August 9, 2015 – Failure to Thrive
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Have you ever spent most of your afternoon preparing a big dinner for your family, something like spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread and salad, which they enjoyed very much – for the full twenty minutes or so it took to polish it off. And then, when the table is cleared and you are elbows-deep in dishwater, somebody wanders into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator and says, “I’m starving; do we have anything to eat in here?” If you ever had teenaged boys, I imagine this sounds familiar to you.
It’s very satisfying to cook for people, to prepare food that really pleases the people you care about. But you have to admit, there’s no end to it. No sooner have you finished cleaning up from breakfast than you have to start thinking about what you have on hand for lunch. Human need is bottomless. We are needy creatures from the moment we are born, created with a need for food and warmth and protection, not as a one-time thing, but continually, throughout our whole lives.
We were all born hungry. But our greatest need is not our physical needs like food and clothing. Babies who receive plenty of milk and are kept clean and well-dressed but who don’t have anyone to talk to them, no one to hug them and sing lullabies to them – these babies don’t grow properly. Studies have been done proving that babies raised in dirty prison cells with their mothers do much, much better than babies taken away and raised in clean, modern institutions. Even with every physical need met, if the hunger for love and human connection is never satisfied, a child will grow up stunted, or sometimes won’t grow up at all. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
I’m sure you probably remember the old Rolling Stones song that went “I can’t get no satisfaction.” That song was actually a pretty spot-on expression of human life. Life in this world is a perpetual search for satisfaction. TV shows and movies and advertisements, restaurants and department stores and books on self-improvement: the world is out to satisfy all our hungers and thirsts. But the satisfactions that the world offers us are like drinking sea water: the more we fill ourselves the thirstier and more unsatisfied we become, and we keep seeking more and more until it ends up killing us.
And the thing is, it doesn’t actually matter if a person tries to satisfy their needs with drugs and sex and alcohol (like the Rolling Stones), or with organic produce and aerobic exercise and volunteering at a homeless shelter. That sounds wrong, but it’s true. It all leaves us hungry in the end. Just like a baby that has every kind of good food and warm dry clothes and educational toys and a crib that meets the highest standards of safety – if she doesn’t have someone to hug her and kiss her and rock her to sleep, she is really no better off – actually, she’s worse off – than a baby who sleeps on a cot in a cold, dirty jail cell. Because for babies, love is the one essential hunger.
But here we are, grown-ups, well past babyhood, and we have the capability – and we might say, the responsibility – to satisfy all our own needs, to run after everything we hunger and thirst for, take care of ourselves. Except that no matter how old we get, and no matter how rich or well-provided we might be, just like the tiniest baby, every single one of us has a hunger that can only be satisfied by real love. Without it, we all have a kind of spiritual “failure to thrive” – we might live and work and do important stuff; we might even look perfectly happy and healthy on the outside – but we will never really be fully alive.
The reading from John today comes just after the miraculous banquet that began with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and ended up feeding a crowd the size of Ogdensburg, if you figure in the women and children. And to those crowds of people, mostly poor, mostly people whose days were pretty much a continual struggle to provide what was needed to feed and clothe their families – to them that miraculous bread seemed to be just exactly what they had been seeking all their lives, something to really fill up the hunger that was such a constant part of their lives.
They knew and believed the story from the Scriptures about the time when God had fed their forefathers, how God had given them the gift of bread from heaven when they were in a hard place – bread that fell like dew on the ground every morning so that they were able to live from day to day all those forty years in the wilderness. And when they saw the miracle of the loaves and fishes they began to hope that God might once again satisfy their hunger as he had done long ago for their ancestors.
But Jesus had something so much better to offer them: not just bread and fish, and not even miraculous bread from heaven that would fill them today, but leave them hungry again the next day, and again the next, and the next, and the next. Jesus came to offer them the true Bread that was his own self, given on their behalf so that they would never need to be afraid of hunger again. He came to offer them the love of the Father, because, in fact, he himself was the love of the Father, love in the form of a human being, the Father’s love clothed in real flesh and blood – flesh given so that they might have abundant life, and blood poured out so that they might be set free from sin forever. Because only love can satisfy the hunger that we all have deep down, the one great emptiness every one of us needs to have filled if we are to live.
And the thing is, once we have been filled, we become fillers ourselves. Once we are loved, we become lovers, God’s love clothed now in our own flesh and blood. That’s what Jesus meant when he stood up at the Feast of Booths and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. If anyone believes in me, rivers of living water will flow forth from his heart.’”
John says that what Jesus is talking about there is the Holy Spirit. And sometimes, I think, we have a tendency to spiritualize the Holy Spirit. We think that being filled with the Holy Spirit should mean that we act more holy or something – that we start speaking in strange tongues, or that we suddenly have great and mysterious words of wisdom for people, or that our prayers are extra powerful. And of course, the Holy Spirit can do anything, and he is quite capable of making any of those things happen. But what it really means for us to have the Spirit of Christ flowing out of us is as practical and real and useful as the bread that Jesus put into the hands of the people. To be filled with his Spirit, in the purest and simplest and truest sense, means that we are able to reach out and nourish people with the same kind of life-giving love we received from Christ himself. “We love, because he first loved us.”
And we do that, just as our Lord did, as we walk along the way. We feed the hungry and we give to the poor and we visit the sick, because he has minstered to us in our every need. We feed people in our community suppers, by filling their plates with food, but also by listening to them and sitting beside them and offering ourselves as Christ offered himself to us. We serve people in our thrift shop, by helping to provide clothes or dishes or towels, but also by welcoming them and asking about their kids and letting them know they are valuable. We satisfy the hunger and thirst of our neighbors, or our family, or the total stranger we happen to pass along the way, by offering our time, or our respect; or the gift of listening, or the grace of forgiveness.
There are people all around us who have everything the world can give, but have “failure to thrive” because they lack the one thing they need. And then there are people whose lives are so full of hunger and need that they can’t see beyond their struggle to survive. I heard this in an interview this morning: “The first leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide. Drug addiction, sexual addiction, gambling in this country is epidemic. The divorce rate is sky-high. I mean, people in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it.” That was from an interview with the writer David Foster Wallace a few years ago; Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. People everywhere are hungry and thirsty, failing to thrive, for lack of real love.
And we, who have had that empty space in our very center filled with the love of Christ have the privilege of offering that love to everyone around us. It’s like King David wrote in the 23rd psalm, our cup is overflowing. And it overflows to satisfy the hunger and thirst of the world with the life-giving love of the Father.