Some of you know that I have chronic migraine headaches. They’ve been part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was finally diagnosed in my mid-twenties, I began to very seriously pursue getting well. I decided that I would do whatever I had to in order to be rid of the pain. What I discovered is that some of the purported cures had pain of their own. There were dietary restriction that included a ban on peanut butter, ice cream, and pizza, among other things. I had to establish a consistent sleep pattern, which meant that even on the weekends, I got up and went to bed at the same time each day. I was careful with my intake of caffeine and sugar. I exercised regularly. I drank an inordinate amount of water. But despite my best efforts, the headaches continued. And so I saw more doctors. I had all kinds of tests. I heard all kinds of opinions. Eventually, I decided that I would try some alternative methods, so I went to an acupuncturist. Some people claim that acupuncture doesn’t hurt, but needles between my toes hurt! The acupuncturist also used those heated suction cups all over my body, leaving me covered with bruises. I tried every supplement anyone ever suggested. I read every article. I put Ben Gay on my temples. I rubbed peppermint oil onto the roof of my mouth. Most recently, I’ve started wearing a contraption on my head for twenty minutes a day that shocks me with painful electrical currents that are supposed to disrupt the nerve spasms in my head. Like other sick people, like some of you, I so badly want to be cured of what ails me that I am willing to experience some pain now in hope of relief later.
Isn’t it ironic that this is how healing and recovery work? Medicine can be bitter. Sometimes get worse before you get better.
Once or twice a year, I go on retreat to the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Westpark, NY. Chris Amy turned me on to that wonderful place a few years ago now. And every time I am there, I’m struck by the Latin words engraved over the front door: “Crux est mundi medicina.” “The Cross is the medicine of the world.”
I think that’s true. But I used to think of that in purely personal terms. “The cross is the medicine for James.” It was all about me being forgiven and cleansed of my sins. And there is something to that. On some cosmic level, the cross of Christ does save me and save you. But it also saves the world. The cross is the medicine of the world, for what ails the world. But like other harsh treatments, the cross can cause more pain before it brings relief, because the cross stands witness against the violence and injustice of the world and demands that we take another way.
The book of Isaiah is actually at least three books that scholars refer to as I, II, and III Isaiah. It was compiled over many years and reflects the political and religious realities of different people in different times. But maybe it was made into one book because of its strong common themes – the same themes that flow through all of the Hebrew prophets: justice for the oppressed, liberation for the captives, and welcome for refugees. These are universal themes that speak to universal needs. Everyone wants justice. Everyone needs mercy. Everyone deserves food and shelter and love. But what we want and what we get are often two different things. Most human societies are built in such a way to reward the few by denying the many. And so prophets, in every age, rail against the abuses around them and call for lives of common sacrifice so that there is equity and justice for all. The Bible calls that the Kingdom of God.
Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. And Isaiah did too. But the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of this world are often mirror opposites. And so prophets are rabble rousers, pointing out all the inconsistencies. Prophets are like doctors, finding an illness, announcing the cure and then saying: “This is going to hurt a little.” And hurt it did. Isaiah attacked the thing they were most proud of: their religion and their public displays of piety.
I was struck as I watched the conventions at our own public displays of piety. Our piety is a civil religion, washed in red, white and blue, worshipful of military strength, unquestioning of blind patriotism and always invoking these magic words: “God bless America.”
In Isaiah’s day, the public displays of piety consisted of things like burnt offerings and incense and Sabbath celebrations and convocations and solemn assemblies and new moon gatherings and festivals. There was music and the swirl of vestments and the sound of a thousand voices. There was the recitation of beautiful words and pomp and circumstance. It was enough to make your heart thrill, almost as good as a balloon drop. But God hated it all. Isaiah is really clear about that. God hated it.
But why? How could God hate something so beautiful and inspiring? And isn’t worship the work of the people of God? Indeed it is. But there was a problem. It was piety divorced from justice. The ceremony was beautiful, but society was broken. “Your hands are full of blood,” the prophet declared. “What you say you will do for the people and what you actually do are two very different things. You’re sick and you need a cure. And this might hurt a little.”
The cure of justice hurts because it costs something. Real justice demands a more equal sharing of the earth’s bounty. It means that the rich are not quite as rich so that the poor won’t be quite as poor. Those are fightin’ words in America, especially during an election year. And living into them may hurt, but it will also most certainly heal.
Isaiah put it like this: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Notice that each of these phrases begins with an action word, a command: learn, seek, rescue, defend, plead. If Isaiah were talking to us he might say, “Stop talking about justice in your calls to worship and prayers of confession and communion liturgies, and get busy doing justice. Make it real.”
So, Isaiah’s words are meant for us, the people of God, but they’re not just for us. The cross is the medicine of the world. And we are the people of the cross. Jesus said that those who follow him are salt and light in society, meaning that we don’t only need the medicine ourselves; we also dispense it. We embody good news to the poor, and then we become the stone in the shoe of any political party, left or right, that ignores the poor. We embody release for the captives and welcome to strangers, and then we become pains in the behind in city halls and statehouses and the capital whenever captives or strangers are ignored or abused or scapegoated.
This passage ends with these lovely words: “Come, let us reason together, says the Lord…” This verse can also be translated as “Come, let us correct the situation.” And isn’t that wonderful?! If God invites us to correct the situation, then that means that we can! The message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus, the message of the cross and the Resurrection is that despite what ails us, as individuals or as a society, transformation is always possible. It might involve some bitter pills, some surgery, some sacrifice, some rehabilitation, but we can change. By God’s grace, we can change. And so can the world.