Sermon preached on September 12, 2023—at the 7 AM, 9 AM, 11 AM worship services on the Honolulu campus.
By Jonathan Roach
Aloha, my friends! It is wonderful to be here at Central Union today. And I bring you aloha from your 116 sibling congregations in the Hawai‘i Conference, United Church of Christ, from the North Shore of Kaua‘i to the southernmost point of Hawai‘i Island.
I am honored to be here as you, Central Union Church, and Kahu Rushan Sinnaduray prepare to begin your ministry together, and to allow God to challenge us on this special occasion. I want us to explore a special passage from the Book of Isaiah. We just read the second half of the 40th chapter from the Book of Isaiah, because I believe God has important lessons for us today in these ancient words.
I know this is a very familiar passage and often when we hear a passage over and over, we get comfortable with the familiar interpretation. But as I was reading theologian Debbie Blue’s book Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, she gave me a fresh interpretation of the phrase “on eagles’ wings.” i
Eagles are beautiful birds. And I love birds. I am a birdwatcher. I have taken days off from work to go searching for a rare bird that had been sighted. I have traveled halfway around the world to watch birds. So, I was delighted as I was reading Debbie Blue’s book that I was learning so much that I didn’t know about birds of the Bible. But when Debbie Blue challenged me to consider what it could mean if we translated the name of the bird in verse 31 not as an eagle but as a vulture, I was taken back. I was shocked. I love watching eagles. They are majestic, powerful, beautiful. Watching an eagle is like seeing poetry in motion. Here in Hawai‘i the local relative of the eagles of the Middle East is the majestic ʻio, and when I see an ‘io in my backyard I just stopped and know that I am blessed. It is awe inspiring, but vultures don’t give me the same awe-inspiring emotional response.
Truth be told, I find most vultures ugly and disgusting. Here in Hawai‘i, we don’t have any vultures, and I really don’t miss them. I have been close enough to a flock of black vultures to notice the smell, and it wasn’t pleasant. Imagining being lifted on the wings of a vulture didn’t leave me with a lot of positive insights. But God kept this image in my mind, and it kept challenging me to consider, to reflect, to pray, to learn from our God who is still speaking.
For thousands of years, humans in many cultures (but not all) have viewed vultures as harbingers of death, symbols of destruction, decay, corruption. Not good, and I am using this metaphor to introduce a new ministry… Now if you ask ten thousand bird watchers what bird they most want to see up close, few if any will name a vulture. A few might wish to see a condor and a couple birders might make a case for getting an up-close look at a King Vulture, but otherwise vultures aren’t exactly…well you know. Some people are calling the lawyers and land speculators who are driving around hotel to hotel on Maui vultures, and we don’t often mean that as a compliment.
Vultures are vultures. They eat rotting flesh that is too toxic for other birds and animals to safely consume; they feed upon excrement; they urinate upon their own legs and feet, which helps to kill bacteria or parasites that they might have picked up from walking through dead bodies; they will gorge themselves on rotting flesh to the point of being too heavy to fly and, if threatened, while still full will let loose with projectile vomiting to get away; they can’t sing rather they hiss and grunt; they can smell so bad that researchers have been known to pass out; and just to say it again: they eat dead, rotting things.
Therefore, I had to ask why would God keep putting this image of vultures in front of me? Now, in addition to Debbie Blue’s book there have been only four other book-length studies of the birds in the Bible, ii so I ordered all four and read them. I consulted a number of scholarly biblical articles on vultures and eagles in the Bible.iii I even called up a friend who is an authority in biblical Hebrew and asked him some questions. And although there was a little give and take, it basically came down to Debbie Blue was correct. The Hebrew word “nesher” that is translated into the English word “eagle” in Isaiah can also be correctly translated as “vulture.” The Hebrew word “nesher” can mean either “eagle” or “vulture.” Every time a Biblical translator is translating the Bible into English from the original languages, and they come to the word “nesher,” they have a choice to write “eagle” or to write “vulture.” This realization just kind of blew my mind. It challenged me. Why would anyone use a metaphor like vulture? I had to ask God:
what could I gain from being lifted up on vulture wings? What could you, the members of Central Union Church and Kahu Rushan, gain from being lifted up on vulture wings?
As I reflected upon how God was speaking to me through vultures’ wings for today, I found three insights that God has for us at this time. The first lesson that God taught me about rising up on vultures’ wings is that we have to learn to rely on God’s strength not our own. It is God’s strength that lifts us up. This whole passage from Isaiah reminds us of that reality over and over. And being lifted up on vultures’ wings can really help us to understand this. Eagle are very strong fliers. They are built to fly. They are lean, mean, muscled flying machines. Eagles can fly high and for far distances because they are strong. They have endurance. This is why so many political empires have picked eagles as their symbol. In biblical times, the Romans, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians all had eagles as their symbol. In modern times, the Byzantine Empire, the French Empire, Nazi Germany, and even the United States all used eagles. They are symbols of strength and power.
On the other hand, vultures have weak wings. They are not strong fliers. Sometimes, they even struggle to take off. But I was shocked to learn that vultures fly higher than any other bird. Rüppell’s Vultures often cruise at over 20,000 feet and have been sighted by aircraft at 37,000 feet,iv thousands of feet higher than any other birds have ever been seen flying. So how do they do it? How do vultures with their weak wings fly so much higher than eagles with strong muscular wings? And not only higher but far, too. A group of scientists in Great Britain published a study on the flying habits of one of the largest flying birds on the Earth, the Andean condors, which are also vultures. The scientists attached data recorders to the condors that allowed them to log every single flap of the wings. They were amazed. One Andean condor soared through the air for 100 miles without flapping its wings once.v It’s simple; they don’t rely on their own strength, rather vultures depend on the wind. They can only fly so high and so far because they depend upon the wind currents, the updrafts, the thermals.
This was a lesson for us. When we fly on vultures’ wings, we do so because God is lifting us up. When we depend upon our own power and strength, we might get off the ground, but to go higher and farther requires us to depend upon God to hold us up. To soar on vultures’ wings reminds us to rely on God. It was all about the wind under its wings. That’s a reminder. That’s God still speaking. God is our source. God is our strength. God is the wind under our weak wings and with God as our source we can soar.
Here at Central Union, if either this congregation or your pastor or your staff try to fly on your own strength, you will crash. You must depend, we must depend upon the strength of God. Ego and entitlement will bring down any ministry. God’s strength–learn to depend upon it. We need it more than ever.
The next insight that I want us to consider is that vultures also remind us to live in a spirit of humility. The role that vultures fulfill in the natural world isn’t glorious. In fact, their niche is kind of disgusting. It’s smelly. It’s dirty. It’s difficult. And that is a great metaphor for ministry! But it is important. The role that they fulfill in nature is vital to the health and well-being of the whole eco-system. No one thinks vultures are important until they are gone; until the work that they are doing isn’t getting done. Being lifted up on vultures’ wings carries us to a vital conclusion: servant leadership. When we don’t rely on our own strength and when we embrace the spirit of humility, we can step into the role of servant leader. Jesus modeled this for us throughout his entire earthly ministry. From being born in a stable to dying on a cross, Jesus lived a life of servant leadership. He ministered to the outcasts, to the lepers, to the mentally ill, to the broken, to the forgotten, to the oppressed. He brought healing and wholeness. He fed the hungry. He cared. He showed mercy, compassion, and above all love, unconditional love. He valued the children and the elderly, rather than the rich and famous and powerful. He didn’t do it for a photo op or the chance to get honored.
In southeast Asia and India, the vulture population has plummeted by 95% since the 1990s. In the 1980s there were 80 million white-rumped vultures but today there are only around 7,000 left and this population crash is the same for several other species of vultures. After a lot of research, scientists found the cause: diclofenac, a common anti- inflammatory drug that farmers had started treating their livestock with in the 1990s. The drug produced healthier, stronger farm animals but unfortunately it is also fatal to vultures. When a farm animal dies with this anti-inflammatory in their system and when vultures, who arrive to clean up, eat the dead animal, they die. They have died by the tens of millions over the last 30 years.vi But what difference would a few less vultures in the world make? The shocking answer is a public health crisis…
Vultures play a critical role in preventing disease. Without the vulture providing a natural sanitation system, decaying animal carcasses have polluted drinking water with disease-carrying pathogens and with more food available there has been a surge in rats and feral dogs. When vultures eat rotten meat, their amazing digestive system kills many horrible pathogens, but the rats and feral dogs don’t destroy these pathogens rather they spread them as deadly diseases to other animals including human beings. There has been a surge in rabies, anthrax, and even the plague, which is resulting in the death of tens of thousands. A vulture’s work might not be glorious, but it is vital. They are unseen and un-thanked heroes. They are servant leaders!
As you are beginning this new mutual ministry as pastor and congregation, I want to challenge you to build a spirit of humility. You are mutual servant leaders who are called into relationship by God to care for and support each other as pastor and congregation. Your job is to care for each other! To bring healing and wholeness to each other, to feed each other, to show mercy, compassion, and most of all love, unconditional love. Love that understands that church work is dirty, smelly, and difficult. My friends, we all need to live in the spirit of humility and service to each other and the world. No ministry is worth burnout, ruining a person’s physical, emotional, or spiritual health. The work of being church is everyone’s kuleana. And no matter our role, we need to be first in line for the dirty, smelly jobs!
Vultures remind us that the work God calls us to might not be glorious. It might not make us famous, rich, and admired but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Humility isn’t a virtue that our society values and honors, but it is vital to our call as disciples of Christ and to being in mutual ministry. Being humble doesn’t mean being weak and passive; rather, it means to set aside our own will, our own ego, our need for glory and importance. To set that aside so that the Holy Spirit can attain God’s will through us. That work might not transform the world, but it might make a difference in the life of one person and that makes it important.vii We are called to open our wills, our egos, our desires for fame and fortune to be healers, comforters, and bearers of God’s peace and love to a hurting world. Another lesson from vultures, a lesson of living in a spirit of humility.
The final lesson that I want us to consider today is the wisdom of seeking the inner beauty. viii It takes a special breed of person to see the inner beauty in a vulture. Vultures are never going to be the poster child for a conservation program. They are never going to bring in the big donations and the oohs and ahhs that pandas or great blue whales or butterflies bring in. They don’t get the emotional response that, say, an eagle gets; rather they might be the original face that only a mother could love. But when we take time to consider, to reflect, when we get past our initial reactions to seek the inner beauty of this fellow member of God’s creation, we will foster a profound sense of gratitude. There are lots of animals and lots of humans who require our extra effort to see their inner beauty. But consider that we never look into the eyes of another who God doesn’t love; all humans are created in the image of God even the ones we don’t like. This is the greatest commandment: to love our Lord, our God and to love one another even the ones who are difficult, smelly, unpleasant…God calls us to take the time and make the effort to seek the inner beauty. Like with vultures, it isn’t always easy but being a Christian never is.
Being a church, being in mutual ministry together as pastors and congregations in 2023 is not easy and many have walked away from churches and ministry because they couldn’t see the inner beauty anymore. As I asked in a recent Coconut Wireless column, what makes you smile about your church? Lift up each in gratitude. Tell each other how much you appreciate the hard work and love you see in them, not just in October during Clergy Appreciation Month, but every day for big stuff, little things, and for no reason at all, share the gratitude and love with those in this pulpit and those in the pews around you and with those who are in the offices and clean the hallways. Seek the inner beauty and celebrate it!
My friends, as we soar into this new ministry let us rise up on vulture’s wings, remembering not to depend upon our own power but to embrace God’s strength in a spirit of humble service as we seek the inner beauty of all who God puts in our path. And let us express our gratitude for all of God’s creation, even for the vultures who have so much to teach us. Let us fly with the strength of God beneath our wings to share God’s love in the lonely and pain-filled corners of this Earth. Amen, amen, and amen!
i Debbie Blue (2013). Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. Abingdon Press.
ii Gene Stratton-Porter (2016 reprint). The Birds of the Bible. Jazzybee.; Peter Goodfellow (2013). Birds of the Bible: A Guide for Bible Readers and Birdwatchers. John Beaufoy Publishing.; and Alice Parmelee (1959). All the Birds of the Bible: Their Stories, Identification, and Meaning. Keats Publishing.
iii John Topel (2003). “What Kind of a Sign are Vultures? Luke 17,37b” Biblica 84.3; and Gertraud Harb. (2011). The Meaning of Q 17,37: Problems, Opinions and Perspectives. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Kunde der Älteren Kirche.
iv More information available at: https://animals.fandom.com/wiki/R%C3%BCppell%27s_Vulture
v More Information available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/13/andean-condor-fly-without-flapping-wings-flight-bird
vi More Information available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_vulture_crisis
vii Inspired by a Facebook meme / lots of different people and groups take credit for this one
viii Debbie Blue (2013). Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. Abingdon Press.