Rev. Charles Svendsen
Scripture: Psalm 131; Matthew 14:14-21
God, Our Nuturer, Aug 6, 2017
In the opening scene of the film "The Horse Whisperer" a young girl is out riding with her friend. It's wintertime in a lovely rural area, perfect for horse riding. But the ideal picture of friends and joy turns tragic as from nowhere a big rig truck loses control on a once quiet road, and the girl and her horse are struck as her friend looks on in horror. The injured girl is hospitalized and after months she is on the mend, but her horse is so damaged physically and in spirit that it was decided that the horse should be put down. The girl says "not!" and her mother gets in touch with a man who works miracles with horses, a "Horse Whisperer." So New York Annie McClean, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, takes here daughter and her horse to Montana to meet Tom Booker, played by Robert Redford. The film is all about trust and quiet... in a real way, "nurture." Our Psalm on this summer Sunday is Psalm 131, and it too is all about a trusting and quiet peace in a Nurturing God. "God, Our Nurturer." Psalm 131 is one of the 15 Psalms of Ascent sung by the people of Israel. Jewish families as they returned to Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon... songs of gladness and songs of reflection, as women and men and boys and girls climbed up abandoned trails and broken steps into the old city of Jerusalem. They climbed, they ascended, and they sang. This Psalm 131 is a song of "quiet reflection." And it pictures God as beautifully as any Scripture it pictures God as a "nurturer." The Psalm is intensely brief and is a poem of deep emotion. Psalm 131 is really a fine balance between two very different mindsets! This Psalm is either a loud cry of resignation over a life of unrealized ambition, "O Lord, my life is spent, and I never did the things I wanted to do. I never went to places I wanted to go. Never loved in the way I once thought I would love. I never was all that, O God, and that's not OK with me." A loud lament over unrealized ambition or this Psalm 131 is a quiet assurance that a tranquil life is a fulfilled life. It's one or the other or perhaps both. And in my reflecting on this Psalm 131 this week, I believe it is both!
First of all, this Psalm is a lament over a life that wasn't everything the psalmist planned it to be. And that unrealized, unfulfilled ambition is not all right. "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised high." When we see the little word "too" used three times "too high," "too great," "too marvelous" - that's the translator's best guess. They call it a choice, but it's their best guess at the Hebrew meaning. It may be read without the "too," which isn't there in the original language. The psalmist's resignation that life has been different than anticipated, that regret, that mourning, is powerful, "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised high. I do not occupy myself with things great and marvelous for me." The psalmist's head is sunken on his or her chest. And if we take that reading, that interpretation: "But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother." That verse is the psalmist's attempt at irony or even sarcasm. "My soul is as calm and quiet as a two-year old child." In other words... not quiet at all!
The "terrible twos" were just as boisterous in ancient Israel as are they today. So the psalmist is lamenting. "I am beaten down, O Lord, life has not been all that I expected. I have tried to subdue my emotions, but I am sobbing like a child!"
That is a fair interpretation of this Psalm 131. The last verse then is the saving grace of the Psalm. "Life has been difficult and I am sobbing like a weaned child but still Israel hopes in the Lord despite our lives. God is still to be our source of hope. There is no one and nowhere else to turn to but to God! (That's a prayer, isn't it?) It's possible to read Psalm 131 as a lament over a life of shattered dreams.
And by the way, we find the lamenting portions of Scripture comforting, don't we? Many Biblical figures lamented: Job, Jeremiah, Jesus and the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears. We find lamenting comforting because when we lament our situation or our world or our sins we're in pretty good company: Jeremiah, Paul, John who wept in the Book of Revelation. We don't have to be all the time happy Christians. We lament 50 million refugees in our world today. Recent estimates tell us 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County in any given year and 82,000 each night. We lament that.
If this Psalm 131 can be read as a lament, it can also be understood as a song of quiet confidence and joy. In fact, there is a long Hebrew tradition going back at least three centuries before Jesus that reads this Psalm exactly the way the translators render it: "O Lord, my heart is not lifted, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me, but I have (and we get quiet here) but I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother. God our mother, our "Nurturer," cradling her children into peace and quietness and tranquility - the confidence of knowing and being joyfully satisfied with our place in life.
I've always loved this Psalm 131, it is perfect for introverts! Most of my ministry has been spent in small out of the limelight places, and I like that. But even if God has placed you and me in places of great responsibility and even large visibility, we can still practice the truths of this psalm. Sometimes we lament things or circumstances, or even ourselves in life... and that's all right. There's a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations and sometimes we have to know our "place," not lifted up too high, not too great or marvelous for me. And in our laments, in our places, we know God to be our Nurturer, don't we?
"I have calmed and quieted my soul like a child with its mother." Our world, our culture, our social context is filled with blaring sounds and aggressive ambition and greedy-grabbing people, and the psalmist sets an example of a childlike contentment. Paul says, "I have learned to be content in all circumstances, plenty and want." When did God nurture you to contentment and your place in the world? How is God nurturing you through a person or a book or a film? That God, O Israel, O Westminster Presbyterian Church, Westlake Village, hope in the Lord from this time and forevermore.
Our lectionary Gospel lesson on this 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is Matthew 14:14-21. It's the familiar story of Jesus feeding of the 5000 given to us in all four gospels with some variations, and of course here we have Matthew's version. Three considerations as we prepare ourselves to receive the Lord's Supper this morning.
First consider the context of this narrative. The feeding of the 5000 immediately follows the account of the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great, is anxious about Jesus. He now thinks Jesus is John risen from the dead. So the context is really two contrasting meals - Herod's birthday party in the verses just before, a meal of plenty which ends in scheming and rancor and revenge and to John's gruesome death - and the second meal, a meal of need and at this feeding of the 5000. Jesus cures and is compassionate for the crowds and the hungry are bountifully fed. The vindictiveness of the first supper and the compassion of the second. We'll see in a moment why the contrast is important for Matthew.
Secondly, consider the dynamics between Jesus and the disciples. The hour is late, the crowd is hungry, the place is deserted, the disciples come to Jesus with a suggestion: send the crowd into the surrounding villages to buy food. Jesus says, to his disciples, and they were surprised by his order, they don't need to go away. "You give them something to eat." On the wall of the new Manna Foodbank Center is this text: "You give them something to eat." But the bewildered disciples replied, "We have nothing except these five loaves and two fish." Then watch the disciples. They dutifully obey. Jesus orders that the bread be brought to him. They obey. Jesus orders the crowds to sit on the ground. Presumably that took some organization! Five thousand not counting women and children, a vast crowd - the disciples organize. Jesus gives thanks and the bread goes out. The disciples obediently distribute and end up with a full basket, one for each of the 12 disciples - 12 baskets.
Certainly the story demonstrates the miraculous power of Jesus in the face of a magnificent need - thousands of hungry people. But integral to that miracle that day was the obedience of the disciples! They dutifully act on the orders of Jesus, which must have seemed beyond belief. Yet they respond crisply, unquestionably, and they understand Jesus' compassion for the hungry by just doing what they are told. They don't know how it all will work out. They, like the old Nike commercial, "Just Do It." Many of you help out at the Westminster Free Clinic and Manna and a host of other places and, like the disciples, we in the act of carrying out Jesus' directions discover God's compassion for others.
At Wilshire Presbyterian Church, at third and Western, we would each month take our junior and senior high students downtown to the Union Rescue Mission, and they served a hot dinner to the guests. Our students practically participated and experienced the compassion of Christ. Our SYFers, just back from West Virginia, serving supper to our guests on Wednesday nights - same thing. The Shaker motto, "Hands to work, Hearts to God." So the disciples, and we, in the practice of serving discover the One whose compassion goes beyond our wildest dreams.
Contrasting meals: Herod's and Jesus'. The disciples dutiful role of the twelve. Finally consider the similarity of the story of the feeding of the 5000 here in Matthew 14:14-21 with the Lord's Supper. The orderly arrangement of the people, the looking to heaven invoking God's presence, the blessing and the breaking of bread, the giving of the bread to the disciples and the disciples distributing the bread to the crowds all following the story of the death of John the Baptist - a death caused by the anxiety of Herod about Jesus' presence. How this story of the 5000 must have unmistakably been heard by the Gospel's first readers who were already celebrating the Lord's Supper in their homes. How this story must have reminded them of the Eucharist meal, the supper of "thanksgiving."
So at communion we see Jesus as the compassionate provider who not only gives a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, but who one day, and this day, ministers in sickness and healing in sharing bread: the body and spirit. And like the preceding the story of Herod's meal, the supper sometimes comes in the face of opposition. Who is opposing you today? The psalmist rightly puts it, in the 23rd, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." I'll say. Finally, as Jesus modern disciples we are mandated to feed the hungry, but we are not left alone to do it. Jesus' compassion is our source of power and purpose and promise.
So come and dine.
The table is set.
All are welcome.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the promises of God are forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church