God Believes in Us

On August 20, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

God Believes in Us Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Isaiah 56.1-8 August 20, 2017 Deut. 23 says, “No one who…has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” I don’t know if our Rogers 4 manual organ is male or female, but male organs cut off is a problem for the writer […]

God Believes in Us
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Isaiah 56.1-8
August 20, 2017

Deut. 23 says, “No one who…has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” I don’t know if our Rogers 4 manual organ is male or female, but male organs cut off is a problem for the writer of Deuteronomy. You almost never hear a sermon preached on that verse. But, this is a different kind of church.

People who had been surgically altered (aka “eunuchs”) as well as anyone who had been permanently disfigured in the nether regions by some sort of accident or war wound were banned from worship in the mind of the Deuteronomistic writer. It’s a harsh rejection of people who are physically different.

It’s made worse because being a eunuch wasn’t an elective procedure for most people. No one said, “Hey, being a eunuch sounds fun…wonder where I can become one!”

Eunuchs were usually slaves. So, not only have they been physically altered, but they have been altered against their will and in the context of being enslaved. Furthermore, eunuch slaves were frequently sexualized. Since they were slaves, they could be made to do anything really, and those things were sometimes erotic.

Sometimes, eunuchs could rise to high levels within the slavery system…since they couldn’t get women pregnant, they were often assigned to work with aristocratic women. But even if they became trusted servants of aristocrats, they were still victims of physical abuse, of slavery, and sometimes of sexual abuse. And on top of all this, now religion says they aren’t welcome in worship. Religion might have been their one refuge, if they were allowed to access it.

Dehumanized, demonized, sexualized, ostracized, condemned, and rejected by religion…does that sound familiar to anyone?

In today’s scripture reading, Isaiah rethinks the Deuteronomistic slur against eunuchs. We aren’t imprisoned by scripture…we are meant to have a dynamic, living relationship with our sacred texts. Isaiah knows what Deuteronomy says, but Isaiah also sees hurting people who could be helped with religion but instead religion has been used to make their pain worse. And so he, doesn’t let Deuteronomy have the last word. He gives the matter some more thought.

We heard 3 verses from Isaiah 56 today, but if we read a little more, it gets even better:
1. Maintain justice. (be fair…promote equal opportunity, equal protection, affirm the inherent dignity of all people…maintain justice)
3. Do not let the foreigner…say God will separate me from God’s people. (Do not let the foreigner, the immigrant, the migrant worker, the refugee…don’t let any of God’s people think that this gathering of God’s people will reject them for who they are)
[Nor] let the eunuch say I am just a dry tree (don’t let the sexually different, the physically different, the oppressed, the outcasts believe they are useless, don’t lead them to believe that they are anything other than the children of God made in the image of God, part of the creation that God calls very good).
4.-5. To eunuchs who wish to worship me I will give in my house an inheritance better than children
(eunuchs can’t have children…in antiquity, having children and grandchildren was how immortality was achieved…leaving your stories, your name, your property to the next generation kept your memory and your work and your dreams alive, but eunuchs were denied that, but the prophet says God’s love will not exclude the eunuchs and they have gifts to share in the worship community and that can be the family that will remember and honor and celebrate them)– I’ll give you a name (affirm your sacred value) that cannot be cut off! You’ve had your body cut, and you’ve been cut off from family and from segments of society, but God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care cannot be taken from you…it will never be cut off.

And guess what…if you’ve been cut off from family, cut out of religious community, trimmed like fat from ham and tossed away from people’s lives because you are lesbian or gay, if you have been misunderstood or harshly judged because you are bisexual, if you are questioning and didn’t know where you could explore your questions, God says today if you wish to worship here, you can, and there are gifts for you here that are better than what you may have lost.

And you know what else…if you are transgender…if you’ve cut away the name your parents gave you because it didn’t really fit who you know yourself to be, if you’ve been cut out of people’s lives because you dared to express your truth and grow into your full authenticity, if you have had surgery or hormone treatment to help you look and feel like the person you know yourself to be or if you are hoping and planning to have such treatments later…God says this is the place for you. You are a gift to this community and in this community your giftedness will be celebrated.

If you have been cut off from family, friends, or religion because of divorce, procreative choices, pacifism, how you look, how your pray, or who you love…God says there is a different kind of church that will think you are just what they’ve been looking for.

7. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples!!! (all groups, every culture, every nation, every race and ethnicity, straight folk, LGBTQ folk, young folk, older folk, two steppers and twelve steppers, people who walk and people who roll, people with PhDs and people GEDs, people who out of habit call God he and people who have started to call God she, people with hope and people who mope, people who for their supper must sing and people who come wearing plenty of bling, people who need friends with tails that wag and people who spend their weekends in drag)…God’s house is meant to be a house of prayer for all kinds of people!

8. God gathers the outcasts. (Hear the prophetic declaration that God gathers the outcasts because to God there are no outcasts, to God all people have sacred value, and God’s house is meant to be a welcoming house for all kinds of people…all peoples.)

One of my favorite hymns is from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In that show, a guy named Finch gives himself a pep talk by looking in a mirror and singing,
“You have the cool clear Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet, there’s that up turned chin And the grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you, I believe in you.”

We are the mirror God is looking into today, and that is what God is singing to us through the words of the prophet Isaiah. Whoever we are, God is saying to each of us, “I believe in you, I believe in you.” And this is the good news. Amen.

I believe that God believes in me.
This fills me with hope, joy, and confidence.

A House of Prayer for Different Kinds of People

On August 17, 2014, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

A House of Prayer for Different Kinds of People Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (Aug 17th, 2014) Old story: Guy goes to the doctor with symptoms of deep depression. By outward appearances many love him, but still he feels alone and like every day amounts to walking under water. He’s fatigued and sometimes achy but it […]

A House of Prayer for Different Kinds of People
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (Aug 17th, 2014)

Old story: Guy goes to the doctor with symptoms of deep depression. By outward appearances many love him, but still he feels alone and like every day amounts to walking under water. He’s fatigued and sometimes achy but it seems to be from his mental state rather than from a cold or flu virus.

The doctor thinks the treatment is simple enough. The doctor says, “Very good news! The famous clown Pagliacci is performing in town tonight. Go see him and you’ll perk right up.” The patient says, “the only problem with that is I’M Pagliacci!”

We learned this week about one of our most famous clowns, Robin Williams who had struggled with addiction, depression, and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He left us at only 63 years old, and the world seemed to be thrown into a state of mourning.

Not only were people sad that a familiar face and great talent left us, and left us about 30 years too soon, but the realization that someone who shared so much joy had struggled so bravely and silently with such overwhelming pain touched us, and brought to mind our own pain, and the pain of others, and the spirit of compassion within us started to move.

The milk of human kindness began to flow.

And from the ashes of this sadness, we wish for a phoenix of hope and healing to rise up to guide others in the paths of treatment, help, and resilience.

Robin’s death touched so many of us so deeply is because it felt pretty close to home.

People who have been oppressed, people who have been abused, people who have been marginalized or targeted, all too often struggle with depression and/or substance abuse.

And, physical illness can also contribute to depression, and in a community that has known the heartbreak of AIDS and breast cancer in higher numbers than most communities, we’ve seen that to be true.

So, Robin’s pain reminded us of pain we’ve seen up close, or have experienced personally, and we cried out for waves of healing energy to wash over our community, our nation, and our world.

Far too often people will ask if ministries such as ours are still needed. There is marriage equality in some states and famous people are coming out in record numbers as same-gender loving or gender non-conforming.

HIV is largely manageable with medications now, at least for many people, and those who wish to serve in the military can no longer be excluded simply for being gay or lesbian.

Who needs a different kind of church now? Can’t we say mission accomplished?
Heavens no!

Marriage equality in some states is not marriage equality in 50 states.

And marriage equality in the US doesn’t negate the lives that are threatened in Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda, Pakistan, Malaysia, or Eastern Europe when those lives are suspected of being gay.

The end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell isn’t the end of fundamentalist purveyors of hatred screeching their vile homophobia from pulpits in Oklahoma and Kansas and Tennessee. And that vitriol being spewed out as religious faith is causing depression, is driving people to substance abuse, is tearing families apart and destroying self-esteem; it is literally ruining and sometimes ending lives.

Not to mention, the end of legalized homophobia, which is nowhere near a reality, still won’t be the end of the homophobic attitudes.

The civil rights movement didn’t destroy racism…it enlightened some people, and it made it more difficult (but not impossible) for racism to be codified, but changing human hearts takes generations. Jim Crow may be over, but Ferguson, Missouri still happens.

The 19th Amendment didn’t end sexism…just ask President Whatshername…we don’t know her name because we still haven’t had a woman president in the US! India, Iceland, Ireland, the UK, Pakistan, Germany and Israel have all had female heads of state and heads of government, but the US still has not.

The Statute of Liberty saying “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” didn’t make every tired, oppressed person seeking safety and refuge welcome in this country. When desperate children are treated as a border threat, Lady Liberty’s invitation rings hollow.

So, the work isn’t over. It’s never over.

Every bit of progress makes our lives and our world better, but the kin-dom of God is an ideal toward which we must continually strive…more hope, more healing, more inclusion, more people learning of and daring to celebrate their sacred value is the goal that never expires.

We’ve got at least another 200 years of work to do, and even though I take vitamins, I doubt if I’ll be around another couple of centuries, so fear not, we are needed and we will have a purpose for as long as we share this planet.

And that is what our scripture in Isaiah talks about today.

Isaiah 56.1, 3-8

Do not let the foreigner feel excluded from divine love or community.

Do not let the marginalized, the physically different, the sexually targeted (eunuchs) and those who don’t have “traditional” families feel they have nothing to offer.

I will give them a name, I will know them for who they are, and that’s a blessing even better than a family legacy or societal approval.

I will give them a name, an affirmation that will not be cut off

(the writer uses a vivid and intentional bit of literary image there – a eunuch has had a body part surgically removed, but divine love cannot be removed, we can never be cut off from God’s body, from omnipresent divine Love…the writer then continues speaking for God)

My house is meant to be a place of prayer for all kinds of people!

Isaiah…actually 3rd Isaiah…there are three contributors to the book of Isaiah and the last 10 chapters are from the third of those contributors…3rd Isaiah offers a beautiful thought about inclusion and diversity, but does so in a way that actually rubs up against our own discomforts.

A call to include those from beyond our borders and recognize their dignity and value to our communities won’t set well with any lingering xenophobia or nationalism which may continue to infect our souls.

There may be more discomfort as we consider eunuchs. Eunuchs were slaves, and slavery is a difficult subject, a shameful part of American history, and its legacy of systemic racism still plagues us.

Furthermore, eunuchs were known for a physical attribute, a genital mutilation, and they were often sexualized beyond that. And, historically, eunuchs were often what we today would call “gay.” And certainly, surgically altering one’s biological sexual appearance has some resonance with transgender people today.

The injured, the outcasts, the foreigners, the gay, the gender-benders, the trans-folk…they all are affirmed in Isaiah’s advocacy of the eunuchs.

Furthermore, Isaiah is daring to confront and disagree with scripture when it is based in cultural bias.
Deuteronomy 23.1 explicitly forbids eunuchs from being part of the worshiping assembly.
And yet, 3rd Isaiah says just the opposite. He says eunuchs are not only to be welcome but have a special place in God’s heart!

Isaiah believes the Deuteronomistic writers got it wrong!
Deuteronomy shuns eunuchs; the prophet Isaiah says let’s rethink that.
If someone has ever said to you that the bible condemns or rejects you, the prophet Durrell says let’s rethink that!

In progressive Judaism, it is expected that each new generation will find new meaning in ancient texts. A text once used to condemn can later be used to liberate. We are not imprisoned by the sacred texts; we are free to engage them, wrestle with them, and save them from the oppressive ways they have been used.

People of various ethnicities, nationalities, languages, as well as to people with physical issues and those who have been identified by and condemned for their sexuality… 3rd Isaiah calls us to be respectful, welcoming, sensitive to such people; moreover, Isaiah believes that such inclusivity is the will of God. Isaiah’s views might not be all that popular in our world today, which might actually prove they are still prophetic!

The prophet believes God’s desire would be to gather the outcasts of Israel.

The prophet rethinks the bigotry that has been uplifted as religious values; he even dares to rethink bible passages that have been used as proof-texts to instill that bigotry.

And remember, being in a targeted group doesn’t exempt us from the work of recognizing the humanity of all others. Jesus was socialized to look down on Canaanites, Samaritans, lepers, women, and children but in the Roman empire, Jesus was part of a subjugated, occupied, marginalized group. Being concerned about justice for his community wasn’t enough; there must be justice for all. So not only is there always more to do in and for our community, but our concern can never be limited to just our community.

3rd Isaiah calls for the inclusion of outcasts.
Who are the so-called outcasts in our world?
How many of these have actually been hurt by selfish and abusive biblical hermeneutics?
How would the prophets Isaiah and Jesus have us examine our attitudes toward the so-called “other”?

And are we as a church willing to answer the call to gather these people from the margins together, affirming that our worshiping community is a house of divine love,

a house of prayer for lesbians and gays,
for heterosexuals,
for gender non-conforming persons,
for documented and non-documented residents,
for people whose first language is not English,
for people in recovery,
for non-Christians,
for people who are grieving,
for long-term HIV survivors and the newly diagnosed,
for people battling depression,
for all kinds of people?

If you have known the pain of depression, dis-ease, despair, difficulty, or defeat, our message to you today is that you are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.

We are here to hope for you and with you until your joy returns.

To those who have known pain, we say with the prophet Isaiah, we say with the prophet Jesus, welcome home. Welcome to a house of prayer for different kinds of people, all kinds of people. And this is the good news. Amen.

©Durrell Watkins 2014

I cannot be excluded from divine love.
God knows me, embraces me, and dwells within me.
And what is true of me is true for all people.
We are all part of God.
And so it is that blessings abound.

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