Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17
Rev. Peter Faass
As we look in the rearview mirror and leave 2016 behind, I wondered what to name this past year. 2016 was the Chinese calender’s Year of the Monkey. According to a Facebook meme, Dame Helen Mirren reportedly labeled 2016 with her own colorful moniker, but even that elegant star of theater and film isn’t necessarily quotable for a sermon!
I have decided to call 2016 the Year of Vulnerability. Maybe you have as well.
2016 was a year when I came to profoundly sense my own vulnerability; the fragility of those things I previously took for granted, like my health and vitality, and my financial stability for the future. The year started with a thyroid cancer diagnosis and ended with a nasty case of the flu, which is taking forever to recover from. In between were the surgery to remove said thyroid, the much-longer-than-forecasted recovery period, Anthony’s increasingly frustrating twenty-month search for suitable employment, (thankfully resolved in early December) and the utter shock of the direction our country is going in this post-election period.
The last is the one that has caused me to feel the most vulnerable and frightened about the future of myself and our country. I am uncertain about what the next few years will bring regarding marriage equality, voters’ rights, national health care and civil liberties for people who are not considered to be in the mainstream. That makes me and many others feel extremely vulnerable in our personhood. The spike in hate crimes since early November (including this week’s defacing of the sign at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati with a swastika) should have us worried about how vulnerable justice and liberty for all in today’s nation.
As I contemplate my growing awareness of life’s fragility, our Isaiah text for today reminds me that our circumstances are not unique or hopeless. In one of the “Suffering Servant” passages in Second Isaiah, God sends the Servant to proclaim a message of hope to people who have experienced their own great vulnerability, suffering through what they believed to be hopeless times.
At the time, the kingdom of Judah found itself in exile, with the temple in ruins and the kingdom at an end. Zion, in all of its splendor, had been diminished, and some of the Judahites are forced into exile in the foreign land of Babylonia. Without a temple or a Davidic leader, the people’s future was in great peril. They felt vulnerable as this once great nation stared into the face of a mighty ruthless empire. They needed assurance, assistance, and a new vision to assuage their vulnerability.
In the midst of this dire situation, God sends the Suffering Servant.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations . . .
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth.”
Isaiah continues, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
To open the eyes that are blind,
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
From the prison those who sit in darkness.”
God sends this avatar of hope as a light to all nations (i.e., all people, Jews and Gentiles), to open the eyes of those blinded by their own vulnerability and release them from the prisons of their hopelessness and fear.
Theologically, there has been a tension between Jewish and Christian interpretations of who this redeeming Suffering Servant is. For Jews, the Suffering Servant generally represents all Israel. It might also be Cyrus of Persia, also the leader of the ascendant Persian Empire, who liberated the exiles and allowed the Temple to be rebuilt.
Generally, Hebrew scholarship points to a collective, communal quality to the Suffering Servant. The people, working together in righteousness, will receive their redemption from the fear and blindness that beset them. In a later passage, Isaiah is very specific about this communal servant when he says, “And [God] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” It is the Hebrew people who are being called by God to be the Suffering Servant, serving and being light to the world.
Christians see the Suffering Servant as an individual, prophesizing Jesus as the Messiah. Centuries later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has this very self-understanding when he reads this Isaiah passage in the synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
He then tells the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21b)
As an Anglican, I see the Suffering Servant being theologically significant either as communal or individual. It’s not either/or, but rather both/and. That understanding of both/and lays our hope in addressing our current malaise of vulnerability.
Certainly, the individual Cyrus the Great did liberate the Hebrews from exile and restore them to Jerusalem and to Judah. Yet it was the collective, communal efforts of the Hebrew’s who unified as a people to achieve the rebuilding of the Temple and restore the nation to greatness and, most importantly, righteousness before God.
With Jesus, it is clearly an individual who is proclaimed at his baptism to be God’s beloved Son, sent to herald in the reign of God, in the midst of a time of great vulnerability. It was clearly an individual who is sent into vulnerable circumstances so that in word and deed Jesus could show us the way to our redemption.
We Christians also see ourselves communally in that baptism, as we are baptized into the faith and into the Body of Christ. We are together the daughters and sons of God. As such, God is well pleased with us when we live into His reign, especially when vulnerable times occur in our life. .
We are, each of us, called as individuals to live out our lives as followers of Jesus. As a community of faith we are called to work together in harmony as that Body in the world, as Suffering Servants of God, presenting to others the hope of a way of life that will lead to redemption and new life.
Whether as one or as many, we do this through the practice of our Baptismal Covenant, which is the distillation of the ways of God’s reign Jesus taught us. Through our practice of continuing in the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread and in prayer we are bonded in community. Through resisting evil in all of its myriad manifestations we gain strength as one unified together as many. By proclaiming through word and example the good news of God in Christ, we increase awareness of God’s ways in a tenuous world. When we seek and serve Christ in all persons, we remember our own humanity and unity with each other. By striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being, we recognize we all are daughters and sons of a loving God in whose holy image we are made.
Doing these things reminds us who we are, and who is with us in life. It reinforces our belief that, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The practice our Baptismal covenant dispels our sense of vulnerability and gloom. The practice of our Baptismal covenant also brings us hope and empowers us to do God’s will in a world that is broken and sin-sick.
May the dove of God’s Spirit alight on us this day, reminding us of our belovedness, and empowering us to be light in the world for all people.
Mark 4: 35 - 41; Isaiah 57: 7 - 8
Rev. Peter Faass
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
Nine lambs were led to the slaughter this past Wednesday evening at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. By a perversion of unfathomable, incomprehensible evil they were taken away to their deaths.
After 60-plus years of life, I am still rendered speechless when such ugly, hateful evil engages in such mindless violence as we witnessed Wednesday evening. Nine people gathered in God’s house to study the scripture. Nine people who welcomed the stranger at their door as Christ himself. Nine people who in the very act of Christian hospitality and kindness were betrayed and mowed down, their life-blood soaking the floors of the very House of the God they loved. And all for one reason and one reason only: because they were Black.
I am rendered mute by the sheer obscene insanity of it all. I am not so naïve to delude myself that my shock is everyone’s shock. African-Americans are all too accustomed to white people, through overt and covert racism, rendering their lives as insignificant, sub-human, and dispensable.
Just as the disciples in today’s Gospel find themselves in tempestuous, storm tossed seas, today, we, our nation, is in the midst of such a storm.
In the ancient world the watery deep – especially in the midst of a violent storm- represented total chaos. And for us today, that total chaos is the storm of our un-addressed – our denial - racism. When it comes to race and racism, our nation is in many ways no less filled with virulent hatred and malice from Whites toward Blacks as it was 50, or 100 years ago.
Rather than ushering in a post-racial era, the election of our first Black president has clearly unleashed sublimated hatred. It’s like the Hydra, we thought we cut off the head of racism and yet it grew back two and became more vicious.
We are in a chaotic, tempestuous storm and with each new abuse, with each new atrocity, with each new death, our Black sisters and brothers, like the disciples cry out, “Teacher, (Jesus, God) do you not care that we are perishing?" Where are you Lord? Why do you sleep while we are so imperiled?!
If God is asleep. If God is uncaring. If God is absent in this storm then what hope do we have? What is our lifesaver that will keep us from being drowned and all of us together dying as the boat of our society sinks to the bottom of the sea.
Is there hope for we people of faith, for the parishioners of Emanuel AME, for black and white people, if God does not hear our cry in the midst of our peril?
The evil demon of racism would love the answer to that to be no, there is no hope and your God is not there to save you? But that is yet one more lie, that evil would have us believe. Just like the lie that whites are superior to Blacks which has created the storm we are in, it is a lie that there is no hope, that there is no God who will still the sea and keep us safe.
My faith tells me that God was with the nine when they were murdered, just as God had been with them in all their lives. My faith tells me that Jesus embraced each of them as they died. My faith tells me that because these beautiful children of God were faithful that God was faithful to them. Not sleeping, not absent but embracing and comforting them through the horror of their last minutes.
That’s the theology of the cross. That even in the midst of evil and death, God is there. And that there is not evil or death that is stronger than love. Love always wins. This is the foundation of our faith in Jesus.
This faith is born out – given witness to/incarnated - in the response of the relatives of the nine Charleston martyrs.
Just as acts of absolute evil render me speechless, so do acts of unfathomable compassion and love. Which is what the families and friends of those who died Wednesday night have done in response to Dylann Roof murdering their loved ones. Dylann set out to ignite chaos and violence, to create the catalyst for a race war in our nation, to fuel evil to create greater evil and the response of the families has been to offer forgiveness, compassion and love. Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
I am rendered speechless by this witness to our faith. They bear out a profound truth.
It is in these voices of love that Jesus is present. It is in their voices that we hear the words, "Peace! Be still!"
Their voices help quell the storm. Their incarnating the love of Christ - the commandment to love one another as I have loved you - calms the storm. It brings hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.
It brings hope to us, compelling us to lift our own voices with the only way to still the chaos that threatens to subsume us. And that is the love of God in Christ. Peace, be still: Healing that brings the light that can and will end evil’s desire to destroy us.
The blood of the Martyrs of Charleston demands nothing less of us. May their souls and the souls of all the departed, through the grace and mercy of God, rest in peace.