Friday, January 17, 2014

The Sunday sermon: Who is "the servant" of God?

Who do you think the author of Isaiah is referring to when he talks about “the servant” in today’s stunningly beautiful song? This is an honest question: I don’t have the correct answer any more than you do, and there are lots of smart and learned and faithful people who disagree about these so-called “servant songs” in Isaiah. But as you listen, what do you hear with your heart?

“Here is my servant,” the Lord says, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The identity of the servant is revealed by the work of the servant: the servant doesn’t establish what is right and good with brute force or domination, but does so gentleness, tenderness, encouragement, and patient persistence. This is a servant who does not scream in the streets, a servant who has the compassion and patience to stand with, and wait for, the weak. Things that are damaged are not further broken down to be tossed aside. Things that are weak and seemingly ineffectual, like a flame with a dim light, are not snuffed out in the name of “efficiency” or “effectiveness” or “excellence.” For this servant, the response to a dim light would more likely be hands held around the flame to protect it from the wind, patiently encouraging its strength and growth, sustaining its presence despite its inadequacies. And yet, this patient, gentle, encouraging servant continues to move toward justice. The movement may not be ruthless or perfectly efficient and effective, but the servant moves onward nevertheless. The work is gentle, but never-ceasing. The vision is broad, to the ends of the earth, and there is much to be done in this broken world.

Later on in the passage, the address of God becomes more direct: instead of the passive, “here is my servant,” we hear, “I have called YOU; I have taken YOU by the hand … I have given YOU as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.”

Who is it? Who is the servant of God? Is it the people of Israel, the covenant community? Is it a particular leader? Is it Jesus of Nazareth? Is it us, the church? Is it you?

Oh, don’t be silly, you may be thinking. Or, perhaps, you could read into this interpretation a critique of my generation, the millenials: it isn’t always about us, or you, you might say: sometimes things are just about God, or just about Jesus. And that is true. It is also true that we know the words of prophet Isaiah affected Jesus in a very personal and direct way: he often quotes Isaiah when talking about who he is, and what he’s all about.

But in this season of Epiphany, and on this feast of our Lord’s baptism, there is also this wonderful and inconvenience truth to contemplate: the nature of God as revealed in our scriptures, and our lives, seems to be that of a generous giver who has his sights on sharing with everyone in the whole world, not a miserly glory-monger: today, we are reminded of how the Holy Spirit was made manifest in the life, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, beginning in a new way at his baptism. And we are reminded, alongside the Apostle Peter, that just when we think we know where God will show up and in what sort of communities and people, we will probably be humbled: for God shows no partiality, and in Peter’s case has just demonstrated that the Holy Spirit is clearly at work in new and surprising ways outside the chosen people of Israel.

So, as we contemplate the glorious servant songs of Isaiah: Why confine the reach of this Song to one individual or even one servant community?  As one scholar noted, “It is a portrait, but it is also a silhouette.”

It is a silhouette of one who has heard the whisper and call of God in his heart; it is a silhouette of one who has responded to that call, who turns toward God despite not knowing exactly where this road will lead; it is a silhouette of one who knows that they are deeply beloved of God; it is in many ways a portrait of Jesus, yes;and it is also a silhouette that casts its shadow on us. 

In Epiphany we celebrate the ways that the Holy Spirit was made manifest, or revealed, in Christ’s life, focusing particularly on the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus by John, and the transformation of water into wine at Cana. Yet we do not celebrate these events simply because they point to the glory of Jesus, glorious and worthy of praise as He is: the church has always affirmed that the reason Epiphany is worth celebrating is because these events point to the wonderful and graceful ways that we now might share in that same reconciling work of Jesus, through the the Holy Spirit. Even as we proclaim Jesus as the One who reconciles us, who makes us at-one with the unspeakably Holy creator, we also remember that, in the wake of the resurrection, and the wake of Pentecost, we have been sent to be witnesses to the fact of that reconciliation: we are sent to tell the world of this good news, and help reconcile each person we meet to God and to other people. This is the whole point of the Church, according to the catechism: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. It is a worthy mission statement:

So, let me say it clearly, scary as it may sound: You, too, beloved, are called to share in the Epiphany: the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in the world. Heard in the light of not just Jesus’ baptism, but also our own, we might hear Isaiah in this way: 
You, too, are my beloved; and 
YOU, too, are called to be the servant, 
sharing in the life and work and witness and spirit of Christ, 
to manifest my love to the whole world.


Perhaps this reminder is all that you need to go forth in love. But if you’re anything like me, maybe sometimes this charge makes you feel a little defeated and tired. The house is still out of order from Christmas. Simply shopping for and preparing a nutritious meal after work can be exhausting.

But here the words and the vision of Isaiah are especially comforting, especially when we begin from that place of remembering that we are God’s beloved. For remember, the servant doesn’t seem to be in a fiery hurry, blazing about with perfect effectiveness and efficiency. The servant reveals God’s love and justice, but does so with gentleness and patience.  In sharing in God’s work, we are called to be steadfast and broad-minded, but not necessarily hurried, desperate.

I see this beautifully reflected in the life and ministry of your brother in Christ here at St. Paul’s, Christopher Wells. Five years ago, Chris started riding his bike around Balboa Park during the last two hours of daylight on Saturdays and Sundays. He wanted to get to know the Park’s denizens — that is, the people who live there, outside. He called it his citizen’s bike patrol, and it was grounded at least partly in an interest in public safety. Over the years of making this ride and talking with people, week in and week out, he’s gained the trust of the Park rangers and the San Diego Police — and many of the people who we call homeless. Chris is careful not to use this word, because he believes that the only truly homeless are the trulyheartless

Chris is careful about words, and careful about a lot of people that others never see. He’s not naive, but when he determines that a park denizen might be interested in talking, he asks how things are going. He asks, “are any bad guys in the park are hasselin’ ya?” He shows an interest in their welfare, their humanity, their spirit. And then he mostly listens. If they’re new, he may give advice on how to survive safely in the park. At some point, he may ask, “what would it take to get you out of the cold?,” and depending on the situation, he may offer referrals.

Recently a small group of other men and women from this cathedral have begun join Chris weekly. They are discerning, listening to what God might be calling them to. But surprisingly, some of them are finding that perhaps one thing they are called to is simply listening to and supporting the spiritual discernment of those who live outside. What is God calling them to do? Not long ago, they listened to one man talk for nearly 45 minutes, and at the end of their time together he kept saying, with tears in his eyes, “what a blessing.” “What a blessing you stopped by.” As one group member put it, “he was just sitting there under that tree, so lonely.”

Years ago, the bishop of Los Angeles told Chris to go forth with his unorthodox work with the homeless, doing so as an ambassador of Christ. It’s a mission Chris has taken to heart. He stands with the weak, the broken reeds, the dim flames, patiently encouraging them. Through one weekly activity, he steadfastly moves toward justice. He, like you, is a servant of the Lord, sharing in the Epiphany: to the ends of the park, and the ends of the world.

-the Rev. Laurel Mathewson

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