The Third Sunday in Lent (ELW Series C)
The Reverend Scott Paradise
The United States Border Patrol divides our border with Mexico up into sectors. The Tucson sector runs through 262 miles of rugged backcountry desert in southern Arizona and New Mexico. A humanitarian group called “Tucson Samaritans” says 133 people died attempting to enter the United States along that stretch of the border in 2015. They say 35 people have died so far in 2016.
Then “Tucson Samaritans” and other humanitarian groups believe that--no matter how one feels about illegal immigration—crossing the border without proper documentation is not something for which a person should die. In order to save lives—such humanitarian groups have begun to make runs into the desert in the mornings. They place fresh water--in one gallon or five gallon jugs—at key points all over the Tucson Sector. Their goal is that fewer people trying to make the journey north are less likely to die from thirst.
There are thirst problems closer to home as well. Take Flint, Michigan as a recent well-documented example. A decision by a city manager put cutting costs over the health and well-being of the citizens--many of whom are poor non-whites. The result was—and still is—a humanitarian crisis of lead-tainted water.
The Detroit Free Press estimates there are approximately 1,000 immigrants in Flint without proper documentation. The same publication notes the lead-tainted water crisis hit immigrants without proper documentation particularly hard.
The first reason was that city officials published the initial information about the lead-tainted water crisis only in English. (This obviously didn’t help people who don’t speak English.) The second reason was that--even when the immigrant community knew about the crisis and the availability of free bottled water—persons without proper documentation hesitated to collect the free water.
This is because the National Guard and State Police were the ones handing out the water. There are obvious reasons why persons without proper documentation hesitate to deal with soldiers or police. Add to that reports that some National Guard and State Police personnel received poor training and asked water recipients for ID—which persons without proper documentation don’t have. The result being they were either turned away or stayed away from the free bottled water because they were too scared. (The governor’s office said this practice stopped at the end of January—but—as recently as February 4—some advocacy groups said there were still pockets of misunderstanding.)
1) My point in telling these stories is not to pontificate about the proper response to people who come to this country without proper documentation. 2) My point in telling these stories is not to get on a soapbox about the situation in Flint, Michigan and what life looks like when government “gets it wrong.” 3) Instead—my point in telling these stories is to say that people are in need all across this country.
Some people in need are 2,200 miles away in Arizona. Some people in need are 667 miles away in Flint, Michigan. And—people who lack safe drinking water even live within the five boroughs. (For example—the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Annual Report for 2015 notes that 294 homes in the city had lead-tainted water mostly because of deteriorating pipes.)
That was a long walk to get to the First Reading for this morning Jenny read for us just a few minutes ago. (I preach from a manuscript. I know it has taken me twice as long as usual to get to this point in my sermon.) But—that text from Isaiah 55 is the text upon which I will focus for the rest of this sermon.
Isaiah--the prophet who gives the name to the book from which our first reading came—was in Jerusalem. That is 5,700 miles from New York City. Yet—the prophet’s words touch on the kinds of things I am speaking about today. Isaiah wrote about 2,400 years ago. Yet—the prophet’s words touch on the kinds of things with which people still struggle—even today.
Isaiah’s words are a text about God responding to the needs of God’s people. Or—as the prophet puts it—God gives us water in the desert of our need.
The words of the prophet remind us that everyone has needs. It is not just people trying to enter this country without proper documentation who have needs. It is not just the citizens of Flint, Michigan who have needs. It is all of us who have needs.
Sometimes--in fact, often—those needs are so unspeakably deep that we can only describe them as emptiness so that what we describe is a thirsting and a hungering after fulfillment. Those are the ones to whom Isaiah speaks. They are people who have stayed away from—been kept from—or wandered from their spiritual home and into a land of exile.
In our day—such people are very often the ones who find themselves in church on a Sunday morning. In their poverty—they come seeking fulfillment. The prophet’s words are for them and--my friends in Christ—the prophet’s words are for us as well. And—what’s more—is that the prophet’s words are good news for those in need—just as they were for those who first heard them.
That is because the prophet’s words spend the bulk of their time speaking not of humanity’s tremendous need. That is because the prophet’s words spend the bulk of their time speaking of God’s tremendous—even scandalous—generosity.
In fact—what God offers is what has become one of the key themes of Lent in the Christian Church. What God offers through the church in these days of Lent is the opportunity to repent. Repentance is God’s gift to us. Repentance is something to which God invites us no matter where we are in life.
God’s invitation is not to a select few—which is very much how we would prefer it to be. We like to write off certain people—like those who enter the United States without proper documentation. We like to write off people who are poor and non-white. Yet—the very first words of the first reading invite everyone who thirsts to come to the waters.
God’s invitation is not just for those who have the swankiest address. God’s invitation is not just to those who are old and wise. God’s invitation is not just for those who have every t crossed and every i dotted. God’s invitation is to everyone.
That is why I am so thankful for each person who is here today to hear God’s Good News. Today—God invites you to all that God offers. And—what God offers are the very gifts around which we gather. Being here—in God’s house on the Lord’s day means that we can “seek the lord” as the prophet says because—as the prophet goes on to say—“[the lord] is near.”
1) Here—God offers all of us the words of Holy Scripture that speak not only of our shortcomings—but also of God’s scandalous generosity in the midst of our shortcomings. 2) Here—God offers all of us the reminder that we are God’s own children as we [pass] the font where God makes new members of God’s own family by joining us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism. 3) Here—God offers all of us the very body and blood of Christ that come to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
Those are the gifts of God around which God’s people gather today and every Sunday. Those are the gifts of God that are ours not because of our own righteousness—in spite of all of the wonderful things that we do to help the poor and needy—even in spite of how we feel about those who are in this country without proper documentation. Instead—those gifts are ours because of God’s righteousness that comes to us in Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose again so that more and more people--even everyone—could know exactly what it is that God calls us to and exactly who is invited to what God offers. God is near and offers us free sustenance in the place of our deepest needs. God is near and invites us to the promising gift of repentant living.
The lord is near—so we seek him. We do not need to look far to see the goodness of God. God’s invitation is as close as the face that we see in our mirror each morning. God’s invitation is as close as the prophet’s words that are in our bulletin. God’s invitation is as close as bread and wine on this altar.
If you are hungry—come to God’s table and be fed. If you have no money—come to God’s table and eat. If you are thirsty—come to God’s fountain of life and drink. God gives us the thirst-quenching promise of life that fulfills all of our needs. God gives us water in the desert. God gives us food in our hands.