55:1 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. 55:2 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.55:3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 55:4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 55:5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. 55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, all upon him while he is near; 55:7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
When Knowing One Knows Nothing Is Knowing the Most Important Something
Lost to everyone but me somewhere down the corridors of ancient history is the selection of this passage for the opening moment of a church fair in Brooklyn. I thought the choice superb. I smiled broadly and raised my voice with verse 55:1, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” My voice went higher and louder with “Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” The women tending the tables, though they never said it, hinting their disapproval with a raised eyebrow or two, must have thought I was inviting attendees to freeload. Talk about rich: we did have apricot tarts; and the boiled coffee was served, in Viking tradition, with heavy cream and sugar cubes.
No harm, the women made their budget, and we all had a good time. Which, of course, might be to miss the metaphor of a free feast for the grace, the unfailing, the overflowing, the cornucopiaed grace of God. Or an anticipation of Methodism’s most enduring gift to the Christian witness, the open table of holy communion, to which everyone is invited without price or certified invitation.
But what stops me in my tracks each time my mind passes through this familiar passage is the plainly stated reminder to every human being, and especially me, that, as much as we think we know a lot about things, God in particular, we really don’t know very much at all.
It’s a warning, first of all, to those of us who make our soul’s home within the sacred and often too comfortable confines of faith, that God is not contained by all of our words about him (or her), however soaring and gracious they may be. Preachers and theologians are like the patent lawyer who described to me his successful application on behalf of an inventor of metal sandpaper. In ten pages of documentation he described the uniqueness of a single hole, one of a thousand, in the device. So we, professional Christians (many amateurs too!) scribble and orate and upload and pontificate; if all to the glory of God, nonetheless and nonethemore, with our focus on one very tiny thread in the hem of God’s heavenly robe.
Now you know why I grit my teeth and bow my head in sorrow whenever I hear a colleague in the pastoral ministry, whether in the pulpit, on TV, or from some “sacred” office declare unhesitatingly that this or that is the will of God on an issue roiling our society. Yes, yes, God’s will is always for love and justice, but divining precisely what that means on a Congressional vote is beyond human certitude.
Further, on this summons to humility concerning our knowledge of God, we who profess faith, we need to acknowledge that the deity has many other agents at work in the wide, wide world, other people, with other and contrary convictions, or none at all. This consideration has been impressed on me each of the four times I have found myself at the Lincoln Memorial in D. C. reading the Second Inaugural on the wall. Abe knew his Bible, but he was not an habitual frequenter of worship. Like many others who have occupied the White House, he attended church regularly only while in office, when he went on a Sabbath morn to New York Avenue Presbyterian. For the rest he was a-denominational, probably spending his Sunday mornings the way most Americans still do. But his sermon on the wall (i.e., the Second Inaugural Address) discerns the ways of God with men and vice versa equal to and mostly better than any other Nineteenth Century sermon or theological treatise I’ve yet to come across. It reads like a testament directly from the mind of God… the God I have come to know, and have sought to serve, the one whose principal witness is Holy Scripture.
God has other ways and other thoughts than those which seem comfortable and reasonable and obvious to us, we who are strongly tempted to think we know something about divinity. And the cross (speaking of how different God's ways are from ours!) toward which we are tending these forty days casts its reproving shadow on our arrogance, the spiritual kind especially.
But that doesn’t let off the hook those who would never, no never, step inside the sanctuary some of us find appealing. The market on hubris has not been cornered by those who sing hymns and say prayers. In fact and in my travels, from my gathering up of a vast store of trivia from reading the newspaper day in and out, I would note that outside the church, even worse than inside, souls are afflicted with arrogant certainty about this mortal life, if not about God… which often is the same thing. Without naming names (I leave that to you) consider the financial mess of our economy. The pontificators of Wall Street and Washington DC got blindsided by their own creedal formulas which left the ship of state foundering on the shoals of reality. Talk about your thoughts not being My thoughts! Or where were the Cold Warriors, left or right, who anticipated correctly the fall of the Iron Curtain? And, dear John Dewey, wherever you are, what happened to our inexorable march toward an ethical world commensurate with our technological expertise?
The only clock in this world that is absolutely correct, two times every day, is the one that is stopped. We, those in and out of the sanctuary, are ticking our way through time. That is, our absolute certainties (God’s thoughts) are always errant. Our ways are not God’s ways: we forget that at our peril… and, when we do, we begin to sound like Hooples (for which, Google Major Hoople or see the cartoon below). And those of us who claim the cross for our truth should be doubly shamed: we become not just Hooples but betrayers of the Crucified whose first blessing goes, not to the strong, to those "poor in spirit"; and the third (of nine) beatitudes goes, not to the righteously certain, to the "meek."
So, friends, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Enjoy the feast of life which issues moment by moment from the hand and heart of God, making room for others, and maybe especially those whom we with our certainties and they with theirs might be inclined to omit from the congregation of the sanctified or the company of the wise.