Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News in the Waste Land” (Isaiah 35:6-10)
December 15, 2019
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the day my wife and I, like millions of other Americans, were big fans of the classic 90’s television classic Seinfeld.  In one episode the high strung and hilarious George Costanza is at the home of his girlfriend’s mother.  He’s on his best behavior trying to make a good impression, and initially does just that.  “George, you’re such a gentleman!” she gushes.  But it’s George Costanza so you know something is bound to go wrong, and it does.  As he’s clearing the dishes from the table he opens the kitchen wastebasket and sees a chocolate éclair sitting on top of the garbage with just one little bite gone.  He hesitates for a moment and decides it’s worth the risk and picks it up and takes a bite just as his girlfriend’s mom walks in and sees him eating garbage.  She is stunned speechless and leaves the kitchen without a word while George scrambles to save face—too late, George.

Later George is at a diner debriefing with Jerry, who tries to understand what happened, “You find yourself in the kitchen.  You see an éclair in the receptacle and you think to yourself, ‘What the heck, I’ll just eat some trash.’”  “No, no, no, no,” protests George, “It was not trash.”  “What it is the trash?” Jerry counters.  George nods, “Yes.”  “Then it was trash.”  “It wasn’t down there; it was sort of on top.”  “But it was in the cylinder.”  “Above the rim.”  “Adjacent to refuse is refuse.”  “It was on a magazine and it still had the doily on.”  Jerry sighs, “Was it eaten?”  George admits, “One little bite.”  “Well,” Jerry concludes, “That’s garbage” (From Season 6, Episode 6 “The Gymnast”).

The gospel is good news for the George Costanza’s in the world, good news for those in the waste land.

The 2010 British documentary entitled Waste Land focuses on a Brazilian artist named Vik Muniz and his trip to his homeland to what was then the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho near Rio de Janeiro.  There all day, every day, workers known as catadores picked through the garbage in search of recyclables which they would sell to wholesalers.  Vik points to the landfill site on a map:

This is the end of the line.  This is where everything that’s not good goes, including the people.  The workers there in Brazil’s society are not considered any different than the garbage themselves…It’s horrible how people believe—I’m taking about really educated people—really believe they are better than other people.

Vik then flies to Rio de Janeiro and drives to this landfill.  During footage of countless catadores picking through the mountains of garbage as far as you can see, as flocks of scavenger birds circle ominously overhead, Vik continues, “It’s the largest landfill in the world…The pickers take out 200 tons of recyclable materials per day from the landfill.  That’s equivalent to the garbage produced by a city of 400,000 people….It’s a city of garbage.”

During the holiday season our consumerist culture not only generates its share of garbage, but in the midst of frenetic shopping and ceaseless advertising convincing you to buy stuff you never knew you wanted or needed, in spite of all the external stuff, internally it can seem like a moral waste land.  This is nothing new.  In his 1922 masterpiece poem “The Waste Land” T. S. Eliot described this external and internal desolation that pervaded Europe in the wake of World War I:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses (Modern Library,
The Waste Land and Other Writings 48-49)

But the gospel is good news in the wasteland.  We see this clearly in today’s beautiful passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who prophesied about how God would meet Israel and all the world right in the middle of the waste land:

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.  And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:6-10).

Repeatedly in scripture God meets people at the end of the line in the waste land—especially people despised and dismissed by others who really believe they are better than them.  This happened not only individually with rejected outcasts like Hagar and Moses and David, but also corporately with the nation of Israel.  God intentionally goes to the waste land and meets those who find themselves there.  God flies to the Rio de Janeiro of your world and drives to the enormous landfill of garbage in your heart because God loves you and cares for you that much.

Even people in the church can feel lost in a waste land—lost when they realize that the institutional church has its own cities of garbage, where people really believe they are better than others, where things like prejudice and entitlement and sanctimoniousness are as alive and well.  People can feel like they are in a waste land when they go to church in a season when they need love and acceptance and help—when they find themselves at the end of the line in their lives—only to encounter judgment and rejection and meanness from people who really believe they are better than them.  I pray that never happens here.

Along these lines one of the best current Christian bands, at least in my opinion, is Needtobreathe.  On their moving song “Waste Land” they describe the reality of how all of us in our own way sometimes feel like we are lost in a waste land, but more importantly, how God still shows up to meet us right there:

There was a greatness I felt for a while but somehow it changed
Some kind of blindness I used to protect me from all of my stains
Yeah I wish this was vertigo, it just feels like I’m falling slow…
In this waste land where I’m livin’
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to get by
In this waste land where I’m livin’
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to shine
Oh if God is on my side, who can be against me?
(From their 2014 album Rivers in the Wasteland)

God is indeed in the waste land where you’re living, and God is indeed on your side.  Back to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” for a moment…in the fifth and final section of this poem entitled “What the Thunder Said” Eliot reveals that you are never walking alone in the waste land:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you? (49)

Indeed, “who is the third who walks always beside you…who is that on the other side of you?”  You know the answer.  The same One who met Hagar and Moses and David in the waste land, the same One who met Israel in the waste land, the same One who became incarnate in the waste land and was born in a barn , the same One who spent years trudging the roads of the wasteland all the way to the end of the line and met people whom others despised and dismissed because they really believed they were better than them—rejected people in their cities of garbage like lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and beggars and thieves and yes, catadores—and Jesus shined the light of God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness through the crack in the door of the waste land where they were living because God had always been on their side…and because God still is.

Back to the documentary Waste Land for a moment…at the conclusion of the film the world renowned artist Vik Muniz gives several catadores portraits he drew of them.  One of the most famous artists in the world drew beautiful detailed portraits of catadores who had been marginalized their entire lives.  And he did not stop there.  He actually visited them and personally hung those portraits for them on the walls of their little huts.  One of the catadores featured was a middle aged woman who shared, “When I went to work there I was too ashamed to tell anybody about it.  I tried to hide it from my family the best I could.  After I worked with Vik Muniz I went to everybody and told them I worked at the landfill.  I was no longer ashamed.”  Another catadore, an elderly lady, watched as Vik personally hung the portrait he had drawn of her in her home, a portrait that had become internationally famous.  As she wiped tears from her eyes, she told her grandchildren, “You know how I became famous all over the world?  Inside the garbage.  I started there almost thirty years ago.  I like it there, my life began there, thank God.  That’s where everything started for me.”

On Good Friday Jesus, who during his entire earthly ministry was despised and dismissed by others who really believed they were better than him, carried his cross through the waste land as “red sullen faces sneered and snarled from doors of mudcracked houses”, carried his cross all the way to the end of the line, outside the city of Jerusalem, right by the landfill where everything and everyone that is not good went.  On the cross Jesus could “neither stand nor lie nor sit.”  And in that awful waste land inside the garbage of the world your eternal life began.  When it comes to your relationship with God, everything started there for you.

The gospel is good news in the waste land.

And even now the Risen Jesus remains “the third who walks always beside you” and even now fills the crack in the door with light, and that’s all that you need to get by because God is on your side.  And when the Risen Jesus returns, just as Isaiah prophesied in today’s passage, “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The catadores will be at the front of that line…and the waste land will be fully restored.