Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God.
-1 Peter 2:2
(Preached on Sunday, May 14, 2017)
We all share a desire to find our way home. Whether it’s at the end of a long day or at the end of a long journey, a long time of wandering, of alienation, of homesickness and pain, we all yearn for a place where we know we belong. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow provides a striking example of this. He remembers his first day of teaching at Princeton University. He walked into a seminar room without a class list and passed a sheet of paper around the room, asking students to write their names. When the page was returned, Wuthnow found he had received more than he had requested. Next to each person’s name was an apostrophe and a two-digit number: John Alexander ’76; Frederick Thompson ’77; Charles Francis Lovell ’76… It didn’t take Professor Wuthnow long to figure it out: The numbers corresponded with the year that each student expected to graduate from Princeton. “Once a person enrolls at Princeton he or she gains a new identity. There is a vast network of Princeton people all over the world, and they know each other by their labels – a name and a date.”
Princeton is not the only university that nurtures this group identity. There is the famous Gator Nation of University of Florida; those who know “it is all about the U” – graduates of the University of Miami as two closer to home examples. Those who attend, graduate, and closely identify with their University know it as their alma mater. The term alma mater originated in the ancient Greek legends of Ceres and Cybele. These women, according to the storytellers, gathered homeless and sick children and mothered them back to life, loved them back to health, and gave them a place in society with a name and an identity. The Greeks called Ceres and Cybele fostering mothers – alma maters. Princeton, University of Florida and the U, are the alma maters for their graduates because they mothered them into a common life.
We all have a need to know who we are, not just within ourselves, but also in the context of a social system that matters. Unfortunately, many of us never do become fully aware of who we are. Inside we carry about with us great insecurities. We secretly believe that we project more than we can deliver, and that much of our public persona is deceitful. For that reason we keep searching for alma maters, “fostering mothers” who will take us in, and dress our ego, and give us names of significance. We run, said Wuthnow in his sociological analysis, from this possession to that career, from this title to that university degree, from this accomplishment to that social club, hoping that somewhere among them we can find the mother who will tell us who we truly are.
We are all looking for that place: that “home” that assures us we belong, we count, and we are loved – especially that we are loved. There is a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, created by Bill Watterson, where the young Calvin has fled in panic up a tree with his toy tiger, Hobbes. They are trying to hide from his mother because they pushed the family car down the driveway and lost control of it. His mother spots Calvin in the tree. “There you are. Come down so I can talk to you.” “No. You’ll kill us. We’re running away.” “I’m not going to kill you,” his mom reassures him. “I just want to find out what happened. Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” “No,” Calvin replies. “No one was hurt. We were pushing the car into the drive and it kept rolling.” “The care didn’t hit anything?” his mother asks. And Calvin says, “It just went across the road and into the ditch. That’s when we took off.” “Well, the tow truck pulled it out, and there’s no damage.” Holding out her arms she continues, “So you can come home now.” “First,” Calvin says, peeking his head around the tree trunk, “Let’s hear you say you love me.” That word “love” is a word we need to hear often and sincerely in order to know we are special and accepted by God.
While we like to think and dearly hope that our families of origin provide this home, this place of identity and affirmation, for many of us they have not done that well. And that has been true down through the centuries. This is why the author of 1 Peter is encouraging the second generation of Jesus followers that they are a special people and that they are part of a special community. The people he is addressing were mostly a group of dispossessed people, people who had not unifying dignity and identity apart from being a church. In the Roman world, the nobility – people who were somebody – had three names. Many Christians, judging from catacomb tombstones, had one name. This means they were probably slaves and definitely did not have any identity that would have been acknowledged by any level of society above them. After all, the Elysian Fields of Virgil’s Aeneid were reserved for those who were born great in the eyes of the world – those who owned almost all the wealth. All the rest of those who died lived in a shadowy half-existence.
But this passage from 1 Peter radically insists that god has fashioned out of nothing a people who are elect, a royal priesthood, a holy people who were no people and who are now God’s people. Have you ever felt like a “nobody,” and then a “somebody?” Have you ever felt outside and alone, and then part of something greater than yourself? We can perhaps imagine how it would have sounded to their ears, those dispossessed people whom the rest of the world looked down on, or did not even bother to look at and acknowledge, to hear that they have become part of a “chosen people” with words like “holy” and “royal” used to describe them. What would it feel like to come out of the darkness into the “marvelous light” of God?
This is what it means to “drink deep of God’s pure kindness.” It is in the safe haven of God’s gathered people that we receive, like little babies, the spiritual milk that we need to grow our faith. Mother’s milk is the most natural thing in the world. It is amazing the way the whole process of nurturing an infant is designed. A brand new baby, who doesn’t know anything, knows what to do when she is put on her mother’s breast. Everything she needs – and will need for some months – is contained in that simple, natural formula. Nutrition, comfort, and relationship all come together in a single act. It is truly a beautiful design. I was recently reminded of this reality through our visit to our newest granddaughter. Experts tell us that the nursing instinct in a new born baby is very strong. In fact, the first thing a baby wants to do upon birth is nurse. Emilia, like her mother before her, has that instinct very strongly. She eats very well and her mother has had no problem getting her to do so.
This is all very natural for an infant. Everyone understands that the primary task and need of a baby is to grow and in order to grow the baby needs nourishment, food. It is a need which we never lose. All through life we need food. It is a need that never ceases until we die. The reason is that all through our lives our bodies are still growing. Even in our later years, for even then our bodies are creating new cells to replace old cells, just at a slower rate. And without food, our growth and development, and eventually life itself, stops.
In the same way we need to nurture our spiritual selves all our life long. Just as we need to drink our mother’s milk we also need to drink deep of God’s pure kindness. When she was a young college student, she struggled terribly trying to discern the meaning, worth and place of her life in God’s world. Often in those hard and lonely times, she could not find any meaning, worth or place; she felt as if she were truly no one. Such a void is terrifying and painful. It took a long time and much work to move into a new and life-affirming place. One of the things she remembers most vividly is the weekly repetition of a responsive benediction in Sunday Chapel. Every Sunday at the close of worship, the chaplain led them in proclaiming these words: “We know who we are as God’s children: loved, forgiven, responsible.” The repetition of those words, week after week, was powerful. She, who felt as if she were no one, was asked to claim herself as a child of God – loved, forgiven, responsible. She was asked to believe that if God could imagine her in this way, perhaps she too could practice such imagination until she experienced its truthfulness. As she practiced such imagination, she felt a true presence, a presence of the Spirit, and bit by bit she began to feel also a presence that was her very own. In that community of faith she drank deep of God’s pure kindness. In that community her faith was nurtured, grew, and she found her place in God’s world.