Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 63: 7-19) transports me to the Catholic “Calendar of Saints,” where you’ll find a daily list of venerated Christians remembered for lives of faithful service, sometimes to the point of martyrdom. One of today’s remembered saints is Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, a priest who served in Santiago, Chile throughout the 1930s and 40s until his death from pancreatic cancer on this day in 1952. He is especially remembered for his deep love for and ministry with the poor. He established shelters for homeless and abandoned children, a youth program similar to our Boys and Girls Clubs, and founded the Chilean Trade Union Association to further the cause of worker’s rights under the auspices of a Christian labor movement. His pioneering work among the marginalized of Latin America foreshadowed the later emergence of liberation theology in the 1970s, a theology much berated today by reactionary commentators who would have their listeners believe that work for the poor and a focus on social justice is a perversion of the gospel.
Another venerated saint in Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet Isaiah, would have a hard time swallowing this critique. In our passage today, he does what all liberation theologians do; he uses the exodus story as his point of departure for defining how God acts in the world. In writing about how God has been both friend and foe to the faith community, Isaiah calls to mind the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. When the oppressed slave workers cast all their cares upon the Lord, God set the Holy Spirit among them, sending that glorious arm of power to be at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them, freeing them from Pharaoh’s madness. But as our passage tells us, the zeal and might and glorious arm of power has now turned against the freed slaves, because in their rush to greatness they adopted the very value system of the empire they were liberated from, a value system of oppression and violence and idolatry. The tenderness and compassion of God is now absent from them. The prophet prays for its return, which will come when the people are liberated from their own madness and recover their own compassion for the poor, the stranger, the helpless, and when they give up their own zeal for worldly might and power. Just as the glorious arm of God worked through Moses’ right hand to bring plagues on Pharaoh’s land as a means of liberating the captive slaves, that same glorious arm, that same Holy Spirit, is at work plaguing the rebellious covenant community until they recover their trust in God. Once recovered, more saints can be added to the calendar.
There is an interesting movement in Baptist life to create a calendar of saints similar to that used in the Catholic tradition. Steve Harmon, a theologian at Gardner-Webb’s School of Divinity, draws on the work of the late Baptist theologian James McClendon and commends a Baptist practice of commemorating the lives of exemplary Christians as a means of ensuring that worship is a truly participatory rehearsal of the biblical story of the Triune God, one in which the divine narrative is intertwined with the stories of the members of the communion of saints, including those within and those beyond the local worshipping church. As I contemplate Steve’s call for suggestions for saints to include in that calendar, I can’t help but think of my Aunt Edna, who died yesterday from the same disease that took the life of Alberto Hurtado. Edna succumbed to pancreatic cancer after suffering for many years with other significant health challenges. I will have the honor of delivering her eulogy on Saturday, and so I have been thinking about what a witness she gave, enduring many long years of suffering with grace and compassion and a ready smile, and modeling a tremendous depth of love for family, community, and church. She has now experienced her own liberation from the pain and oppression of disease, and takes her place around the throne of God. We often imagine heaven being a reunion time with loved ones, and it very well may be, but I’d like to think of it also as a time to meet new friends, new brothers and sisters in the family of faith. And so I’d like to imagine Christ introducing Aunt Edna to Alberto Hurtado, knowing that each of these saints has a lot to learn from the other about liberation and the mighty power of God.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.