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These Saving Words

The Reverend John Leedy

August 12, 2018
Isaiah 55:1-11

A Reading from Isaiah

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. 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. 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. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 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.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 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. 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 than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 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, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Five years ago, I was sitting up in the youth room with a group of middle and high school students. That was the year when our youth group took up the challenge of developing and leading our very first Easter Vigil here at UPC. On that day five years ago, I was working with our student scripture readers as we slowly made our way through each of the nine Old Testament stories of salvation featured in the Vigil: Creation, Noah & the flood, the Testing of Abraham, the Exodus, the call of Jonah, the Wisdom of God, the Valley of Dry Bones, the Fiery Furnace, and this final reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Toward the end of our time together, the youth were tired. It had been a long afternoon of reading, sounding out goofy Old Testament names like Ne-bu-chad-nezz-ar, and discussing the significance of each of these sacred stories. So we finally come to this last story, and the young, 9th grade girl I selected to read the Isaiah 55 passage at the Vigil turns to the scripture in her Teen Study Bible, looks at the first word, looks up at me and says, “Really?”

“What’s up?”

“Really?” She says.

“You’re seriously telling me I have to stand up in front of my parents and my church and get their attention by saying the word ‘Ho!’” At this point, I have lost control of the room. This is clearly the funniest thing my middle school boys had ever heard in their entire lives. I sigh. “Yes, that is actually the word you have to say.” She rolls her eyes. “Can’t I just say ‘Hey y’all’ or something?” Ah, if only Isaiah had been from Texas…

I want to pause here for a moment. It’s interesting she said, “You’re seriously telling me I have to stand up in front of my parents and my church and get their attention by saying the word ‘Ho!’” Notice what she did there? Notice how she phrased that? She didn’t say, “You’re seriously telling me I have to stand up in front of my parents and my church and read the story” or, “begin the passage” or “lead off with” or anything like that. What she said was, “get their attention.” In that moment, she was hearing the shout of the prophet – urgent, booming, present tense, right now. Better yet, she was embodying that shout – living it. She knew she had to get people’s attention with these words, even if she felt a little silly doing so.

After some gentle reassurance… and an evil look toward the middle school boys, our 9th grade prophet cleared her throat and read the story from Isaiah out loud for all of us to hear. It was our practice, after each youth finished their reading, for the group to take a few moments of silence to think before we started our discussion about the passage. She finished the reading and we sat there in silent reflection.

“I don’t get it.” She said.
“Well, what don’t you get?”
“I don’t get it. All of these are supposed to be salvation stories, right? Stories of how God saves people? How is this story saving me?”

How is this story saving me? The question that the church has been asking itself for 2,000 years. How is this story saving me? It’s a good question. Actually, it’s a great question. It may even be the question. We stare at these holy words in this holy book and we ask how is this story saving us?

It’s a good question, but I don’t think it’s the first question. Before we ask how this story saves us, we first have to ask, what do we need saving from?

In some of our stories, the answers are more obvious. God, we need saving from chaos.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void… And God said, let there be light.”

God, we need saving from violence.

“And God saw that the earth was filled with violence… And God said to Noah…”

God, save us from bondage.

“Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant… and God said to Moses…”

But then we come to Isaiah 55, and before we ask how this story saves us, we have to ask, what is this story is saving us from?

I remember the fear most of all. I remember the fear I felt deep inside on that day almost three years ago. That day when I was told that our UPC staff was changing and that I would be taking on the responsibility for all of Christian Formation here at UPC. Up to that point in my career, I had been a specialized associate pastor happily working in youth ministry. I knew nothing about children’s ministry. I knew nothing about adult education ministry. I knew even less about how to bring it all together under one roof with youth ministry.

And I knew that I was bound to fail. I remember feeling so afraid as I drove home that day. I was afraid because seemingly out of nowhere, all the sudden, this little voice inside started whispering…

e isn’t a day that goes by when all of us aren’t challenged in some way by the fear of not being enough.

When we feel like we aren’t enough, when we feel like we aren’t worthy of responsibility, or love, or belonging, when we feel that deep sense of shame and fear, we find ourselves in danger. Perfectionism, busy-ness, over-protectiveness, addiction – there are countless ways we try to drown out, to cover up, to prove that little voice wrong. But the more we try to distance ourselves from it, the louder it gets, until one day, it’s the only thing we can hear.

Three years ago, I listened to that voice and it scared me to death. From that moment on, I did everything I could to run from that voice. I dove in. I got busy. Everything had to be perfect. No margin of error. Totally professional. Totally with it. Under. Control. Smooth sailing. Just gonna work a few more hours this evening. Early morning, more caffeine. Late night – too tired to talk to Krystal. Just one more email before bed. Say goodnight to Lorelai for me. Make it bigger. Make it better. Must be perfect. Failure is not an option. This has to work. Work harder. Work smarter. Push through…

I hit the wall in January.

I sat with Krystal on the couch at home in tears. I was exhausted. I was angry. I was burning out. I was failing.

I was failing not because the work was too hard, not because of anything this church had done or was doing – I was failing because I let that little voice convince me that I wasn’t enough – and that voice had grown so loud, it was the only thing I could hear.

I remember Krystal encouraging me to take a Sabbatical – to take some time off to rest and think – that she would support me no matter what. I remember talking to Matt in Baltimore about needing a break. I remember him saying, “Sold. Tell me how we make this happen.” I remember the kindness of this congregation as they commissioned me to rest and sent me off with the generous gifts of time and money.

And so, in the seventh year I rested. I slept late. I worked in the garden and went to the gym. I didn’t put on pants before 10 in the morning. I took a walk. Actually, I took a really, really long walk.

Thanks to your generosity, I was able to make pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Of the many stories I look forward to sharing from that adventure, there’s one in particular I want to share today about a little Spanish village called O Cebriero.

O Cebriero sits on top of a mountain and is roughly 16 miles away from the nearest town.

Let me phrase that another way. I walked 16 miles, then, at the end of the day, had to climb a mountain. Yep. Three miserable hours of switchbacks to reach the top and make it to where I was staying that night.

As I’m climbing up el Kilimanjaro, I notice that little voice starting to whisper. You should turn back. You don’t have what it takes to get up this thing. You’re weak. You’re going to get hurt. You’re going to fail. You’re not enough. That voice is bringing me back – back to the fear, back to the anxiety, back to the mess I had made of my life. When I reached the top and found a room, I dumped my pack onto my bed, and stood in the shower and wept.

Everything was hurting – my feet, my back, and my heart. I was done. I was out of resources and resiliency. Nothing I could do could silence that voice. I had nothing left.

I stood there in the shower, with water streaming over me, and the only thing I could think to do was pray. My prayer was simple. God, save me from this. I stood there in the shower and waited. And waited. And then the hot water ran out. Ugh.

As I‘m getting into a set of dry but dirty clothes I had hiked in the day before, I heard the church bells start to ring – time for pilgrim’s mass. Freezing and stinky, I trudged to the village church as a fast-moving mountain storm began to roll in overhead.

The church was ancient and simple and silent, save for the occasional low rumble of thunder in the distance. Looking around the entrance, I noticed a low stone bench against a wall that held a dozen or so small baskets – each basket containing these little strips of folded paper and bearing a sign indicating a different language. The sign on the English basket said, “Find what you came for.”

Curious, I picked up one of the folded pieces of paper, opened it, and read these words. “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” Luke chapter 1, verse 30.

My heart started to pound.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

I checked a few of the other folded strips of paper.

All different verses.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

I started to weep.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

Then, with an ear-splitting crash of thunder, the lights went out in the church.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

I made my way to an old wooden pew by the flickering light of the votive candles set around the church. I sat, and I listened. I listened for that little voice. That voice that just minutes ago was telling me that I was a failure – that I wasn’t enough.

And it was still there – whispering shame and fear into my heart. But this time, for the first time, I had something to whisper back.

I am not afraid, because I have found favor with God.

I am not afraid, I am enough because God is enough.

How does this story save us? Ho! Thunder. Everyone who thirsts, come and drink from a well deeper than your own. You that are spent and have nothing left to give, come and find what you came for. Why do you listen to that voice that does not care for you, and labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen, know that God is good and delight that God’s goodness has made you enough. Incline your ear away from the voice of shame and fear, and come to God, listen so that you may live. God’s promises are forever, and God’s love is steadfast and sure. For God’s voice is not that other voice. God’s knows what that other voice cannot know. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so God’s voice is higher than the voice of fear and shame. For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return until they have brought water into dry places, life into dead places, hope into dark places, and fullness into empty places, so shall be the voice of God, the voice that says you are enough.

Truth be told, I didn’t need a miracle to find these saving words. I think I needed a miracle to hear them.

I needed Isaiah’s shout.

I needed a ninth grade Texas girl to holler, “Hey y’all” and slap me upside the head.

I needed the biggest clap of thunder in the history of thunder. In the same way, you don’t need a miracle on a mountaintop to find your saving words. They are right here, in these stories, and in the story that you live every day of your life. These words are all around you and deep within. These saving words are the truest thing about you. And no matter how loud that little voice inside gets, God’s voice will always go louder.

When we leave this place, we will all hear that little voice again sooner or later. And when it starts to whisper its shame and fear back into our hearts, we will breathe deep, and whisper back these saving words. We will whisper back, with the might of rolling thunder, I am enough because God is enough.

Thanks be to God.