February 7, 2021
I read a beautiful essay about hummingbirds this week, written by Brian Doyle back in 1997.[i] I learned that a hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser and beats ten times per second. Each hummingbird visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest.
Your life might feel like a version of a hummingbird’s right now. Your attention darts from one thing to another. You keep going and going and going and moving and moving and going some more. Get the kids set up online for school. Start the laundry. Sign on to Zoom for work. Move the laundry to the dryer. Make some phone calls. Deal with e-mails. Make some appointments with doctors or dentists. Pay some bills. Empty the dishwasher. Take a kid to a practice or a game. Pick up a kid. Get some groceries. Cook supper. Load the dishwasher. Send more e-mails. Life in constant motion.
But here’s how you’re not like a hummingbird. Hummingbirds have incredible metabolisms. They have what Brian Doyle describes as “race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate.” He adds this description:
Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen…The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.
We might envy the hummingbird that metabolism, that ability to do so much so quickly within each and every day. But we do not envy the cost of that frenzied flying. Two years isn’t a very long life, is it?
When we meet up with Jesus in today’s gospel, he’s still in the early days of his ministry, but it already shows some signs of becoming like a hummingbird’s life, moving from last week’s teaching in the synagogue and calling out demons to more of the same this week. The gospel of Mark has a particular sense of urgency, using the word “immediately” more than 40 times to show how Jesus and his followers move from one thing to the next thing to the next.
Jesus demonstrates that sense of urgency when he hears about Simon’s mother-in-law. He goes at once, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. And suddenly she is fine. The language here – “lifts her up” – is resurrection language.[ii] It’s the same language we’ll hear at the end of Mark’s gospel when Jesus himself is raised up from the dead. So Jesus is not just about life after death. He also summons us to life before death. A life that is about more than constant movement.
How do we know this? Well, do you remember what Jesus does after all the teaching and the healing and the exorcisms? It was easy to miss, but the gospel says that “he went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.” Jesus goes someplace quiet, away from other people. He rests. He prays.
The quiet doesn’t last long. He’s barely managed to let go of all those demon voices that have been taunting him and clamoring for his attention when his friends show up demanding more. Simon and the others hunt for him. Hunt him down. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.
All of you who have perhaps hidden inside a bathroom to try to get a moment’s peace. Jesus understands your situation.
He went out to a deserted place and there he prayed. I wonder if that small fragment within this story of otherwise constant movement is meant to remind us of something important. Jesus invites us to times of solitude and prayer. He knows that they are hard to come by. He also knows that they are life-giving. They are one way that God lifts us up to keep going.
I keep thinking about those two questions from the beautiful passage we heard from Isaiah: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Those questions summon us to notice that God has created all things and is in all things and has been present with us from the foundations of the earth.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
And my answer, honestly, on many days is “no.” I haven’t known. I haven’t heard. I haven’t been still long enough to listen to what God is saying to me. I sometimes imagine God’s voice like that of a parent who knows I have been a distracted child: “Christa, did you hear me? Are you listening?”
Too often I’m missing God’s voice because I’m functioning more like a hummingbird than a human. Keep moving. Keep flying. Do the next thing and the next thing and the next and pretend I don’t need to pause or breathe or rest. These questions: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” tell me that a time of prayer does not have to be about stringing the right words together in the right way. Prayer is mostly about listening. Being still for even a few minutes and listening for God’s stirring within me.
I often find that my rabbi friends are good about reminding all of us to take some moments for sabbath rest. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg asked this week: “What if you didn’t need to do any work to be worthy of love?”
There might be other reasons you have to work, of course. I mean, I’ve met your kids, and they like to eat. A lot. But many of us work like we’re scared that if we stop even for a moment, the whole world will come crumbling down around us. We forget that God loves us no matter what, and God’s love does not depend on what we do. God’s love is not about what we accomplish or how quickly we accomplish it. God’s love is about what God does. And that love never fails us.
God does not expect us to be hummingbirds. God expects us to be human.
Listen again to those closing verses of today’s Isaiah passage:
29 [The Lord] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 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.
I hope you will take some time this morning or later today to listen to the video here on our Facebook page of Carol singing “On Eagle’s Wings.” It’s based on this Isaiah passage, and it invites us to rest in the peace and the promises that only God can give.
In the words of the hymn:
And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] Thank you to Barbara Lundblad for highlighting several aspects of this passage in her “Preaching Helps” essay for this Sunday, found in the January 2021 issue of Currents in Theology and Mission.
January 31, 2021
This week in Confirmation we started our study of the Ten Commandments. We’ve been following the people of Israel as they struggled under Pharaoh’s oppression in Egypt, as Moses and Pharaoh went back and forth, with Moses demanding the Israelites’ freedom and Pharaoh time after time refusing to give it. We went through the plagues that God sent to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go, from turning the river to blood to unleashing all kinds of creatures, from frogs to locusts. Even once they make their escape, the Israelites have to deal with another change of mind from Pharoah, who sends his army after them. Then we have the parting of the Red Sea, which most of us picture in whatever way Hollywood has helped us imagine it.
It’s a wildly dramatic story, and whether or not you believe all of it literally happened in the way the book of Exodus describes, the prevailing theme seems pretty clear: God wants God’s people to be free. Free from oppression, free from power-hungry rulers, free to head out into a new place and build community together. God knows that they’ll need some help with that community-building, especially since freedom is so new to the Israelites, so that’s how we get the commandments.
Among them is this instruction found in Exodus 20. God says to the people: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
The Israelites had lived for a long time among people who had many gods, many idols, many other entities to worship. And they would be moving into lands with similar challenges. But God was reminding them: “I have brought you into freedom. Be careful how you use that freedom. I’m the one God you have. Don’t get distracted by other things that seem pretty or powerful or compelling. Those other things will let you down. I won’t.”
Our confirmation kids are smart, and they understand human nature, so even though we realized that no one we know today is looking to worship a statue of a golden calf like the Israelites did for a moment, we have plenty of our own idols to hold us captive in 2021. They could name a whole list of things that distract us, that keep us focused on something other than where God is leading us. There are a thousand potential idols on the internet, including social media. There’s celebrity culture. There are our deep fears and anxieties about how other people perceive us, about our social status or our physical appearance or the unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves. So often our idols are strangely seductive because they show up as things that in small amounts seem good. We want to have friends and be healthy and work hard in school or in our jobs. But when those things take on a life of their own and get attached to standards of perfection or prosperity that aren’t attainable – that’s when they take hold of us in ways that make them idols.
Which brings us to the people of Corinth, with whom you might not think we have much in common. It was probably a bit confusing when John was reading that excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few minutes ago. He read it beautifully, but it sets out a situation that seems far from our experience.
Here’s some background. Corinth was a fairly pagan town, so the Christians who lived there found it hard to live in a way that was holy. Temptations were all around them all the time. There was no realistic way to live separately from that secular world.[i]
Paul recognizes some of those tensions, especially as Christians worshiped only one God while many of their Corinthian neighbors worshiped many. And some of those pagan neighbors would sacrifice animals to their various gods, and then the meat would be available afterwards for sale. So, then, was it OK for the Christians in Corinth to eat this meat that had been part of a ritual for these pagan gods? Paul reminds those Christians that while there are many gods recognized by others, for them “there is one God…from whom are all things and for whom we exist.”
So, for people who are clear that there is only one God, it doesn’t really matter if they eat this sacrificial meat from the other rituals. But Paul acknowledges that for some people whose faith might not be as deeply established, the eating of this meat might be confusing – or even detrimental to their faith. It might send the wrong message – that these sacrifices to other gods are fine. So, Paul suggests, maybe the Christians don’t eat the meat as a way of helping other Christians stay the course in their faithfulness to God.
In other words, Paul reminds us that our choices as members of a community matter. We have freedom, but how we use that freedom matters.
Paul understands that freedom is one of the things that is easy to turn into an idol. That’s what happens when we say “You can’t tell me what to do!” and insist on doing things our own way with no concern about the consequences for others.
And Paul also understands that in Christian community we become part of an interconnected set of relationships in which we value the interests of others as much as – and sometimes more than – our own. We realize that the decisions we make affect others.
In a superficial way this might mean that even though you don’t love a particular hymn, you sing it every now and then because it’s someone else’s favorite.
In this ongoing time of COVID it has meant wearing masks and staying distanced and worshiping online. Even when those experiences fall short of what we really want to do, we understand that these choices are better than putting other people in danger. The sacrifice is worth it to preserve the life and health of our neighbors.
Consider how this way of thinking plays into addressing something like climate change. The decisions and sacrifices we make now will have implications not just for our present community but also for the world that our children and grandchildren will inhabit. We can use our freedom now in such a way that their freedom is not curtailed by more hurricanes, more wildfires, more rising water levels.
My favorite part of Paul’s plea is this. He says: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” When knowledge is the focus, we try to present intellectual arguments that are more compelling than someone else’s intellectual argument. We try to win. Paul says: It’s not the head knowledge that matters; it’s the impulses of our hearts. Are we oriented toward the common good or toward our own self-interest? We can rationalize anything, but what will really serve and protect our neighbors? Have we made an idol of what we want, or are we willing to focus on what others need?
Imagine how that way of living and loving might transform our churches…our communities…our country. Just imagine.
God is here with us as God has always been – loving us and guiding us and saving us. And yes, giving us the freedom to make both helpful and terrible choices. I pray that we use this gift of freedom not as an idol that leads to selfishness, but as a privilege that builds communities in love and faith. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I appreciate this commentary from 2015 by Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson: