Sermon 3/7/10, Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
A couple of weeks ago I visited my friends in Annapolis, Maryland and had the opportunity to attend church with them and Bible Study with them. Their pastor focused on the gospel lesson from Luke that Rev. Underwood used with him sermon while I was away – the passage that records Jesus’ temptation and time in the wilderness. This pastor talked about the things that we do, the habits we form, the practices we get into that we use to cushion ourselves, protect ourselves, comfort us when we’re upset, or stressed, or angry – what are the things that we use as our coping mechanisms when life becomes in some way too difficult. He suggested that during Lent, when we talk about ‘giving things up,’ what we should be giving up are those things – those coping mechanisms that we use to get through when things are difficult. He serves as a part time pastor, and a full time counselor, focusing on those who are struggling with addictions. In his work, he sees that those who become addicted are those who rely more and more on these habits and coping mechanisms, even when they no longer satisfy or do what they were intended to do, even when they start to harm instead of help. When our coping mechanisms hurt us more than they help us, when they leave us more empty instead of satisfied or renewed, there’s a problem. Lent, he said, was a time to fast from our quick-fix methods, to see the issues in our lives that are underneath, that we’ve been covering up.
Along the same lines, a friend recently directed me to Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon online on the same text. (1) She’s a well-known and admired contemporary preacher. She suggests that we all have things that we retreat to, that we use as a buffer, when we’re not ready to face the real world, which she compares to the wilderness in that gospel text from Luke. She calls Jesus’ time in the wilderness his “wilderness exam,” which he passes, and she says that it’s an exam that we all have to take in our lives. For Jesus, she said, passing the exam freed him for ministry, freed him from anything that would distract him from his purpose. Taylor says that we also should seek this wilderness time, “not because your regular life is bad, but because you want to make sure it is your real life--the one you long to be living--which can be hard to do when you're living on fast food and busyness.”
She continues, “in a culture of plenty I am impressed with anyone who decides to make it without anesthesia for a while--to give up whatever appliances or habits or substances they use to keep themselves from feeling what it really feels like to live the kind of lives they are living. I mean, almost everyone uses something--if not anesthesia, then at least a favorite pacifier: murder mysteries, Facebook, reruns of Boston Legal, Pottery Barn catalogs . . . I'm not saying those are awful things. I'm just saying they are distractions--things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment--to wonder what it's really about or who else is in it or maybe just to make a little bed in the sand.” For Taylor, Lent is an invitation to enter the wilderness, and discover our real life.
At our midweek communion study service last Wednesday, we were talking about this very matter. We talked about all of the images of bread and wine and water that Jesus uses throughout the gospels. We pray each week for God to give us our daily bread. Jesus talks about being the bread of life, and when he shared the last supper with his disciples, he wanted them to understand that as physical bread gives them life and as food was necessary for one’s very survival, so is Jesus: Christ gives us our very life and we are dependent on God for our survival. But we also talked about how that was an easier message to communicate to Jesus’ contemporaries, who actually did rely on things such as bread for survival. Today, we noted, it’s hard to even go an hour without being offered five kinds of food, none of which are likely to be made of ingredients particularly necessary for your survival. Quite aside from important questions that raises about our physical health as a society, I wonder what this culture of too-much does for our spiritual health. How can we understand that Jesus is what gives us life if we are too stuffed with stuff that doesn’t even satisfy to possibly have room in our lives for this deceptively ordinary meal that Jesus seeks to share with us?
This is the conundrum that Isaiah addresses in our Old Testament lesson. Why, when one choice will benefit us, bring us good things, fill us, nourish us, help us grow, and the other choice will either harm us outright, or at least not do anything for us, why do we also choose the latter? Isaiah writes, “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.” He continues on, and in Isaiah’s words you can hear almost a sense of bafflement over our human predicament. What is good is available to us. What is satisfying is free to us. God offer these things to us as a gift, without price, free for all. Why, then, do we still chase after other things? Isaiah asks, “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.”
Folk-singer Tracy Chapman is probably my favorite musician. A song of one of her more recent albums is called “Change,” and in it, she poses this question: – “If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?” In other words, if what you are doing, how you are living, the life you are experiencing – if all of that is leaving you empty, would you change? It seems like an obvious answer – of course we’d change, right? Of course we would choose instead what satisfies and gives life. And yet, we know from experience, sometimes painful experience, that it isn’t true. We keep choosing what which does not satisfy.
And so, we must answer Isaiah’s question. Why aren’t we choosing that which satisfies? That which offers life? Why aren’t we choosing this ‘good food’ that Isaiah talks about? I have my suspicions. A young woman that I mentor told me one year that she was struggling with what she gave up for Lent that year. She wasn’t struggling because she was failing to keep her promise, finding it too hard. She was struggling because she found it too easy, too doable, or at least, too possible. And she’s also found it a bit rewarding. She felt good about the choice she made every day. And she struggled with that because: if the new practice she cultivated during Lent was actually rewarding and doable and livable, and not hard and terrible and difficult, what excuse would she have when Lent was done to return to her old ways? Not having that excuse anymore scared her a little bit.
So why aren’t we ‘spending our money’ on only the good food of life that Isaiah describes? Why do work for that which doesn’t satisfy? The answer can only be that we fear that our experience of God, of real life, of actual satisfaction, will totally mess up our lives – ruin our plans, mess up our plan of coasting along without much effort, without giving too much of ourselves, without committing in any significant, full way to the gospel, to the path of discipleship the Jesus lays out for us. We fear that when we come to the waters our thirst will indeed be quenched, just as promised, just as Isaiah describes, just as God covenants with us. We fear that it is all true! And this truth will leave us with no choice but to act and respond to God’s call with our whole selves.
Let me share with you one more quotation – this one from Marianne Williamson. She wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” (2)
It is true – following God, drinking deep of the waters, eating the bread of life, filling up on the grace and love and life God offers – it will change your life, change your world, change everything. It will require more from you than you’ve been willing to give before. It will strengthen you to serve as you haven’t before. And it will satisfy you, bring you life more real than you’ve ever had before. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Everyone who thirsts: come to the waters and drink. Everyone who hungers: come to the table. Amen.
(2)(2) Marianne Williamson, from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.