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. Isaiah 50:4
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen!
As we gather across the Body of Christ and begin the schedule of Sunday school and fall activities, Isaiah's attention to the tongue of a teacher reminds me that all of us in the Church have responsibilities. Teachers assigned to that task have special responsibilities; so also do preachers. But all who come together to worship and pray are invited to turn up the volume so that we are all attuned to those who have needs. Isaiah writes that "The Lord God has given me a tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." As Christ's Body, the Church, how may we sustain one another?
The first step toward this good work is to notice those around us. How does weariness make itself known?
Weary ones are near us. They are our neighbors, our family members. Weary ones may even be ourselves. All have need to hear God's sustaining word. Families know the realities of keeping up with the demands of careers and family commitments. For too many, the challenge of unemployment is now real or looming. Worry and isolation straps breadwinners who also serve as the homemakers of our families with doubled or tripled duties. For many, weariness of the body and/or soul begins before the day starts.
Those to whom Isaiah writes know weariness. After years of exile from their homeland, they are once more living in the land of Judah. Isaiah 66:1 suggests work had already begun to rebuild the temple. The return from Babylonian exile has already taken place, but this second exodus has not been as glorious as predicted, and life for the returnees in Judah remains very harsh. They know the need for a word that will sustain. What is the word of the teacher that sustained those addressed by Isaiah? What is the word of the teacher that sustains you and me today?
A novel I recently read helped me think about words that sustain. The description of that novel by Markus Zusak titled The Book Thief is this: It is 1939. Nazi German. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. By her brother's graveside, Liesel Meminger's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger's Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up and closed down. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
Sometimes a book's cover story and my assessment are worlds apart. This book, however, is worth reading. It is a superb entry into the conversation about what it means to be "sustained by a word."
The story begins with Liesel Meminger as a 9-year-old. In the five years that follow, the reader learns the way that a weary child and her adopted parents, a sheltered Jewish man and town neighbors are sustained by words. The sustaining words come as Liesel's foster father patiently teaches supplementary reading lessons in dark night's when Liesel is haunted by her brother's death. The sustaining words come as Liesel is introduced to more story and tragedy, as she learns of the book, Mein Kampf, written by Adolph Hitler himself, required reading for any "good" German citizen. She is sustained to endure the lies of that work so that she may participate in the life that her foster father and mother give as they choose to risk their lives to hide a young Jewish man who would otherwise be given over to Hitler's way. As Liesel and this young Jewish man named Max come to know each other, words sustain them. Max uses the very pages of a copy of Mein Kampf to, in part, find hope. He white-washes the pages of the book and writes his own creative and sustaining story of how Liesel and her family provide for him. Writing stories of life over a story of death helps me think of faith and its sustaining way.
The life, death and resurrection of Christ provide the sustaining Word, which is our life and hope. Baptismal waters and the Communion meal are the occasions when God's word comes and stays with us, allowing a new page of hope and life to be written each day for us. As Max white-washed and re-wrote what had initially been Hitler's own Mein Kampf, we know pages of history rewritten for us because of God's work on our behalf.
Isaiah offers a poetic image of the teacher whose ear is wakened by the Lord God and whose tongue is given a word to sustain the weary. The teacher (in this case, the prophet) must have his/her ear wakened morning by morning, must "listen as those who are taught," or "like a disciple" or "in the sense of a person at school." This "schooling" of the teacher is accomplished so that the teacher knows how to sustain or answer the weary student with the word. Teacher and student must alike be roused in order to hear and speak, in order to teach and be taught.
Resurrection hope is known for all because Christ has re-written history. Pages of death now give way to washed pages waiting for our stories of life to be written. The Word, stirring and re-creating each one of us, offers life through the work of God in three Persons. Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit are present as pages of human story are washed with life and hope. First at Baptism, sustenance is known with the promise, "Child of God, you have been sealed with the cross of Christ forever. So also, at Communion, the real presence of Jesus Christ is offered so that all may be sustained with "enough" for the journey.
May the Lord God's continuing work of sustaining all the weary with a word be enough for our journey this day and every day. Amen.