Sermon: "Journeys of Friendship"

17 August 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 17, 2008

"Journeys of Friendship"

Isaiah 56:1-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 17-20, 24, 28-29

Thank you for reading those scripture lessons for us, Kathryn.  They were unusually difficult, I think, and because of that, very much deserving of a sermon to help us understand them better.  Kathryn suggested today’s title, “Journeys of Friendship,” but I’m guessing it isn’t obvious how that topic connects to either the prophet Isaiah’s call for justice for eunuchs and foreigners or to the apostle Paul’s caution to Roman Christians to avoid prejudice against Jews.  So let me explain.  I believe both of these passages call us to different “journeys of friendship” in God’s family than the journeys that we might make in the outside world.  They remind us, as Jesus did, of how the covenant of God’s love extends beyond the borders of religious, national, physical, or gender, identity.

While we were in California last month we were happy to celebrate the wedding of some friends of ours who have struggled with the sort of barriers to unity that both Isaiah and Paul decry in these passages.  One was born a Jew, in Pennsylvania , and one a Southern Baptist, in Alabama .  And as you could imagine, as children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, their match was difficult for their parents to accept.  It also didn’t help anything that they were lesbians.  I was so sad for my friend the Southerner, that her mother felt it would be just “too hard” on the family for the Jewish partner to be at her father’s deathbed – and she didn’t think it would be proper for her to attend a good Baptist Deacon’s funeral.  I hate that my friend no longer claims to be a Christian, because her faith excluded the one she loved.  And yet, this passage from Paul reminds us that Christians should never elevate ourselves over the original children of the covenant.  At their Jewish wedding last month, a legal marriage in California, no one asked my friend about her religious origins or her sexual orientation – she was extended the hospitality Isaiah says is God’s will for his people – one that transcends accidents of our birth, like ethnicity and sexual orientation, and merely calls for our love and faithfulness. 

The passage from Isaiah, even more ancient that the one from Paul, commands the people to welcome both foreigners and eunuchs – and Jesus has a similar saying in Matthew, which goes against the tradition of his day that excluded foreigners, women, or men with any deformity from entering the inner court of the Temple . There are three kinds of eunuchs that Jesus identifies in Matthew 19:11-12.  (Before I get into this more, I just want to apologize.  As I said to Kathryn before the service, my daughter came into my study as I was researching this and got so disgusted she had to leave the room.  So I’ll try to keep it as clean as possible, since we have no airsick bags in the pews...) 

Some eunuchs, obviously, were castrated – their sex organs were damaged or removed either by birth defect or accident, as a punishment, to act as a slave for a King’s wife or concubine, or by self-mutilation, which was a pagan ritual to venerate the Goddess – which believe me, you don’t want to know about!  According to Jesus, there were two other kinds of eunuchs: those who choose to be celibate for God and those who are born with no interest in the opposite sex.  These so-called “eunuchs” did not CHOOSE to be eunuchs, nor were they physically damaged.  Some scholars today believe this is a reference to homosexuals – people who, from birth, simply are not attracted to the opposite sex and feel no physical urge to procreation.  They obviously could not be guilty of any “sin” simply because of who they are – their sexual identity is simply the gender orientation God gave them. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

It may seem hard to imagine ancient Jews as “open and affirming” in light of the strict Levitical codes – but keep in mind that homosexuality is only condemned a few times in the Bible, and many believe these references apply to male prostitution and pedophilia in the Goddess cult, not to committed loving relationships we see today.  We also need to remember that this same Law of Moses made it OK to execute your son for masturbation or stone your wife to death for talking back to you. Also, things like eating a cheeseburger and wearing clothing of two fabrics are “abominations before the Lord.”

The truth was that Paul’s people, the Jews, had struggled especially hard, over many centuries – as a people who settled on a narrow strip of land that is on the only connection between Europe and Asia and Africa – with the problem of how to maintain cultural unity while interacting with those who were different.  For nomadic Jews and Arabs in that region who shared the lineage of Abraham – who once entertained angels unawares in his desert tent – acts of hospitality to strangers are raised to the level of holy sacrament.  And the “shared space” of the Promised Land meant that huge sections of the Hebrew Scriptures had to be devoted to the difficult issue of intermarriage, especially those between Hebrew men and goddess-worshipping Canaanite women. 

Other ancient empires were not known for their tolerance.  Most were ruled by tyrannical God-Kings like the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who took the Jews captive at the beginning of the 6th century BC.  His vision of world peace did not include any sort of “friendship journey” of equality with other nations, but rather was a ruthless military campaign to conquer and enslave them.  At the time of the exile, many able-bodied Jews were captured as slaves to do farm labor, often on what had been their own lands, while others were led away to Babylon in chains. Many of the weaker ones – women, children and the elderly or disabled – were just exterminated, as they were in the Holocaust.  Some male slaves were castrated, but others were allowed to reproduce, to make more slaves, and many of them took foreign wives.  So decades after their capture, both eunuchs and foreigners were returning, and perhaps to those farmers enslaved in the homeland, those strangers seemed almost to be enemy collaborators.  Since it was often the skilled tradesmen, scholars, and those we might call the “ruling elite” who were taken away into bondage, and they probably had taken on some of the enemy’s customs, it was hard for them to reunite with the peasants of their homeland who had stayed behind.  That is why the writer of Isaiah predicts challenges in the re-unification of a nation split apart for generations and why chapter 56 lifts urges acceptance of all.

But the miracle Isaiah 56 predicts is that on his people’s return from exile God would guide them on a true “journey of friendship,” as thousands of Jews who had no previous contact with one another could be bound together again into one family of faith.  In Isaiah 56, God says, “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”  The covenant is opened up wider than ever before, as God’s temple “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  The very identity of the Lord God is one who brings a scattered people together as Jesus longs to do in his famous lament in Matthew 23:37.  Remember?  He says, “‘ Jerusalem , Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!’”  He had to know this saying would evoke Isaiah’s description of the Lord as the one “who gathers the outcasts of Israel ” and gathers “others to them besides those already gathered.” This is so like Jesus to gather up those who had seemed too unclean or imperfect for God – such as lepers, women, eunuchs and foreigners like the Gentile Christians that Paul and other early church leaders would later convert by the thousands. 

The irony that must have astonished Paul and other formerly Jewish Christians was the very NEED for Paul to write this part of the Letter to the Romans – to remind the newest Christians, these pagan converts, that THEY were the ones adopted or “grafted” into covenant with God.  Paul cautioned them to remain humble and avoid the self-righteousness that Paul had seen in himself and other Jewish Pharisees especially.  But I think this is a wise caution for Christians like us today.  One thing most people say they like about our church is how friendly we are, but we need to remember to always be looking for ways that we can make our fellowship even more welcoming to those the rest of our society treats as outcasts. 

Now even though we are a church that in 2005 adopted an “open and affirming” statement to “follow the call of Jesus to love God and neighbor by cherishing and honoring people regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, gender, age, economic status, physical, or mental ability,” we need to always be on the lookout for how we can extend the covenant of our Christian “journey of friendship” to a wider circle of people.  Those of us who have never experienced discrimination need to be reminded, I think, of how powerful it is to bear witness to a love that passes this world’s understanding of how differences so often divide and unbind humanity.  

I got that reminder just last week at the reception after Cindy Field’s father’s funeral.  Dom and Cindy have a good friend who is in a wheelchair, and fortunately it occurred to me to let them know before the funeral that our lift from the parking lot to the meetinghouse was out of service.  Though we offered to help him into Brooks Hall, he decided to just attend the reception, which is where I met him. As you might imagine, I apologized for our lapse in hospitality, but he bowled me over with praise for our sensitivity to his needs.  When he was disabled in an accident, the state made his workplace accessible, but he said he felt accommodation was made for him with some reluctance.  So he was sincerely grateful that we were a church that actually cared about him, though he was a stranger to us.  The inclusive friendship we offer to the world, the extravagant welcome we extend to all in Christ’s name, really does make a difference.  We are heeding our historic call to extend God’s love to all the world’s sons and daughters, to “give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

This page was last updated on 08/17/2008 01:23 PM.