By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Hanscom Park United Methodist Church
October 1, 2017
Isaiah 56:6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)
6 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—
7 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.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
I love this scripture. Here we’ve got God gathering outcasts and foreigners as part of Isaiah’s vision of the full restoration of Israel. This is a vision of God’s holy mountain Zion and the temple on it that will be restored and expanded to include not just one nation – but all the nations.
This is a great scripture for World Communion Sunday, if I do say so myself, since I am the one who picked it. World Communion Sunday is a celebration of the diversity of our worldwide Methodist connection, as well as an acknowledgment of our ecumenical relationships (meaning all Christians celebrate communion, not just Methodists). And it is an opportunity for us to give, to donate in support of students from all around the world. Like the text says: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus says the Lord.
But…like almost every scripture, when you start studying more and digging deeper, you encounter some trouble. As preachers know, there is almost always some trouble in the text. In this one, the trouble comes from the context in which it was written. This part of Isaiah was written in post-exile Israel. This is the period where the exiles who have been taken against their will to Babylon come back. They get to come back because the Persians have ousted the Babylonians. In some ways, this new imperial overlord was good news. The Babylonians had forced most of the people out of Israel, but the Persian Empire thought it was better to let them return to their homeland.
So, some 60-70 years, generations after having been removed, the exiles were allowed to return. However, as you might imagine, during that 60-70 years, other people have moved onto the land. Some of those people were actually there to start with. They were the poorest residents who the Babylonians didn’t even bother to relocate. And some of those people were the foreigners we hear about in our scripture today.
When the exiles return, things are a mess. The poor folks and foreigners didn’t have the land or humanpower or resources to rebuild or re-work the land after the Babylonians ruined it. So when the returnees arrive, there are suddenly way too many people, and way too few resources to go around.
Let’s suffice it to say that Isaiah’s idealistic declaration of the foreigners being welcome additions to the people of Israel: well, not everybody felt that way. Some of them thought that maybe those foreigners should get out, so the real chosen people could have more to eat. In fact, you can find other prophets writing at this exact same time who very clearly want that. Nehemiah preached against the Judeans marrying foreigners, and Ezra went so far as to tell Judeans if they have taken foreign wives, they should abandon them and any children they had with them. There is not agreement, among people in the community, even among the prophets, about whether God’s salvation is really for all people.
I think this trouble in the text invites us to acknowledge that there is similar trouble in our world. Sure, we love celebrating World Communion Sunday. We want to declare that this is a house of prayer for all peoples, but we too struggle with whether we think there are really enough resources to go around.
And so we have to ask ourselves the question, “with which prophet do we stand?” Do we stand with Isaiah who declares that God wants to include everybody? Or do we stand with Ezra and Nehemiah who insist that resources are too scarce. We have to take care of our own. Do we really value people in different communities and distant countries and cultures as much as the people who are nearby? Think about Puerto Rico. Think about the recent earthquakes in Mexico. Think about our political debates about immigration. It’s hard to know what to do. And the prophets could have us go either way.
Luckily, our Methodist tradition has some help for us. How many of you remember me talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? It tells us that we have to read scripture using these other tools: our reason, tradition, and experience. The bible is a complicated book – a library of books in actuality. To make sense of its many voices, we have to bring to bear all of the theological resources we’ve got. And today I’d like us to seek some guidance from our Methodist tradition. Specifically, from our founder (I may have mentioned him before), the Reverend John Wesley.
Now John Wesley knew something about salvation. He knew that salvation was new life, lived in love, right now. It is something we experience when we receive God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It results in transformed lives. Wesley expected people who claimed to know Jesus, to know God, to be changed. He believed every faithful person could grow more and more in the image of God, and that eventually they would be “perfected in love in this life.” They would be perfectly conformed to the image of God, totally free from sinning. They would be able to love God and love their neighbor perfectly. In this life. All the time.
Now, I know that it quite a claim. I think even Wesley knew that the actual reaching of perfection was rare. But even so, he encouraged all of his people to strive for it. And one thing he thought was absolutely indispensable for people if they were going to grow in the image of God, is that they had to be in direct relationship with the poor and the sick. Because we simply cannot love our neighbors, if we do not know our neighbors. And if we only know middle class and healthy people, then there are a lot of neighbors we don’t know and can’t love.
Wesley was ruthless about this. Prepare yourselves. He did not coddle people. Here is an excerpt from a sermon he preached called On Visiting the Sick.
“One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart.”
I know that is harsh. Wesley is not playing, and it’s not because he hates the rich. He interacted with people of all social classes. He is concerned for their souls. He believes that not being able to love all of God’s children – especially those who are in need – is a major and dangerous impediment in our relationship with God.
He shows this concern also in a series of letters he writes to a wealthy woman named Miss March. Wesley is clearly impressed with her spiritual progress. He writes to her that he has great optimism that she will go on to reach perfection in love. But she does have some work to do. When she survives a grave illness and asks Wesley how she can best give God glory because she has been given the gift of more days on earth, Wesley replies:
“And are you willing to know? Then I will tell you how. Go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman! Remember the faith! Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ!” (Wesley, John. “To Miss March, June 9, 1775.” In The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. (Vol. VI). London: The Epworth Press, 1931: p. 153-154.)
Wesley tells her to “put off the gentlewoman.” In our language, maybe something like “quit being so high and mighty.” And go visit the poor and sick in their homes.
Apparently, this was not easy for Miss March to do. In successive letters, Wesley continued to urge her again and again to visit the poor, to know the poor. I remember the day when I was sitting on the floor in the library in seminary, digging through volume after volume of Wesley’s letters, and I saw his last letter to Miss March. It was this exasperated plea to just go visit the poor and the sick already. It gave me the impression that he was so disappointed with her that he was just done with her. He never wrote to her again. I was surprised to find my feelings hurt on her behalf. And honestly, I think Wesley could have been more kind.
But this issue was so essential to him. He took it with such seriousness. And I think it is that essential to us. You can’t truly love people you don’t know. Your heart can’t break with compassion when you haven’t heard people’s stories, when you haven’t shared relationships, when you haven’t been in their homes.
So before we decide whether it is our job to help Puerto Rico or Mexico or not, or whether we should support immigration reform or not, I think we need to listen to John Wesley. We can’t look from afar and decide it’s okay not to care about people who are distant from us in geography or circumstance. We have to know people so that we can love people.
Now, it is sometimes not as easy as just “visiting the poor in their poor little hovels” as Wesley would say. We can’t just hop on a plane to visit people in other countries. We might not know any recent immigrants with whom we can have a chat. But I do think we can take first steps in learning about those who are different than us, so that eventually we can build relationships with those same people.
There is an organization called Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). They were started by The United Methodist Church, and they actually are moving into the old Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging building on 42nd and Center. So they will literally be our new neighbors. They employ a team of attorneys who work with low-income immigrants who cannot afford to pay for legal advice.
And I am glad that our WIMPS group (Women in Mission Projects) is hosting a speaker from JFON here at the church on October 19th at 6:30 PM. Her name is Anna Deal, and she is an attorney that works with immigrants. She will be talking with us about the immigration process and how families are impacted by it. And I hope you will consider attending. While this isn’t yet what Wesley would require of us since it doesn’t directly put us in contact with our immigrant neighbors, I hope it will be an educational step for us to prepare to reach out with compassion to the many immigrants who, for example, attend Norris Middle School just up the street and live in our immediate vicinity.
Friends, we can’t celebrate World Communion Sunday with any integrity unless we commit to knowing the diverse people in our own community. So I am going to keep encouraging us to do that. And I’m also going to tell you the truth. The theological bottom line is this: you are a beloved child of God, made in God’s image, and able to grow to perfection in love. And so is every person of every race and nation and class in this vast world of ours.
So we have a big job to do. Because to be in communion with each other, we have to put in the effort to know each other. And only when we know each other can we possibly love each other.
May it be so.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION
- When resources are scarce and need is great, how do you decide who to help, which people to care for, or which organizations to support?
- Where are there gaps in your experience with diverse people? Are there certain groups or types of people you need to know better so that you can love them better?
- Tell us a story about a time that you got to know someone who was different from you (from a different race, ethnicity, nation, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, level of ability, etc.). How did it change how you thought, felt, and acted?