God who Gathers
One of my favorite parts of being a Christian is that we live in this odd tension
between what is Holy and what is not-church-worthy. What I mean, is that traditionally we have thought of church as a sacred gathering place where men take off their hats as a sign of reverence. Some of us come to church dressed up--I am not sure where this comes from maybe to show respect to God as we worship? Traditionally church is a treated as a formal, sort-of serious institution.
On Sunday morning we bring our best selves. Pretending, if we are honest. Some would be offended and consider it rude if I started using crass or body language up here. We somehow check our bodies at the door. We pretend that we are elevated beings when we sit in the pews.
And then we have the Bible. Our Holy book. I don’t know if you have noticed but the Bible, in all of its sacredness, doesn’t pretend for a second that we don’t have body parts or body fluids or anything that we might find embarrassing.
The Bible uses incredibly crass language. It talks about body parts and body fluids a ridiculous amount. And usually we just kind of skim over these parts and pay attention to the more “civilized” parts of the Bible. The less sacrilegious parts of the Bible.
Or, we do this other weird thing in church, where we use body language and pretend that what we are saying is perfectly normal and not at all strange.
For example, circumcision. We talk about it all the time as if it is a perfectly appropriate and formal thing to be talking about foreskin behind the pulpit. David gave Saul 200 foreskins. No big deal.
A lovely birthday present, in fact.
I do have a purpose for potentially making you all uncomfortable this morning.
The bible passage we read from Isaiah talks about eunuchs and how they are to be welcomed into God’s community.
Why is this important? What are eunuchs? I am sure some of you might know, but to understand this passage we must understand exactly what a eunuch is and why God is giving these instructions. No more foreskin talk, but we aren’t done with male anatomy yet.
Eunuchs are people who were castrated either as a boy around puberty, or as a full-grown man. The reasons for why they were castrated vary. Usually it was a punishment.
But like Jesus mentions in Matthew 19, some are born eunuchs.
Castration changes the hormones present in their body, so this would actually change how a eunuch would look. Especially if they were castrated when they were young.
They wouldn’t grow facial hair, they would have longer lower limbs, and barrel-type chests. This put them in an interesting gender category. They weren’t considered full men, but they also weren’t considered women. They were somewhere in-between, or something different altogether.
Eunuchs were used in palaces for security and as a mixture of a servant/hand maiden.
They, like queens, probably had their own wing of the palace where they resided.
Eunuchs were viewed as less of a threat to the women because they were castrated. They were less of a threat to men because they couldn’t procreate. They couldn’t have children that could try and grab for power or muddy the royal lineage.
Basically, the men didn’t have to worry about if their children were really theirs,
which was a legitimate fear. It would be devastating if a man’s property would be passed down to someone not of his blood.
With these fears cut away, eunuchs were considered to be 100% trustworthy and loyalty.
They were taken from their families and weren’t going to have a family of their own,
therefore they were entirely devoted to the king or queen they served.
As a result of this level of trust, some ways eunuchs could be very powerful.
Because of their proximity to royalty, they were privy to critical information about the kingdom. And they might even have had some influence about what decisions were made.
At the same time, eunuchs were also considered ‘other,’ a misfit, an outcast. They didn’t fit neatly into any category. In a society where your identity was tied up in the ability to have children, a society where it was critical to leave a legacy of male children to carry on your name, this made eunuchs essentially socially worthless.
When someone would die, their name would live on in their children. This was considered a form of eternal life. If they didn’t have children, they didn’t have access to this type of heaven. When they died, they just died.
Returning to our passage, lets place this knowledge of a eunuch within the context of Isaiah 56. In this last third of Isaiah we meet a people who are scattered, scared,
and struggling to re-create their sense of identity. We see that the Israelite nation had just been overtaken by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Their place of worship was demolished and they were banished from their homeland. They have been living in exile, wondering how they can still worship a God that allowed this destruction to fall upon them. Where was God? Was this their fault? Can they still worship without their temple?
What distinguished them as a people from the foreigners they lived among?
At this point, a man named Cyrus took over the throne of Babylon,
declaring himself the new king. As king he told the Israelites that they could come back, return from exile back to Jerusalem. They began to reassemble a sense of community and identity.
For the most part, the worst seemed behind them. Still, they clung on to a deep-seated fear that all the people of God would be wiped from the Earth. This was an understandable fear, for some of their children had been taken during the war and turned into eunuchs.
How will there be a future if they were barren? Who would carry on their name?
Who would remain faithful to YHWH? Enter the prophet Isaiah, or the third author of the book of Isaiah, sometimes called third Isaiah. This prophet brings a message of unity and hope to a slowly re-assembling people.
Isaiah proclaims that God is drawing near and gathering up the community. God wants a people gathered around covenant and justice, doing what is right, loving the Lord, and keeping the Sabbath. This is good news for all of the exiled and scattered Israelites, but God doesn’t stop there. God comes with good news to two particular types of people.
God says to this gathering community, don’t come together in such a way that leaves the foreigner among you feeling separated.
If this foreigner chooses to live among God’s people and chooses to participate in covenantal worship of YHWH, then they will be gathered in, brought to the holy mountain, to the house of prayer, invited to offer up sacrifices.
Not only are the foreigners gathered in, they are brought right to the center, to the heart of the community. They are given access to the temple. A house of prayer for all peoples.
The second group that receives a particular word of good news is the eunuch.
Not only is God gathering in the eunuch, but God will create a monument within the walls of God’s house. Once gathered in, if the eunuch chooses to partake in sabbath and join into covenantal union with God’s people, then they will be offered the gift of a name, a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
This means that eunuchs do not have to fear that they will be forgotten when they die.
Even if they don’t have children to carry on their legacy and name, God will do it for them.
God will remember. They will live on for eternity in God’s own home.
Why, you might ask, would Isaiah and God draw attention to these two types of people, foreigners and eunuchs. Well you have to turn farther back in Hebrew Scripture to find out.
On one hand, we read verses like Leviticus 19:34:
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you,
and you shall love them as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt;
I am the Lord your God.”
And then you read Deuteronomy 23:3:
“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.”
We see this exclusion of the foreign Moabites and Ammonites carry on in Nehemiah 13. There are mixed messages surrounding accepting foreign people into the community of God.
So what is happening here in Isaiah? In this vision of God’s community, the foreigners are gathered in and extended an invitation to join in community as children of God.
God’s people became a people, not just by blood, but by invitation, by covenant, by choice. As far as the eunuchs, there is this tiny verse in Deuteronomy
right before the verse we heard about excluding the Ammonites and Moabites.
This verse is exactly what I was talking about in the beginning of my sermon. The Bible doesn’t shy away from the realities of our bodily existence. It is crass and honest in ways we shy away from or name as inappropriate for church.
Are you ready?
Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
So what is God doing here in Isaiah? In this vision of God’s community, the eunuchs are gathered in and extended an invitation to join in community as children of God.
God’s people became a people, not just by blood, but by invitation, by covenant, by choice.
It seems as if Isaiah is re-drawing boundaries as this community re-builds itself and re-builds the temple. Those once considered outcasts, misfits, and even thought of as dangerous to the purity of the community, are being gathered in.
God is extending the gift of covenantal community and the foreigners and eunuchs
are invited to accept, to be swept up by a God who gathers. This is by no means a direct comparison, but this passage reminds me of what I experienced in Denver, Colorado during my theology conference. During this conference I noticed a reoccurring theme.
Speakers addressed the crowd with explicit words of welcome to those among us who were hurt by the church or disillusioned with hypocrisy they have experienced.
The speakers made it clear that this was not just a safe space for questions, but a sacred space that was big enough to handle any doubts, skepticism, or cynicism that participants brought with them. No matter what was pressing on their heart, crushing their spirit, they were invited to join in this community of worship.
There was also another element in the room that was like a weighted blanket on our bodies. One of the people who organized this event, Rachel Held Evans, a prophetic, relatable, funny, revolutionary speaker and writer, passed away this summer. She was 38 and left behind a loving husband and two little boys. Those who knew her, those who read and wept at her words, were all grieving her loss, missing her presence.
The whole experience was like emotional whiplash. I went from experiencing profound grief to nerding out, scribbling furiously in my notes as I heard some of my favorite authors speak.
And then there was communion.
One of my favorite authors, tattooed-bad-girl-addict and alcoholic turned tattooed-clean-yet-grumpy, speaker and pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, gave the meditation. She said the words of institution, broke bread, poured the wine and invited all to come, see, and eat.
While we all prepared to receive the gift of communion, a hipster-y band began playing traditional hymns like Holy, Holy, Holy, and It is Well.
You could feel the Holy Spirit buzzing throughout the room. The Sacred washed over people in waves. Soon everyone was on their feet, lifting up their arms, singing their lungs out in praise of a God who gathers.
I couldn’t help but weep.
Here was a room of skeptics, agnostics, Christians, atheists.
Here was a room of people wounded, still bleeding from the ways the church has cut them.
Here was a room of people ready to give up on this who church-thing.
Here was a room of people not sure about the whole Jesus-thing.
Here was a room of burnt out pastors.
Here was a room so full of existential angst you could cut it with a knife.
Yet. The bread was broken. The wine poured.
Jesus’ body was offered, his blood, the blood of the new covenant, was shed for us.
And hungry, starving people were gathered and fed. Eunuchs and foreigners and hipsters and skeptics, Children of God, were invited to the table by the God who Gathers.
Hungry, starving people were gathered and fed. Remembered. God’s people became a people, not just by blood, but by invitation, by covenant, by choice.
Like Rachel said,
“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table,
not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
May it be so.
 N’Shea, Omar. “Royal Eunuchs and Elite Masculinity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.” Near Eastern Archaeology 79, no. 3 (September 2016): 214–21.  Ibid. Omar.  This takes place around 516 BCE.  Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
“Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 by Ingrid Lilly,” accessed October 9, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1049;
“Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 by Michael L. Ruffin,” accessed October 9, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3370;
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Raymond de Hoop, “The Interpretation of Isaiah 56:1-9: Comfort or Criticism?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 4 (2008): 671–95;
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