Summary: a sermon preached at the first night mass at the 2015 On Fire Mission conference, an Anglo-Catholic Charismatic conference, whose overall theme in 2015 was "Crossing Boundaries: Christ Centred Ministry on the edge"
This year On Fire was over booked. You have been exclusively privileged to be here when other people got turned away.
Exclusive [say slowly and excitedly]
Sounds positive doesn’t it.
But listen to the word carefully.
Exclusive - I feel part of the in crowd because you are ex-cluded, because you are not in, you are shut out.
It doesn’t take long for a clique to appear in the bible.
Arguably not even the first clique in the bible appears in Genesis chapter 11 - the Tower of babel.
Imagine a tower getting higher and higher. Brick walls to keep people in and keep people out. Taller than Big Ben. Taller than the Eifel Tower. Taller than the Empire State building. Taller than the new World Trade Centre. Taller than the tallest building in the world.
Hewn bricks seen by many commentators as a sign of humanities pride. Brick walls to keep people in and keep people out. Keeping everyone one in except the one person it shuts out - God. But these enormously high walls shutting God out come crumbling down. In slow motion watch the tower fall, crumbling down like a collapsing pile of Jenga. And watch the people who began by excluding God move on to excluding each other …. scattered over the earth, divided by dress, accent, language and lack of understanding.
Our reading today from Isaiah 56 - comes from a time when God’s people have spent decades as unwilling immigrants in Babylon, today’s Iraq. For those of you who don’t know - the book of Isaiah is more a compendium than a single book. The first part, chapters one to 39 are written in the eighth century BC around 740 BC. Isaiah prophesies that a terrible disaster will happen if people continue abandoning God. That disaster does happen. Israel is conquered by the ruthless babylonian empire, and tens perhaps hundreds of thousands of its citizens are carted off into exile, into slave labour, across the syrian desert, on the opposite side of the Empire by those wretched waters of Babylon. But God does not abandon his people. A second Isaiah takes up the first Isaiah’s pen and through her or him God speaks Hope.
In chapter 40 onwards God promises he will comfort, comfort my people, that he will make straight a path in the desert and bring the people home.
And so we come to our reading in chapter 56 verses 1 to 8.
Having promised hope to his people, God speaks to those who still feel on the outside.
Eunuchs. Those of you who watch Sky Atlantic’s Game of thrones will know about Eunuchs.
Some Eunuchs are like Varys in Game of Thrones, like Potiphar in the story of Joseph, or the Ethiopian Eunuch in the book of Acts. These are powerful people … but they have had to make a terrible sacrifice to achieve their power. Like today’s workaholic who sacrifices time with his or her family or perhaps even the chance of a family to achieve success in a career, but at what terrible cost. This may have been a lifestyle choice, but now they look back and feel like “a dry tree”.
Other Eunuchs may have had no choice in the matter. Like the unsullied in Game of thrones, or the Castrati in mediaeval Europe, they were taken as child slaves and had their bits cut off so their cruel masters could profit from their suffering. They didn’t even have a choice in the matter, yet Deuteronomy and Leviticus appear to say that they have no place within God’s house.
Then there are the foreigners. Israelites are not the only forced immigrants in Babylon, and others who have lost their own roots look enviously at the close knit Israelite community with its God of love who stays with them in their time of exile when these other slaves feel their gods abandoned them in Moab, phrygia, Media, Assyria or whatever was the land of their ancestors. Yet doesn’t the Torah seem quite clear too that foreigners have no place within God’s house?
As God uses second Isaiah to preach hope, is it a hope only for the in crowd, only for the lucky few, or are all people to be allowed to come into that hope?
Are all people to be allowed to come? That is a question Lutheran priest, the Revd Nadia Bolz-Webber faced, but not in the way most of us might think. Pastor Nadia runs a rather unusual lutheran church in Denver, Colorado, “The House of All Sinners and Saints”. It is perhaps unusual because she is a rather unusual priest. Tatoo-covered, she is a recovering alcoholic, who when she speaks at church events, has to be given a “parental guidance warning” because of the explicit language she uses. Nadia’s church was unusual too - firstly because it was full of young people. Not your well groomed middle class twentysomethings holding down jobs in the city. A different sort of young. Trannies at various stages of their sex change. Lesbians and gays rejected by the parents and families they had grown up with. Ex-alcoholics and ex-junkies - and those, well, who are still alcoholics and still junkies. “The House of All Sinners and Saints” is a church where those who are usually unwelcome can feel genuinely very welcome.