Ordinary 5B — February 8, 2015

Necessary Anger

Internally displaced people in South Sudan find a safe shelter at the UN House IDP compound in Juba, South Sudan, February 2014. Photos: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures 

For audio, click here:  https://soundcloud.com/emsworthup/february-8-2015-11-17-56-am
For more information about the political situation and civil war in South Sudan, here is a good primer from 2013 when the war began: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/12/30/9-questions-about-south-sudan-you-were-too-embarrassed-to-ask/

Isaiah 40:21-31      
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.                       
It took me at least 24 hours after my arrival in South Sudan to remember where I had seen that look before.  The far away gaze of eyes made bloodshot from lack of sleep over many, many weeks.  The countenance so distant and reserved that at first it looks like perfect tranquility, but upon closer examination is more like shell shock.  I knew I’d seen that look before – that zombie-like presence in which the body keeps moving and the lips are speaking, but the humanity has somehow floated away.  It took me a day or more to realize that the faces of the people I met in South Sudan looked just like people I’d met in New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. 

I’ve only cried on an airplane twice in my life.  The first time was on the approach to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the summer of 2006.  The second time was when our plane landed at the very optimistically named Juba International Airport on January 15th.  In both circumstances, I wept because I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was seeing hell on earth.  The only difference is that New Orleans’ hell, although certainly made worse by humans, was largely a result of a natural disaster.  As anyone who knows anything about South Sudan can tell you, the unrelenting hell that has marked the country’s past half-century has been entirely man made.  The suffering in that part of the world is a result of people killing people for reasons as ancient as tribal and religious conflict, as historical as colonialism, and as mercenary as oil revenues.  As a result, the entire population of what once was Sudan, now Sudan and South Sudan, has been traumatized. You can see it from the moment your step off the plane in Juba.  The people of South Sudan are trapped in a nightmare that hasn’t ended, and will not end, until there is peace. 

The congregations and pastors that make up South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) have not been immune from the trauma.  In fact, most of the pastors I met in Juba are exiles.  Many were forced out of northern Sudan after the south gained its independence in 2011. As a result of the peace agreement that established South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of Christian and traditional African religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan and return to what the Sudanese government considered their “ancestral homeland.”  The exiles were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed new country with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources.  Many of the pastors I met had led well-established, thriving churches in Khartoum, and are now struggling to make a living by doing church work in South Sudan.  The more well-educated pastors who speak English have been able to get work in the South Sudan government.  The rest are struggling mightily.

The first wave of exiles came to South Sudan in 2011.  But in late 2013, a civil war broke out in South Sudan and violence is still raging today in many parts of the country.  More pastors and church members – this time coming from within South Sudan — have come to Juba.  Many have lost friends, family, and their churches to the war.  In fact, it is safe to say that nearly every pastor I met from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church is in exile, a stranger in a strange and sometimes dangerous land.  

When you talk to these pastors, the trauma in their eyes is the first thing you notice.  They’ve been deeply broken by the death and destruction they’ve witnessed.   Some of the pastors have no option but to live but in the United Nations refugee camps.  There are three of these UN camps in Juba, each containing 10’s of thousands of refugees.  Other pastors are living in cramped quarters with friends and other family members.  One of the pastors I met is living in a 2 room apartment with 20 other people including his wife and 5 children. 

Although the city of Juba is South Sudan’s capital city and is located in what is a relatively calm area of the country at the moment, there is no infrastructure to speak of, no safe water, no schools or healthcare, few paved roads, and an ever-growing population suffering from rampant disease and malnutrition.  It is a city of politicians and bureaucrats living behind gated walls, and a civilian population that resembles walking wounded.

The text we heard today from the book of Isaiah was composed toward the end of the Israelites’ exile in Babylon.  And the exiles who received these words of Isaiah were, like the people in South Sudan, children of war.  Fifty years before, the people of Jerusalem had suffered the savagery of the Babylonian forces who destroyed their city and slaughtered their people.   The book of Lamentations describes the horror of what they experienced in unflinching detail.  Listen to this passage from Chapter 2:

11 My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. 12They cry to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.

20 Look, O Lord, and consider: To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; on the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy (Lamentations 2:11-12, 20-21)

Not everyone in Jerusalem was taken to Babylon.  Some stayed in Jerusalem and endured the hardship of living in an occupied land with few resources.  Others went to Babylon and lived as exiles.  In their suffering, the people of God developed a case of spiritual amnesia born of their traumatic experiences of war and exile. 

Spiritual amnesia is what happens to us when the worst happens.  The crushing diagnosis.  The deep loss.   Exile from friends or family.  Spiritual amnesia is the kind of problem that causes us to fall apart whenever a crisis comes.  It is a deep trauma to the psyche and our souls.  We wonder if God has gone off and left us altogether.  Or we doubt if God exists at all because it sure doesn’t look like it.  We forget God’s promises, God’s goodness and God’s call to us.  We are lost in waves of grief and panic.  Well-meaning Christian friends may tell us that our problem is we don’t have enough faith or have done something to deserve the hell we’re experiencing.  

But the prophet of Isaiah speaks to remind the exiles and us that our faith is not what saves us.  Only God saves us.  God saves us not because we are good, but because God is good.  God saves us not because we are powerful, but because God is powerful beyond our comprehension.  And we forget that it is in our vulnerability that we most fully experience the grace and power of God.  God understands our exhaustion and our fear, and will meet us in that place. 

I know all of that is true.  But when I saw the suffering I saw in South Sudan, it made me angry.  When I see the brokenness in families and neighborhoods and other situations much closer to home, it makes me angry that God doesn’t do something about it.  So many days, I am not only angry beyond belief, but tired.  Tired of waiting for God to give power to the faint, strengthen the powerless, and lift up hurting people on eagles wings.  Tired of seeing the bad guys win.  Tired of seeing the poor get poorer. 

And then it occurred to me while pondering this passage from Isaiah this week is that as angry and as tired as I am, God is probably more angry and more tired than I am.  Because God is probably very tired of waiting for me and you and all of us who ask stupid questions like, “Why is there so much suffering?” It’s like a cartoon in which the man asks God, “Oh Lord, why is there so much suffering in the world?  Lord when are you going to do something about it?”  And God answering, “I’ve been meaning to ask you exactly the same question.” 

In this text, we’ve read this morning, the people of Israel have forgotten what they believe and why they believe it.  They have forgotten who they are.  Isaiah calls the people of Israel to remember who God was for them and is for them, and to remember why God called them in the first place.  The people of Israel were called by God from the beginning to be a blessing to all nations.  God promised to equip them with everything they needed to be that blessing.  To bring good news to the poor and relief to the captives.  To do justice.  To love mercy.  To bind up the brokenhearted.

Throughout scripture, every time the people of Israel forget that call and forget God’s abundant provision, things fall apart for them.  And every time the worst happens, God sends prophets like Isaiah to remind them of who they are, what they are to be, and what God is for them.

Things are falling apart everywhere, brothers and sisters.  Isn’t it time for us to remember who we are?  Isn’t it time for us to remember why we are?

When we were in South Sudan, a member of our group preached in a UN refugee camp where more than 2000 people gathered for worship.  In telling about his experience, he described the singing of children’s choir:

“And then this little girl came up and knelt on the floor a foot from me and sang “O God, you made us, why aren’t you saving us? Why can’t you see us? Do you still love us? We are wandering in our own land, Father. Why have you forgotten us? Are you the one who created us or not?”[1]

People of God what are our answers to her questions? 

Why are we not saving those who are in need? 
Why do we close our eyes to great suffering? 
Why do we not love as Jesus has commanded us to love? 
Why do we reject the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless? 
Why do we forget God’s goodness, or question God’s provision to us? 
Why do we live as though we have no attachment to our creator and no responsibility to our neighbor?

Good questions.  Angry questions.  Necessary questions.  These are questions that trouble and confront us when we allow ourselves to look beyond our safe and tidy churches into the wildness of God’s people crying for deliverance.  The children singing in that UN camp believe in God’s promises – that God does hear them, that God will answer them, that the God that created them knows them and loves them. 

The children believe.  But will we?

While we were in South Sudan, Rev. Dave Carter preached a sermon about the various texts in the Old Testament that refer to “eagles” and noted that there’s a better translation of the Hebrew word – “nesher” – which our English bibles translate as “eagle.” “Nesher” would be better translated as “vulture.”  I looked it up this week while preparing this sermon and he’s right.  And it’s not surprising that later translators would choose “eagle” over “vulture.”  Who wants to be lifted up on vultures wings? 

The thing about vultures though is that while it is true that they feed primarily on animals that have died, they do not attack healthy animals as an eagle does.  They are almost entirely dependent upon finding food that is already dead.  While an eagle often hunts alone, vultures fly together.  When the vulture in the lead finds food, it shares the find with the rest of the birds flying with him.  Vultures eat together, sharing the food.  Because they have weak talons, the vulture cannot pick up his food and take with him to somewhere else and eat alone.  The eagle will swoop in, pick up its prey, and take it back to its nest.

Further, vultures are not very strong.  Their stamina is not great and their wings are very weak.  Yet they are able to travel long, long distances to find food.  How do they do that? Vultures do not fly – they soar.  They depend upon finding air currents to carry them along.  Once they find an air current, they spread their large but not very strong wings – and soar.  Vultures do not do all the work themselves, but rest on the air they are given.  As a result, they can glide higher and longer than almost any other creature.

This understanding of “nesher” as a vulture and not an eagle really changed my thinking about this Isaiah text.  Being lifted up with vultures’ wings does not mean being strengthened to do all the work all by myself, but to become even more dependent on God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Being lifted on vulture’s wings means to trust that all that we need to live will be provided, and that we have the responsibility of sharing what we find with my brothers and sisters.  To fly like a vulture does not mean frantically flapping our wings to get from where we are now to some imagined point B, but to depend upon the wind blown by the Holy Spirit, trusting that it will lift us up and carry us forward into God’s future. 

The incredible power of God of which the prophet Isaiah speaks is the same power of the Holy Spirit that is available to us – to engage in the necessary work of loving, healing, engaging and bring good news to a broken, traumatized world. 

Have you not seen?  Have you not heard? 

Evil doesn’t stand a chance when God’s people work together.  Admitting to our weakness and brokenness is how we become powerful in God’s economy of grace.  We have been given everything we need to be a blessing to the world.  We must throw off our spiritual amnesia and remember who we are.  When we know that, when we believe that, we will have an answer, not only about the future of our church, but for the whole world. 
“…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like vultures, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

Let us pray:  Take these broken wings, O God.  Take the broken wings of this congregation and of your people in South Sudan.   And teach us not to fly like eagles, but to soar like the vulture, lifted up always by your goodness and mercy and grace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://castyournet.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/ordinary-time/