Ken Whitt: All for Free!

The Scripture:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

The Introduction:

That was a promise of sustenance. Such good news! Especially if one is starving because climate chaos has disrupted the harvest or the food supply chains. Or if you are one of the millions of climate refugees lacking a cup of safe drinking water. Maybe because the glaciers, as in Bolivia, have already melted.

Food. Wine. Free. Good news! But, is such good news too good to be true?

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of other scriptural exclamations of good news that are related to Isaiah 55.

The Prophet Micah, Chapter 4:

In days to come…

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore…

and no one shall make them afraid.

That’s a promise of security.

John’s Revelation, Chapter 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:

‘See, the home of God is among mortals…

[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

That’s a promise of serenity.

Sustenance - food and drink. Security - weapons and tools. Serenity - no more suffering, grief, or death. All are promises of God. All are free!

The Problem:

What kind of promises do you think these are: True or false promises? Literal or metaphorical? Present and accessible to you and me, and the poor, now - right now? Or deceptive, pie-in-the-sky, elusive promises?

These days, with all of humanity confronted with a tsunami of perils and predicaments that are not subject to free, easy, or any fixes - climate chaos, pandemic, resource depletion, the sixth mass extinction - can we ground our hope on the promises of God that sustenance, security, and serenity are all free, and certain?

In the midst of fires burning forests and animals and homes, and cataclysmic hurricanes and tornados blowing people’s lives away; eyeball to eyeball with the pandemic yesterday, today, and tomorrow; democracy threatened, civility disappearing, all manner of injustice and violence collapsing cultures and countries; children of tender age grieving a future they may never know -I have no interest whatever in grounding our experience of hope on promises that cannot be kept and are not down to earth and of salvific value to the entire imperiled earth community, of immediate value to hungry children, and of immediate consequence to terrorized refugees fleeing climate catastrophes, war, and poverty by the millions, and everyone else - you and me - all who are aware of how frightening the world is and is becoming.

A Way Forward:

I have been doing pastoral ministry for over 45 years, nearly all in rural, small-town and small-city settings. But mid-career, I found myself in a large, suburban, affluent church just outside of Columbus, Ohio. Many members were professionals, business executives, doctors, lawyers, and especially professors at The Ohio State University. Lots of money, plenty of the “good life”; not exactly the kind of place where people are looking for free sustenance, security and serenity.

Yet, I am going to tell you a story from my years in that well-heeled, well-to-do setting; a story that may shine light on how we become the hope we seek, even on the perilous path we are all traveling today. A story about hope grounded on God’s promises of free sustenance, security, and serenity.

There was in that affluent suburban church this woman. A full character sketch would take too many pages. She grew up poor, became solidly middle-class, but never forgot her roots. She stood out in that church kind of like a sore thumb, an aberration, an exemplary exception. Most of her time was spent serving among the poor in an inner-city Roman Catholic parish.

Her name was - well, I am going to change the details of this account. This story is about to become a blend of fiction and fact; truth, absolutely, but mixed with modifications to considerately make a point.

The woman’s name was Ligia Fastkar. She became my spiritual guide. I really needed one of those; actually, it turned out, I needed more than one. The wellbeing of my soul came to depend on regular breakouts from the world of the generally comfortable into the world of the uncomfortably poor. Ligia guided me straight into the hands of the most compassionate, most just, the “most right reverend” Father Schweitzer.

Week after week after week, most every Friday for seven years, Father Schweitzer invited me to stand next to him in the service line at his soup kitchen. Together we served the “least-of-these brethren” of Jesus, as the King James English describes them in Matthew 25. Friday after Friday, Father Schweitzer mentored me towards a full understanding of the promises of God, the Kingdom of God, the Source of our only true hope, hope that is present and future at the same time; hope that is partial and complete, at the same time, hope that is free and costly at the same time. It turns out I must surrender all to find this hope, yet it is free.

That very first Friday - we had served well over 125 men, women, and children - I looked over at Father Schweitzer and carelessly commented, “This could get depressing.” Father Schweitzer was silent for a while, until the last person in line had been fed. Then he put his arm around me, as if he knew that I was the one who needed an expression of free and amazing grace. He spoke:

“There is much in this world that is depressing. But you already know that the greater need is up there, among your people in the suburbs. My people (he sweeps an arm of blessing across the dining room) have opportunities every day to experience how long and wide and deep is the mercy of God. Some of them, as disguised saints in our midst, have learned through suffering that the most important things in the world are free. While we casually use the word grace, they know its survival value - and that, indeed, it is free!”

Sustenance, Security, Serenity: All are promises of God. All for free!

Father Schweitzer loved music, especially gospel music and country. One day, as we were serving together, I noticed him humming the tune, “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places.” I began to sing: Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places; Lookin’ for love in too many faces Searchin’ their eyes…

He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Try these words.” And he sang: Lookin’ for hope in all the wrong places; Lookin’ for hope in all of these faces; _Searchin’ _their eyes…

Again, he swept that arm of blessing across his people and asked me, “In some of their eyes you can see hope. How did it get there?” I, still the novice, could not say.

He continued, “In the midst of their suffering, they have known a thousand episodes of unexpected kindness; provision for their needs when they were certain that they deserved nothing; benevolence, not at all commensurate with the value they placed on their own lives. Pastor Ken, the saints among these (again the sweeping hand of blessing) somehow began to identify human kindness with the overflowing, unconditional, and free love of God for them!

Father Schweitzer reflected on the subject of hope a lot. The essence of his message often received an assist from one or another Bible story. “Pastor Ken, what do you remember about stored manna? It rots. The rich live amidst that rot.”

Father did not pull his punches. The essence of his message on hope was that anyone who grounds their hope on the circumstances of their lives, success, romance, pleasures, money, good health, winning at politics or war - every such person is living an ultimately hope-less life. “Woe to them when the tide turns. And the tide is relentless. Pray for them, Pastor Ken, pray for our own redemption!”

Father Schweitzer also taught me lessons from the more recognized saints: St. John of the Cross - hope that endures, the only hope that will sustain us, is a hope that can embrace and work for a future without us.

The Conclusion:

In February 2020 - just days before the Covid 19 pandemic assaulted our illusions of what is dependable, just days before humanity was given the opportunity to awaken from its sinful slumber and learn that we are one, that everything is connected, that we need each other - I submitted to my publisher the author’s draft of my book, God Is Just Love; Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Community for the Sake of Our Children and the Creation. Chapter 12 is “Seeds of Hope for Children’s Souls,” and it was staggeringly difficult to write. Periodically, as for this message, I have had to return again to the struggle to find words to describe the Source of hope.

What is the ground of our hope when the entire world, as we know it, is threatened, when our children may or may not have a future on the planet Earth, when the economic and political and social realities we have depended on are exploding like a volcano and collapsing in a planetary-scale earthquake?

The only conceivable answer is also the one that many people of faith, from all kinds of spiritual traditions, have long experienced. There is an unshakable ground of our being that is Just Love, the Alpha and the Omega, from the beginning to the end. The moment you know this love, that you are swimming in a sea of mercy, you become this hope. We don’t manufacture hope. But it does emerge from the deepest inside of our lives where we meet God, in deep meditation and prayer.

Love always wins. I don’t always win. I will die. Just Love wins. Stars are created and then around 3.5 billion years later, they explode. Construction follows destruction. Love wins. Empires rise and fall. Your empire will fall. Love wins.

The Invitation:

You and I will likely wake up tomorrow. Because love wins, you will be able, whatever your spiritual practice may be, to dive in deep towards the Source where faith, hope, and love dwell. Experience the love. Then watch the hope burst forth from the Source of love within you. Be the love. You can always find a way to be love. Love wins.

I often tell the children I love that every day when they awaken their Job 1 is to remember that they are loved, and to find others to share the love. Job 2, to remember to have fun that day, and to find others to share the fun. Job 3, to never forget that, even on the very worst day, love wins.

Sustenance, Security, Serenity: All for free!

Let us pray.

Our Creator God who is Just Love, together - right now - we dive deep into your infinite mercy and find you, as always, waiting for our arrival, our surrender, so that you can fill us, uplift us, and send us forth to be the hope, to be the love, your children, our children, need. In Christ, we pray, so be it. Amen.