2000 Covenant Conference
Morning Worship, November 3, 2000



Isaiah 55:1-13

Agnes W. Norfleet
Pastor, North Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, GA

The poet, Maya Angelou, remembers her grandmother, who raised her in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas.

One of my earliest memories of Mamma is a glimpse of a tall cinnamon-colored woman with a deep, soft voice, standing thousands of feet up in the air on nothing visible.

That incredible vision was a result of what my imagination would do each time Mamma drew herself up to her full six feet, clasped her hands behind her back, looked up into a distant sky, and said, “I will step out on the word of God.”

The depression, which was difficult for everyone, especially for a single black woman in the South tending her disabled son and two grandchildren, caused her to make the statement of faith often. She would look up as if she could will herself into the heavens, and tell her family in particular and the world in general, “I will step out on the word of God.”

Immediately, [Maya Angelou recalls] I could see her flung into space, moons at her feet and stars at her head, comets swirling around her.

Naturally it wasn’t difficult for me to have faith. I grew up knowing that the word of God has power.

The word of God has power, according to the prophet Isaiah, to gather a divided community of faith, and to provide the way home to those who have been displaced and scattered in exile.

Originally the invitation of Isaiah 55 was addressed to the exiles of the 6th Century B.C.E., who had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and their Temple at the hands of the Babylonian empire. They had suffered devastation, brutality, cruelty, hunger and thirst. The middle class and upper middle class, the property owners and political leaders, the educated and skilled, and the religious leaders had been lined up and sent walking across the Fertile Crescent into Babylon. The poor had been left behind to die in the streets.

The situation of this divided and displaced people is the bitter cry of Lamentations:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks She has no one to comfort her. She has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude, she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place.

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate. Her children have gone away, captives before the foe, and there was no one to help her.”

After fifty years in exile, the biblical answer to the pleading cry of Lamentations is the choral response of Second 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 or price.
Incline your ear, and come to me, so that you may live

This invitation was addressed originally to a particular people in a particular historical circumstance, but if you listen carefully you will hear that this is no ordinary invitation.

Its unusual accumulation of imperatives is so loud and so clear that we know the invitation is intended to echo through the corridors of time into our ears.

Come, come, buy, eat, come, buy without price,
Listen carefully, eat, delight, Incline your ear, come to me,
Listen, See, Seek.

This is no simple, “You are cordially invited” to a small select group for a particular time! The imperatives of this extraordinary summons expand the invitation list to include the exiled of our time.

Exile has become a common biblical metaphor for the situation of believers in the North American context — thanks to the scholarship of our friend, Walter Brueggemann, and others.

As Christians — we are exiles in an increasingly secular society which has disestablished the church.
As Presbyterians — we are dislocated by deep and painful divisions.
As members of the Covenant Network — we know our Reformed Theology has been dispossessed by the inclusion of paragraph G-6.0106 b in the Book of Order.

This year we are further displaced by the uninviting amendment prohibiting any participation of church leaders in same-sex unions, now out for a vote in our presbyteries.

How dare the church tell us when or where we can or cannot invoke the blessing of God?

There is indeed a sense of being exiled as our Temple, our community of worship, is being torn asunder, and many of us have found ourselves within the church exiles in a strange land — a land in which we have baptized, loved, and raised in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord a whole definable group of people, to whom we have then said,
“Because you are gay, the gates of this church are desolate, no one will come to your festivals, you may as well make your home in Babylon among other gods.”

A friend of mine just recently received a couple into the membership of her church. Two lesbian women in a long committed relationship. Both were the daughters of ministers and yet they had long since left the church of their youth. About a month ago they met with the session to join the church and one of them, with tears in her eyes, said something like this:

“Tonight marks twenty-six years since I have been a member in any church. It’s been a difficult estrangement, because after being nurtured in the church as a child, I was then told that I don’t belong because I don’t bear the image of God.

But,” she said to the session of the church that night, “I believe that with you we have found a place where the face of Christ will be seen in us.”

Those words of that Christian woman shared with a welcoming church community were the beginning of the end of a long period of exile.

Don’t you imagine that somehow in her estrangement she may have heard the echoes of Isaiah’s invitation! Come, buy without price, eat, delight, Listen carefully, Incline your ear, come to me, See, seek.

What you and I need to be doing in our churches all over the country is singing Isaiah’s song so loud that everyone who suffers the exile of the church will hear God’s invitation to come home.

To borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann’s work on Second Isaiah, “Yahweh is an exile-ending God.” God takes a people that is weary with hopelessness and gives them a future again.

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money come, buy and eat!”

God looks at a community whose human dignity has been shattered and lays out a way for their restoration. “You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.”

And in between the invitation and the restoration, the bridge between the exile and the return, is the highway of the word of God.

“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.”

This is not a liberal, left-wing invitation. This not merely a politically correct posture. This is not a secular response to a gay political movement void of Christian value.

The reconciling work of the Covenant Network is not “in spite of” biblical authority ­ it is because of it!

The invitation home, is none other than the dependable word of God.

On the eve of a national election I am awfully proud to call John Lewis my representative in Congress. He tells a story from his childhood which gives the title to his autobiography, Walking with the Wind.

He was about four years old at the time, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama. All the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, he says, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin.

One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore.

I was terrified. I had already seen what lightning could do. I’d seen fields catch on fire after a hit to a haystack. I’d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them, the sap inside rising to an instant boil, the trunk swelling until it burst its bark, strips of pine bark snaking through the air like ribbons.

Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.

Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.

We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky.

With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

That story comes from the memory of a child who grew into a young man who was almost beaten to death because of the color of his skin. He’s now a leader in the United States Congress.

How many baptized children are out there dreaming of going to seminary, of being a pastor, an elder in the church that raised them, and who risk being beaten to a pulp or ratcheting up the suicide rate because they’re gay?

We’re not just gathered around an issue before the church; We’re not just gathered around a division within the denomination.

We are gathered around a word that has the authority to go forth and accomplish its purposes — to bring the exiles home.

And we’ve got to have the faith of those little children in that storm to help it happen.

Remember those children, scared to death, the walls of the house around them seeming as if they might fly apart? yet they never ran away, they came together and clasped hands and moved toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

That’s who Isaiah is calling us to be:

children of God holding hands,
stepping out on the word of God,
walking with the wind of God’s spirit,
and answering God’s invitation to all of us, saying,

“Yes, Exile-Ending God, we’re coming home.”

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.