Scattered and Gathered

Readings: Psalm 67, Isaiah 56: 1-8

Miami Shores Community Church Interview Sermon

Unlike most parts of the United States, residents of South Florida know a little something about exile. For more than 50 years, Miami has been a landing place for political exiles and refugees from across the Caribbean, Central and South America. Even if we are not exiles ourselves, many of us probably know someone who is, or whose parents or grandparents were. 

So maybe the good folks of Miami Shores are better prepared to understand the book of Isaiah, its concerns and anxieties, than many others might be.

For the writing collected in the book of Isaiah is the tale of the trauma of exile. A true turning point in the Bible, Isaiah is where we start to see interpretations of God transform, from a warrior king to a Good Shepherd, and from a community based purely on blood and kin ties to one based on shared values.

I believe that as a church, we are in the middle, in a sense quite literally, of such an exile moment, so this book, and particularly today’s reading, have much to offer us.

For just as the land that the Israelites returned to was not the same Kingdom of Judah that they were banished from, so too is the religious world that we will be returning to different from March.

Before we dive too deeply, let’s do a little background about Isaiah.  We should probably understand the book of Isaiah as we have it in our Bibles as something more like a compilation, rather than a novel.

Scholars tell us that instead of there being just one person named Isaiah, there were probably three or four different authors who wrote under this name or in this tradition, and who had a faithful editor who helped to harmonize the voices.

As I mentioned before, Isaiah is about the Babylonian Exile. The Exile is perhaps, even more than the story of the Exodus, the defining and transformational moment of the Hebrew people from a political entity into a religious movement and people.

After Kings David and Solomon, there was a civil war, and a split into the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Israel is wiped out and its people dispersed into the winds by the Assyrians; if you’ve ever heard of the “Lost Tribes of Israel”, that’s them.

Our story continues with the Kingdom of Judah, who resist the Assyrians, and through political maneuvering, and an especially reform minded and faithful king, are able to resist the Babylonians for a while.

But eventually, the kingdom fails. Around the year 600 BC, the city of Jerusalem was invaded, looted, and sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, whose name might be familiar. Most of the Jewish elites- especially the political and religious leaders- were sent to live in Babylon, in modern day Iraq.

This was obviously a traumatizing event for them. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and they now had to process why their all-powerful God had failed them.

It is in this environment we see some of our most beautiful lines of scripture come to us.

Isaiah 40 is the source for the beloved advent song, Comfort Comfort ye my people:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

And we have the words of our scripture passage for today.

We start with these lines

“Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.”

What we have here is a call to keep doing the slow and good work of justice, of making sure that we right the wrongs of our society that are odious in the sight of God: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty.

What is also interesting is this is interconnected with the second line, which we might interpret as being about “personal piety.”

This is of course a little different in the Jewish context, but it is easily translatable for us as well.

Those of us with Jewish friends and family or colleagues, might have heard of the idea of observance- how closely and in which ways that particular Jewish individual and their community interprets and observes the Laws as laid out in the Torah and other writings.

These observances are often expressions of piety and closeness to God, serving a function similar to what our own faith in Christ does as Christians.

Thus, our author here is reminding us that there is no separation between justice work and personal devotion. They are part of the interconnected whole because there is no one and nothing in this world that is distant from God.

The next passage picks up on this theme and drives it home:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Let’s pause there for a moment, and try to reflect on just how radical that would have been 2600 years ago.

In those time, religion was synonymous with nation and people. There was no division between church and state, and the king was often a figure to be worshipped alongside any Gods.

Even in the Kingdom of Judah, the fate of the state is tied explicitly to the nature of the “good king” that they have.

So for to God to decouple these ideas, to say your allegiance to God is not a sign of your political allegiance or your cultural heritage would have been baffling.

Yes, this might not be that strange to us now, but let this implication sink in: we are called to organize our lives and communities around shared values, not around a political figure like a king, not based on who our families are related to, or our particular ethnic group or identity.

Yet this goes even further.

Do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, sometimes for punishment, but often as preparation for service as high officials, so that they wouldn’t be tempted, either by sexual activity, or to pass on corrupt wealth to their children.

They existed as a third gender, which was not expected to conform to either the gender roles of men or women, within what was often a harshly binary society.

And they are celebrated here in this passage.

Not tolerated, but celebrated!

Their gender- and remember, issues of gender and sexuality are always linked, is not a hindrance, not something to be overcome, but a part of what makes them human. 

Indeed, the fact that they cannot father children gives them access to a legacy greater than that of people who bear sons and daughters.  If they decide to share in the common life and common values of the people of Israel, they shall have an everlasting name, a line of descendants that shall not be cut off.

In the deeply patriarchal societies of the Ancient Middle East, this would have answered existential prayers that the eunuchs might have had about their legacy and how to live a full life as a human where one could not participate fully.

The one last thing I’ll note in this section of the sermon before we begin to conclude is the most important ask from God to the people is not to follow the sacrifices, it’s not to follow all the rules and regulations around food.  It’s to follow the Sabbath.

This is another thing that is strange in this passage but so lovely at the same time.  To be a full-fledged member of the community, centered on these shared values, open to people of different ethnic groups and genders isn’t even about doing something.

It’s about not doing something. It’s about not working on the Sabbath day.  Religion isn’t to be something we busy ourselves with to make us feel good. It’s about connecting with God and with each other, making the world better in that slow work of justice, about keeping our eyes on the prize and on the horizon even when the world wants us to focus on the short term and what you can do for me now. Our faith is never an opportunity for shame.

So what are we to make about this?

In looking at Bible stories, I tend to do two different things. One is to put myself in the shoes of one of the characters in the story. To think about how I might react, or have reacted, in a similar situation. This is what I did last week in my sermon about Jesus walking on the water and Peter and the disciples in the boat surviving the storm.

The other is to imagine what God would say today to us in a similar situation.

What might God have to say to LGBTQ folks? What promises might God make?

Perhaps, “your faithfulness in spite of persecution by the church gives you a devotion to Jesus Christ that is unmatched. Your legacy shall be the injustices and wrongs you have righted, that your children, and those who follow you will live in a more just and peaceful world.”

What might God say to our immigrant communities, to People of Color making it in a white person’s world in the United States?

“Although they treat you as a foreigner, as though this land was theirs to give, the world belongs to the Lord, and it is yours to live on just as it was for the native peoples who once lived here, for the slaves and farmers who toiled here, for the workers who built this place. You have made this country and this place a tapestry, and it is all the richer for your presence here. Your faith reminds the world that Christianity does not belong only to white men.”

As we dwell in this time of exile from our buildings, reimagining what community means and who we are, let us remember to look back, to work done by our ancestors, both of blood and faith, but also to the future. We might not know what exactly it will look like, but only, because it is born by God, that it will be good.