13 September 2009

The Suffering Servant on Racial Justice Sunday

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 13 September 2009: Trinity 14 (Racial Justice Sunday): Isaiah 50: 4-9; Psalm 114; James 2: 14 -18; Mark 8: 27-35.

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I suppose there is a real irony in the fact that the sun begins to shine in Ireland in September, just as the children have gone back to school, the Sunday School reopens, and we have all used up our holiday allowance.

This summer, I managed to get back to the Aegean and spend some time once again in Greece and Turkey.

I spent a little time on the island of Samos, which is the home of Pythagoras, who gave us the mathematical theorem about the hypotenuse and the other two sides of a right-angle triangle, and the philosophical concept of the creation being the cosmos (κόσμος), all of God’s creation being a harmonious and beautiful reflection of God’s great overall plan.

And I stayed in Kusadasi, which is a convenient base for visiting Biblical and classical sites such as Ephesus, Priene, Miletus, Didyma and Smyrna.

At the end of the week, I spent a day in Sirince, a mountain village in the hills above Ephesus.

Most tourists see this is as another way of spending the day in the sun in a charming and romantic setting. The buildings are crumbling and graceful, there are a few interesting historic churches, old houses, schools, and fountains. The shops and restaurants are vibrant, and the villagers make a good trade out of their own brands of wine and olive oil.

In the sun, Sirince is a delightful place. In the shade, it is a restful break from the hustle and bustle of Ladies’ Beach or the bazaar in Kusadasi. But there is side to the story of this picture-postcard village that the tourists are never told before they are hurried away to yet another pottery or carpet factory.

For centuries, this was a Greek-speaking community. Long before the boundaries of European nation states had been drawn too tightly and too restrictively, the people here were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and saw themselves as no different from their neighbours in the surrounding towns and villages, or in the off-shore islands like Samos, Chios, and Patmos.

They were Greeks and always had been. Greek speakers who had trekked through here included Homer, Pythogoras and Alexander the Greek … poets, philosophers and generals. Later, along came the apostles, Saint Paul and Saint John the Divine, who lived, worked and preached in Ephesus.

The Ottomans may have been benign or oppressive, depending on the whims of the Sultan and those who issued firmats in the Sublime Porte. But compared with other parts of Europe, this was a pleasant and delightful place to live. That is, until World War I.

After World War I, the boundaries of states no longer took account of the fact that families had lived in one place for generations, perhaps even for thousands of years. And as politicians and generals argued across Europe over the boundaries of Greece and Turkey – as they did over Serbia, or Austria and Hungary, Ireland and Northern Ireland, France and Germany, Germany and Poland – the so-called “little people” were carved up too.

In the case of Sirince, we heard how the village, like countless other cities, towns, villages and farms in Western Anatolia, was emptied of its people as they were forced to leave homes they and their families had lived in – sometimes for thousands of years – because they spoke Greek rather than Turkish, because they were Christian rather than Muslim.

In 1922, the people of Sirince joined thousands and thousands of people who stood helplessly on the dockside in the port city of Smyrna as their homes and the city were burned mercilessly. Those on the dockside who were brave enough jumped into the Aegean waters hoping to swim to allied ships docked in the harbour. And to silence the screams of those who were drowning and who were being butchered, the ships’ officers ordered the bands on the decks to play and to turn their backs and to play more loudly.

It was just one of the early examples of genocide in 20th century Europe. And because the bands played on, because we turned our backs on the plight of religious and ethnic refugees, “ethnic cleansing” – no, ethnic massacre – became an instrument of social and political policies in Europe. Within two decades, six million Jews and countless numbers of Gypsies were slaughtered across Continental Europe.

It has happened, and it continues to happen again and again in Europe … in Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo … and throughout the world … in Rwanda, Burundi and Darfur.

And so often we are willing to shift the blame for the sufferings that people are forced to bear from humanity to God.

Why didn’t God intervene in Sirince? Why didn’t God stop the Holocaust? Why doesn’t God stop the sufferings in Darfur? Why does God allow racism to happen in Ireland?

In reality, of course, God suffers with those who suffer.

In the past, the sufferings of the Suffering Servant in the writings of Isaiah have been identified by Jewish scholars with the sufferings of the whole children of Israel, and in more recent years, by some scholars, in particular with the experiences of the Holocaust.

Christian theologians, on the other hand, have identified Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with the suffering and crucified Christ.

However, the Children of Israel are an example of how God wants to work out his plan of salvation for all people. And Christ in his passion and suffering takes on the suffering of all people, particularly when they are victimised, marginalised, and become the victims of racism. And so, the theme of the Suffering Servant is especially apt and appropriate to apply to the victims of racism this morning, when we consider the theme of today, Racial Justice Sunday.

In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah for Racial Justice Sunday, the Suffering Servant says: “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 from spitting … The Lord God helps; therefore I have not been disgraced … I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near … Let us stand together” (Isaiah 50: 4-9).

We cannot separate who Christ is from what Christ does. In our Gospel reading this morning, Christ asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8: 29). If we say we believe Christ suffered and died for our sins, then we must also say that he takes on the ways we are sinned against.

When people are taunted and spat on in the streets, when their ethnicity and their language become a matter for rejection and humiliation, then how do we respond to it when we think that it is Christ himself who is being spat upon, that Christ himself takes on the insults and the injuries?

The suffering of the Suffering Servant is an image that is drawn on when Christ talks in our Gospel reading this morning from Saint Mark’s Gospel. There he talks about his coming passion and crucifixion, when he says that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed …” (Mark 8: 31).

But suffering and rejection must never have the last word. As Jesus in our Gospel reading reminds us, all sufferings must end in hope: the Son of Man “after three days [will rise] again.” (Mark 8: 31).

All suffering must eventually be put to an end, because that is the promise of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

How are we going to be witnesses to the promise and the hope that racism and prejudice will come to an end?

To be true followers of Christ means taking up our cross and following him. (Mark 8: 34). There is no shame in being Christ-like (Mark 8: 38). And so we too must be willing to see any insult or taunt, any expression of prejudice and rejection, any racism and any discrimination based on ethnicity, language, colour or looks, is prejudice against Christ, is prejudice against the Body of Christ, is prejudice against all of us, is prejudice against me.

How is racism manifest in Ireland today? In my book, Embracing Difference, I have pointed out that immigrants and asylum seekers in Ireland suffer disproportionately when it comes to industrial accidents and poor wages.

Statistics show they are more likely than Irish-born residents to be the victims of violent crime, including murder, to end up in prison, to be the victims of racism, to be killed in road traffic accidents, and to be the victims of workplace accidents, including fatal accidents.

And those same statistics show that a disproportionate number of the children admitted to our hospitals are the children of asylum seekers.

If they suffer like this, then how ought we to respond as Christians? In our New Testament reading this morning, the Apostle James says when we see someone suffering, our faith demands that we respond. It’s not enough just to meet the needs of people in terms of providing food and clothing and shelter. We also have an obligation to stand up for their rights (James 2: 14-18).

I am not going to dare suggest how anyone should vote in the Lisbon referendum. But I am already worried about the type of nationalism and exclusivism that has found voice in the referendum campaign. And I am worried too that as unemployment continues to rise in Ireland, more and more of the blame for unemployment will be placed on the new immigrants and arrivals, on the stranger in our midst, rather than on our political and economic decision-makers who have created the mess we are in today.

In his book, Faith in the Future, the British Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, says: “The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19: 18) ... But … in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.”

For Jesus says that in welcoming the stranger , we welcome Christ himself: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me …truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did to me” (Matthew 25: 42-45).

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. He is the author of
Embracing Difference and a contributor to the recently-published China and the Irish. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 13 September 2009, on the occasion of Racial Justice Sunday.

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