16 Pentecost: The weary and the exile

Syrian Refugees Face an Uncertain Future
"Syrian Refugees Face an Uncertain Future" by World Bank Photo Collection, on Flickr

Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

It is difficult to turn on the news these days and not encounter ongoing coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. The ongoing civil war in Syria has left some 300,000 people dead, tens of thousands of protesters and activists imprisoned, more than 7 million people displaced from their homes, villages, and cities, and more than 4 million people fleeing the country as refugees. The majority of these refugees have been living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But hundreds of thousands of refugees are also making the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to find both home and hope in Europe.

Two images from this Syrian refugee crisis have captured media attention recently; both have brought me to tears.

The first image is a picture of a Turkish police officer standing at the edge of the shore, cradling the body of a three-year old Syrian boy who, along with his five-year old brother and a dozen others drowned when two boats of refugees capsized on their way to Greece. It is an image of ultimate human weariness.

The second image is a video clip showing refugees arriving at the Munich Train Station, having finally arrived safely in Germany. As hundreds of weary travelers pour off the trains, they are greeted with cheers and shouts of welcome - the station is packed with German citizens waiting to offer these exhausted refugees food and water, chocolate, toys for the children; a smile and a warm welcome to exiles seeking the hope of a better life. This video is a picture of selflessness and sustenance.

Isaiah, in our first reading today, is prophesying to a people who, themselves, are in exile. He speaks to the weary and broken people of Israel, who have suffered through violent conflicts with Assyria and Babylon, who have seen Jerusalem conquered and the temple destroyed. They are people who have no city, no center, no homeland. They are living under Babylonian captivity, lamenting, “how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

To these weary exiles, Isaiah is called by God to offer words of hope, promise, and comfort, assuring them that God will restore them and bring them home. Today’s passage is one of four times in Isaiah that we hear the voice of a “suffering servant” - a figure chosen by God through whom the promised hope of restoration and justice will prevail.

Geoff McElroy, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, writes: “The [image of the suffering] servant is a model of and for anyone who hears God, who is given a “word” to comfort, and gives of themselves to be the servant they are called to be. Of course, Christians confess that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of this ideal, God Incarnate, the Word-Made-Flesh, the perfect obedient servant to the will of the Father. But to reduce this passage to just a prediction about how Jesus would act in the face of crucifixion is to do the vision of the prophet a disservice.

Instead, this passage is a poetic and powerful motif for what it means to stand for God in the midst of injustice and evil, to be willing to suffer abuse and scorn for the kingdom of God, and to speak a word from the LORD even when you know that it is going to be unwelcome.” (from “Desert Scribblings,” March 16, 2008)

Isaiah’s prophecy was offensive to those in power, those who had orchestrated the fall of Jerusalem and who weren’t keen on the idea of a ruler coming in to conquer them and rebuild. Like all prophets, Isaiah had to do the hard work of preaching real hope to a people feeling real fear and real despair. That’s hard work. Like all prophets, Isaiah had to do the hard work of preaching real justice and restoration under the gaze of an empire that profited from injustice and broken systems. That’s hard work. But Isaiah keeps preaching, because God has given him a heart for the sufferings of his people.

For all of us who follow in the footsteps of the prophets, for all of us who follow in the footsteps of Isaiah’s suffering servant, for all of us who follow in the footsteps of a suffering Christ, God has given us, too, a word to speak, and God has put on his heart the weariness of the world. With the prophet, we say: “The Lord God has given us the tongue of a teacher, that we may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”

And who are the weary? Today, they are the Syrian refugees, weary of violence and oppression and civil war. Weary from their dangerous journeys. Weary of being turned away at the border. Weary with grief. Weary because they have risked and given up everything, that they might find their lives again in a promised land.

I wonder if Peter would have had an easier time understanding Jesus’ words about suffering, cross, and death if he himself had been in such a place of unbearable weariness. In his strength, Peter rebukes Jesus because he doesn’t want a Messiah who might be vulnerable. He doesn’t want a savior who might die.

We live in this culture of fear, where we are taught to be afraid of everything from immigrants to oil shortages, same-sex marriage to trans fats. And a culture of fear has a really hard time getting on board with a savior who is vulnerable to suffering and death. We want saviors who are superheroes, who wear shiny tights and masks and utility belts, who leap tall buildings in one bound. We want our politicians and our movie stars alike to be be right and good and age-defying; infallible and invincible and immortal and strong. And from all of the pictures that are out there of strong-jawed Jesus wearing fatigues and holding a machine gun, it seems we want Jesus to what way, too.

Except that God’s plan isn’t to come in with a bulldozer, tearing down this world like the Babylonians tore down Jerusalem. God’s plan isn’t to cure fear by being even bigger and even scarier. No, God sends us Christ, who walks the weary footsteps of all those in our world who already have risked and given up and lost everything in hope of finding life. And he plants himself deep in the earth so that all life might grow. hope and justice and peace will spring up from the earth. And the new Jerusalem will float down from heaven. Friends, this is no comic book or presidential election. This is resurrection: weakness to strength; weariness to restoration; death to life.

Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus the suffering servant and all who put themselves out there to do God’s work of restoring health and wholeness to weary neighbors and our weary creation: these are the ones bearing Christ’s cross of hope. These are the ones who have answered the call to choose resurrection over fear, who follow a vulnerable savior into a marvelous way of everlasting light and life for the sake of the world.

Today is Rally Day. We usually mean this day to be a rallying of the troops - a welcome back after summer travels, a kickoff to the start of the Sunday School and program year.

But let’s rally differently today. Instead of celebrating ourselves, let’s make a covenant today to rally around the weary in our midst and in our world. Let’s make a promise to ourselves and to God that we will rally around those who have lost everything, or lost their faith, or lost themselves somewhere along the way. Let’s rally around those who are mistreated in blatant or subtle ways because of the color of their skin. Let’s rally around those who are unemployed and underemployed. And together, let us do real, honest, God-empowered works of hope and relief and resurrection.

Take the time at fellowship hour or at Whalen cabin or this afternoon to participate in our God’s Work Our Hands service projects. Take out that insert in your bulletin and make a donation to Lutheran Disaster Response for their work with the Syrian refugees, or flip the insert over and decide how many towels and bars of soap you can afford to purchase to make personal care kits that Lutheran World Relief can distribute to refugees and families in need across the globe.

May God give each of us the heart of a servant, the tongue of a teacher, the shoulders to carry the crosses our brothers and sisters bear. And may God empower each of us to sustain this weary world with a word: The Word, Jesus Christ, our suffering servant, our vulnerable savior, our resurrected Lord.