Sunday, August 14, 2005

From the Lectionary for this Morning

Isaiah 56:1-7

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 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. 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." 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. 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; 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.
Nothing was said about the controversy over ordaining homosexuals in the Episcopal church from this passage, but it might have been. Had I been preaching this morning, I probably would have said it. I have no expertise in the social order of Israel in the time of Deutero-Isaiah, but I assume from context that eunuchs were almost abominations, because they were unable to engender children. They were certainly not whole, certainly could not be "holy," and therefore could never come into the house of God.

Most of the restrictions on people in what we now call the "Middle East" arose around notions of cleanliness, which became entangled with righteousness. Unclean and impure persons could not be holy persons; and only those persons who could purge their unclean state, were considered acceptable to God, as God was holy, and could not allow anything unholy to be in God's presence. There was a practical side to this: God's holiness made it impossible for any mortal to be in God's presence. As Isaiah says early in his ministry: "Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, but my eyes have seen the Lord God of Hosts!" If Isaiah was unclean, imagine how much more unclean a eunuch must be, a man who cannot function as a man, who has been cut off (literally and figuratively) from that which men alone (in the old understanding of reproductive biology) can do: plant seed for the next generation.

So, from eunuchs, unholy because they are not "wholly" men, to it such a far leap? And yet God tells the eunuch not to say "I am just a dry tree." (The power of the metaphor alone speaks volumes here.) God accepts, and redeems, the eunuch. Yes, by proper observance of the rituals, and also by how the eunuch keeps the covenant. But the foreigners, and even the eunuch, are acceptable in the house of God. Not only are they acceptable, but their sacrifices are acceptable at God's altar. At God's altar, in God's house; making it truly a house of prayer for all peoples.

So at what point are they excluded from the prayers of the house? At the point they are mentioned aloud? At the point they stand up to lead? And why?

My tradition has a phrase, one I think that goes back to the origins of the Evangelical Church in Prussia in the 19th century; but I am not sure about that. It doesn't matter; the phrase is what's important. "In essentials, unity," it goes; "in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." It's a nice sentiment, but the sharp-eyed will notice immediately, it doesn't offer any definitions of "essentials" or "non-essentials." But then, it doesn't have to. It is what it seeks, what it directs us toward, that is important. In essentials, we not only should find unity but, turn it around, we will find unity. In non-essentials, we will accept diversity. And how are we to do this? By practicing, in all things, charity. Charity enough to let even the sacrifices of the eunuch, of the gay man, the lesbian woman, be acceptable at the altar of our God.

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