Three Sermons in One
Many places in these mountains offer a scenic view of the landscape. From chimney rock to grandfather mountain, and all along the blue ridge parkway, signs point us to overlooks, places that take our breath away and compel us to take yet another picture.
Not every place in these mountains is like that. Some give us views of dumps, and mudslides, and burned-out trees. Some offer only a dried-up creek bed, not justifying a stop or a picture. Some even show abandoned houses and falling-down barns. We don’t even want to stop let alone take pictures.
The Bible is like this.
Some stories bore us, others embarrass us. Many describe the very worst of human prejudice and behavior. Others exhibit a narrowness of sympathy and a harshness of judgement. Cain was jealous and killed Abel. David was entitled and raped Bathsheba. The unnamed psalmist was depressed and wanted to give it all up. These are the cul de sacs of the human story, and there are many. These are the dead ends of our family narrative. These are the places we don’t want to go, the people we don’t want to be, the episodes we seek to avoid.
Then, there are peaks of inspiration that remind us of the greatness of God and the goodness of creation. It is not all hurricane and hate. There are times of sweetness and sacrifice, of kindness and community, of singing with Joy and living with Hope. There are places in the Bible which which we can see a long way, way into the future and way into heaven. There are chapters in the Bible that are scenic overlooks, verses in which we connect with the goodness of God and the grandeur of creation. When we open these texts, we are glad to be alive, we are thrilled to believe, we are eager to continue our journey of faith.
I count the first two chapters of Genesis in this collection, and Psalm 8 and 23 and 100. When I read the beatitudes, I give thanks, and when I meditate upon First Corinthians 13, I worship God. I love revelation 22 with its vision of the river of life and the trees of life which are for the healing of the nation.
I feel this way when I open Isaiah, and read chapter six about his experience at worship, when I read chapter 40 about the comfort of God, and chapter 53 about the suffering of Jesus. And yes, when I contemplate these eight verses of chapter 56, I worship God.
Here is yet one more summit of inspiration, like Paula’s letter to the Ephesians, which we read last week. From this peak of divine inspiration in Isaiah, we can see a long way forward, a long way back, a long way around. From this high point of gospel inspiration, we can see creation and redemption, we can see the first Adam and the second Adam, even Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.
Mark this text. Lodge it in your remembrance. Meditate upon. Hide it in your heart. Here is the gospel of God and the whole mystery of Jesus. Let’s read it and ask God to make it powerful in our souls. As we do, I want to focus on three powerful, famous phrases in this text.
Do justice. Yad Vashem. And “a house of prayer for all people.”
First, do justice.
This Wednesday evening, I found myself in the sanctuary of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, NC. It was my first trip to that epicenter of Duke basketball. The occasion? A concert by their Ron’s Band, playing a concert of, you guessed it, John Prine music. There were five members of the band, including my longtime friend, Curtis Freeman. He sat at the keyboard and sang. Behind him on the wall of the sanctuary hung a banner with the famous words of Micah: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
This is the same message we find here in Isaiah. Do justice. Amos, their contemporary also fashioned his version of these, often quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” One of the first things I did as preacher here was to affix those words of Micah to the back wall of the sanctuary.
This triple version of the command to do justice has pushed the contemporary church to look beyond personal holiness to social justice. Righteousness before God and among people is not just about person rectitude, like telling the truth and honoring your parents and refraining from stealing from your neighbor. It is also about creating public policies that are just and humane. It is about sustaining social norms that give everyone opportunity to flourish, that share the wealth with everybody, and that foster equity at work, in the courts, and at the bank.
Gaza has put justice on the witness stand. What has happened in Gaza and what is happening in Gaza is a challenge to our sense of justice. Do justice in Gaza, the prophet is saying to us.
Gaza is an open-air prison. It is a ghetto. It is a plantation created by powerful people to control and limit the livelihood and opportunity of others. Countries around Gaza, some acting overtly and some covertly, conspired to create this wicked and dangerous situation. Those in Gaza do not have a voice in these things. They have no power. They have no opportunity. They are prisoners.
Who is surprised that some among them rebelled and retaliated? Not me. Like black people in inner city America, like poor people in violent Latin America, they eventually act out. I think of the Warsaw Uprising and the Nat Turner slave rebellion. I ask myself: how bad must things be south of the border for a mother to take three small children and walk their way from Venezuela to the Rio Grande and a chance for freedom and life?
Do justice! Walk to justice. Pray for justice. Vote for justice. Work for justice. This is what we see when we stand on the mountain peak of Isaiah 56. We can see what the Lord desires of us. Do justice.
Next, from this scenic overlook, we see a campground. Setting up tents are a group of men we know to be eunuchs. Now, we cannot tell they are eunuchs, even with very powerful binoculars. There is nothing about their dress, their physique, their equipment, their movements that reveals their status as eunuchs. In every way, they appear to be just like any other group of men: joking around, playing ball, cooking burgers, drinking beer.
What is a eunuch, anyway?
A man who has been castrated, a man who has been operated on to prevent sexual activity, or at least reproduction. It is not just a vasectomy. That prevents contraception but not intercourse. Castration prevents normal sexual activity. It was done in some cultures to men who served women in power, to protect the women from the sexual advances of the men.
Eunuchs were and are a category of men unable to produce offspring. Isaiah puts it this way, “I am just a dry tree.” It was a shameful category to be in, and ancient cultures put many restrictions on eunuchs. They were not allowed in temples, and certainly could never be ministers or priests.
The most well-known story in the Bible about eunuchs is found in Acts of the Apostles. An Ethiopian eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship. On his ride home, he was reading Isaiah, this famous text from Isaiah 53, verse 8. “Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants.” He asked Phillip, “Who is he speaking about, himself or someone else?” In other words, that Ethiopian eunuch found himself in a story about the suffering servant of God, a story Christians then and now connect with Jesus. That Ethiopian found himself, like Jesus, dying without offspring. But before the day was over, that Ethiopian found himself like Jesus, welcomed to the banquet table of the kingdom.
Today, eunuchs would be categorized as “gender non-conforming.” He would be grouped with other gender non-conforming people in a group we sometimes label as LGBTQ. Today, many believing people, well-meaning people would push that Ethiopian eunuch out the sanctuary door and deny him communion. Which is why we need to see things from the scenic overlook of Isaiah. We need to be able to see the beauty of people and hear the blessed words of the Lord, “I will bless the eunuchs, the gays, the trans, and all other non-conforming people. I will give them a future greater than children next grandchildren. I will give them an everlasting name as children of God. I will give them my name, my family, and my future.”
The Hebrew phrase used here is a very famous one, Yad VaShem. Translated, it means “a memorial and a name”. Yad literally means hand, and Shem is an ordinary word meaning name. The Jewish people to this day say, Baruch Hashem Adonai. Blessed be the name of the lord.
We say the same. We welcome into the circle of friendship and fellowship all gender non-conforming people. This is the wide-angle welcome of gospel announcement. What a blessing this has been to our church. This year, God has sent to us a small wave of LQBTQ people. It has been a revival in our church. It has been a conversion of our church. It has been a gospel transformation of our church. All I can say is thanks be to God.
There is yet one more five-minute sermon here on this scenic overlook. It has to do with the strangers who come our way. I spoke last week about the dangers of “us versus them” thinking. The Bible is just one document that legitimizes the division of humanity into those in the circle and those outside the circle. In the Bible, it is Jews versus Gentiles. That vision bleeds over into the New Testament. These early followers of Jesus struggled with the question: who is with us and who is against us. They were inspired by the life and reaching of Jesus who drew the circle wide, who welcomes everybody, who received every person who came to him seeking grace, hope, and love. But it put them at odds with their religion.
Same today, even our Christian religion teaches us to accept this “us versus them” kind of faith. We divide the baptized from the not, the saved from the lost, the orthodox from the heroic, the liberal from the conservative. In some churches, we divide the men from the women, the clergy from the laity, even the sinner from the saint. The “we” versus “them” is still dominant in our religion.
I remember Notre Dame University. I was a doctoral student. Their seminary—Moreau Seminary—gave me a room. The librarian asked, What are you studying? I said, Thomas Aquinas. “Do you have a copy of his Summa.” When I did no, he retrieved one from the back room and presented it to me as a gift. Those three volumes sit today, still covered with their original blue paper, on shelves in my South Carolina house.
Then he said as we walked into their small worship center, “We have Eucharist here each day. The church says you cannot take communion because you are not Catholic. But here, you can receive communion any time and every time.” This priest and scholar had to break the rules of the church to welcome a stranger to the Lord’s table.
Turn away from the sacred meal in the sanctuary with all its rules and regulations. Turn to the fellowship meals of Jesus’ ministry. Here, there was an open invitation: young and old, friend and enemy, saint and sinner, even Christian and Jew. There are no lines, no barriers, no rules about us and them: just the grace and mercy of God, just the hospitality of God. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a great banquet. The host says to his servants, ‘Go to the highways and byways and invite them to come.’”