Sunday, February 28
Third Sunday in Lent
God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people. Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the time to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which
does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
All Readings For This Sunday
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
1. What blocks us from what we need most?
2. What are the spiritual "junk foods" we consume?
3. What do you find truly satisfying?
4. What is the difference between excess and abundance?
5. How are you seeking God this Lent?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Prophets are poets, really, which might explain why they are such great theologians. This week's reading, or better, this poem from the prophet-poet Isaiah offers us, in nine short verses, the heart of the biblical message: God loves us, no matter what, and reaches out to us even (or especially) in the worst of times, making promises that are not just pie-in-the-sky, not just theoretical. God promises the things that we most yearn for, deep down in our hearts, the very basics of life: homecoming when we're lost or far away, a rich feast when we're hungry, flowing fresh water to satisfy our thirst, and a community of hope when we long for meaning in our lives--something greater than ourselves, in which and through which we might be a blessing to the whole world.
Oh, and another thing: there will be no cost affixed to this wonderful feast, no price of admission, and everyone (even people you would never expect) will be invited to the party. Underneath and through this message runs a deep and tender compassion for the human predicament, our habit of getting entangled, trapped, in ways and habits that cut us off from the source of what we need most, or worse, being taken captive against our will by forces beyond our control, especially, in this case, the materialism that afflicts and mars our culture.
The Book of Comfort
Our passage from Isaiah comes from the beautiful Book of Comfort, addressed to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon almost six hundred years before Jesus. We know that a prophet speaks sternly to the people when they need it, but also knows how to speak tenderly, to convey God's great love and mercy, when the people need to hear that message as well; in fact, that really brings out the poet in a prophet. And this prophet knows that the people are hungry for a message of hope, a message that promises an end to their captivity and a different way of life, back home, where they can be who they are called to be, and live lives faithful to the God who has made an everlasting covenant with them.
Isaiah knows that even the mention of King David's name will stir the people's memory of their glory days, drawing their hearts and minds back to a time when Israel was a great and powerful nation. This time, he adds that, as God renews the covenant, it is extended beyond one king or dynasty and even beyond one people, for the chosen people will be a light to the nations, drawing to it people they have never known or even heard of.
Overflowing feasts and good news
God had led the people long ago from bondage in Egypt and fed them manna and water on their way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but this trip home will be no bread-and-water journey. This will be an overflowing feast of delicious, delightful foods. Timothy Saleska recalls his mother's voice calling him to supper as a child: "Come and get it!" was music to his ears, not a command but "good news." He and his brother were happy to run home when they heard these words, just as the people long ago, in exile, in "desolation and death," would have thrilled to hear an invitation to come and enjoy free food, wine, milk, and the restoration for which they longed. For the people of Israel, it would have sounded to their hungry hearts like their mother, calling them home to supper. The same might be said of us, today.
Perhaps the voice we hear, calling us to "come to the waters," to "buy and eat"--but with no money--is the voice of an ancient street vendor selling his wares. I'm reminded of the people who stand on a street corner I often pass, mostly women in green Statue-of-Liberty costumes, wearing sandwich boards that invite passers-by to a carpet sale, with "bargains you won't believe" (the connection to the Statue of Liberty, however, escapes me).
Or maybe this vendor is more like the friendly people in the grocery store who invite us to try a sample of this or that new cheese on this or that new cracker. In either case, the offer is made to people who have other things on their minds, other destinations on their schedule, and the point is to get them to change course and put carpet-buying or cheese-and-cracker buying at the top of their to-do list, to imagine their home given a whole new, fresher look by laying down some new carpet, and a new dish added to their repertoire for the next time they entertain.
What is God saying to you today?
This poet-prophet is calling us to a much bigger change in our schedule, of course. Isaiah is saying that "God is trying to tell us something," as the song goes: we may have settled so comfortably into a routine and worldview that keep us busy and distracted that we've lost touch with our deepest selves, made in the image of God, and our spirits may be thirsty, starving, and homesick, even if we can't name those feelings on our own. Daniel Debevoise describes the heat of the southwestern United States, where the humidity is so low that they post signs like those in the Grand Canyon National Park that say, "'Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.'" Isaiah the poet is doing the same thing, "telling us something true about ourselves at every moment of our lives," Debevoise writes. "We may not be immediately aware of how we have wandered away from God--how life has lost its meaning in pursuit of a promotion or raise, how we have gotten buried under the demands of economic and social status."
Like some of the ancient Jews exiled to Babylon, we may have made a strange and uneasy kind of peace with the empire that imposes what Walter Brueggemann calls a "pseudo-order" on our lives. Just as "they gave their lives (and their faith) over to imperial productivity," we are easily trapped from our earliest days into thinking that worth is equated with productivity, that a dollar amount can be assigned to our value (think of the term "net worth"). I recall hearing on television that the compensation received by family members of those who died on 9/11 was based on the victims' earning potential. It made me stop and think about the grief of the widow of a minimum-wage worker in a restaurant I'd visited in the World Trade Center years ago. How can we tell her that her husband's life was worth less than that of the executive a hundred floors above?
How much are we worth?
Is our value really fixed by "an open market"? Have we made a home for ourselves in that market, in a way of living that is alien to who we all are, as children of God? Or, as Brueggemann puts it, are we in an exile, right where we live, where "we are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel"? He then makes a curious claim, that our exile is not simply "fact," but "a decision one must make." Like the Jews who assimilated in ancient Babylon and found a relatively comfortable way of life if they adopted the values and ways of the empire, we might not perceive ourselves as exiles, either, Brueggemann writes. However, like the sign that warns us that we may not realize that we are thirsty, the prophet wakes us up with a call to come back to God and the source of what will really satisfy our souls.
Many commentators on this text press this point about our living in an empire of capitalist tyranny. Indeed, they are quite eloquent about the effect on our spiritual and physical health. Darryl Trimiew writes of the accommodations that we make with the powers that be in order to survive. After a dreary week of meeting the expectations of the system (what Brueggemann calls the empire could, after all, be called "the system" in our day), we come to church exhausted and empty, Trimiew says. Like many readers of this text, he describes a world in which we are caught up in a commercial, profit-driven culture of excess that does not know the meaning of enough, and he acknowledges that what we really need, what will really satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, is God. That's what Isaiah tells us, and that's the truth that lies buried deep inside us, the truth that makes us dissatisfied even in the midst of plenty, even and especially in the midst of excess.
Finding hope and acknowledging the good
At the risk of appearing to be one of those who do not experience the tension between the gospel and our cultural values (a concern of Brueggemann), I wonder if our recent economic struggles might provide fertile ground for reflection on that interface. Brueggemann is only one of the eloquent voices that call us to change course, to uproot ourselves from a semi-comfortable, dulled-by-consumption exile by listening to and following God's call to a different way of thinking and living. We might ask ourselves what we spend our money on that does not satisfy us, "that which is not bread" (v. 2). What are the alternatives to what does not satisfy? What are the different ways of living that "life in God" offers?
Many people work honestly and hard to provide a living for their families and to contribute to the wider community (including the church), and it's easy to sound as if we're equating capitalism with "the evil empire" rather than calling our society to ever higher expressions of justice, to demand from society the kind of course corrections that will avoid turning us into something that violates our greatest shared values.
Seeing the positives in our culture
I suppose we could too easily become co-opted by that "system," but I also believe that we don't have to sound harshly judgmental, either. This "culture," after all, has improved the life experience of women and children, paid more (but not enough) attention to civil rights, struggled with bigotry, and raised the standard of living of a huge (but not great enough) percentage of the population. How do we acknowledge this progress in our public life while still challenging ourselves to remember the One who calls us to such justice in the first place, and seeks to nourish our spirits as well as our bodies?
So while we speak of exile and empire, we might focus on the difference between "excess" and "enough," between what we need and what we want, and, beyond that, far more than we could ever enjoy but are seduced into thinking that we need. In that pursuit, we are indeed captive and in need of a liberating word from the poets and the storytellers. Sara Miles' book, Take This Bread, an extended and graceful meditation on the theme of spiritual and physical hunger, is a good place to start.
What does bread mean to you?
While Brueggemann has written stirringly on this text in many of his books, his words about bread and the symbolism of bread are especially moving: "The street vendor knows that all the way from manna to Eucharist, we have taken food to be a sign, sacrament, and gesture of an alternative....that touches everything, economics as well as liturgy." In the church, we give thanks for all good gifts and struggle to discern and articulate alternatives to "the powers" — the systems and practices — that deny those gifts to any of God's children. Like our secular culture these days, we're mindful that we can consume junk food for our spirits as much as our bodies, and we have to learn to say no.
And, Brueggemann says, we have to be aware that this bread "always comes with a price. Eat royal bread and think royal thoughts. Eat royal bread and embrace royal hopes and fears," but we remember that "we are children of another bread." Like Jesus speaking of the reign of God, we are called to "redescribe the world" so that we might know the difference between exile and home, and learn to "live out of the promise," together.
Again, the heart of the biblical message
Many of us may be attempting with varying degrees of success one kind of Lenten discipline or another, to learn to act and think in new ways that will transform not just our own, personal lives but the life of the world around us as well. It's hard work, and it requires persistence. Two weeks into Lent, we may have already become discouraged, but that may be a result of thinking that pure willpower on our own part is the source of our strength and the determinant of what will happen in our lives.
And why not? We breathe in a culture of self-determination — the peril of freedom, perhaps — and find it difficult to admit our powerlessness in the face of the relentless seductions and messages of our culture. Maybe the point of Lent is for us to adjust our sights so that we at least understand what it is we ought to hunger for, or in fact what we do hunger and thirst for, in our deepest being: justice, mercy, peace, healing, acceptance, love. And not just for ourselves, but for all of God's children. That must be what shalom looks and sounds and feels like, and it's at the heart of the biblical message.
The mystery of God's ways and the hunger of the heart
The closing verses of the reading remind us that we can never fully understand or even lay out God's "plan"; was it Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who observed that if we needed something explained to us in the first place, we wouldn't be able to understand it? And yet we do have a powerful confidence that homesickness and hunger are not at the heart of that plan. But maybe we need to feel, to connect with, our hunger, our homesickness, not for "what does not satisfy," but for God and for the gifts of God. All humans share this deep need for God, whether we name it in that way or not.
However, at any given time, not all of us share physical hunger and thirst. It is a spiritual discipline — in Lent, but in every season, really — to remember those who hunger and thirst for physical food and water, and to strengthen our unity in both religious and secular settings by responding to that need. Can we gather at the table each Sunday without remembering all those beyond our walls, in our neighborhood, our city, the countryside that surrounds us, and the world beyond? Are we building communities that reach out as well as welcome in? Both are important: after all, we never know which exiles might be coming home this Sunday, hungry and thirsty, and longing for a community of meaning in which to put down roots.
Heather Murray Elkins describes "sacrifice" in a much better way than we have traditionally understood it, that is, as giving something up with almost grim determination. She speaks instead of "the right sacrifice" as something that happens inside us, "a gift of the heart, of the self. God, who is all merciful, looks for true seekers, people who hunger for God." Is there a more fitting way to approach the communion table this Lent than hungry, hungry for the gifts of God?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
Victor Hugo, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, 19th century
"The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal."
Frank McCourt, 20th century
"After a full belly all is poetry."
Thomas Fuller, 17th century
"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them."
John Piper, A Hunger For God, 20th century
"If you don't feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great."
Mick Jagger, 20th century
"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."
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Sunday, February 28