What Isaiah and the Church in South Korea might say to us in the current refugee crisis. A sermon from the Very Revd Charles Taylor, Dean of Peterborough
Our first reading this morning from the prophecy of Isaiah gave us just a snatch of what is known as the Song of the Suffering Servant; a servant called to be a witness to the nations even if a largely silent witness: “Oppressed and afflicted, he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, he did not open his mouth.” Which reminds me of a prayer card I was given recently, with words to the effect: “Lord, so far today I am doing all right. I have not lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty or selfish. I have not whined, complained, or eaten any chocolate. However, Lord, in a few minutes I will need a lot more help - because I’m about to get up and out of bed!”
But who was, who is, this silently witnessing, suffering servant depicted by Isaiah? Not surprisingly, Christians have interpreted this figure as a prophecy about Jesus himself who, again using words from Isaiah, “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” With the benefit of hindsight, the cap certainly seems to fit.
Yet if we take Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in context, without the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the prophet was writing not so much about an individual as a community – the people of Israel, chosen and called by God for this special purpose of serving, witnessing and suffering. And what we see in the person of Jesus Christ is not only the fulfilment of this vocation, but the extension of it to his own followers, the disciple community – a point forcibly emphasised in this morning’s gospel from St. Mark. As we know, Mark’s gospel was written very much for a Christian community undergoing severe persecution and all the self-doubt that comes with it: “If this Jesus really was the Messiah, why doesn’t he come and save us? For that matter, why didn’t he come down from the cross and save himself?”
Thus it is that Mark set out to demonstrate that Jesus was destined to be a very different Messiah from that of popular expectation; a very different sort power and authority from that exercised by the regional Roman governor installed in the imperial fortress of Caesarea Philippi. Rather, those who would be disciples of Jesus are called to take up their cross and follow him. So it is that Isaiah’s suffering servant illuminates the vocation not only of the Jewish people of his own time or simply the person of Jesus himself; but the vocation of all God’s people in every age, including ourselves as members of that community. We together are to be a light to the nations, that serving, witnessing, suffering servant through whom God is glorified to the world as he was glorified in Christ crucified.
But what is this servant actually to do? What is the nature of our witness and why the call to suffer? Well, if you’ve got the time and inclination, sit down with your Bible and, starting at Isaiah Chapter 42 read through to Chapter 56 verse one. (You’ll find the Book of Isaiah in the OT, by the way, sandwiched between the somewhat racy Song of Solomon and the rather less jolly Jeremiah.) The section begins at Chapter 42:, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold….he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And it concludes at Chapter 56, “Thus says the Lord, Maintain justice and do what is right.” The witnessing, servant community is, as it were, bracketed and defined by a call to justice and righteousness which, while it includes personal morality and legal probity is wider than that. For justice, divine justice, is rooted in the will of God and the loving purpose of God for all creation. One of the great features of the servant song is the invitation it issues not just to Jew or Gentile but to “everyone who thirsts to come to the waters” and “you shall call to nations you do not know.” The servant community is to be an open house, not a closed club; and by implication anything which distorts or denies another person’s equal status in the image of God, that is an injustice and a hindrance to the kingdom we are called to serve and bear witness.
So it becomes the vocation of the servant-community to reaffirm this justice, this loving purpose of God for all, by confronting anything and everything which runs counter to it; not only by talking about justice but, as Isaiah said of the servant, “to bring it forth before the nations.”. As individuals and as a community the servant of God is to be justice, to live it out; and wherever and whenever this is done, then the serving community becomes the witnessing community through which others may see and know the loving nature and purpose of God.
But such witness is costly as is frequently demonstrated when individuals and communities really have witnessed to and stood up for God’s justice; not just in history, from the noble army of martyrs in the early church to more recent “modern martyrs” such as Martin Luther King, Janani Luwum and Oscar Romero; but as is actually the case in many parts of the world as far apart as Syria and Shanghai, parts of North Africa and North Korea - where Christians living beyond the border with our link diocese of Seoul are amongst the most severely oppressed on earth. And if we are to be the servant in whom the Lord delights, then it’s likely to cost us as well, not least because living justice, rather than simply talking about it, calls for the sharing of our resources with open-handed hospitality.
At the end of this month, I will be travelling to Korea with Bishop Donald to join the 125th anniversary celebrations of the Diocese of Seoul, where we will be preaching in their cathedral and other churches over the weekend of 3rd and 4th October. Ten days ago we had a preparatory training session with Deacon Benedict Jun Kim, ordained in Korea and currently serving in the parish of All Saints’ Peterborough and residing in these Precincts. He gave us a few phrases to practise, such as: an-nyeong-ha-se-yo…a polite way to say “hello”; ban-gap-seup-ni-da… “nice to meet you, to meet you nice!” Most important of all in my book, Kam-sa-hap-ni-da…”thank you”; and for this occasion, dae-han sung-kong-hoe baek-e-ship-o-ju-nyeon eul chuk-ha-hap-ni-da - “Congratulations on the 125th anniversary of the Anglican Church of Korea.” I’m not sure yet how to order a large glass of rice wine, but I’m working on it!
Meanwhile, another thing we learned in our training session was the reason behind the rapid growth of Christianity in Korea during the 20th century to the extent that it has overtaken Buddhism as the largest faith-grouping. And it’s no secret – the reason is quite simple: namely the hospitality and shelter given by the Christian churches to refugees from various invasions and oppressions, including the Japanese in the second world war and the communist-sponsored invasion from the north in the 1950s. And some paid a heavy price for this. If you go into St. Nicolas Cathedral in Seoul you can take comfort in the sight and sound of the organ in the west gallery, built by Harrison & Harrison of Durham, who are currently attending to our own; but if you venture into the north transept, there you will find, rather less comfortably, the memorial chapel of Korean martyrs, with photographs of clergy and laity, indigenous and from missionary societies, who simply disappeared, carted off and never seen again. Such was the price paid for sheltering persecuted refugees from the various conflicts. That was the cost of being a suffering servant community; and public opinion, whether manipulated by a you-gov poll or the Daily Mail, was totally and fortunately irrelevant, the least of all considerations. Yet this costly, open-handed hospitality, this risky ministry of welcome, did not result in the annihilation of the suffering-servant Christian community in Korea but was the engine of the churches’ growth. And it certainIy bears out the truth of this morning’s gospel, “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help wondering if all this has something to say to us in the current refugee crisis. It would be disingenuous to pretend that there are easy solutions. The situation is complex and not helped when policy is not carefully thought through but cobbled on the hoof by way of instant response to 24-hour news and social media. Nor does it help that the plight of desperate refugees is often confused with destination-of-choice migration; and there is the risk that unqualified access will lure thousands more to a watery grave in the Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, a humanitarian disaster of almost unparalleled scale is unfolding before our eyes and the casualties are already on our European doorstep. I will be asking the Cathedral Chapter to consider whether it might be possible physically to accommodate any within the Precincts, with all the complexity that that implies in terms of compliance with the legal asylum process and supervision. But in the meantime, the least we can do is to channel some of our outward charitable giving towards agencies with the expertise to help; and our Community Forum emergency collection box in the South Transept is now dedicated to this end.
True, the risks of such open-handed welcome and hospitality might not be as great to us as they were for our Korean partners in mission – some inconvenience perhaps; a little extra cash maybe; or a modicum of insult and spitting from “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” ; but hardly martyrdom or even the pulling out of one’s beard. Yet perhaps this crisis may be at least an equivalent opportunity for witness and service, for mission and ministry in the spirit of the suffering servant - the one “whom God upholds, who will bring forth justice to the nations…and sustain the weary.”
The Very Revd Charles Taylor, Dean of Peterborough
13th September 2015