Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 12th of Ninth Month, 2021
Speaker: Anthony Kirk
Scripture: Isaiah 50:4-9 (NRSV)
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 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 spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Today’s scripture was written during a challenging time in Israel’s history. It was during the Babylonian exile, around 587 B.C. I can imagine that the Israelites were exhausted. Frustrated. Wondering when the separation from their sacred land would end. I bet their hearts were weary. And during that time, here comes an unnamed servant. An ordinary person given a special calling. Given by God “the tongue of a teacher, that he may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (50:4a). He knew God was teaching him. He was willing to listen. God put a message on his heart to share with those around him. He followed God’s call; the servant “was not rebellious, he did not turn backward” (50:5).
This servant sounds like people in our world today. We can bring this unnamed servant into our own turbulent world. People like this servant still exist and are engaged in public ministry. As Friends, we believe that public ministers are not just pastors or evangelists. Public ministry takes many forms beyond the church. Activists, educators, writers, and medical professionals, for example. Folks who are working towards a better world. Healing the sick. Speaking truth to power. Teaching us about our pasts, present, and potential futures. Preaching and writing for folks to hear and read. Some feel called by God to their respective ministries. For others, it was by chance or simply because of the work they’re in. No matter how it came to be, I still see them as ministering to us and our communities. We need their voices and actions. We all have them in our lives. And some of us here today are public ministers.
As with many called to public ministries, the servant knew that speaking out was far from easy. Especially in such a difficult time. Our contexts are different, but our feelings are similar. I imagine this unnamed servant was working to lift up the marginalized and folks hurting. I imagine that he spoke truth to the powers that be; both in his own community and outside of it. Some would feel strengthened and hopeful after listening. Others would be challenged by his prophetic message. Rather than resisting, they were open to being taught. Those folks would change and do better. However, the servant understood that his public ministry would be met with hostility, too. He chose not to run from his calling. He accepted the pain he’d be subjected to. The servant tells us that he “gave his back to those who struck him, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; he did not hide his face from insult and spitting” (50:6).
We see today’s public ministers go through this too. Some anticipate and expect it. Others, it comes as a painful surprise. Of course, public ministers—the servant and folks today—can only prepare so much. To be in the public eye in a time like this is difficult. When he spoke out, we know he was met with cruelty. Harsh words. Sometimes even physical violence. So it goes for a public minister now. Protests outside of medical offices; participants mocking, humiliating, and harassing those trying to keep us healthy and safe. Educators threatened because they are called to teach the shadows of our country’s history. Physical and verbal violence perpetrated against activists and advocates seeking equity in our world. Speakers and writers bullied and harassed when they are vulnerable and speak the truth. And, unlike the unnamed servant, it does not just happen in person. Public ministers receive it on social media as well. Insults and spitting in a digital age. In an age where we hear and see it all 24/7.
And yet, the unnamed servant reminds us that the cruel voices aren’t the only voices. He reminds us that there is help for when he is weary. The servant finds his help in God. Just as he trusts that called has called him to teach and comfort, he trusts that She is there for him too. God did not say, “Hey, I’m giving you this call to speak. I’m teaching you what to say and what to do. You’re on your own now, though. When the going gets tough you’ll have to go it alone. Sorry!” Rather, God gives him the strength to persevere. He reminds the servant regularly that his public ministry is righteous and that he is on the right path. Because the servant is doing what’s right, he is better able to minister. God is behind him, and God is alongside him. God is faithful to him as much as he is faithful to Her. They will never leave the servant.
I believe that God is with those in public ministry who seek to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. They live in our hearts and spirits. She guides us with Her Light. He’s always present. At the same time, I’d like to think that servant had more than God alone. I have faith that he had people in his life, too. We are communal creatures, after all. The unnamed servant had people to listen to him when he was stressed. They comforted him when he was discouraged. His friends held and loved him when the strikes, pulled beard, insults, and spitting became too much. They sustained him with their words when he was weary. I trust that it was close friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike that journeyed with him. People didn’t have to know him to care about him. With God’s help and God’s people, the servant could set his face like flint. Get through the public scrutiny and harassment. Stand tall and firm in the wake of it. And when he went home, he had people to boost his spirits and encourage him when he broke down.
Just as the unnamed servant needed support, so do our public ministers today. Sometimes we forget that they are people too. We don’t think about how exhausted they may be after facing attacks and cruelty. Even when things are fine, going out and doing the work is tiring. Depending on the ministry, it can be a lonely road, too. Given the pressure for a public minister to “set their face like flint” (50:7b) it can be hard for them to reach out for support. So sometimes it is up to us to make the first move. It does not matter if we are friends, acquaintances, strangers. We can show up for the weary public minister in many ways. Both publicly and behind the scenes.
On Friday, September 10th, a group of about 40 folks publicly gathered to thank those who work for the health department for their efforts. Some of you may have been there. It was in response to the Voice of Patriots, a group that does not support vaccines or wearing masks. I can imagine that those loud, angry voices were discouraging and frustrating for our public ministers in the medical field. They didn’t have the last word, though. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers showed up to show their love and support. Erica Pearson, a demonstrator, told the Pal-Item that "We just want people to know that there is another point of view…We know that there were people who came out before and were demonstrating against masks and vaccines, and we just want people to understand that there are many, many who support vaccines and masks.” Friday’s demonstrators showed up for these weary workers. Reminded them that many do support their efforts to keep folks healthy. I have faith that the public support was a word to some healthcare ministers’ weary and frustrated souls.
Along with public acts of support and encouragement, there are private ones as well. I have experienced this in my own life. I have been called to teach people about the transgender community. I am also called to help queer people of faith see and feel that God loves and accepts them as they are. No matter what the church says, Jesus loves them. Recently, I was in a Quaker Speak interview about being a transgender pastor. I talked about my calling and offered words of hope and encouragement to queer people of faith. I would not have done it if it were not for all the love and support I’ve received from friends, acquaintances, and strangers over the years. The hateful and cruel remarks flooding the comments section of YouTube still hurt. I accept that I’ll receive such nasty treatment my whole life. But I get through it and persist in this public ministry. My faith in God and the tenderness I receive behind closed doors allow me to do that. Cards and comments from strangers. Conversations with friends when I’m down and discouraged. People sending me words of affirmation when the hatred of my people gets to me. Without these things, I would have given up long ago.
The public minister and servant cannot do their work alone. Public ministers need love, support, and encouragement too. Not only from our faithful God, but from the Body of Christ, too. They cannot be effective without it. It leads me to ask, Who will be there for the public minister? How will folks show love, care, and support for them? As we enter into Waiting Worship, I offer this query: “In what ways can I show up for a public minister in my life?”