a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
August 20, 2023
Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2 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.
3 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.” 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 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. 6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
As we welcome new members this morning I was led to this passage of Scripture as a way to reflect on the question, “who’s in?” according to God. This passage speaks to the welcome God extends. It addresses a couple of categories of people that a lot of churches don’t seem to think are welcome. So as we emphatically say, “you are welcome!” to our friends and fellow churchmembers this morning, let me break down the words of the prophet just a bit. Of course, I believe God’s answer to the question, “Who’s in?” is EVERYBODY!
In this passage Isaiah speaks to two types of people - eunuchs and foreigners. Now let’s not squirm too much about this topic. Bible scholars point out that the word “eunuch” can have more than one meaning. In some cases it is used as a title for someone who is in charge of something. In other cases it is indeed referring to someone who is a physically altered male. I’ll leave it at that rather than get any more graphic. The point is these days we hear a lot about how some churches believe anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow category of gender, sexual orientation, or whatever, is not loved by God. Isaiah makes it quite clear this is not the case:
do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I 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.
Extra points for the prophet using the “not be cut off,” phrase!
So while Deuteronomy 23:1 says certain males [ because only males were allowed into the Temple] are not allowed in to worship YHWH, the prophet Isaiah makes clear “who’s in.” And here is yet another affirmation that God welcomes those many humans won’t. And God does not just welcome them as a second class citizen or a child of a “lesser god.” God will give them “an everlasting name!” Huzzah!
Recently Matt Laney, [ firstname.lastname@example.org, Aug 8, 2023 ], commented on our concepts around identity. He points out that when God said, “ ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” God created humankind in the divine image; male and female God created them.’
Rev. Laney said, “Is God’s given gender based on anatomy, as with humans? Does God have a male body? Clearly, the logic of assigning maleness to God is not well-considered, but the social impact is. As many have said: ‘If God is male then male is god.’” He goes on to point out that, “Gender happens, without consent. When you were born, or in utero, people assign gender based on your anatomy. Today, more and more courageous people, young and not-so-young, are saying, ‘I do not consent.’ Likewise, gender happened to God without consent. Drenched as it is in patriarchy, the Bible mostly refers to God in masculine terms and with male pronouns. However, at no point in scripture does God say, “I am male.”
“That’s why an increasing number of people reject Mr. God altogether. Why not be an atheist when it comes to the idol of God as an older, bearded, white male in the clouds? Isn’t it more accurate, and biblical, to say God is non-binary, genderqueer, omni-gender and beyond gender? Perhaps the best way to refer to the Three-in-One God is with the non-gendered pronoun ‘They.’
“Consider the text above from Genesis 1 with singular and plural reference points for God, reportedly spoken by God. There, we find more than one gender in the being of God. A more accurate translation might be: ‘So They created humankind in the divine image; male and female, They created them.’”
Rev. Laney adds, “You are free to agree or disagree, but please think twice before assigning gender without consent to God or to Their children.” He suggests that we note that: “Although gender has traditionally been assigned according to sex characteristics, sex and gender are not the same.” If you want to learn more WebMD has a helpful article on this very difference,.
In our study of the book “Savvy Allies,” we had a good deal of discussion about labels. “Labels” are not always a good thing, but we chose to offer people the opportunity to communicate with us what “label” they were most comfortable being referred to by, such as he/him, she/her, they/them. We had a fair amount of discussion to try to understand “they/them.” It was all very helpful, for me at least. We offer those stickers for you to put on your nametag. Speaking of which, over the next few weeks, I am going to challenge you to get back in the habit of wearing those regularly. They are a sign of hospitality both for our newest members and for other new folks who might come in. And for those of us who are bad at remembering names! Just a fair warning!
The second category that the Isaiah says God welcomes are “foreigners.” That’s a hot topic these days, isn’t it? Who is welcome, who isn’t? I don’t have time to say much to rile you up on this, but I found it interesting reading recently. The current restrictive, punitive immigration laws being passed in many states including our own have many consequences. The owner of the famous “Columbia” restaurant in the Tampa area recently had to fire a number of long-time employees because they didn’t “fit” the new laws. In addition, he, like many employers, are having a hard time finding people who will who feed us, work for us, teach us, and do much more for us.
What does God say?
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, …, and hold fast my covenant, 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
I don’t think I need to explain the meaning of those verses, do I? Who’s in? In God’s eyes foreigners were welcome.
Let me finish by turning from question of “Who’s in?” to ask about open doors. I was inspired by the words of Rev. Ken Samuels, [ stillspeakingdevotional.ucc.org, Aug 30, 2011. ] He pointed to the end of our Scriptures and the Book of Revelation. There, God says to us, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”
Rev. Samuel points out that “The book of Revelation was written to Christians who were experiencing severe persecution by first-century Roman emperors determined to destroy the church of Christ. With doors of social acceptance, religious tolerance and political favor being closed violently in their faces, it proclaims to Christian believers that ‘God has set before you an open door!’ Really? How realistic is it to believe that God will open doors in times of systemic confinement, disenfranchisement, and oppression?”
To answer that, Rev. Samuels says he “grew up in the slums of New York City. It was an economically depressed community, full of drugs, delinquency and crime. But in that concentrated ghetto of closed doors, God sent a teacher by the name of Ms. Hutchinson, who taught and mentored [him] from grade 7 to grade 9.” Because of her, he “was able to apply for and receive a scholarship to a private, prestigious college preparatory school.” When he graduated, he “received four-year scholarship offers from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.” Rev. Samuels says, “God does open doors.”
In 2011 Rev. Samuels and “a group of about 30 church members and friends journeyed to Senegal and The Gambia, West Africa on a cultural excursion. In The Gambia, [they] visited an orphanage that educates and serves children with special needs. The Gambia as a country does not very many doors of educational and economic advancement open to the vast majority of its people.” After their visit the church “made a commitment to adopt that orphanage and to provide consistent financial and material support so that it can keep its doors open for the impoverished children of The Gambia with special needs. God does open doors!”
Rev. Samuels church “is itself located in an area of metro-Atlanta that had seen doors of business development and employment opportunity close consistently over the previous ten years. Like many black and Hispanic urban areas across the country, [they were] experiencing diminished resources for investment in transportation, infrastructure and education. But in partnership with a local community college, [the] church launched a program that offers free GED prep classes to the people in their community who needed a high school diploma. God does open doors!” Rev. Samuels ended his words with this question: “Are there any doors of opportunity, advancement or blessedness that God could open through you today?”
That’s what we should be about – opening doors for blessing! Opening doors for transforming lives. That’s what all of us, and now these new members, ought to look for: how can we open doors for blessing others both here and out in our community. If anyone asks us, “Who’s in?”and can share in the work, the mission, the vision of a church anyone can be “in” on this work. AMEN.