Last night I had the great pleasure of preaching at one of the RSCM Newport Course Evensongs. The service was held at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence. For the service we used the Propers for Social Justice: Psalm 146, Isaiah 42:1-7, and Matthew 10:32-42. Below is a recording and manuscript for the sermon. As always, comments welcome.
Photo taken by The Rev’d Grace Swinski
Music inspires movement.
When there are no words to raise the spirit in despair, music lifts us to new heights.
When all seems lost, music can restore us to hope and return us to our center.
Throughout the entirety of human history, humanity has turned to music to propel it forward. From our own historical moment all the way back to the song God spoke to usher the world into being – music has moved us.
Songs have the ability to express the hopes and aspirations of social movements. Just try to think of a movement that does not have a playlist. Music is the source of inspiration and power for liberation. No wonder that in the midst of the despair and anguish of exile God would offer the people of Israel hope through song.
The passage from Isaiah we have heard tonight is known as the First Servant Song. It is the first of four times throughout these latter chapters of Isaiah that we hear about the servant of God in very particular ways. In this introductory song we hear God describe the servant and then issue the servant a charge – God gives the servant purpose.
The Lord calls out and says,
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.
The purpose of the Servant is to be an instrument,
to implement the vision of God,
to faithfully and diligently work to make the justice of God reign on earth.
The purpose of the Servant is to take up the fast that the Lord has chosen, the fast that is proclaimed just a few chapters ahead: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. To share bread with the hungry, to house the homeless, to clothe the naked, to let the light break forth and shatter the darkness.
What an unbelievable and seemingly impossible task – to make God’s reality, humanity’s reality. How could the servant possibly do this?
For over a century, biblical scholars and preachers have debated who exactly this servant is. Is the prophet writing about a particular person, or is the prophet describing all of Israel? Is the prophet prophesying for the long awaited messiah – the one we will come to know as Jesus? Or is the prophet doing something else?
Frankly, and with all due respect to those preaching and scholarly giants, I think we miss the point of the servant songs when we focus so much on the true identity of the servant. Because by focusing on the identity of the servant, we are claiming that the servant is someone other than ourselves. We are claiming that this work is for someone else, from some faraway place, from a long, long time ago.
You see the practices that the prophet Isaiah called the people of Israel to cherish captured Jesus’ imagination and they ought to capture ours as well. Israel, the chosen people of God, received from the prophet Isaiah what the Church received from Christ, and that is what we the Church must testify to the world – the revelation that the God who creates is a just God who restores sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, and gives strength to those who serve.
We the followers of Jesus, taken from every family, language, people, and nation; taken from across every boundary, every line of division, every category of humanity have been set apart to be servants of God. To restore sight to the blind; to set the captive free; to use our freedom in the maintenance of justice in our communities and in our world.
What, my friends, have we gotten ourselves into?
It would be easy for us to say that the world today is too divided, too hateful, that relationships are too broken for this servant work to become reality. All you have to do is turn on the news, open a newspaper, login to Facebook and scroll past the cat videos to see just how divided we are. It seems as if fear, hatred, and judgment rule the day. It seems the walls and barriers around us are just too strong for us to set the captives free. The world has just changed too much from the time of Isaiah for us to take on this servant work. Things must have been easier back then.
While this might be easy for us to say, or a convenient excuse to use, we would be wrong in doing so. Things were not easier for the people of Israel. Their world was not less complicated than ours. This servant song we hear tonight was given to the people of Israel while they were in exile.
They had been cast out of their homeland
gripped with fear and anxiety
left to wonder if they would ever make it home.
And the reality is that not everyone would.
How easy it would have been for the people of Israel to give up on the work of the Servant. To say this is just too hard. To say that hope is lost.
But that is not what they did. They, through toil and struggle, hung on to that hope – trusting that somehow, someway, God would prevail. They would be restored. They would receive salvation. So they kept on singing.
The word given to us by God
The word prophesied by Isaiah
The word championed by Jesus
The word put forth in a song
Is a word that scares the world, because it offers a new reality.
Walter Brueggemann, biblical scholar and theologian, once wrote, “Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
You choristers, you congregation here gathered, are those artists. It is our job, despite the pressures from society, to keep imagination alive. To never forget the words that we have sung this night, the words that scare the world: “The Lord looseth men out of prison; the Lord giveth sight to the blind. The Lord helpeth them that are fallen; the Lord careth for the righteous. The Lord careth for the strangers; he defendeth the fatherless and widow,” “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.”
That is the imagination,
the song we must keep alive.
This is the servant work we must embody.
We hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that if we take on the work of the servant, the work of the prophet, the work of the righteous; if we carry on the ministry established by Jesus then we will receive our reward. But claiming this work, singing this song, will not be easy
We hear Jesus say:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father . . . whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me . . . whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus is warning us that there is a great cost to this life of discipleship. That his followers will be persecuted, that households and families will be divided, that followers of Jesus will be asked to give their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
In this warning, in these startling words, Jesus is offering to those listening to him then – and to us today – a life altering invitation
An invitation to follow
to persevere with Christ through hardship and division
to preach the Gospel message at all times
to give up everything the world tells us is important in order that we might truly and finally learn what is means to live.
To fully live into the intentions God has for us from the beginning.
2To be servants of God, to be lights to the world, to set the captive free.
To never stop singing.
The exile of the people of Israel is not the end of their story.
The death of Jesus on the Cross is not the end of his story.
Our present day of division and strife does not have to be the end of our story.
For in the cross we have a sign that all things are have been, are being, and will always be made new. There is always hope for restoration.
The miracle of the cross is that death itself dies
That we have been redeemed
That we can keep on singing.
Through the miraculous grace of God, through that never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love of God the people of Israel returned home, Jesus was raised from the dead, and we are claimed as servants of God.
Therefore it is our responsibility to claim the servant song as our own.
It is our responsibility to share in the peace of Christ.
It is our responsibility to make no peace with oppression.
It is our responsibility as artists to keep God’s imagination alive, to never give up hope.
It is our responsibility to sing.