Home Again | 14 August, 2016

In my experience, people leave behind the strangest things when they move.  When I moved into my previous apartment, I found in the back of one of the kitchen cupboards a triangle shaped plate made especially for pizza.  At first I got excited and thought, “It’s like the previous tenant knew me so well.”  Then, after thinking about it, I realized the previous tenant didn’t know me at all because, for one, I prefer square pizza, and secondly, let’s be honest, who has time for just one piece of pizza on a plate.  No wonder that plate got left behind. 

In other places, I have found a screwdriver, a doormat, a sock, and the lid to a Tupperware container.  I can only imagine what I, myself, may have left behind.

Now I don’t intend to over romanticize these objects as if there was some grand epiphany or life-changing moment that must have led someone to cast off their pizza shaped plate in some grand gesture of transformation.  Let’s be clear, everything I’ve inherited in my various moves has been junk that was forgotten. 

But as someone who has moved a couple times in the last few years, and most recently in the last two weeks, I often find myself thinking about how moves in my life have coincided with major life changes: starting school, changing jobs, preparing to get married.  And thus, from apartment to apartment, things both material and symbolic have been left behind or discarded to make room for the newness that comes with building a life that continues to ebb and flow. 

Times of actual physical moves, reconstruction, rebuilding, and change are often good times to take stock of what we must leave behind and what we must take with us.  As we find ourselves in this strange setting this morning, anticipating our return to what we might think of as home, perhaps it is good for us to do some reflecting in this way. 

The basement of North Broadway UMC is hardly an exile into the wilderness, but I believe these words in Isaiah to the Jewish people can speak to us because they are words to a people on the move.

In fact, the entire book of Isaiah is about a people on the move and in the midst of change.  Ok, so I admit that’s probably too nice of a way of describing Israel’s forced relocation into Babylonian exile, but the reality of an ever shifting, moving, changing community makes the world of Isaiah come alive.  But in order for these words to come alive for us today, we must understand a little about Isaiah’s context. 

It is generally thought that the book of Isaiah is made up of writings from various prophets and their disciples including, but not limited to, the prophet for whom the book is named.  These various writers are also thought to have been writing in very different time periods in the history of the Israelite people.  The book as a whole, then, is often thought of in sections referred to as First, Second, and Third Isaiah.  There are overarching theological themes that hold the book together, but there is enough that is distinct within each section to warrant considering them on their own.

Many scholars believe that the first section of the text (Chapters 1-39) was written, at least in large part, by the actual Isaiah and his disciples during a time before the Babylonian exile.  This section is largely concerned with holding the community together and calling its leaders to faithfulness in the face of outside social, religious, and political powers.  With foes on every side, First Isaiah dares to prophesy of a time when “[the nations] shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  First Isaiah also has some harsh words for those in the house of Jacob who have turned away from God.  

Starting in Chapter 40, though, there is an abrupt shift.  “Comfort, o comfort my people…” are the opening words to Second Isaiah, which is thought to have been written sometime during and from within the forced exile to Babylon.  Second Isaiah speaks words of consolation to a people torn from their homeland, reassures them that they have not been forgotten, and foretells an eventual return to that promised land. 

The passage from Isaiah 56 read this morning begins what is thought of by some as Third Isaiah, written during a time of return from exile, when the Jewish people were learning to rebuild their society.  There is less consensus about the division between Second and Third Isaiah, but one can almost imagine the familiar verses immediately before Chapter 56 as a grand celebration of return.  “You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song.”

With this joyous celebration of return where all creation sings along the way, we then turn to Isaiah 56, and if we accept a division at Chapter 56 as being written for the post-exile community, we can begin to hear these words in a new way.  We can begin to hear them as instructions for rebuilding, as a guide for the people about what things they should leave behind and what things they should make sure to bring with them. 

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

Justice is certainly something that should be brought with us wherever we go, wherever we find ourselves building and rebuilding our communities.  But Isaiah 56 doesn’t stop there.  It goes on to spell out what is meant by justice, and in the verses that follow, we find that Isaiah’s notion of justice in this chapter spills out beyond normally accepted boundaries. 

“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.’”

In this vision of what it means to rebuild on a foundation of justice, foreigners and eunuchs show up to crash the party, and they are wholeheartedly welcomed in.  Not only are they welcomed, they are given honor. 

While most people probably understand the essence of what it means to be a foreigner or a eunuch, it is important to understand their wider context within this passage. 

First of all, Isaiah 56 could come across as startling to its original audience because foreigners and eunuchs were barred from participation in Temple worship in accordance with Deuteronomic law.   One passage from Deuteronomy goes as far as to say, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.  Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” 

Further, understanding the context of the eunuch also means understanding their place in a highly household-based society where a large focus was on the continuation of the family line.  Hearing God’s promise to grant faithful eunuchs “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” would be quite a reversal of cultural norms. 

Not just welcome but a full embrace marks Isaiah’s vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem.

In this vision of a house of prayer for all people, however, it is the observance of Sabbath that holds everyone together.  Now too often we hear the word “Sabbath” and assume it simply means taking a day off once a week, but one of my professors in seminary worked hard to instill in his students a deeper meaning behind Sabbath.  In his book on the subject, he argues that Sabbath is rooted in an idea that God creates for the sake of freedom and justice.  We are called to Sabbath not just because we need rest but to remind us that we are made for freedom.  He writes, “Sabbath protests conditions of scarcity, overwork, and economic inequality that prevailed under Israel’s kings and foreign emperors.  By celebrating a divinely ordained cosmic order built on natural abundance, self-restraint, and social solidarity, Sabbath critiques the oppressive consequences of a royal-imperial system built on tribute, forced state labor, and debt slavery.” 

Sabbath is a reminder that we are made for freedom.  Sabbath is a reminder that again and again God calls us out of slavery.  Sabbath reminds us that justice is written into the very nature of how the world ought to work.  In our scripture this morning, Sabbath sets the standard for participation in worship of God, and when the writer discusses the eunuch and the foreigner, it is their commitment to Sabbath-keeping as a commitment to justice and doing what is right that sets them apart and calls for their inclusion in Temple worship.

In the context of a people once more called out of the wilderness, this passage from Isaiah admonishes the Israelite people to make sure they bring with them the core of their identity as a people who keep Sabbath, as a people who know that they are made for freedom and justice. 

We begin Third Isaiah with this grand vision of how to rebuild community, but if we keep reading, we find that the community fell back into old patterns.  We find that new challenges emerge and that the oracles of hope spoken to the people while they were in exile about a grand return to their promised land do not simply come to pass without any effort.

You see, I think the promised land is less about a claim to be staked and more about a commitment to live justly.  It is not enough to just get there, wherever “there” happens to be.  We must construct and reconstruct our lives and our communities and our world around a commitment to God-sized justice that pushes us outside our neat boundaries.  As we stand on the riverbank staring out at whatever promised land is before us, we must look around and ask “Who will go with me?”  As we move from one place to the next, as we face new challenges and new opportunities, we must take with us our identity as a people who have been called to freedom, and we must leave behind theologies built on fear that hold people at arms’ length and worldviews that hold ourselves and others in patterns of oppression. 

After our service this morning, we will all have the opportunity to go next door and sign our names to the front of the stage in our renovated sanctuary before they cover it up.  I hope you all will consider participating.  As you sign your name, though, I hope you do not consider it as a static claim that you are staking to a physical space but, rather, I hope your signature represents a dynamic commitment that you are making to do justice in that space.  Even after all the renovations have been completed and all the dust has finally been cleared, we will still need to figure out what it means to build a community of justice in that place. 

And when foreigners and eunuchs and anyone else that might surprise us show up and want to help us move to yet a new place and build something new, my wish for us, my friends, is that we can be the kind of community that remembers to take with us our identity as people who are made for freedom and justice, but also that we would be the kind of community that is willing to leave behind the things in our lives that keep us inside strict boundaries and place unnatural limits around what we think should fit.