4/28/19 - Never Forgotten At All - Isaiah 65:17-25

Never Forgotten At All

Isaiah 65:17-25

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

April 28, 2019

There are all kinds of stories from World War II – stories of rampant evil, stories of self- sacrifice, of courage and stories of resilience. One of the good stories is about the liberation of a POW camp in the Philippines. The prisoners were survivors of the Bataan Death March, who had been held in the most brutal conditions for three long years. Many had died during the long forced march.  Others had died of malnutrition and disease in the camp. Some had been executed.  The survivors had about given up hope.

Then one day in January 1945, 121 U.S. Rangers emerged from the jungle.  After a brief skirmish, the camp guards fled and the gates were thrown open. Recounting this story in his book Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides writes:

Slowly, the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners. They were reacting with a kind of catatonic ecstasy, numb and inarticulate. One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead. All he could he say was "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!" Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face. "I thought we’d been forgotten," the prisoner said. "No, you’re not forgotten," Robbins said. "We’ve come for you."

With the help of many heroic Philippinos, the liberated prisoners, sick, weak, frail, made their way all the way back to the Allied lines. Finally they saw an American flag set in the turret of a tank. It wasn’t much of a flag, but for the men it was galvanizing. [POW]Ralph Hibbs remembers that his heart stopped. It was the first Stars and Stripes he’d seen since the surrender three years earlier. "We wept openly, and we wept without shame" [1]

They were free. They were home. They weren’t forgotten at all.

We don’t have the same kind of details about the day when the Israelites were liberated.  They had been in exile in Babylon for 50 years. They thought God had surely forgotten them.  They were so far away from their homeland, the place where they believed God dwelt.  Psalm 137, whose “every line is alive with pain” [2],  remembers that time “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  . . .  “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” 

The long book of Isaiah moves from the failure and destruction of Jerusalem to its redemption and restoration.  Our reading from chapter 65 is the good part, the restoration, the declaration of a second chance, a newness created by God.  It is addressed to those POWS in Babylon who were liberated and allowed to go home.  They were not forgotten at all. 

Going home was what they had yearned for. Only they came home to discovered a city in shambles, a war-ravaged homeland.  Whatever hope they had clung to in exile must surely have been tested by the reality that greeted them in Jerusalem. 

And into that dismal reality, God envisions a future with a new economy where people live securely in the homes they build and enjoy the fruits of the vineyards they tend;   a future of incredible peace where no one and nothing is ever hurt or destroyed.

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard”  God says.  “They shall not bear children for calamity.” 

I wonder how that sounds  to the mothers in Yemen where 85,000 children have died from starvation and preventable disease during the war there in the last 4 years and another 1.8 million under the age of five suffer acute malnutrition.[3]

“They shall not bear children for calamity.”  It seems like a low bar for most of us with privilege, but surely it is the most fervent hope of every parent in Syria and Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador and Flint.

This passage is the lection from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned to Easter Sunday.  Don’t tell the lectionary police that we’re reading it today instead.  I think it is assigned for Easter because the new Jerusalem seems as fantastic, as unbelievable, to the returning exiles as the presence of the Risen Christ does to Jesus’ disciples. The two readings have in common the idea that God is creating anew, beginning again to accomplish the redemption of the world.

Easter was pretty great wasn’t it? Our worship was wonderful, with some new faces among us and beautiful music and more than one spontaneous alleluia, and the preaching wasn’t awful. But life probably returned to normal by Monday. We saw the death toll from the bombings in Sri Lanka and the mass graves there, and the wars being fought around the world went on and the violence  and injustice. .  The idea that no one or nothing was at risk of being hurt or destroyed ever again probably did not even cross our minds. 

Here we are  -- one week after Easter 2019, 2000 years after the first Easter --  and really not much seems to have changed.  I mean the idea that Resurrection makes a new reality for all of creation is great theology, but it seems kind of long on theory and short on practice. As a Christian pastor, that’s surely not what I’m supposed to say. Some might think its another indication that I really need to go on sabbatical. But as a person who also happens to be a Christian pastor, I don’t want to mouth meaningless platitudes that sound like pie-in-the-sky by-and-by. 

On Friday night, we showed the movie Icebox, about a child from Honduras held by ICE after he crossed the border outside a legal port of entry.   About 60 people showed up to watch it.  About 20 people stuck around for some conversation afterwards. What I heard in that group and in some one-on-one conversations was a sense of outrage that children are being treated this way, a fear that history is the verge of repeating itself with references to the holocaust, and enormous frustration that the systems which people like us expect to work at our behest are not working at all.  Or more accurately, they are working to undermine everything we thought they were set up to support and protect.

If this 2500-year-old text of Isaiah 65 projects an end to violence and war and exploitation of the poor, it would sure be nice if we could get a glimpse of that happening somewhere by now.  All we can see are traumatized children whose future is being destroyed in front of us and we seem powerless to make it stop.  The beautiful passage, which I have always loved, seems to hold out unrealistic hope.  Now I’m not ready to give up on hope, but I don’t want to be a dupe either. 

And then I remember some things. I remember that the people who responded to Jesus’ earthly ministry were the ones whom everyone else had mostly forgotten or ignored, the ones fresh out of future. I remember that “one of the major themes of the Bible is that when people are in real trouble, when people have pretty much exhausted their own resources and concluded that there is no more hope, that they are forgotten, that’s when God shows up.” [4]

I remember that I occupy a place of privilege and that countless faithful people have continued to bear hope with joy in the midst of real suffering, the likes of which I will probably never know.   Perhaps I can try to learn faith and hope from them. 

Cardinal Landazuri was a priest in Latin America during the 1960’s and 70’s.  He was one of many who took a costly stand against the human rights abuses by military juntas.  He said “To carry the cross is not simply to endure the inevitable hardships of life; it is also to accept the sufferings imposed by the struggle against injustice and oppression.” [5]

To carry the cross is to join the struggle.  Jesus carried the cross. He joined our struggle, accepted our sufferings as his own. The proclamation of Isaiah 65 is the long-term vision of a God who enters human history to dispel the forces of death, wherever they are at work, to bring forth healing and reconciliation. Those of us who choose to follow Jesus become part of that long-term plan, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

There was a war in Nicaragua in 1978-79 in which the Sandinistas overthrew the Samozas.  The history is complicated, but the result was the loss of tens of thousands of lives and widespread homelessness and displaced persons. And yet, in 1979, a conference of Christians there recorded a list of signs of resurrection. They wrote:

Some signs of the [presence of God] in the midst of our struggling people have been and continue to be:

The hunger of the poor and oppressed for justice,


The presence of women,

The example of unity,

Hospitality and companionship,

The sense of responsibility with which the people has taken up its task of reconstruction, and . . .

the joy, pregnant with hope, that makes the whole people dream of a better tomorrow for everyone and not just for a few.[6]

Two signs of the presence of God, according to those folks in Nicaragua, are the hunger for justice and courage.  I wonder where you might be seeing those signs around you.

Here’s one I’ve seen: Joshua Rubin is a 67-year-old software developer from Brooklyn.  Last year, he drove his RV 2200 miles from New York to Tornillo, TX to protest a tent city set up to house about 4,000 teens separated from their parents at the border.  He was there for 3 months, missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with his own family.  He kept a daily vigil, usually by himself, holding a sign that read “Free Them” or one in Spanish directed to the teens that said, “We are on your side.”  He documented comings and goings of contractors and workers, and the arrivals and departures of children, often at night, on his Facebook page.  Early on he was able to speak directly with the teens, but then black plastic was added to the fence to block that communication. From mid-October 2018, he simply showed up every day to bear witness and report what he saw to his growing number of Facebook followers.  In January of this year, the camp was closed.  It had always been controversial.  It did not close because of his efforts alone, but he called attention to it and kept doing so. One man, with a hunger for justice and the courage to act alone.   Do we dare to call that a sign of God’s presence?

There is a similar child prison in Homestead Florida built a few miles from the Everglades, on an old Job Corps site, on the edge of an Air Force base, where the children are kept in tents and old buildings that were damaged in previous hurricanes.  I call this a prison because the children are not free to leave. Even though they have not been charged with a crime and have not faced a trial for a crime. They are kept in line with threats of delay in their placement with sponsoring families and threats of deportation.  And when they turn eighteen, on their birthdays, they will be handcuffed and transported to an adult jail.   This is a for-profit prison, operated at taxpayer expense, but members of Congress have been denied entry to it, forbidden to see what goes on inside.   This is one of the most blatant manifestations of systemic evil I can imagine.

But here, even here, perhaps especially here, God is at work.  Inspired by Joshua Rubin’s example, people are showing up from all over the country  to keep vigil in Homestead.[7] They are bearing witness with courage and a hunger for justice.  And here’s the thing – every day, when the children are allowed out of doors, every day they turn and look to find those people who are standing outside the fence, on stepladders so they can be seen.  Every day they look to make sure those people are still there, so the children will know they haven’t been forgotten, not forgotten at all.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.



[1] Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission (New York:  Random House, Anchor Books, 2001), p. 278, 317.

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (London: Inter-Varisty Press, 1973), p. 459.

[3] http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/blog/2019/04/11/the-war-in-yemen.3557571

[4] The Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Born to Set Thy People Free”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2009/120609.html

[5] Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1984, 2003), p. 115

[6] Gutierrez, p.120.

[7] https://www.facebook.com/groups/339957239906299/about/