by Joan L. Beck
Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community
When we struggle and suffer, assist us to trust ourselves wholly to your care, listen for your voice, obey you. Amen.
There are words about struggle and suffering in all three readings this week that offend us. Someone with a voice in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song says to the servant of God, “We thought you were being punished, struck down by God, and brought low…. God chose to crush and afflict you.” Hebrews says that “Jesus was heard [by God] because of his reverent submission” and that he “learned to obey through suffering.” Jesus minces no words in telling his disciples that we are to be servants of all. These words may scare us. Surely God does not choose to crush and afflict anyone, not the God we worship! Must we “submit” and “obey”? Where is abundance, freedom, and choice in these scenarios?
For possible insight into the dynamics of serving God, I have been setting the Servant Song from Isaiah alongside the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran church member from Liberia and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner.(1) For me, Ms. Gbowee’s story incarnates aspects of the Servant Song.
“If God was going to speak to someone in Liberia, it wouldn’t be me.” This is what Laymah Gbowee thought just a little more than a decade ago. In her late teens she had barely escaped a massacre the government forces perpetrated against refugees sheltered in her own church. As the Liberian civil war churned on, Leymah “moved back and forth between countries (Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia) [while] her faith in God and in almost everything else eroded.” She bore too many children too quickly with men who abused her. She left her children to grow up without her. She drank heavily.
Nevertheless Leymah Gbowee found work that meant something to her. She did social work with women and child soldiers who’d been devastated emotionally and physically by the ongoing war.
Then in 2002 she had the dream: in the dark a voice commanded her, “Gather the women to pray for peace.” There were twenty women at first, eventually becoming thousands, including Muslims and Christians, educated and non-educated, from city and country. Leymah explained, “We have to bring the women together because we never really thought that our agency was in ourselves.”
“The women kept their message simple: ‘We want peace. No more war.’ Their group actions were, in essence, “street protest[s]. After a time of prayer, the women would stand on the side of the street, wearing white, holding signs demanding peace. They sat and stood through rain, wind, and blistering heat. They sat and stood while they argued, discussed, and strategized, through disagreements both petty and substantial. When they gathered early in the morning, they began with Christian and Muslim prayers. They developed a repertoire of songs; they listened to one another’s stories. Very rarely did they sense that their protest was making a difference.” They were dismissed as ‘fish market women.’
These women help me picture the Servant of God in Isaiah 53. The Servant song reflects on the servant of God, “Surely you have borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” Surely these Liberian women bore the illnesses of their country and carried the suffering of their compatriots. They were rejected and despised by all. They knew suffering intimately. Ms. Gbowee said in public, “We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped.” And yet the women had little respect, voice, or power. Upon seeing the women, if they noticed them at all, the warlords turned their faces away, absorbed in their power games.
“The civil war went on, displacing thousands of Liberians from their homes… A bloodbath was on the horizon” when finally, under mounting pressure, the president Charles Taylor agreed to negotiate with the rebels. Leymah and other women from the movement decided to camp outside the hotel where the talks were taking place. Day after day the talks went nowhere.
Then, one day, the women walked inside the hotel, into the hallway outside the conference room, sat down, and blocked the door. (This moment is recorded in a film documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”) The women passed a note through the glass doors. No one could come out, the women said, until a ceasefire agreement was signed. Of course guards moved to arrest the women leading the protest, including Leymah Gbowee. But she responded, “I will make it very easy for you to arrest me!” and she began to take off her clothes; the other women as well. This paralyzed the men, the guards and the leaders who had gathered for peace talks, because in their culture, they would be cursed if they looked upon a married woman naked. So they turned around and went back in to the negotiating table and signed a ceasefire. From this confrontation, a fragile peace was born that has persisted and grown.
In the Servant Song from Isaiah, two voices speak.
The voice that is given the most verses in this song/poem is a group struggling to make sense of God’s ways in the world. They are trying to puzzle out how a hidden God works in, with, and under the poor, using humble servants, without understandable power or military might. This group could be the traumatized community in the Exile in sixth-century Babylon; they could be James and John, the children of Zebedee, and the other ten in the first-century; they might be media representatives in twenty-first century Liberia, or even the warlords stopped in their tracks by fish market women; they might also be those of us who wonder where, where, where God is moving in this world. These participant-observer groups, they are the ones who conclude that God chose to crush and afflict the servants of God; but that is just a moment in their thought process, a perch along the way.
Soren Kierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher and theologian) commented, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” As the speakers look backwards, a new awareness dawns on them.
- At first they say to the servant, “We despised you and did not value you; and we thought God was punishing you.”
- “Then we saw that it was because of us that you suffered, and that God was not against you, but with you.”
- “Then we saw that you and God mean to heal us through your shame.”
Listen: At the beginning and end of the song, God speaks. God has the first and last word! At the beginning God announces that those in power will be surprised, stopped, and silenced by the servant of God. (This portion of the song is not in the lectionary today.) At the climax of the song God promises that the servant’s struggles will not be in vain, that the servant’s influence will help many and the servant will be rewarded. God’s role is not to crush and afflict the servant!—God chooses to accompany the servant through suffering and to vindicate the servant in the end.
Held and holding on between God’s choice and God’s blessing, the servant in Isaiah’s poem doesn’t say anything. Not that the servant’s life is serene. Far from it.
- Leymah Gbowee confessed that she “resigned over 1000 times before we even signed the peace agreement.”(2)
- “She said that the darkest times were when she would look for signs that their work was succeeding and find none. ‘When I took my eyes off my community and started to track successes in the eyes of the world—for example, I would look and see that they were still shooting—I was losing it. But when I came back to that group, to their faith in that higher power, even in the midst of chaos, they still believed in what they do, then my energy came back.”
In their weakness, these servants of God kept turning and returning to the one whose Word is first and last, call and promise, and whose presence is sure.
The church has always understood this Servant Song in light of Jesus, who served God in God’s world with limitless love and faith. This Servant Jesus was judged by the public to be offensive to God; he was betrayed, arrested, condemned, and executed. Yet even when Jesus could no longer turn to God, God turned to him. God accompanied the Servant Jesus through death to new life. And, coming out of that tomb, Jesus released many hostages, ourselves included.
In our weakness, as participant-observers in the mystery of God and as would-be servants, inconstant though we be, we keep turning and returning to the one whose Word is first and last for us, living as we do between baptismal call and everlasting promise. The Servant’s broken body is placed in our hands today, in our mouths; the Servant’s poured-out cup brought to our lips.
Let us pray: O God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (3)
(1) I found all these details of Leymah Gbowee’s story in Amy Frykholm, “To Tell the Truth,” Christian Century November 29, 2011, 32-36. I have often quoted or nearly-quoted Ms. Frykholm’s article without accurate quotation marks.
(2) Ms. Gbowee continued, “I would go to a meeting and I would say, ‘I resign today. I am no longer your leader. I resign tomorrow. I don’t want to be a part of this group.’ Sometimes I walked out of the meeting, and by the time I got to my house they would come knocking on y door. They would say, ‘We will continue meeting at your house. You can never give up on us.’”
(3) Prayer by St. Augustine.
Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10