https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png 0 0 Tom James https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png Tom James2019-03-28 09:31:002019-10-30 08:25:07The faithfulness of “why?” (Isaiah 55.1-9)
The faithfulness of “why?” (Isaiah 55.1-9)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Lent 3C (March 24, 2018)
My dad was in the grocery business, and so was his dad. One of the many things I learned from my father that has shaped my life as a consumer of groceries is a little trick that grocery store managers learn during their training. My dad called it “merchandising,” and it was a way of strategically placing items on display in places they might not ordinarily be to get the customer to notice and take an interest that they might not otherwise have had. The goal is to get people to make what he called “impulse buys.” I’m a bit of pushover for Oreo cookies, so I’m an easy target for a well-placed display even when I’m looking for something healthy. You could probably put it the produce section, and I’d think, “Yeah, I’ll pick up some Oreos to eat while I’m making my salad.” I’m sure we have all noticed this, so it’s no big secret, but apparently, there’s both a science and an art to merchandising.
Several years ago, Michelle and I were lucky to be able to take our family on a cruise. We decided to purchase guided tours to fill our days on shore. The tours were mostly interesting if a bit tiring, but one of the things that every tour guide was sure to do was to take us through a gauntlet of small merchants selling trinkets and souvenirs. It’s interesting how easy it is to get people to buy cheap stuff that probably won’t last very long to try and hold on to memories of a vacation that we’re probably going to remember anyway. I wondered about what the guides received in return for bringing vulnerable customers to these markets. Was that merchandising, too?
Our passage from Isaiah this morning takes up the imagery of a probably open-air market. “Why do you spend your money on what doesn’t satisfy?” It’s as if one vendor is calling out to someone who’s eye is caught by another vendor’s flashy display. “Hey, don’t look over there! He doesn’t have the good stuff. It’s not going to make you happy. Why spend your money there, when I have the best you’ll find anywhere, and it’s practically free!”
This passage comes at the end of a major section of Isaiah, written to the people of Judah who were in exile in Babylon, and speaks of the renewal of God’s covenant with Judah. Isaiah is using the image of an open-air market to call attention to the fact that we are easily distracted from what is important by things that are bright and shiny. Not just the people of Judah, who might have been tempted by easy shortcuts or positions of power and influence instead of the important work of rebuilding the nation. But us, today. We’re all too easily manipulated by what is attractively presented, what is trendy and popular.
I want to focus our attention on this one little word that we hear in this imaginary open-air market. “Why?” I suggest that, even though “Why” can be one of the most annoying words in the world if you are a parent of a pre-school child, it is also one of the most powerful for people of any age. One of the worst slogans of my formative years was “Why ask why?” It was as if to say that asking “Why” was pointless, because very often it can’t be answered and, anyway, any answer we might get wouldn’t change anything. But “Why ask why?” is cynical—it’s a way of saying we have to accept things as they are and not expect anything ever to get better.
Most of the time, when the question “Why” comes to mind, we are looking for an explanation, some kind of reason or rationale behind things that happen, especially when those things are bad or hurtful. Why did he treat me that way? Why are there so many potholes that never get filled? Why are the hymns so hard to sing? Or, here’s one: why is there so much poverty in East Toledo? Or, why is there still such a gap in pay between women and men? “Why” is what we ask when we wish to press the issue—to demand that circumstances justify themselves, and to signal that, if they can’t, they need to be changed. To ask “Why” means that we still believe in history, that we still believe in the power of human beings to make things better. Why ask why? Faith, that’s why.
But I suggest that there’s an even deeper, more important kind of “Why?” Sometimes, in moments of clarity, we turn that question back on ourselves. Why do I keep getting tricked and manipulated by slick merchandising? Why do I keep spending my money on what does not satisfy? Why do I continue to act in a way that is highly profitable for other people, people who do the merchandising, but not at all beneficial for me? Why do I quite literally buy into a lifestyle that popular culture puts before me as the key to happiness when all it does is make me feel inadequate because I can’t quite pull off the look, can’t quite measure up to the standard? The merchandisers always want us to want more, to feel empty. Why do I keep obliging them, when feeling empty makes me miserable?
Isaiah wanted Judah to ask those questions of itself, and I believe God wants us to ask those questions of ourselves today. The question is hard. The bread that doesn’t satisfy is all around us, isn’t it? The cheap trinkets of culture that we so mindlessly consume, their supply chains hidden beneath the manufactured veneer of shared wealth and success. So much of what we are taught to want is made in horrible working conditions, sweatshops in places like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, places far removed from our awareness, and so as we consume them, we put ourselves in an alienating relationship, an exploitative relationship, with suffering peoples of the world without even knowing it. It’s bread that cannot satisfy because it hollows us out. As we consume without being able to have a relationship with where things come from or to understand how they got to us, the human connection with what we consume is lost, and not only do we feel empty, but we become empty.
Why do we spend our money on what is not bread, on things that can’t satisfy? Meanwhile, trash builds up. North of the state line, we have a proliferation of what we all “Michigan mountains,” large landfills that you could probably use for skiing. Other places, there are rivers of plastics; there is a collection of garbage that is as large as a large state floating in the Pacific; there is so much carbon in the atmosphere that the climate is actually changing in our lifetimes and droughts, fires and floods rage. Mozambique and Nebraska today are partially underwater because of devastating storms and floods.
Why are we so invested in what does not satisfy?
It seems to me that what we need in our time is some spiritual discipline, some focused attention on what is important and what gives life. And part of that involves looking inward and probing our own hearts. As I said before, to ask “why?” is to demand justification. If can’t justify our wants—if they don’t really serve our interests, or if they do harm to our souls—then maybe we should reconsider them.
Our passage from Isaiah ends with some of the loftiest and, I believe, most hopeful lines in all of Scripture. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” These are hopeful words because they tell us that we are in a relationship with a God who is not bound by our wants, nor by our understanding. God has better plans for us that we can know or even desire. If we find ourselves caught up in a cycle of ignorance and guilt—and, as human beings, we will find ourselves there all too often—we can nevertheless trust God to keep nudging us, keep pressing us to ask the “Why” question of ourselves. The spirit of God is within us, and, though the voice of God is not always the loudest in the marketplace, it is far more insistent than any merchandizer’s gimmicks. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.