I told my Muslim friend to get an empty box and take the pigeon home or to the pet shop for the only way it could survive was to remain in a cage. The free world outside was too large, too strange and too complicated for it. As I reflected on it I was sure there must be a sermon there. That became my theme for the sermon which I was to preach here on October 26. Events had overtaken it and this was pushed forward to today. I am glad, for the birds have been singing and the pigeons cooing in my mind too long and I must release them.

The bird in a cage. Getting too used to the cage and unable to cope with the larger world beyond the confines of the cage. Too scared with what is outside and too used with what is inside. Each one of us has crafted his or her own cages. You in yours and I in mine. Different cages deal with different issues in this diverse world of ours. It can be cages of various sizes, each enclosing issues like religious beliefs, political views, moral principles, racial attitudes, and sexual orientations. Most of us will have a few cages, some with closed doors and others with open ones where you can move in and out. While the doors are closed there are still yearnings, longings and dreamings.

There is a piece of Chinese literary work by Cheng Pan Ch’iao about keeping birds in cages. The English translation is worth our attention. “In regards to what I said about keeping birds in cages, I wish to add that it isn’t that I don’t love birds, but there is a proper way of loving them. The best way of keeping birds is to plant hundreds of trees around the house, and let them find in their green shade a bird kingdom and bird homes. So then, at dawn, when we have woken up from sleep and are still tossing in bed, we hear a chorus of chirping songs like a celestial symphony. Generally, the enjoyment of life should come from a view regarding the universe as a park and the rivers and lakes as a pond, so that all beings can live according to their nature, and great indeed is such happiness!”

Our hope is to be free from our cages and be part of the world of nature which God has created for all living things – the flora and fauna – the animals and the plants. As free people we are called to the task of freeing caged birds.

Cages remind me of prisons and the book “Birdman of Alcatraz” about Robert Stroud. He was originally sent to prison for killing a man in Alaska who had beaten up a prostitute. He was a hard man, but the new warden still had hope for the prisoner, who had been transferred to the penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Unfortunately, Stroud kills again in prison and only through his mother’s hard work, was granted life in prison in solitary confinement. Following a severe thunderstorm Robert stumbled across the remains of a nest full of three live baby sparrows in the exercise yard. The nest had been destroyed when the storm’s winds snapped a branch of a tree on which it rested.


Robert took the birds back to his cell and cared for them by constructing a makeshift nest and providing them food. It wasn’t long before he began to bond with the feathered animals. He passed the time with his companions by building toys for the birds out of whatever he could scrounge off the guard. He eventually inherited other birds from prisoners and soon his cage was filled with the creatures. He could identify with the birds who also spent their life behind bars. He started to study their behavior and read every book he could get. He became a leading authority on birds, recognized even by the world outside.

Other prisoner had less meaningful experiences. Listen to this black prisoner in his prison cell in his lamentations about his incarceration:

Caged Bird (incarceration)
the days are so bleak
the nights bitter cold
I age but one day
yet feel ten times as old
I gaze toward the mirror
to see the eyes of a stranger
blank face staring back
features distorted by anger
to contemplate death
is to glimpse liberation
my soul heavy and weary
my bones weak with frustration
I fear the depths of lunacy
have become shallow at last
I drown slowly in melancholy
the surface just beyond grasp
last night I watched the lightening
scream and tear through the midnight sky
it’s fury and unbridled beauty
brought burning tears to my eyes
how I long to be with it
feel the gentle patter of rain
wander with bare feet through grass
fresh air enticing my brain
I am but a mere bird
tagged, Caged, and wings clipped
not a privilege on earth
and knee deep in shit
I am but a mere bird
who has long lost its song


its bright feathers turned gray
its will to fly, sadly… long gone

Nathan Mercier the prisoner was crying on the night in June 1998 in a prison euphemistically called the Correctional Facility of New York State. Within his cage he was resigned to his fate and was dying radually. Conditions were such that his longings will never materialize, his dreams never realized. With tears and despair he ended his life in misery.

There is then the classical “Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde 1856-1900. Some of you must know his life story. He went to Oxford College to study the classics. He was married with two sons. Later he accepted his gayness and met his partner in college. He was charged with indecency and was jailed in Reading for two years with hard labour. It is a long piece describing his observations of the harsh experiences inside the jail and that of the murderer who killed his wife. I am quoting only the last three verses:
In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.
And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Back to this amazing imagery of the caged bird. It stems from a poetic piece by Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1905, the first African-American who crawled his way up to national prominence and international recognition. His poem is titled “Sympathy”:
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

The poet empathises with the wounded prisoner who turns his eyes upward for deliverance and freedom.

The black poet Maya Angelou in writing her autobiography borrowed the words of the poet, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and used them as her title. Born in 1928 she rose to fame and was part of the Civil Rights movement marching alongside with Martin Luther King. She recounted a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly-knit black community there. Such a human and humble person she was. She has proclaimed: “The honorary duty of a human being is to love. I am human and nothing human can be alien to me.” Inspired by Dunbar’s imagery she wrote this poem:
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.


The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Alicia Keys has turned this poem into a new song today called “Caged Bird”. She is a rising contemporary singer. Born in 1981 to a black father and a white mother, she is a stunning bi-racial beauty who has captivated her audience. She has won major music awards. Her advice to other young artistes is “Always believe in yourself no matter what anyone says”. Alicia was brought up by her single mother and grew up in a tough neighbourhood “Hell’s Kitchen” in New York City. She said:
“I was never confused or had issues (about her mixed racial background). I grew up in New York City. There is a little bit of everything there. It really doesn’t matter because I accepted and loved both sides. I claimed both sides.” Here are the lyrics of “Caged Bird”:
Right now I feel like a bird
Caged without a key
Everyone comes to stare at me
With so much joy and revelry
They don’t know how I feel inside
Through my smile I cry
They don’t know what they’re doin’ to me
Keepin’ me from flyin’
That’s why I say that I know
Why the caged bird sings
Only joy comes from song


She’s so rare and beautiful to others
Why not just set her free?
So she can fly, fly, fly
Spreadin’ her wings and her song
Let her fly, fly, fly
For the whole world to see
She’s like a caged bird
Fly, fly
Ooh, just let her fly
Just let her fly, just let her fly
Spread wings, spread beauty

We are reminded this morning of the Biblical messages:
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly
Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your
Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more
value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at
they altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in they house ever
singing they praise! (Psalm 84:3-4)

How assuring it is that God who creates us, places such value upon our lives and will care and feed us like the way God takes care of the simple sparrows and swallows.
Out of these thoughts comes the familiar hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. It inspired the first black entertainment superstar Ethel Waters and became the signature tune for this illustrious gospel singer. In her best-selling autobiography with the same title, written in 1951, she poignantly tells the story of her trials and tribulations.
Born in 1896 to extreme poverty to a 12-year old mother, Louise Anderson, who was raped by a white man, John Waters, she stole food to live. At thirteen her family married her off to an abusive man ten years her senior, she dropped out of sixth grade and found work as a chambermaid. The marriage lasted a year. Her ambition, in those days, was to become a maid/companion to a wealthy white lady. She went into show business instead. Her career began with amateur night performances then slowly moved to the black theatre circuit, where she was billed as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”.
In 1921 she began her recording career. In 1925 Columbia Records signed her and during the next decade she would make many successful recordings. But she drifted away from her Blues roots and became a pop singer. Waters had incredible range, her diction was clear and impeccable, coloring the lyrics with the proper influx of emotion. Irving Berlin heard her sing “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club and in 1933 signed her for his “As Thousands Cheer”. She stopped the show with “Heat Wave” and “Summer Time”.


In the latter part of her life she toured extensively with evangelist Billy Graham. Waters married three times, had no children and spent the last years of her life destitute and living in the home of a charitable couple. She died of kidney and heart failure in 1977.
The hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” had another story. When troubles and sickness come our way, we usually turn to worry and fretting about our situation. Civilla Martin, a white Canadian 1869-1948, the writer of a version of this hymn, tells of a visit in 1904 to a twenty years bedridden Christian friend. Mrs Martin asked the woman if she was discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friends responded quickly: “Mrs Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow, and I know He loves and cares for me”. Within just a few minutes Mrs Martin completed the writing of her new text which has since been a source of much encouragement to many of God’s people. She also wrote the hymn, “God Will Take Care of You”:
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
It is interesting that our Lord chose the most common of all birds, sparrows of little value. To teach a profound truth: In God’s eyes, no one is insignificant! Every person, in no matter what condition or situation she or he is in, is precious in God’s sight. God is vitally concerned with each of our lives. The Bible also uses another bird to teach this inspiring truth: “They who wait upon 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” (Isaiah 40:31). With an awareness of God’s concern for our lives and the promise of His enabling power to live victoriously, we can fly out of our cages and soar above and be free at last. Thank God we are free at last.
Dear God, set us free.
Grant us the courage to flee,
The strength to be what you want us to be.


Liberate us to new heights
Endow us with grace and insights
To claim your promises and our rights.
Refresh us with your presence
Fill us with hearts of compassion to
Strive to serve and shape lives of devotion.