Gathered and Gathering, Sermon 08.14.11

Gathered and Gathering, Sermon 08.14.11

A sermon on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:21-28, preached at Old First by Minister David Reppert, pastor of Emanuel UCC (Bridesburg).

It’s a great joy to be back at Old First. These days, I serve a congregation in Philadelphia’s Bridesburg neighborhood, in the lower Northeast, where Michael is preaching this morning – and so I’m here. I see lots of familiar faces – which brings great comfort – and lots of unfamiliar faces, which gives me a great deal of hope for the Old First’s future.

I don’t get here much these days, but I keep up with things to some extent via the weekly E-pistles from Michael, with the links to various current events and topics of interest. One topic I read about with interest was that Old First is reaching the two-year milestone in the three year plan of covenant ministry. A year or two ago, I attended, along with many here, focus groups whose intent was to name those communities who might be especially responsive to Old First’s message of welcome: young post-college professionals, families with young children, the LGBT community, and those who have been turned off by past experiences of church. Given the number of unfamiliar faces I see here this morning, your message of welcome is getting through – to people who are a part of your target communities, and to those who aren’t, but still feel called to make Old First their spiritual home. Thanks be to God!

Who is our target population? Or, in a broader sense, “Who’s welcome in the Lord’s house? Who’s welcome to come here and encounter God in worship?” This question is one with which all churches struggle. Generally answers to this question fall along two contrasting lines. On one hand, there’s often a tendency, especially in times of change and tension, to circle the wagons, to maintain strong and well-defined boundaries, to protect the community by keeping unwelcome strangers out, lest they disrupt the congregation’s fragile equilibrium. Countering that is the Gospel call to extend welcome and Christian love to all. I was struck by a statement on Old First’s website: “Everyone new who walks in the door changes who we are.” For some churches, that statement is a threat, bringing tension and anxiety: “Everyone new…who walks in the door….changes….who we are…..” For Old First, it’s an expression of hope.

This question of when to circle the wagons in order to protect the community, vs. when to welcome the stranger and the sojourner, is a question with which the church has struggled from its earliest days. Could Gentiles become Christians without first becoming Jews? Could women have leadership roles in the church, or should they be silent and save their questions for when they were home with their husbands? Depending which letter attributed to Paul you read, you may get a variety of answers. More recently, during America’s first century of independence, could slaves become Christians? Who is welcome in the Lord’s house?

And these very questions – “When do we maintain strong community boundaries? When do we welcome outsiders?” – are questions Isaiah is addressing in today’s Old Testament reading. Isaiah was addressing the Jews who had returned from exiles in Babylon.

They had come home to Jerusalem with such high hopes. But things had gotten bogged down; not unlike some church capital campaigns, it had taken so long to get the Temple reconstruction project off the ground. Beyond that, there was the question of who would be welcome in the Temple once it was built. After all, the Jews had lived in Babylonian exile for 50 years. The younger returnees had no memory of the Temple; for many, Hebrew was a second language, if not a foreign language. Some of the exiled Jews had married foreign wives. Some of their men had held positions of trust in the Babylonian leadership – at the high cost of becoming eunuchs. Who’s welcome to assist with rebuilding the Temple, and when it’s built, who’s welcome to worship there?

From its earliest days, God’s word offered guidelines about who was included and who was excluded from the family of faith. Of course, circumcision was a sign of the covenant, a sign of inclusion in the community. But there were other restrictions. Some of these are found in the 23rd chapter of Deuteronomy…and without getting into too much detail about the specifics of the wording, suffice to say that eunuchs are not to be admitted. Also: “No Ammonite or Moabite, nor their descendents even to the tenth generation, shall be admitted to the assembly.” It’s not that such persons were entirely excluded from living in the same town or village as Jews; indeed, Deuteronomy 24 specifically offers protection to resident aliens. But it was a limited welcome, a welcome that stopped at the Temple door.

After the return from Babylon, many community leaders used such guidelines as justification to circle the wagons, to maintain strict boundaries on the worshipping community. Zerubbabel, who led one of the early groups of returnees, was adamant that only Jews could participate in rebuilding the Temple. Ezra and Nehemiah, who spearheaded much of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, led a national rite of purification before resuming worship in the Temple. As part of this purification rite, Jewish men were commanded to divorce and send away any foreign wives they may have accumulated while in exile. Nehemiah’s description of his actions in this regard are at the same time funny and sad; he writes of arguing with those with foreign wives, cursing them, beating them, even pulling out their hair. The message from these leaders was clear: the purity and integrity of the community had to be preserved, lest the community go astray once again and be sent into yet more decades of exile, perhaps even permanent exile. Anyone and anything foreign to the community had to go – now – and they’d best be careful not to let the door hit ‘em on the way out!

Isaiah sent a different message. He remembered that God had not only promised to make Abraham a great nation, but had also promised that this great nation would be a blessing to other nations: God told Abraham “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Again and again, Isaiah invokes the promise that the nations would come to Judah to learn of God: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you.” Those whom Ezra and Nehemiah saw as a threat, Isaiah saw as a potential source of blessing.

In today’s reading, Isaiah specifically lifts up two groups: eunuchs, and foreigners, both of whom see themselves as being disowned by God’s family, cut off from the community of faith. You could say these are Isaiah’s target population in this passage, sort of like Old First’s desire to reach out to those who have had bad experiences with church.

It was not uncommon for monarchs in the nations surrounding Israel to place eunuchs in positions of trust in their royal courts – for example, they could be trusted to guard the royal harem – and doubtless this was the experience of some who had gone into exile in Babylon.

In Isaiah’s time, reproduction and perpetuation of the family name were considered paramount obligations – especially during the return from exile, when those returning were trying to retrace their family lineage. To die childless was considered a crushing misfortune, for your family name would die with you. And, of course, eunuchs were powerless to father children to carry on the family name. From that narrowly focused point of view, what were they good for? Why are they here? They felt like they were just taking up space, just a waste of oxygen. Well might they say, in despair, “I am just a dry tree.”

But, says Isaiah, the Lord offers words of encouragement: “Thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep (or hold fast, who grab on with both hands) to my Sabbath, who choose those things in which I delight, and who seize my covenant, I will give within my house and within my walls a monument and a name that shall not be cut off. So those for whom the possibility of continuing the family lineage was “cut off”, would be given a monument and a name that would not be “cut off.” In other words, that while their family lineage or family name may be “cut off” from the standpoint of bearing sons, within the Lord’s house, their monument and name will not be cut off, but rather would last forever, would be built into the very walls of the house of the Lord, never to be removed – that’s what God promised those eunuchs who despaired that their family name would die with them.

God makes a similar promise to the “sons of foreigners” who join themselves or put themselves on loan to the LORD, “to minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath, and hold fast my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Those who thought they would be separated from God by reason of their foreignness, can instead come with celebration, with joy, to God’s holy mountain. They can come – not just to stand in the back near the door, but to be welcomed into the very center of the family of faith, rejoicing that their sacrifices, their worship, will be accepted – indeed, will be welcomed.

The section concludes with verse 8, which literally translates as something close to “The Lord God, who gathers those banished from Israel, still gathers to those already gathered.” So God, who gathered those banished from Israel when Isaiah’s words were written, was still gathering last year, and was still gathering last month, was still gathering yesterday, while you were doing laundry – and is gathering today, right this minute – and will be gathering tomorrow. God gathered you, and God gathered me, and God is still gathering people to God’s holy mountain, still making God’s house a house of prayer for all peoples. For all peoples! Not just for some.

We see God’s ongoing action of gathering people in our Gospel reading this morning, in which Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman with a prayer request. In our Gospel reading, we literally see Isaiah’s words about foreigners come true. On encountering the Canaanite woman, not only the disciples, but even Jesus himself is initially torn between the impulse to circle the wagons and the impulse to reach out, between the imperative to maintain purity and the imperative to extend love.

And may I say that Jesus comes across as a jerk in this passage, at least early on! Initially, responding from his tradition’s priority on maintaining purity and separation, he tells his woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus had a target population for his ministry, and Canaanite women weren’t part of it. The woman persisted some more, and Jesus called her a dog….again, not Jesus’ finest moment. He and his disciples treated the woman as if she had cooties, for heaven’s sake! But the woman kept persisting. Because of the woman’s persistence, however, Jesus came to rethink and expand his sense of mission, expanded the target population of his ministry.

This choice of strong walls or open doors is one with which Old First is well-acquainted – and Old First is making faithful choices, thanks be to God. Our church’s moves, amid demographic changes, from 4th & Race to 10th & Wallace and later to 50th and Locust reflected the congregation’s recognition that the target population of its ministry was not the population surrounding the church building. Old First literally chased its desired target population from one end of Philadelphia to the other. Faced in the 1960’s with the need for yet another move, Old First made a different choice this time, a choice, not to follow its target population out into the suburbs, but to return to our original home, open our doors, and welcome those whom God has gathered and sent our way.

In the United Church of Christ, one of the UCC national office’s favorite bumper-sticker phrases in recent years has been “God is still speaking.” But for this morning’s purposes, I’d like to change that a bit, to say, “God is still gathering.” God is still gathering, still gathering us, still gathering our friends, still gathering our neighbors, and still gathering lots of folks we’ve never met into God’s house of prayer for all people.

One of my frequent reminders to my congregation in Bridesburg – which isn’t quite as comfortable with an open door policy as Old First – is that, “God has appointed us to the invitation committee, not to the selection committee.” So let’s welcome all those whom God has gathered, and is gathering, and will gather in the years that remain to us and to our congregation. May God grant that Old First will continue to live into Isaiah’s vision of being a “house of prayer for all people.”

“Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘I will gather others to them beside those already gathered.’” Those whom God gathers, let us not scatter. Those whom God gathers, let us welcome. Let us give thanks and praise to God who gathered us, and let us give thanks and praise to God for all whom God will gather in days to come. Amen.