The Old Testament reading for the Friday in week 4 of Epiphany spoke very strongly to me. I am used to thinking of the Old Testament as the historical documents of Christianity. They inform my understanding of the history and tradition that Jesus and his immediate followers would have been exposed to, but they are not the focus of my own faith. That said, the inclusiveness of this passage, startled me:
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.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
~Isaiah 56: 1-8
What struck me the most were the particular examples used of ‘outsiders’ who could be gathered in were eunuchs and foreigners. From the context in the poem, both groups are ‘outcasts of Israel’. Now God says that the eunuchs will be given: ” a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;” and the foreigners: [God] 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.”
Both groups are assured of not being separated or cut off* from God’s people as long as they keep the sabbath and the covenant and refrain from doing evil.
I wonder if part of the reason they would have a ‘name better than sons or daughters’ is because, presumably, they chose the relationship with God and a commitment to the covenant. Unlike the children of Israel, who were raised in the faith and learned from birth all of the rituals and rules of the faith. The outsiders bring other traditions and life experience with them, and yet still choose to bind themselves to this particular God and the way of life that entails.
I was raised as an Episcopalian, not quite from the cradle since I was a toddler before my mom got around to baptizing me, and other than a brief experiment with Tarot Cards when I was in college, I’ve been an Episcopalian my entire life. To some extent, I have always been ‘in’^. At least, I’ve always known the rituals, what books to use, when to stand, when to come up to the altar, etc. There has never been a time when the ritual life of the church was foreign to me. However, I think that, similar the way that learning a second language can enrich my understanding of my first language, coming to an understanding of God and with God later in life can enrich that relationship.
The closest I have come to that feeling, is to attend Anglican worship services in other countries and in languages that I am not fluent in. The structure of the worship that I am familiar with is still there, but all of the little details are different. The cues I am used to aren’t there and it changes the experience of worship for me. Nearly every time, it has made the experience both more powerful and awesome. It has given me a window into the massive mystery that is God, in a way that going to my home church did not.
For me, this reading has a similar effect. Just when I think I’ve got God in a box and that I understand everything about my faith and relationship with God; God unfolds another aspect of god’s-self and enfolds me in a Mystery.
For all of the complexity of God, the relationships are always simple: Love and inclusion are at the heart of them.
*Apparently either the translator or the original writer couldn’t resist a little word play.
^With the exception that as a queer/bi person there have been times when I had to stand up for my place in ‘my’ faith.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
© 2019 Kristin Fontaine