My appetite is my shepherd, I always want.
It maketh me sit down and stuff myself.
It leadeth me to my refrigerator repeatedly,
Sometimes during the night.
It leadeth me in the path of Burger King for a Whopper.
It destroyeth my shape.
Yea, though I knoweth I gaineth, I will not stop eating,
For the food tasteth so good.
The ice cream and the cookies, they comfort me.
When the table is spread before me, it exciteth me.
For I knoweth that I sooneth shall dig in.
As I filleth my plate continuously,
My clothes runneth smaller.
Surely bulges and pudgies shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall be "pleasingly plump" forever. (1)
In the midst of the season of Lent, season of fasting and penitence and somber reflection, today we turn from the gospel lesson to a text from the prophet Isaiah that seems a bit exuberant and rich for our setting. Today’s gospel lesson had us returning to a text about good fruit – and even as we continue to seek after it, I hope, I decided maybe we’d spent enough time on good fruit scriptures for a little bit. Plus, this passage from Isaiah is just so – full! So inspiring. But here, midway through Lent, Isaiah is talking about eating what is good and delighting ourselves in rich food. Doesn’t sound much like Lent, does it?
This part of Isaiah, near the end of the long book, seems to be focused on the time just before or near the end of the exile. Israel had been conquered and many of the people of Israel sent to live in the lands of the conquerors. But eventually, they are allowed to return to Israel, return to their homeland. Where the earlier chapters of Isaiah warn of what will happen, what is happening because the people refuse to repent and return to God, here, Isaiah speaks of God’s mercy, abundant pardon. Nations will run to God, who forgives because God’s ways are not our ways, but are higher. God’s words are like seeds that grow, like bread that fills us. And God’s people will go out and be led in in joy and peace. The beginning part of the text is my favorite: 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.
Somehow, last week after church, we got talking about whether or not we were forced by our parents to try food we didn’t like when we were little. I can’t even remember now how we got on the topic, but we were comparing notes. Some people had been forced to, or at least strongly encouraged to, try at least a bite of everything on their plates. If it was served to you for a meal, you ate it, at least some of it. Others of us, like me, were free to refuse foods if we didn’t like them.
I was a picky eater when I was a child. On Thanksgiving, for example, I’d eat turkey, and my grandmother’s homemade dinner rolls. There was nothing else I liked. Of course, our family Thanksgiving spread included many foods that I had never tried before, ever. But I was still pretty confident that I didn’t like them. Could never like them. I didn’t need to try to them to know. I just felt, instinctively, that cranberry sauce and stuffing and green bean casserole were not for me.
Perhaps you have a child like this in your life? The picky eater? Maybe you were a child like this? My nephew Sam has turned into a picky eater, I’m afraid, and meal times can sometimes be a battle in his household. If you think Sam will fall for the, “well, you can just go hungry if you won’t eat what’s on your plate” routine, you are wrong. He will outlast you. He will probably win that fight! I think he functions like a camel, and stores up an occasional hearty meal of something he loves and makes it last through meals where people try to torture him by offering him vegetables.
My brother and sister-in-law are trying very hard to make sure that my niece Siggy doesn’t end up with the same finicky food tastes as her big brother. And so they’ve been very careful to limit her intake of many foods, especially things that are full of salt or sugar or other addictive additives. Siggy loves pretty much all foods, from black beans and guacamole, to sips of the kale smoothies my brother likes to drink. She isn’t craving chocolate and candy, because she doesn’t know what she’s missing. And sometimes, that’s a good thing.
Do you know that if you give a baby some sugar, especially before they’ve really had any sugar, they will light up, smile at you, follow you with their eyes, and generally be wrapped around your finger? They will charm you, in the hopes of getting some more sugary wonderfulness. This taste that they never knew existed is so powerful that it will change their behavior towards you in hopes that they’ll get some more.
These days, many nutrition plans include an initial period where a person is supposed to completely eliminate sugary and processed foods from their diets. This is because they are so addictive, and our bodies become so dependent on them and unable to tell us when we are truly hungry or what we are truly craving that it takes a while for our bodies to relearn what it is that is truly satisfying. Isaiah was talking about much more than food when he wrote the words we read today, but I imagine that he’d look at us and ask, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Really though, I don’t want us to get hung up on food. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one that the prophet Isaiah certainly uses. Universal. But it isn’t the whole of what we’re talking about here. If it seems like this scripture is too lush, too rich for Lent, we have to look closer. Because I think Isaiah is suggesting that it isn’t by overindulging – in whatever that’s artificial that we’ve become hooked on – it isn’t by indulging in that stuff that we are satisfied, but rather, it is by stripping away, by finding what’s at the core of who we are, what’s real, who God creates us to be. Being who God calls us to be – nothing less, nothing more – that’s the deeply satisfying life Isaiah announces with such hope.
At my work in Rochester, the retirement community and small Greenhouse nursing homes I serve at are part of a group of elder care organizations that have adopted what is called “The Eden Alternative.” It’s a guiding philosophy that shapes the way St. John’s offers care, and it is one of the things I love about my work there. The Eden Alternative’s vision is to eliminate what is calls the “plagues” that create the bulk of suffering for elders: loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. If you’ve spent any time in traditional nursing homes, you know that even the best nursing homes struggle with residents suffering from boredom, helplessness, and especially loneliness. And unfortunately many nursing homes are not even close to “the best.” So the purpose of the Eden Alternative is to eliminate those plagues by following these principles, among others: * Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. * An Elder-centered community creates opportunity to give as well as receive care. This is the antidote to helplessness. * An Elder-centered community imbues daily life with variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place. This is the antidote to boredom. * Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit. The opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health. * Creating an Elder-centered community is a never-ending process. Human growth must never be separated from human life.
St. John’s serves a fairly affluent community. There are options at the Greenhouses for folks using Medicare, but at the retirement community, the target audience is folks with enough money to pay their own way. And it is not cheap! Yet, despite the fact that many of the folks I serve have more access to material resources, the three plagues that the Eden Alternative addresses are universal. No amount of money, no amount of possessions, no amount of status built up over a lifetime, it seems, will cure the plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. The things that give meaning – the things that make for a deeply satisfying life – are things you can’t put a price tag on: companionship, the ability to serve and be served with care, and a life full of experiences that bring us joy. Perhaps you, as I do, find this description, these principles, not just values for what we want in elder care facilities, but what we all seek after.
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. In the first church I served, A high school student 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 was finding 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 we work for that which doesn’t satisfy? I wonder if 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. I wonder, sometimes, if we are terrified of how good life can be when we live it God’s way.
One of my favorites books, by Arthur Simon, founder of the end-hunger campaign Bread for the World, is called How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture. Simon shares this quote from theologian Richard Foster: “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.” “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.”
Simon expands, writing, “ Jesus’
words about possessions, and his call to deny self, take up the cross, and
follow him sound a lot like an invitation to grit your teeth. But they seem to
have had the opposite effect on his followers. Jesus’
death and resurrection . . . gave them a hope and a purpose that fired their
lives as they began forming a new community of faith. They clearly had fallen
in love with God for having loved them so lavishly in Christ.”
This Lent, wonder in the knowledge that God does want our lives to be filled up, brimming, overflowing with goodness and joy, peace and love. God, whose ways are beyond our understanding, extends mercy and forgiveness, calling us to return to God with all our hearts. And this Lent, remember that as we fall in love with God, and with God’s people, that God will help us peel away all the layers, strip away all the excess that we’ve built around our hearts, that we may at last find the life that is worth our labors. Amen.
(1) Author unknown.