Gus was born in Nicaragua in 1935.Throughout all of Gus’s childhood and early life, Nicaragua was embroiled in civil war and violent conflict. Given its geography and potential for a canal from Atlantic to Pacific, the United States believed that it had a financial and strategic interest in the country. Therefore, for most of these years, the US either occupied Nicaragua outright or supported puppet leaders who served US interests. There were those who opposed those interests, but they were often removed violently. Eventually, Nicaragua became a front for the Cold War between the US and the USSR, leading to even more violence and more death.
Throughout this violence and unrest of Gus’s early years, his father was a Baptist pastor in the capital of Managua. Gus would go with his father and see the devastation that this political unrest had caused. They would visit the homes of the people, often in desperate poverty. Many saw even greater desperation as their husbands and fathers were killed in the ongoing wars. Gus’s father sat with them, and prayed with them, and listened to their stories. But the whole time, Gus wanted to do more. He wanted to bring about a different level of healing to his people. He, like his father, felt a calling into ministry and to care for his people. But little did he know what God would do with that calling, and what God would do with Gus.
Today’s Scripture passage tells a story similar to Gus’s. Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, close to Joel from last week. Like Gus’s Nicaragua, warring empires in other parts of the world ended up having a devastating effect on the people of God in the land of Judah. After the Egyptians. After the Assyrians. After the Babylonians. After the Persians. After every empire for several hundred years had taken what it wanted from the Israelites, there was next to nothing left. The Persians allowed the Israelites to return to the land. But it had been a hundred years. The original Exiles were long dead, and it was their children and grandchildren who returned, who had never lived anywhere but Babylon. They returned to a people with whom they shared a faith, but there was no relationship, no trust, no community, no common anything. The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah show that violence and unrest and civil war that took place between the Israelites who came back and the Israelites who had stayed. Like the last 100 years in Nicaragua, there was unrest and war and rubble and destruction.
So, here, the voice of God continues to speak. Again, like with Joel last week, the prophet is not the one who needs to create unrest. Create discomfort. There is plenty of that to go around. The Israelites are at the mercy of the local warlords who have taken over during the Exile. They are at each other’s throats, infighting and distrustful of each other. Physically, they have nothing but rubble to come back to. It feels as though the Exile has taken everything away. The prophet laments the overwhelming loss.
A meaningful and ancient way of looking at a passage of Scripture is to ask “where am I in the story?” As we read Isaiah 61, we may not like the answer we find. The first time I went to Nicaragua, I was a little taken aback by the attitude that Nicaraguans had toward The United States. Here we were, coming to help, but there was an attitude of skepticism and cynicism about that help. I saw it again when we went to Haiti a few years ago. In general, the Nicaraguan people like Americans, but they don’t necessarily like America. They don’t like American policies and American military and American government. The more I found out about the history that I shared at the beginning, I could see why. At the hands of interventionist Americans, the people of Nicaragua have suffered greatly. If you read the story of Isaiah in a Bible study at the First Baptist Church of Managua, Nicaragua, the church that Gus’s father started, they would say “Babylon and Persia are the United States and the USSR. They have destroyed our nation and our people by their warring. And all we are left with is rubble and poverty and pain.” Ouch.
But as painful as it is to hear, I think that is the way that we need to read Isaiah 61. Remember several weeks ago, when we started this exploration of the prophets, I talked about the difference between central prophets like Nathan, who were a part of the king’s court, and marginal or peripheral prophets like Elijah, which spoke from outside the halls of power? Well, the prophet here in Isaiah 61 speaks from WAY outside of power. And we have to hear the chapter from outside of power. This is not a voice of privilege, but one of desperation. This is a person at the end of his rope, speaking to a people at the end of their ropes. We have to read this through the eyes of those who have no stable home, living in tents on the banks of the Kaw River. We have to read this through the eyes of those who have been turned down for job interview after interview, simply because their name sounds like they are Black. And we have to read this through the eyes of Nicaraguans who sit in the rubble of yet another hurricane season, from which they don’t have the infrastructure or the political wherewithal to recover. To those eyes, it doesn’t matter who won the election in November. Because whoever stands in their $8,000 suit in January and takes the oath, these people will still be at the end of their ropes, watching those in power play political games while they die.
That’s Isaiah 61.
But so is this:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
This is also where we find ourselves in the story: receiving the good news of Isaiah to all people, and being given the opportunity to share that good news with the world! Isaiah here speaks a lot about joy….and release…and freedom…and justice. But it is not the joy that we speak of, where we sit in our privilege in front of a roaring fire and enjoy a warm drink and look at a tree littered with gifts. This is a joy for those who have had no joy. This is a life-saving, life-altering joy, for those at the end of their ropes. Look how embodied that joy looks like in Isaiah. It is practical. Visceral. Particular. Embodied joy. This passage speaks of how God will rebuild and restore and recreate…from deep in their bones all the way to the thrones of power. Look again at this embodied joy…
The first verse of the chapter talks about declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. You may know that Isaiah here is referring to the Year of Jubilee. Way back in Leviticus, when God was ordering for the people how they would govern, God built in a concept called Jubilee. Basically, every 50 years, there would be an economic reset. Those who were at the end of their ropes, those who had been forced to sell themselves into debt servitude, those who were struggling and afraid…were forgiven. Debt wiped out. Fortunes restored. It was a reset that brought back the larger community to an embodied justice and joy. Here, Isaiah reminds the people of this concept, and says that their rebuilding must include this economic justice. What if we took Isaiah seriously? In a nation where the racial and gender income gap has been growing more quickly and deeply that now a white male under 35 is 224 times more wealthy than a black female the same age… In a world where healthy people in some countries will get COVID vaccines before vulnerable people in others will… In a world where a lot of people still look with skepticism on the greed and abuse of power of the Empires of the day, we need God’s Jubillee more than we ever have! The joy of God’s Spirit must be baked into the very structures and systems of our world! Those at the end of their ropes must be the ones upon which the entire system is based. God’s law must create the way forward for our laws. And Jubilee must be a way of life and embodied joy. That we all might receive God’s blessing and forgiveness and freedom, not just a select few.
Second, we funnel down, as Isaiah talks about joy embodied in our community. Remember that these people were coming back to next to nothing. For generations, God’s people have become a laughing stock. But part of the joy that Isaiah speaks of is a restoration of dignity.: “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Remember back early in the days of sheltering in place, when people had worn the same pair of sweatpants for several weeks in a row. Some folks decided that they were going to dress up. No event to go to. No party to attend. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t wear their party dresses and best suits, even if they were just walking the dogs! It was a part of the restoration of dignity. Of honor. Isaiah gives the people a similar word. There will come a day when you will have your dignity back, and you will wear your wedding finery, just to walk the dog. It was the work of God to bring dignity to those at the end of their ropes. I think that this is part of what we do when we participate in Family Promise, and LINK, and Habitat for Humanity. While 2020 feels like we have all been reduced to rubble, it is even more dire for those at the end of their ropes. I know that we have grieved as a congregation, not being able to participate in Family Promise like we normally do. But good news is around the corner. Wendy Wheeler and I have both been asked to take leadership positions 2021 with Family Promise of Lawrence. I have agreed to serve on the Board of Directors, and Wendy will become a Congregational Care Coordinator, with a larger role supporting multiple congregations in the network. We will be your missionaries to do the work of rebuilding the community. Of restoring dignity to all of God’s children, throughout our community.
Finally, the joy that Isaiah speaks of is embodied literally in our bodies. As many of us know, health is not a given. COVID-19 has reminded us of this again, but many of us have known for a long time the way that bodies break down. The way that health is a fragile thing. A simple accident or mishap, and it can change our bodies forever. As one congregation member told me this week, “getting old ain’t for sissies!” But for those who are at the end of their rope, that is even more dire. An accident for those without workers comp, or an illness for those without insurance. Our bodies are at risk. But the joy that Isaiah speaks of is a bodily joy! Physical healing happens. You have likely figured out that this passage from Isaiah is the one that Jesus read in his sermon to his own community synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. These values from Isaiah 61 are the very values upon which Jesus built his ministry, including this embodiment of joy. Health and healing was core to his ministry. Jesus’ ministry of healing was not just about parlor tricks to show off that he was the Messiah. This was a core part of his presumption that the God of Isaiah 61 is the God of healing bodies.
It was the thing that changed the course for Gus. Many of you probably figured out that I was talking about Gustavo Parajon, saint in American Baptist circles and in the country of Nicaragua. He saw that spiritual healing and physical healing were tied together. So, not only did he become the pastor at his father’s church in Managua, but he also became a medical doctor. He started medical clinics and hospitals and relief agencies because of the assumption that joy must be embodied in our physical beings. AMOS, the group that we have been working with, trains people from the very villages that he visited with his father, so that they can work to bring healing and physical restoration to the bodies of God’s children. So that they might find this embodied joy. As our Nicaragua team begins thinking about 2021 and how to pray for and support the work happening there, we remember the legacy of Gustavo Parajon. As the ABC posted when he passed away a few years ago, “Gustavo’s integral witness to the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ has been a shining beacon in the midst of extraordinarily dark and difficult situations.” Now, a decade after his death, once again the world faces dark and difficult days. But just like the hope of Isaiah. Just like the hope of Jesus. Just like the life of Gustavo Parajon, we are invited to hear and to speak the word of joy, that lives in our world, in our communities, and indeed, deep in our bones.