“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard on the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:1-4a, 6b-7, 9
In this passage from Isaiah that is brimming over with significance for this day and this hour, the prophet describes the qualities that characterize the divinely inspired servant of God.
Among the attributes the true servant displays are these: he will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard on the street—which is to say that the voice of the genuine servant of God will be gentle and soft-spoken without a hint of bluster, bravado, or fear mongering.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench—this suggests that the true servant will be tender-hearted and long-suffering.
The servant will faithfully bring forth justice—he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth—we might interpret this to mean that the servant of God will be tireless and unswerving in bringing comfort and relief to those languishing in darkness and despair.
How different our public discourse would be if it was more governed by these qualities!
So I invite you to let Isaiah’s portrait of the servant in whom God delights hover in the background as we consider the state of our nation.
The Helena Street bridge is currently closed while it undergoes a structural make-over.
If you were in the habit of driving across the bridge or traveling past it on your way up Riverside, you may have noticed on the northwest corner of the bridge right above the concrete seat for pedestrians an inscription consisting of the date “1925”, presumably the date the bridge first opened to traffic.
You may have also noticed next to this inscription a whimsical piece of snail-like filigree that must have been the stonemason’s finishing touch and that let you know that a human had been at work there.
In all likelihood, these remnants of yesteryear have already fallen victim to the jackhammer and demolition crew.
But think about it—this bridge has carried traffic back and forth for nearly a hundred years—this sturdy survivor is a tribute to the dedication and craftsmanship of the original bridge builder.
Although this project pre-dated the Great Depression by a few years, it was a kind of precursor to all those durable structures that were conceived and underwritten by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
I grew up in a family of Republicans.
There was only one relative who was a Democrat and he was regarded with some suspicion.
It was rare in our family circle to hear anything complimentary about President Roosevelt or his wife Eleanor.
But as the nation recovered from the Depression, I remember hearing the adults around me expressing grudging approval for Roosevelt’s back to work program that had given employment to millions of destitute citizens including Dust Bowl refugees and those dependent on bread lines for their meager daily provisions.
Here was this patrician president articulating the panic and desperation that gripped the nation—he said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Roosevelt offered an unvarnished, unflinching account of the state of the nation—he spoke of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
After this stark assessment, he proposed a daring remedy.
In March 1935 Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration.
In defense of this legislation, he said, “Today we re-consecrate our country to long cherished ideals in a suddenly changed civilization. In every land there are always at work forces that drive men apart and forces that draw men together. In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else we all go down, as one people.”
In its eight year history, the WPA employed 8.5 million people and built or improved 103 golf courses, 953 airport landing fields, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,000 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 miles of highways and roads.
In addition, the WPA hired artists, writers, musicians, and photographers to travel the length and breadth of this country to bring some semblance of entertainment and culture to a demoralized public and to remind citizens in rural, out of the way places they were not forgotten.
For many Americans, the concerts performed by the WPA’s 238 orchestras and bands were their first chance to hear live music.
And many of the structures built by the WPA have stood the test of time and still serve a useful purpose like the cabins and recreational facilities at Watoga State Park in West Virginia where my wife’s family has often vacationed.
And whatever the merits and demerits of President Roosevelt’s administration, he was able to convince many disheartened Americans that we’re all in this together.
There have been those occasions in our history when our dear republic seemed to be on the verge of coming apart at the seams—never more so than when citizens took up arms against each other in the bloody ordeal of the Civil War.
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that Abraham Lincoln’s whole philosophy “was not to waste precious energies of recrimination about the past.”
Lincoln’s towering strength was evident in his selecting for his cabinet those who had vigorously opposed him.
Goodwin suggests that Lincoln’s genius consisted of his magnanimous tolerance of dissent while at the same time never wavering in his determination to save the union.
It could be said that Lincoln came to prominence at the very time when his particular strengths were most needed for the preservation of our national identity.
So the aura of despair that swept across this land during the Civil War and the Great Depression was greatly alleviated by the emergence of new, inspired voices that calmed the roiling waters, voices that no one could have predicted.
Now we have just come through a bitterly contested, seemingly endless election campaign.
The level of animosity and rancor that dominated the campaign exposed major fault lines in our society that startled many of us.
Maybe we didn’t realize how many of our fellow citizens felt that the train of progress had moved on while they were left at the station wringing their hands.
Many of us were unaware that the prevailing mood of a large swath of the population was a simmering stew of resentment and desperation.
Many of us who were shocked by the results have been suffering bouts of extreme apprehension and alarm about how the after-effects of this election might play out.
Contrary to the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s hard to see how in the near term the political prospects for our country can be anything but extreme divisiveness.
And so it is that the last verse from that passage of Isaiah we have just heard has an uncanny resonance in this political season.
“See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
In this text we are assured that new things are springing forth even though we cannot yet see them.
New things are springing forth that have not yet appeared on the horizon, new things that will offer us the possibility of health and healing at every level of our existence—personal, social, and political.
This doesn’t mean that some version of utopia will be delivered at our doorstep.
What it does mean is that new things are springing forth that can fortify and enlighten us and give us new hope for ourselves, our neighbor, and our nation.
The prophet Isaiah urges us to be primed and ready for the new to come among us.
We are called to wait with expectancy and hopefulness for those new things, those seedlings, that are springing forth but which we cannot yet see.
We are called to trust in the help that has not yet arrived.
We’re not talking about new things that are glittering and fashionable that turn out to be shallow and short-lived.
We’re talking about new things that will raise us up out of the doldrums, rejuvenate us, and replace our heaviness of spirit with freshness, buoyancy, and passion.
We’re talking about new things suddenly appearing that can fill us with gratitude for the simplest pleasures—like the young man who was getting used to a new prosthetic arm who was overjoyed to discover that he could feel a breeze on that new arm.
We’re talking about new things springing forth that can awaken in us a fervent desire to be neighborly, kind, courteous—the kind of courtesy that does not go out of fashion—the kind of courtesy shown to me by a fellow shopper at the grocery store when I asked her if she knew where the Bisquick was and she immediately left her cart, briskly walked to another aisle, and announced with pleasure, “Here it is!”
We’re talking about new things springing forth that can help us and a majority of the citizens of this country rediscover those old American virtues of gratitude, generosity, and hospitality.
And what a good and necessary thing this is—because I’m persuaded that the only effective counter-measure to our country’s divisiveness and cynicism is a sustained groundswell of extreme gratitude and extreme hospitality.
A woman named Dani Schulkin contributed this vignette to the New York Times.
“Dear Diary: It happened less than 40 hours after the Paris attacks and, at the time, I was still nervous about taking the subway. ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round,’ murmured a little girl sitting next to me on the train. She was dutifully practicing her nursery school songs, much to the amusement of the entire subway car. It was your standard New York City mix of people, languages, accents, and smells. But we were all mesmerized by a little girl innocently practicing her ABC’s. Then she started to sing a classic: ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands….clap! clap!’ Without hesitation, we—the random New York City subway car passengers—all joined in for the chorus, dutifully clapping and stomping at the behest of our conductor. She was so tickled she almost cried. But she giggled her way to the finale: ‘If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it/If you’re happy and you know it, shout ‘Hurray.’” And we bellowed, ‘Hurray!’ As she exited, we eyed each other awkwardly with smiles still plastered on our faces. Though our leader was lost, our moment of solidarity lingered.”
Yes, if we keep our eyes and ears open to what’s going on around us, perhaps we can discern the first fruits of our coming together, the first signs of the mending of our social fabric, the first indications that we are beginning to reclaim that venerable and worthy truth—that we are one nation indivisible, the United States of America. Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church