whatcha sellin?

My sermon from yesterday. I’ve drawn on Stephen Nichols’ book Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches us about Suffering and Salvation for material on Muddy Waters.

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Those who have done a little bit of traveling, and have spent some time in the markets or bazaars of the world, will know that familiar sound.

In Egypt it might sound like this: Hey – do you want a carpet, a beautiful carpet. Only $50 American dollars. Hand made, from the finest wool. Only $50 American dollars.

In Mexico it might sound like this: Hey there – some fine silver jewellery for your wife. For your beautiful wife a silver necklace – only 1200 pesos. Or this bracelet – only 600 pesos.

Actually, these days in Chicago and Philadelphia, with the Stanley Cup playoffs going on, you might hear something similar, only in a quieter voice. You need tickets – I got tickets. A pair in the blue section. $2,000 for the pair. What do you say?

Isaiah the prophet has something to sell. In our text for today he sets himself up, figuratively, with a booth in the marketplace – with a boutique on Sherbrooke Street – with a store in a local plaza – he’s got something to sell. But before we talk about what he’s selling, we need to say a bit more about his context – the context is that of exile.

It’s a theme we’ve talked about before – it’s a theme we can’t avoid through huge swaths of the Old and New Testament. God’s people are in exile. In the case of the Hebrew people in Isaiah chapter 55, their homeland is occupied, their temple has been destroyed, and their city is in ruins. They live in foreign land, under the fist of another people – they live in a context where they are not free to live fully their identity as the children of God – they are oppressed and marginalized – they are a people of longing.

At some level the experience of exile is common to the human – we have a longing for home, a longing for fullness, a longing for a life that makes sense. The Hebrew people were very living concretely in the situation of exile at the heart of Mesopotamia, yet there is a fundamental overlap between that concrete experience of God’s people in Babylon and the human lot in general. Consider the founding and defining narrative of Genesis – the first man and woman are exiled from the garden. Exile is the human lot.

Our broken relationships and our fragmented families – Exile.
Our loneliness – sitting at home without friend or companion – Exile.
Poverty across so many towns, cities, and villages in our world – Exile.
Women and men and children displaced from their homes by war and conflict – Exile.
Our consumption of more than we need, or could possibly use – Exile.

Over the past century it is perhaps the blues that have given clearest expression to our condition of exile. The earliest blues music wasn’t without comedic or raunchy elements, but it generally gave expression to human experience of misery and oppression. Blues music is, of course, rooted in the 19th and early 20th century experiences of African American in the deep South – particularly in the Mississippi delta. As Stephen Nichols puts it, Blues music is “punctuated with the pain of the sharecropper, the levee worker, the railroad worker, the dock shoreman, or the inmate at a hell-hole like Parchman Prison – the prison farm that historians have called an early-1900s form of slavery.” Blues music is punctuated with pain, defined by suffering.

McKinley Morganfeld was born in 1915 in Jugs Corner Mississippi – but he came well known under his nickname of Muddy Waters – a nickname from his mother since he seemed always to be in the mud puddles. Muddy Waters spent his early days picking cotton for 50 cents a day and humming on his harmonica. He eventually made it to Chicago in 1943, where his musical career began to flourish, but on his way to Chicago 1941 he met the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. With the sound equipment Lomax pulled form his trunk on a Mississippi plantation, the great blues musician Muddy Watters recorded his first song – entitled I Be’s Troubled.

Well, if I feel like tomorrow, like I feel today
I’m gonna pack my suitcase, and make my getaway.
I be troubled, I’m all worried in mind,
And I never be satisfied, and I just can’t keep from cryin’.

That last line, I just can’t keep from cryin’, Muddy Waters took from a spiritual written by Blind Willie Johnson: Lord, I just can’t keep from cryin’ sometimes.

As Nichols points out, the blues in general, and Muddy Waters’ song I Be’s Troubled, displays restlessness and a rootless wandering – the kind of rootless wandering that characterized Adam and Eve in their exile. The blues are filled musically and lyrically with grief. “I’m gonna pack my suitcase, and make my getaway. I be troubled, I’m all worried in mind, And I never be satisfied, and I just can’t keep from cryin’.”

We are all touched by exile, in our own way – and the blues is the music of exile. Though ours have not been the almost impossibly hard lives of the Mississippi delta, in many ways the blues belongs to each of us.

The prophet Isaiah stands in the marketplace. And that marketplace is in the middle of exile. Isaiah is with his people in the middle of exile, in a place where the blues are played. You can almost hear the harmonica and the slide guitar in the background. Isaiah stands in that marketplace and shouts:

Hey there – are you thirsty? Do you need something to drink?
Hey there – are you hungry? Do you need something to eat?
Hey there – are you rootless? Do you need a place to call home?

And then we wait to hear the price.
How many Pesos will it cost me?
How many American dollars is it going to be?

We wait to hear the price. How much will it cost to assuage my thirst, to satisfy my hunger, to find a place called home? How much will it cost?

The prophet stands in the marketplace of exile – people are hungry; they are thirsty. And he shouts: “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.”

It won’t cost you a thing… It won’t cost you anything… Put your wallet away… Your money’s no good here.

It won’t cost anything? Nothing? Put our wallets away?

The divine logic is the logic of the gift – absolute gift. “Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The end of exile is absolute gift – not something we earn with our hard labour. The end of exile is not something we westerners accomplish with our expertise. The end of exile is not something we achieve through grit and determination. God gives the end of exile. The divine logic is the logic of the gift – absolute gift.

At least this is what Isaiah wants us to understand and believe – that God can bring an end to exile. Isaiah wants us to see that God has promised, and will deliver, the end of exile. In verse 3 of our passage the prophet Isaiah tells us that the covenant God made with David and with the royal family is being expanded to the whole Hebrew people – to all those who live in exile. “I will make with you, with all of you, an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” That’s what the prophet is saying: God’s promises of healing and forgiveness now extend beyond a narrow focus on the royal family of David – those promises extend now to the whole people. And God will not fail to keep his promises. The question for the Hebrew people 2500 years ago and for us today is the same – do we trust that God can and will deliver on this promise

The claim of the gospel, of course, is that the covenant has been widened further still. The claim of the New Testament Christians is that in Jesus Christ himself – in his life, death, resurrection, ascension – God has put an end to exile. Not only has the covenant promise been extended to all people – in Christ it has been fulfilled.

Jesus says in our gospel reading for today: “The thief comes only to steal to kill and to destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He comes with the gift of a life that is full. He comes with the gift of a life that overflows with generosity and grace, with hope and with healing. He comes and puts an end to exile – for us and our world. O come buy wine and milk without money and without price. In Christ:

Come, find a place of belonging – as a child of God.
Come, find a kingdom where injustices are put right.
Come, find a world where the hungry are fed and the poor are cared for.
Come, find freedom from the shame you carry.
Come, find healing for broken relationships.
Come, find a world where all things are made new.

But the prophet also understands, so clearly, that although God invites us to come – that although God invites us to seek him while he may be found – we have a tendency to seek elsewhere the things that only God can give. Isaiah asks, and we can only suspect his tone is one of regret and surprise – the prophet asks: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” Why do you put your time into things that aren’t for your fulfillment? Why do you put your energy into things that will finally fade. Why do you ignore the divine gift that is right in front of you?

The philosopher and literary scholar C.S. Lewis, in an oft-quoted passage echoes the words of Isaiah: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies…because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We are far too easily pleased. So often, in the day to day, we don’t reach out toward the gift of a new life and a new world that God gives in Christ – we are satisfied with things as they are. We are far too easily pleased.

But perhaps there is another reason. Not only are we too easily pleased. Perhaps another fundamental reason we don’t reach out toward the new life and new world God gives is because in our hearts and our minds we find it difficult to believe – we find it difficult to believe that Jesus could really make that much of a difference for the injustice and poverty and grief that wrack our world – we find it difficult to believe that one who lived and died two thousand years ago really has anything to do with the challenges and pain and struggles we go through – we find it difficult to believe that by his resurrection Jesus has led us and our world out of exile. We find it difficult to believe. And so we don’t seek him – we don’t come to him.

At some level, of course, it is a hard thing to get our heads around. The prophet seems to acknowledge as much when he writes: “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 higher than your thoughts.” In a fundamental way, what God has done is beyond what we can rationally conceive or imagine. How is it possible that through this Jesus exile has come to an end? As much as we may try, it is beyond what our minds can comprehend. But even if we cannot fully understand this thing with our minds, the end of exile can still be experienced, and lived, and known as we follow the risen Jesus – his word and way.

But here’s the key: We can only experience, and live, and know the end of exile in our lives if we come to Jesus, and put in time with Jesus. In prayer. In reading his story. By developing the spiritual practices through which we can reach out to him.

More: We will only be able to discern the ways God is bringing an end to exile in our neighbourhood and in our community if we come to Jesus, and put in time with Jesus.

More: We will only grow deeper into the abundant life God gives to us and our world – we will only be free to share that abundance with others – if we put in time with Jesus. In prayer. In reading his story. By developing the spiritual practices through which we can reach out to him.

In him is the end of exile. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

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