Sunday sermon from the Third Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2013
Text: Isaiah 55:1-13
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
I want to start this morning with a sincere word of thanks. It isn't the first, and it won't be the last, but I'd be remiss, upon the occasion of stepping into this pulpit on the first of many Sundays yet to come, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer up my sincere thanks to all of you for welcoming me and my family with such open arms and with such generosity. From the moment that I first began to read about this church, I sensed the life and livelihood of this congregation, I began to kindle my hopes that God would indeed call us together, and I now find myself very blessed indeed to be here. Blessed that you have already opened your homes to me, blessed by the moments when you have already stopped by to say hello, and certainly overwhelmingly blessed by the small dry goods store I could now open using only the reserve contents of my pantry. I know I speak as well for Sarah and Charlie when I say "thank you" for being such generous stewards of the community we now call home.
I do have one regret, which is that I started work just in time to miss last week's chili cook-off. Now obviously there are no shortage of opportunities to eat together in Amherst. But as a cook, and as a lover of spice, chili is near and dear to my heart. In fact it's probably nearer to my heart more often than is really healthy. Suffice to say that next year's cook-off is already on my calendar. I'll bring my own recipe. It's a bit different, I make a Cincinatti-style chili, it's a style famous for using cinnamon and allspice and cloves instead of the piles of actual chile peppers that go into most southwestern recipes. But it's also prepared a bit differently. See, with most traditional chili recipes, you start with the meat, whether it's ground beef or cubed up chuck or whatever, most recipes have you cook that up before you ever add tomatoes or broth or spice or beans. But with the Cincinatti-style, you just start with water. It's just water. Sure, soon enough there's meat and spice and tomatoes and all the things that make chili into chili. Eventually it winds up looking a lot more like the Virginia mud that we now track through the house on a regular basis. It smells like Heaven -- but it looks like mud! But before it was mud, before it was chili, before it was anything so delicious or anything so messy, before it was warming up a crowd on a midwinters day or flung all over the wall by a precocious toddler, it was just water. And I suppose you'd have to decide for yourselves whether it had been improved.
"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters." Now, when Christians read the Bible, we have this tendency to put water up on a pedestal. Water, life-giving water, like the water that Moses draws out of the rock in the desert; water, cleansing water, like the flood waters of Noah's age or the streams of justice and mercy on the lips of the prophets; water, sanctifying water, like the Jordan river where John baptized the crowds and baptized Jesus himself. Our image of Biblical water has a quality of perfection to it, like we've gone to one of those nice restaurants where they ask you whether you prefer sparking or bottled or tap, and they say the last one with such condescension as if no one in their right mind would lower themselves to such a thing. We've put our water on a pedestal, so that when in our text this morning Isaiah says "everyone who thirsts, come to the waters," we have a whole series of images all ready to go. But Isaiah has something quite a bit different in mind. "Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price... come, delight yourselves in rich food!" Wine and milk, the staples of luxury, but certainly altogether different than water from the rock. Rich food - some translations even call it "the fattiest food" - something altogether different than manna in the wilderness. So Isaiah's up to something altogether different, and even the purest bottled tap-water that we bring with us won't help us understand what it is.
The first thing that will help will be to understand a bit about the context in which Isaiah is writing. One of the reasons that water imagery is so pervasive in the Old Testament is because of the foundational narrative of Israel wandering through the desert on its way out of Egypt. But Isaiah is writing at a much different moment in its Israel's existence: centuries later, as the nation joyfully anticipates returning home from exile in Babylon. Now, Babylon isn't the wilderness: it's a vast, cosmopolitan city, the center of a massive empire, and the Israelites have been living there for several hundred years. Though they arrived as a single conquered people, by this late date, Israelites can be found throughout the Babylonian social spectrum, they're insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Centuries of exile have created divisions in what had once been such a united people. And so when Isaiah writes, "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You that have no money, come, buy and eat, delight yourselves with rich food!," it's not merely poetic. In fact it's probably a real invitation to a historical event in which the barriers that had sprung up among the Jewish exiles would now fall by the wayside. Rich, poor, those in the court, those in the jail, those with power and those without, those who were living in the lap of luxury and those for whom wine or fresh milk or fatty foods would have been a sheer pipe dream, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. In this sense our text is a powerful reminder that the only qualification that gathers us into worship, the only qualification for walking through those doors on a Sunday morning is not class or status or power but rather thirst, that the doors of the church are open for everyone who thirsts.
But Isaiah's argument isn't just about how we engage one another. No, this text has something far more powerful to say about how God engages us, and again, it circles back to water. Listen again, later in the same text: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose." In Isaiah's image, God's purposes are accomplished when this water we hold on a pedestal falls like rain and mixes with the earth. In that fertile soil plants will take hold, among them vineyards that can produce the finest wine in Babylon, and livestock to produce the finest milk and the most fatted calves. For Isaiah, it's all well and good to speak of the purity of water as the purity of God's purposes, but none of it comes into being without mixing in pieces of God's creation. Nothing happens unless it gets a little muddy. As Christians, we know this all too well as the meaning of the incarnation itself: nothing happens unless the Word falls like rain and is made into flesh and dwells among us, and so when Isaiah says "everyone who thirsts," it's not just a universal invitation to drink from God's sky-high promises but rather a universal recognition that God's purposes are real, incarnate, grounded, that God's plans come into being in and through real pieces of creation, in and through real human beings, in and through us. And so it gets a little muddy.
I have thirsted, for a long time, for this moment. I have thirsted for the chance to wear the robe and the stole, to be welcomed into a loving and gracious church, to take this monumental step towards becoming the pastor that I have long sensed God calling me to be. I have thirsted through session meetings, presbytery meetings, interviews, ordination exams; I've been the agenda item at least a dozen times, each one of them an opportunity for somebody else to say no, and throughout my thirst it has been the promise of this moment that has pushed me forward. I am so glad to be here. And I don't want to speak so easily for all of you, but I think I know that you, too, have thirsted for this moment, for the moment when the next chapter of the life of Amherst Presbyterian Church would begin in full. You thirsted through your own meetings and your own discernment, you thirsted in anticipation while this PNC slogged through piles and piles of paperwork, and through all of it it has been the promise of this moment that has carried you through. I am so grateful for it.
But before any of us puts one single moment on too high a pedestal, let's remember that in order for the waters of the promises of God to do anything at all, they have to get a little muddy. Sometimes it smells like cinnamon and allspice. Sometimes it smells like Heaven. But sometimes it's just mud. That's what church is: God provides the water, but we provide the seasonings, and sometimes it's just mud that we track throughout the house. Sometimes you've been planning a chili cook-off for months on end and afterwards chili is the last thing you ever want to smell again, even if it is just water underneath. Sometimes you get a little sick of it, three hours in to a 45 minute meeting, sometimes, when you can't believe you've been roped into one more potluck, sometimes, when you can't believe what the preacher said that morning, sometimes, when you can't believe any of it, sometimes, it gets a little muddy. This is the crux of the whole thing, friends; this is what church is: that we are all broken and sinful creatures and despite it all God loves us, and despite it all God calls us into community, and despite it all God uses us for the great purposes of creation.
So let's make a covenant, you and I, right now. Let's make a covenant to be fertile soil for the waters of God. Let's covenant to open the doors to everyone who thirsts. Let's covenant to yearn together and discern together and learn together what is the next chapter in the story of this place, a story of people who thirst for the waters of justice and righteousness and also feast together on the rich fat of grace and mercy. We will make mistakes. I will make mistakes. We will not always get along. Church is not life on a pedestal. But that's okay. In fact, it's better than okay, because God has claimed us, stubbornly human though we may be, for purposes beyond our imagination. So let's covenant to track mud all throughout this house. It's a sign of the rain. It's a sign of the waters. It's a sign that the promises of our Creator have mixed with the rich soil of Amherst Presbyterian Church. It's a sign of the living God working in and through every one of us. So come, everyone who thirsts! Come to the waters! Let's find out what God will grow!