Kahu's Mana‘o

Third Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika

“The Way Forward”
Acts 9:1-6 & John 21:1-19

March of the Penguins was a 2005 French nature documentary film. It received the Oscar for the Academy Award that year for Best Documentary Feature.

The film depicted the yearly journey of the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica. In the autumn of each year, all of the penguins of breeding age leave the ocean to walk inland to their ancestral breeding grounds.

Upon their arrival the penguins begin their courtships that, if successful, will result in the hatching of a chick. In order for the chick to survive, both parents must make multiple journeys between the ocean and the breeding grounds during the months that follow.

The Emperor Penguins return to a particular spot because it is on ice that is solid year round and there is no danger of the ice becoming too soft to support the colony. It is also in a protected area where ice walls shield the colony from winds that can each 190 miles per hour.

At the beginning of the summer season the breeding ground is only a short distance from the open water where the penguins can feed. However, by summer’s end the breeding ground is over 62 miles away from the nearest open water. In order to reach the water all of the penguins of breeding age must travel a great distance.

After the female lays the egg, she passes the egg to a waiting male. It is something that is done with a minimal exposure of the egg to the elements since the intense cold can kill a developing embryo.

The male tends to the egg when the female makes the long trek to the open water in order to feed herself and to obtain extra food for feeding their chick when she returns. She has not eaten in two months and by the time she leaves the area where the chicks will hatch, she will have lost a third of her body weight.

For two months the male penguins will huddle together for warmth and to incubate their eggs. When the chicks hatch the males have only a small meal to feed them, and if the females do not return, some will abandon their chicks to return to the sea to feed themselves. By the time they return they will have lost half their own weight and not eaten for four months.

If all works out well the female penguins return to feed their young while the male penguins must now make the same trek to feed themselves. While the male penguins are away the female penguins will feed their young ones by regurgitating the food they were able to consume not only for themselves but for their chicks.

If you saw the documentary you know how easy it is for those viewing the film to look upon the penguins as “cute.” You also know how easy it is for us to “see” them as human beings.

Some looked upon the penguins and marvel at their care for their young. Others are taken by how parents are able to identify their young by a call that is distinctive to each penguin. For many, all of this is a sign that penguins are “like” us and although it is only during the mating season that penguins are monogamous, some have attributed even that behavior as a reflection of human family values.

But as the filmmakers have indicated they are penguins, not human beings. Penguins are penguins. It may be that instinct and survival is what is at work. Whether or not we would conclude that their interaction is about love may be a value that we impose.

Yet it is clear from the documentary that we see something of ourselves in them. Their lives, like our lives, are also fraught with danger. The way forward is not easy.

Even if the female penguins make it to the open ocean some will die on the trip. Others will die by exhaustion and still others will be killed by predators such as the Leopard Seal. If that happens their chicks back at the breeding ground are doomed. If the male penguins abandon their chicks in order to return to the sea to feed themselves, the chicks are at risk from other birds that will prey upon them.

So far from being “cute” the penguins face enormous challenges. Should both parents be successful, they must continue to feed and tend to their chicks for four months shuttling back and forth to the sea in order to provide food for their young. As spring begins, the trip will become easier as the ice melts and the distance to the sea decreases. In time the parents will finally leave the chicks to fend for themselves. (wikipedia.org)

Our reading from The Gospel According to John reminded me about penguins even though Jesus alludes to sheep when he speaks to Peter. While it would seem penguins and sheep have very little in common, what struck me about both was whether it was a chick or lamb both needed feeding and tending.

Although Peter was a fisherman, he understood the life of a shepherd. Although it would also seem that sheep and people have very little in common, the same could be said about sheep and people that was said about a chick or a lamb – both need feeding and tending.

Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” To which Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

Jesus asks Peter a second time, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “You know that I love you.”

Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus asks the question a third time. Hurt that he was asked the question again, Peter answers, “You know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Although Peter was exasperated by Jesus’ questions, we know that Jesus was concerned about people. Peter spent his life fishing not herding sheep. Still he came to understand what Jesus was saying.

Feeding may satisfy a physical need. But there is also a need to “tend” to people; that is to provide a level of care in people that will met a deeper need to feel secure, to feel safe, to feel loved.

In the Hawaiian language the word for providing such care among human beings is pū‘ā.

Pū‘ā means to “feed by passing food directly from mouth to mouth.” The food was chewed and then fed to an infant or to a kupuna or elder.

Interestingly enough, the word pū‘ā also refers to a flock or a herd and when used with the word hipa as in pū‘ā hipa, it refers to a herd of sheep. On the one hand the idea of one person feeding another person “from mouth to mouth” is not unlike the penguin regurgitating its food for its young “from mouth to mouth.”

On the other hand the idea of tending to or taking care of another person is not unlike the attention and care a penguin must provide for its young or a shepherd must provide for his sheep.

As we continue through this season of Easter, the resurrection points the way forward. If we are to follow in his way then we must move forward by feeding those in need; by tending to those in need. Like Peter we are each called to do the same.

The question Jesus asked Peter is one he asks us. “Do you love me?” And if our response is “Yes” then he will remind us to “feed others” and to “tend to others.” He will remind us, “If you love me then love others.”

So be it.

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