This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sustaining the Weary with a Word.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

            How would the ability “to sustain the weary with a word” lead someone to have to endure suffering and persecution?  Wouldn’t sustaining the weary with a word, that is, being able to give comfort to an afflicted person by speaking to them, working as an effective counselor, wouldn’t that be something that would be valued in society?  Isn’t this at least part of the jobs of therapists and physicians and pastors and parents and teachers?  In what kind of situation would sustaining the weary with a word be an offense punishable by physical abuse?  Where is it against the law to say nice things to someone who is exhausted and downtrodden?  What kind of society could that be, I wonder?
            Well, it depends on who “the weary” are.  If the weary are people whose existence, activities, or hopes offend the powerful, or the majority, then it very well may be a crime to comfort them.             
            I used to serve on the board of the jail chaplaincy in Somerset County.  I would meet people who criticized what we were doing because they thought that to make the lives of prisoners any more comfortable would detract from the deterrence quality of their incarceration. 
            During Jim Crow in the South, making the lives of African-Americans any more comfortable was inviting them to actually start thinking of themselves as equal.  And they couldn’t have that. 
            Giving any kind of comfort to “undocumented” people is actually a crime in many States of our own country today.  This is the case even if they are women and children.  People can languish for years in secret detention centers; people who want to minister to them can hardly get in.  Families are split up by deportation. 
            My wife just got back from the Middle East where it is extremely frowned upon to bring comfort to Palestinians who are having to live under oppressive Israeli policies in their own homes and towns.  These are not terrorists, just families trying to live in peace where they have lived for generations. 
            In Nazi Germany you could have been executed for comforting Jews, or any of the other many groups the government hated. 
            Isaiah is getting into trouble for comforting the Jews in exile in Babylon.  If he is going around telling the captive Jews that Babylon is about to fall, and the people will be released to go back home, that could not have been very popular among their Babylonian overlords.
            So, “sustaining the weary with a word” is a subversive activity if the weary are oppressed, rejected, victimized, marginalized, and hated people. 
            “Sustaining the weary with a word” is an activity that invites horrible abuse like that Isaiah describes.  Insults, spitting, having your beard pulled out.  (The beards of Jewish men may have been offensive to authorities who believed men should be clean-shaven….) 
            This work of comforting the afflicted is something the prophet learned from God.  He says it is the Lord God who has taught him and made him a teacher of the downtrodden and the victims.  No doubt, his sustaining the weary with a word has to do with retelling the story of God’s faithfulness and liberation of the people.  The whole Torah is about just this: God intervening in history to save and restore the Israelites.  Usually this happens in spite of their sin and complaining.
            Even when the people’s sin is so great that it brings down disaster on them, God still shows up and pulls them out of it.  Here in the exile, we see the worst mess they ever got themselves into.  And Isaiah has the same message: God will bail you out.  God will restore you.  God is forgiving and renewing you.  You will all go home, and soon!
            This is not a message the Babylonians wanted them to hear.  Their idea is that the Jews should be learning to forget their old nation and religion and become good Babylonian subjects.  Spreading the message that God will deliver these deported Jews back to their homeland, and that this will happen because Babylon will lose a war, was sedition, and punishable as such.
            Jesus gets criticized for the same kind of thing.  “Sustaining the weary with a word,” and with even more than a word, but with actions of healing and liberation, is what he spends most of his time doing.  The pious and powerful would point out that these people – whether they were tax collectors or prostitutes – do not deserve to have sustaining words spoken to them.  The gospels seem to focus on these two groups intentionally to make a point.  One group, the tax collectors, is hated by the “left” as collaborators with Rome, the other, the prostitutes, is hated by the “right” as sexually immoral.
            The thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t go along with these judgments and prejudices.  All he cares about is the person’s suffering.  When someone comes to Jesus for healing, Jesus never asks whether they are undocumented aliens, or whether they agree with him politically, or whether they led a good moral life, or whether they got this disease through their own irresponsible behavior.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus whether they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old, good or bad, Jew or Gentile… he still heals them.  He even forgives the very people who just got done nailing his body to two pieces of wood and standing him up in the hot sun to die!
            The only thing that matters to Jesus is the fact of someone’s suffering.  The only thing that matters to Jesus is the person’s weariness, as Isaiah might put it.  Their exhaustion, frustration, depression, and sorrow.  Their pain and their grief.  That’s all he sees.
            It apparently doesn’t occur to Jesus that it could be good for society and for the economy if some people are rejected, excluded, incarcerated, sick, possessed, or oppressed.  It doesn’t occur to him that some people just deserve to suffer in this life, and that to comfort them is to undermine the whole social order.
            Jesus and the Sciptures always see the world from the perspective of those at the bottom.  The successful society, in Jesus’ eyes, is the one that provides for the needy, the sick, and the alien.  And he is absolutely committed to this mission.  He expresses the truth of God’s saving love for the whole world in everything he does.  He is adamant and unwavering about this.  Even when people are standing over him threatening him with arrest, he still heals whomever needs healing.
            So it is with Isaiah.  Even when the authorities in Babylon devise these ignominious torments for him, he is undeterred.  He still preaches good news.  He still proclaims the imminent collapse and defeat of Babylon.  He still reassures the people that they will be going home.
            He is able to do this because he knows that God’s truth is way bigger and deeper and higher than the ideological fantasies that the conquering empire would have the people be bamboozled by.  God’s truth is stronger than propaganda.
            He is able to remain firm because of his hope and faith in the ultimate reality of God’s Word.  He knows that God is a God who delivers, liberates, redeems, heals, and saves.  This is God’s intention for the universe God created.  Redemption and rebirth are encoded in the very structure of reality itself. 
            Empires can come along and by force and violence make people believe and act otherwise for a time.  They can and have used cruelty, theft, and murder to enforce a different version of reality on people.  They play on our fears and our anger.  But eventually God’s truth overpowers the entropy of falsehood.  God’s law, not to mention the subordinate laws of physics and biology, eventually assert themselves, and the edifice of lies constructed by wealthy and powerful people always crumbles into ruin.           
            Where is Babylon today?  Where is Assyria?  Where is Pharaoh’s Egypt?  Where is Greece?  Where is Rome?  Where is Persia?  Where indeed are the more recent empires of the British, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portugese, and the Russians?  They are all historical wreckage.  They have all fallen.  Their empires are now inhabited by other peoples.  This is inevitable and certain.  It will happen to the empire we live in as well, by the way.
            And, at the same time, where are the people of God?  We’re still here.  The Jews are still here.  The followers of Jesus are still here.  Those who obey God and live according to God’s law of nonviolence, simplicity, sharing, equality, generosity, healing, humility, forgiveness, gentleness, and love, these are the people who inherit the earth.
            The early church, following the Lord Jesus, consciously and intentionally became known for loving and serving people whom the rest of Roman society hated or feared.  They would willingly go into plague areas and assist victims.  They sent missionaries to nations that were Rome’s enemies.  They embraced foreigners, slaves, lepers, deserting soldiers, prisoners, sex workers, abandoned children….
            This is why the true church even today still follows Jesus’ example and ministers to and with those whom our society hates and ignores.  AIDS victims, undocumented workers, gang members, convicts, members of religious or ethnic minorities, the poor, the unemployed, the foreclosed on, addicts, even our own enemies… these are the people to whom the followers of Jesus Christ reach out with God’s love.       
            Look around and see who is most hated.  Think about who would be the least popular suffering people to help.  Whom would we be criticized the most for comforting?  That’s to whom Jesus calls us to go.  The weary.  The fearful.  The hurting.  The dying.  No matter who they are.  These are always the people who have made up God’s gathering of disciples.
            The church doesn’t give itself enough opportunities to identify with Isaiah here.  When do we do things for which we need God’s vindication?  When do we have to rely only on God’s approval because we’re not getting any from anybody else?  When have we had to be as steadfast as hard flint in doing what is right in God’s eyes?  When do we ever have to stand up to contentious opposition?  When do we ever have to say, “It is the Lord God who helps us.  Who can declare us guilty?”  When do we dare people to find fault with what we are doing?
            Our reading from the gospel has Jesus doing just this.  He is not sneaking in to Jerusalem, but making a big demonstration out of it.  But neither is he victorious on a white horse followed by an army.  He is obedient to God and humble, riding on a lowly donkey as did his mother when he was on his way to being born in Bethlehem.  But he is also alarmingly in the face of the authorities.  And in case you don’t get the point he immediately goes to the Temple and creates a disturbance about the commercialization and commodification of God’s House.
            Jesus obeys God and tells the truth.  The truth is God’s love for the whole world and everyone in it.  The truth is God’s deliverance, salvation, redemption, healing, and forgiveness.  The truth is that God is bringing us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, and from death to life.  The truth is that this is the whole meaning and purpose of existence.
            This week we follow Jesus along the path that culminates in his death and resurrection.  This week he takes on the horrific consequences of our sin, our ignorance, and our bondage.  And in the end he reveals these consequences to be powerless to overcome God’s will to release us.
            This is a journey, not to the cross, but through the cross to the resurrection.  We will begin on Thursday evening with a celebration of Passover, and we will end on Sunday morning with a celebration of… Passover.  For Christians as well as for Jews, Passover is the center around which everything turns.  The truth of Passover is why Isaiah could preach good news to the exiles.  Passover is finally fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Through it we are liberated from death, and set free for life.   

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