In the United Church of Christ, our theological home and spiritual center, there is a saying that is widely shared: No matter who you are – no matter where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here. This slogan – or even what some have called the distillation of our mission – is easily misunderstood.
Some people have said that it is too simplistic and without theological depth. Others have worried that it is too broad and general; without clear Christian bench marks or reference points. And others still have written it off as a marketing gimmick that has a bit of a buzz to our postmodern sensibilities, but doesn't really mean anything beyond advertising sophistry.
Each critique, in my opinion, is short-sighted – and here is why I have come to this conclusion: our catch phrase is actually a 21st century restatement of an ancient biblical truth that has shaped and challenged God’s people for at least three thousand years. Even many people who are biblically and liturgically literate often miss the penetrating prophetic wisdom of this statement because they want to hear God’s truth proclaimed in the old words, the old music, and the old creeds. To which the prophet Isaiah – discerning the will of the Lord 300 years before Jesus – writes: “Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called.” (Isaiah 56: 8)
Now on the surface these words don’t mean much to us; in fact, if you were doing a quick review of the Bible you might even skim over this portion of Isaiah without giving it much thought. But, if you were to let Professor Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary, the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament studies, guide you, you would come to a profoundly different conclusion. In fact, I suggest to you that you too would come to see how the wisdom of Isaiah not only gives shape and form to the ministry of Jesus but also the word of the United Church of Christ.
Further, I would be willing to wager that you would also come to see yet another reason why Sabbath keeping is essential for us to reclaim. So what I propose to do this morning is offer you a quick survey of the two fundamental Biblical understandings of community membership – how Israel used to define who was in and who was out of the covenant – and then lift up Isaiah’s startling inclusive corrective.
Because the way I get it, Isaiah tells us that there came a time in ancient Israel when the requirements of God’s covenant changed – they were broadened and altered to be wildly inclusive – and Sabbath keeping became the new normal: Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called… and blessed are those who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it.
So let’s start with the background and see how the Spirit of the Lord makes a corrective through the prophet Isaiah. To do this we have to know that the Old Testament tells us the story of how God’s love transforms a scattered group of nobodies into a unique and blessed people. Brueggemann writes: “The formation of Israel is narrated as a process whereby YHWH’s power transformed “no people” into “this people.”
The Hebrews, as forerunners of Israel, were treated according to tradition as marginal, objectionable people… according to the Joseph narrative they were regarded as a threat to social propriety and kept separated from those who managed social power… during the exodus they are known as a mixed multitude… and it was only at Sinai (where the Ten Commandments are handed down) that this disparate population was formed and transformed by God’s love into an identifiable, intentional community.
Are you still with me? At its core, the Biblical story begins by telling us that the people who came to be known as Israel started off as a bunch of wild, mixed up and very different souls who didn't know anything of God’s love and had to be trained and transformed by God’s grace. At the core of this training was Torah – a spirituality shaped by keeping the commandments – and only those who kept the commandments were considered “the legitimate members of God’s community.”
In time there developed two distinct understandings of what it meant to keep and honor Torah: the path of Leviticus and the path of Deuteronomy. In Leviticus, the great tradition of Israel’s priests is celebrated. And as you might imagine, their emphasis is on “cultic purity.” Brueggemann writes that keeping Torah for this group meant: "Staying clear of all that is profane and worldly – that which is common – because such exposures would contaminate Israel and drive out the presence of the Lord… (Consequently) Leviticus provides guidelines for every phase of life to be sure that membership in Israel consists only in those who sustain purity.”
+ Is that clear? This definition of who was in and who was out of membership was born of a deep love and concern that the impure would jeopardize the whole community.
+ Modern Christians sometimes minimize the grace of this tradition and ridicule it as harsh but the Priests loved the Lord and God’s people and offered them clear and grace-filled guidelines for right living. That is one tradition.
The second “great interpretive tradition, Deuteronomy, takes the Sinai commandments in a somewhat different direction: it places accent on justice questions and is preoccupied with the vulnerable who need protection by the community… the poor alongside widows, orphans and immigrants.” Here purity and membership within Israel is predicated upon loving God and doing justice. And Deuteronomy makes very clear, in a series of lists ascribed to Moses, who is considered both pure and just and who is considered outside the embrace of God’s love in Israel.
+ All those with distorted genitalia – including eunuchs and bastard – are to be considered outside the community of God’s love in Israel because only those who practice right sexual relations are honoring the covenant.
+ Certain races and tribes were also excluded from the community, notably the Ammonites and Moabites, and Moses offers a long list of others who should be purged from the protection of the community because they offend the Lord: false prophets, murderers, those who defy the priests, rebellious children, prostitutes, adulterers and kidnappers.
This is the second great tradition concerning Torah keeping in ancient Israel: one is shaped by right worship and law-keeping, Leviticus, the other by acts of justice and purity in social relations, Deuteronomy. This background is essential for how we understand and wrestle with the radical shift of emphasis that takes place in Isaiah 56. Scholars note that chapters 56-66 in Isaiah come from a much later time in Israel’s history than Deuteronomy.
+ In fact, they believe that these passages come from that time when Israel returned to their land after being taken into captivity and bondage in Babylon in about 587 BCE. Remember that the essence of Deuteronomy was written about 800 years before Jesus and our text from Isaiah came into being at least 250 years later.
+ It seems as if our “text reflects a recovery program for Jews who had returned from Babylonian deportation and were now determined to get it right (with God and one another… and no more urgent issue was before them than membership.”
You see, not everyone had been deported to Babylon. Some had been left behind so Jewish leaders had to discern what to do “… with those who had cooperated with imperial authorities and those who had not cooperated… “Those who had remained pure and those who had become corrupted. And what Isaiah 56 tells us is that God led the leadership of Israel to embrace “a principle or inclusiveness against the ancient exclusivity… first by welcoming foreigners… and then eunuchs!” Listen to this:
+ Isaiah 56: 3/6: Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; 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—these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer!
+ Isaiah 56: 4-5: And 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.
Do you hear the change in this proclamation? “The admission of foreigners clearly contradicts the older exclusion of Moabites and Ammonites in Deuteronomy” as does the embrace of eunuchs. Professor Breuggemann concludes: “A picture is presented of a community of faith that is generously expansive and welcoming, quite unlike the initial prescription of Moses…and most remarkably, the conditions of admission clearly do not concern ethnic qualifications or any other criterion of purity. (Rather) there is (only) the quite generic requirement of the new recruit simply to keep Torah… but not as spelled out in Deuteronomy… now there is only one condition spelled out: keep Sabbath!”
In this new reworking of who is in and who is out, Israel might as well have shouted from the rooftops: no matter who you are – no matter where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here! Sabbath, you see, more than just a well-deserved rest, embraces the conditions necessary for justice keeping. “Sabbath represents a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rate race of empire.” To quote the good professor one last time:
(Now) the community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy and compassion and not competition, achievement, production or acquisition. And there is no mention or purity, only work stoppage with a neighborly pause for human (kindness.)
Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called…and I will bring (them all) to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Sabbath keeping – and the commitment to equality, compassion, rest and joy that forms the foundation of Sabbath – “deconstruct all qualifications” for deciding who is in and who is out. Sabbath challenges all the ways we try to fence some people out of God’s love and honor those who are just mostly just like us. And if we read the Biblical story of Jesus through the eyes of a radical Sabbath, we will see why this is crucial for us, too.
+ What did John the Baptist say to those who objected to his ministry of radical hospitality? Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Father Abraham as our ancestor for God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these very stones! In other words, no more bragging about your race or how long you’ve been a member or your pedigree; the only thing now that matters is whether or not you bear the fruit of the Sabbath.
+ And what does Sabbath fruit look like? What does the Holy Spirit offer to those who live into the blessings of the Sabbath? St. Paul is explicit: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The way of Jesus – the path of compassion and justice – cannot be made flesh if we are trapped or addicted to rat-race living and values. Keeping the Sabbath empowers us to bear the fruit of the Spirit and gives us the rest and perspective we need. Indeed, “Sabbath keeping is a requirement if we are to bear the fruits of the kingdom.”
So once again I implore you to take this invitation seriously: honor the Sabbath and find new ways to keep it holy so that you – and those all around you – might experience the welcome and blessing of God’s love. We teach and practice that everyone is welcome at Christ’s table of grace. As you come to Eucharist, you are promising to rest and share this rest at the core of your soul. Lord, may it be so within and among us now…
1) Old Man Carrying Sticks - www.independentsbiennial.org
2) Rainbow Shabbat - www.brooklynmuseum.org
3) Shabbat Made Easy - www.interfaithfamily.com
4) Shabbat Table -www.abitoffthetop.com