Psalm 91

It is a milestone week for women by some people’s standards. This week the Augusta National Country Club admitted two women for the first time ever. The women were vetted, voted on, and offered admission. They said yes. Golf has not been an exclusively men’s game for decades as we in Daytona Beach welcomed the international headquarters of the LPGA more than 12 years ago. Over the years, women have gained the right to vote, the right to become an elder, an engineer, and a CEO. Many in the twenty-first century have gotten over the shock of women doing traditionally men’s jobs and men doing traditionally women’s jobs. Some dads take care of the children while some mothers earn the primary income. Some men are in fashion and some women are in auto racing – the gender lines continue to blur in the human race. But when it comes to the animal world, nature has set up some pretty immoveable guidelines.  When it comes to some animals such as hens, elephants, cats, and cows, the female is virtually the exclusive caregiver. She nurses, and raises; she instructs and comforts. Although many of those tasks are traditionally seen as female, there are some males who do that nurturing role in the early years instead of the females. For example, in 2005 moviegoers were treated to the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman narrating the freezing but nurturing job the male emperor penguins have of warming and protecting the egg laid by his female mate, until it hatches. The film, March of the Penguins, opened the minds of viewers to the harsh climate of Antarctica, and to the instincts of male emperor penguins that seem to show qualities of devotion, faithfulness, and protection. Such qualities made me start to admire penguins the first time I saw it! All that they go through to have an egg hatch and babies start to grow!  It is astounding! There are plenty of astounding cases of extraordinary parents in the animal world, coupled with painful examples of animals hurting or killing their own young such as when giant sea lion males may harm or kill their own sea lion pups. But most often we see the sacrifice that both animal and human parents make. As humans, those of you who have been parents might recall the sacrifices you have made or are making.  For young parents like Chris and Amanda, there were certainly decisions to be made and a room to be transformed with disinfectants, paint, furniture, and pictures. Priorities had to change in their lives. Some parent transitions are sacrificial, and some are joyful. And each parent has to work out the new time demands their baby requires. It is natural.

In the communities around the Sea of Galilee when Jesus was born, parental roles were quite set: the mother took care of the house and most of the nurturing of her child. She saw to it that the children were fed, that they were taught manners and that, if they were girls, they were taught domestic skills. The mother was the primary nurturer all the way up to the arranged marriages of the day. The father was the provider, the bread winner, and protector. If he had a son, his job was to teach him his trade, how to be a protector, and a provider. The roles were quite clear.

Jesus had a uniquely complex arrangement with his parents: he had two parents who collaborated with a Heavenly Parent. So that the first century world could understand the nature of his relationship with the Holy One, Jesus called him Father. Yet even Jesus knew that God has nurturing, caring, and comforting qualities.  Jesus, for one, exhibited them. He was comfortable conversing with women and he did so at least as much as with men. He welcomed children while most men of that era wanted to see them but not hear them. And he wept; not every man moves to that kind of tenderness. The passage read to day was one such occasion. As Jesus thought about what was about to happen to Jerusalem, his Godly heart could hardly take more: his omnipotent vision could see what was coming. And so he said as he saw the city: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Jesus’ qualities are God’s qualities too! He was a man’s man when he needed to be. He had a mind for construction and the hands to be able to complete the work he planned. But he also loved little children; he felt bad for a little man named Zachaeus one day, and made a Samaritan woman at a well call him “Messiah” after just one conversation.  Our Lord Jesus embodied the qualities of God; and God has qualities that cross gender lines. God, in a moment of holy musing at the beginning of recorded history, said something like this: “Hmmm; let’s make humans in our image; after our likeness. …” So we were created in God’s image; male and female God created us. God has qualities like a protector, a provider, and a trainer; but God also has qualities of tenderness, nurture, and care. Perhaps no other animal depicted in the Bible has pointed to God’s qualities as well as the eagle. The eagle is the centerpiece of one part of Isaiah’s comforting words in chap
ter 40. Scholars almost universally believe that Isaiah chapters 1- 39 were written to warn Jerusalem and the surrounding area that their unfaithfulness was causing God to allow Babylon to destroy their capital city. But in the next chapter, 40, that most people believe was written a generation later, natives are invited back to their city, their Temple, but everything was broken and in ruin. The spirit of the people would surely have been tested or gone. Like a family that returns to their home after a tornado, a hurricane, or a flood and finds it ruined, so Jerusalem was to those coming home. And to those trudging, trembling and tortured souls who sought to repent of their sins and turn back to God, Isaiah told them this: “The Lord does not faint or grow weary; the Lord’s understanding is unsearchable. The Lord gives power to the faint and increases strength….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 faith.” (Is. 40: 28-31). The eagle image there is one of renewal. One person, Kimberly Pardue put it well. She writes:  “The eagle is a symbol used many times in Scripture- 39 times in fact….Eagles have a wingspan of 2 meters and are around 90 cm tall. The eagle mates for life and uses the same nest for life….When the babies are born,
both parents assume responsibility for their care. They are gentle parents, sitting on the eggs for one month. The parents bring food up to the nest and feed them….At three months they get special feathers for flying and a new learning experience begins. The mother eagle flies into the nest and begins to thrash around causing a great commotion. Eventually one of the babies will fall out of the nest and will begin heading for the earth below. Never having used his wings before, he’s not really sure what to do but does a lot of flapping while headed straight down. Just before the baby eagle hits the ground, the mother eagle flies underneath in order to catch the baby on her powerful wings and she flies him safely back to the nest. This continues day after day until all the babies learn to fly. There are two verses in Scripture that actually mention this routine. In Deuteronomy 32: 10-11, Moses reminded the children of Israel how God cared for them and guarded them ‘just like an eagle that stirs ups its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings catching them’ God says that ‘He will carry the children of Israel on eagle’s wings.’” The qualities of pushing, prodding, testing, and then catching are good parent qualities, aren’t they? And they are Godly qualities too. They are eagle’s qualities; and that kind of care doesn’t just keep us safe in a nest; it pushes us to grow, to thrive, and to become mature. Eagles soar; but they would not get to maturity if not for the feeding and protection of their parents and the persistent pushing and catching before they fly. God is like the eagle; and we, in our best times, should emulate that strength, the guidance, and that nurture for our offspring. Finally, Psalm 91 is a Psalm of assurance. In it God is personified as that majestic of all birds: protecting, nurturing, watching.  God is said to “cover us with those huge feathers and we will find protection under the wings.” What else will protect us? God’s faithfulness is our shield. Like a good parent, God does not just leave us in our nests, or in our cribs, or in our baby beds, or even in our rooms. God, like the eagle, nudges us, even pushes us to the maturity that we are born to have. It is good Godly guidance and it is good for parents to do as well. Today, even as we think about a baby, we also think about the father and mother. Where would they be if their parents hadn’t cheered and pushed them to adulthood?  It is natural; it is right; and it is a celebration! God created you! How has God urged you to new responsibilities and joys? Babies eventually leave parental arms, to stand by the side of their mother or father, and eventually they may even tower over them! But the guidance they have received will not be forgotten! Thank you dear Lord; but thank you also to good parents, good grandparents, and good-great grandparents! Thanks be to God for life’s mentors, examples, and leaders.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                              August 26, 2012

08-12-12 BREAD

Here’s the thing, as human beings, we are all going around hungry. Hunger is set into our nature. And I am not just talking about the need for food to fuel our bodies. I mean that we all sense that there is something missing in our lives. We hunger for God. Deep down we know that we are not enough on our own. And so we go about our lives looking for something to fill our hunger for the divine. What will make that feeling of something missing to go away. So we eat to excess, we alter our senses with alcohol and drugs. We pursue hobbies or work or money or power, all seeking to fill the hole inside of us.

And for awhile pleasure and personal happiness can cover our hunger for God, meaning that we will never feel any sense of cosmic alienation, or be overwhelmed by the ultimate questions of “Why?” “Where?” or “Whence?” However, the proponents of pleasure and happiness never tell us that their way is doomed from the start. Similar to a drug, the ante for pleasure and happiness is upped, until pleasure and happiness cannot be reproduced. So the temptation to throw off our God-hunger, opting for pleasure and happiness, is an invitation to personal and social disaster. It will not satisfy our hunger for long.

We need something to make it better, and everything we seek is the wrong thing. None of it fills the deep aching need. None of it fixes the spiritual hunger. We’re a culture who has almost everything and yet deep down, so many people are unhappy. They search for the newer and the bigger and the brighter and none of it actually fixes anything. None of it makes us happy. We can’t buy something that will fix that emptiness. So what do we do?

Jesus comes this morning offering us the “Bread of Life”. He offers us a chance to never be spiritually hungry again. What he is offering is a chance to fill that void inside of us. Jesus knows how to deal with the hunger for God. Jesus offers us a way to find joy in our lives, without all of our pursuits of excess. Jesus offers us a way to be full.

Great! I believe in Jesus. So do you. After all, you came here this morning right? So, we shouldn’t be hungry ever again.

But sometimes? We are. We still find ourselves yearning. We still find ourselves hungry.

Jesus offers us this bread of life, but how we respond is up to us. His offer isn’t as simple as we might want it to be. It isn’t a question of just believing in Jesus. Jesus offers us a way of living that fills our hunger, but we have to follow that path. We have to actually respond to the offer. We have to become disciples.

It’s the difference between a person who lives to eat or one who eats to live, With respect to food, most of us, especially those who live in the first world, would answer, we live to eat. Food is good and dining is pleasurable; it is a social norm. But for those who bear the name Christian, we must go one step further and ask this same question of our spiritual hunger. Do we live so as to be fed by that which God gives us, or do we merely eat and drink of God enough to survive?

The physical bread of life is necessary to sustain the body, but the spiritual bread of life is necessary to sustain the soul. A person living in a dark room, who receives food and water but has no opportunity to hear music, view art, read books, or interact with people is not really living. She is only existing. Similarly, many people in the world today go to work, go home, bounce from relationship to relationship, and do not really live their lives. They do not understand the value of partaking of the bread of life, of communing with God and with others who are part of God’s fellowship. If we are only going through the motions, if we are only offering God an hour on Sunday, then we may not be getting a real meal. We are only eating enough to survive. We aren’t getting full.

Those who have been filled can tell us how very satisfying it is. Have you ever seem someone who was truly happy? One of those people who goes around with a bone deep sense of joy and contentment? That is someone who is no longer hungry. That is someone who has found a way to eat of the Bread of Life. And I think that if you ask them, you’ll find that their secret is that they have found a way to live for others.

Jesus tells us from the beginning, over and over again, that following him means caring for the poor and the outcast. That we must feed the physically hungry and comfort the grieving. That following him means serving others. It is not enough to simply say the right words, to truly be filled, to be satisfied, we must go out and do.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells of how she came across a Hindu family in India that had not eaten for days. She took them a small amount of rice. She was very surprised at what happened when she did so. Very quickly the mother of the family had divided the rice into two halves. Then she took half of it to the family next door, which happened to be a Muslim family. Mother Teresa asked, “How could you have any left over? there are many of you.” The woman simply replied. “But they have not eaten for days either!” “That” says Mother, “takes greatness. Her greatness consisted in her ability to transcend her own need, a greatness that is often found in the most extraordinary places.”

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Coming to Jesus, following Jesus will always be more than just words. We have to volunteer. To offer a caring word. To look after the sick. To respond to those in need. Then we will find the Bread of Life.

I love bread. I do. It is probably one of my favorite foods. All crusty and warm and delicious. And yet bread is so very basic. So simple. It only has a handful of ingredients and it’s been around for thousands of years. Basic though it may be, Bread engages the senses. The smell of fresh baked bread wafting through the house. The feel of tearing off a piece of a communal loaf. The taste of a warm slice. The sight of golden crusts. Bread satisfies hunger, simple though it may be.

Jesus uses bread to describe himself because he satisfies that hunger. And so it is that Jesus offers us today the image of bread as a way to better understand him. Indeed, his first listeners wondered, too, at the ordinariness of the man whose message they had come to hear. They wondered at who he thought he was — this Jesus whose parents they knew so well. They wondered how one so much like them in so many ways could begin to think of tying himself to heaven when he says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Indeed, no doubt they wonder, too, how it is he can make such extraordinary claims about something so ordinary: claiming to be the bread which will satisfy hunger and quench thirst for all of time.

It is how God always seems to work, of course. Oh, there are plenty of extraordinary things which happen in the presence of Jesus, but in the end, God uses fairly ordinary means to reach u
s. We experience this over and over again in many of Jesus’ teachings. Consider, for instance, his parables where he speaks of things like seeds and weeds and crops and vineyards and lost coins and travelers and families: all so very familiar to the people who first listened to what he had to say.

And today, of course, he brings to mind the nearly universal image and experience of bread. Indeed, God employs ordinary means to help us understand, embrace and rejoice in God’s love for and intent for us all: including Jesus himself, whose childhood, no doubt mirrored those of his neighbors. For of course, it is the ordinary we understand best. And by God’s wondrous gift, it is the ordinary which the Holy somehow permeates and makes new — in always extraordinary ways.

So those of us who eat the bread Jesus offers cannot look away from needs of the rest of the the world. We cannot eat of this bread and forget. We cannot eat of this bread and walk away. We cannot eat of this bread and go on with life as usual. Because we have been fed, we must turn around and feed others And because we do, people, everyday people, hungry people, needy people, people in desperate need of relationship, in desperate need of one another can begin to experience the “wonder-full” healing and restorative power of Jesus.

May we become a people that begin to extend life eternal, a people who live out the meaning of sharing in the life of Jesus to a hungry world. After all, there are many who are looking, many who are hungry; there are many who are searching. May we become the body that feeds them; may we become the body that proclaims the identity of the bread of life to this broken and hungry world. Amen.