Sermon - 26th June 2016
A Home for Everyone
Scripture - Isaiah 56:1-8
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The Kingdom is divided. One part is ruled reasonably well, protecting its people; the other part is ruled over by corrupt, self-serving individuals, doomed to failure, taking its people with them.
No, I am not talking about this United Kingdom in 2016, two days after the referendum decision to leave the European Union, but about ancient Israel; however, the parallels are disturbingly familiar and poignant.
Our reading today is taken from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, whose writings cover the period in history from 739-538 BCE. Because of the two centuries covered by the book, most Bible scholars today agree that the book does not have one single author, but at least three.
After the reign of King Solomon around 975 BCE, the Jewish people split into two Kingdoms: Judah, the Southern Kingdom, comprising mainly 2 tribes (Judah and Benjamin), with Jerusalem as its capital and was ruled over by a mixture of good and bad kings. Israel was the Northern Kingdom, comprising the other 10 Jewish tribes, with Samaria as its capital, and was ruled over by a succession of bad and corrupt kings.
In some respects, humankind has not changed much in 3,000 years. In every society, the weak, the poor and the powerless are kept down by the powerful, who, in turn, fear losing their grip on power, and who will say – or do - anything to retain their grip on power!
The first 39 of Isaiah’s 66 chapters point out the corruption of both kingdoms, albeit more so in the Northern Kingdom, nations that had turned a deaf ear to the Lord. Instead of serving God with humility and offering love to their neighbours, the nations offered meaningless sacrifices to God and committed injustices throughout the nation.
Beginning in 734 BCE, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrian Empire; its people were taken into slavery and became lost to history. Around a century later, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians, and its people deported; some survived.
Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah deal with the Jewish exile in Babylon. Our reading today is from Chapter 56, the start of the third section of Isaiah’s book, which speaks about the promise of restoration to their homeland, and how the people should live their lives and build their new society.
Today marks the end of National Refugee Week, and according to statistics from the United Nations, at the end of 2015, there were over 60 million refugees in the world. In a world with approximately 7 billion people, that is only 0.8% of the global population. But look at it from another angle: 60 million is approximately the same size as the UK population.
60 million driven to leave their homes. 60 million too many.
The Bible is full of accounts of refugees; even Jesus own earthly parents were refugees when they fled to Egypt from the evil King Herod. Isaiah knew about refugees, even if the numbers involved were not recorded: the whole of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were driven from their homes and faced the fate common to refugees throughout the years.
The gay theologian Timothy Koch has this to say about Isaiah:
“The book of Isaiah names in unvarnished, even arch ways the techniques employed by those in power (governmental and/or religious) who would seek to keep an unjust hold on the people.”
(Koch, Timothy, “Isaiah”, in: “The Queer Bible Commentary”)
Our reading from Isaiah mentions specifically two groups in society: the “foreigner” and the “castrated” (or, in some translations, “eunuchs”). In many ways, this one passage from the Bible is a manifesto which outlines the work of this congregation in this church: to reach out and to minister to the LGBT people of Manchester and the North-West.
In other sermons this year, we have looked at the passages in the Bible which mention “eunuchs”, and it is commonly accepted in progressive theology that the word “eunuch” is an ancient way of identifying gay men.
The concepts of hetero- and homo-sexuality are relatively modern inventions, but briefly, they were men then (as now) who had a reputation for being disinterested in women as objects of sexual attraction.
Jesus also mentioned “eunuchs” in Matthew 19:12:
“For there are different reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Let him who can accept this teaching do so.”
Taking on board the Bible’s euphemistic way of referring to gay men, and by analogy to all LGBT people, listen again to Isaiah’s powerful words of acceptance:*
“A [gay person] should never think… ‘You can never be part of God's people… your name will be remembered in my Temple and among my people… You will never be forgotten.” (Isaiah 56:3,5)
Sadly, all LGBT people, at some point, will have experienced discrimination, exclusion, hatred and even violence, because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Many of you sitting here will have painful memories of what has happened to you in the past because you are LGB or T, and the heart of much of that hatred and violence has come from the church, churches that have failed to hear Isaiah’s and Jesus’ words of acceptance.
Today, in particular, we remember those of you who have sought or are seeking asylum here in the UK, because you are lesbian or gay. For you, it had become impossible to remain in the countries of your birth because of your sexual orientation.
Through this congregation over the years, 23 people have been granted asylum and the permanent right to remain in UK. For some, the path has been easier, and the right to remain has been given after a Home Office interview; for others, there have been awful times in Home Office detention facilities, long and difficult court cases, appeals and judicial reviews. No-one (so far) who has come to our church has ever lost and been deported!
Let us look at what Isaiah had to say to “foreigners”. The message is again one of acceptance, not rejection. *
“And the Lord says to those foreigners who become part of his people... ‘I will bring you to Zion, my sacred hill, [and] give you joy in my house of prayer.’” (Isaiah 56:6-7)
If we are brutally honest about the United Kingdom, particularly in the face of political events of recent days and weeks, some of the things said about foreigners, asylum seekers and immigrants by the more radical, right-wing politicians, who now seem to have the political upper-hand, are deeply worrying. Their xenophobic hysteria is completely at odds with Isaiah’s vision of acceptance and inclusion.
I mentioned that Isaiah did not mince his words when it came to bringing political and religious rulers to account: just a couple of verses beyond today’s reading, he had this to say about them: *
“All the leaders, who are supposed to warn my people, are blind! They know nothing! … They are like greedy dogs that never get enough. These leaders have no understanding. They each do as they please and seek their own advantage.” (Isaiah 56:10-11)
Of the many politicians we have heard recently, for how many of them do these words of Isaiah ring true?
The gay theologian Timothy Koch summarises Isaiah’s message:
“If there is something vital to be taken from Isaiah, in particular for the LGBT community, I would suggest that it is [God] … defies and undermines any attempt to link true righteousness and peace-making with the carrying out of any ideological, ritualistic and/or theo-political agenda.” (ibid.)
Isaiah’s vision of a post-exile Israel was and is beautiful one: a home for everyone. A home for the refugee, a home for the asylum seeker, a home for the LGBT people: a home for you.
I would like to finish by looking again at the opening words in today’s reading:
“The Lord says to his people: ‘Do what is just and right.’”
And this is now a time to say thank you to the many people who do exactly that: they do what is just and right. Please can I invite you to join in the words of thanks on the screen. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to Andy Braunston, Philip Jones, Lee Gellatly who run First Wednesday, a ministry which began with a handful of people, but now monthly draws over 50 LGBT asylum seekers and fills the largest room at the LGBT Foundation to bursting point. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to Andrew Gilliver and all the staff and trustees at the LGBT Foundation for giving First Wednesday a place to meet. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to the United Reformed Church’s Vision 2020 project and the North Western Synod of the United Reformed Church which support the work of First Wednesday through two grants. The work of First Wednesday is so successful that we will have to ask the URC for more money! Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to Anna, Pam and Sue and others who regularly attend court with asylum seekers and support them. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to all of you, who over the years, have offered a place in your home to an asylum seeker; thank you to those who have been a shopping-buddy; thank you to those who have written letters of support. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to all of you who either donate groceries or money to support the food bank. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to the morning congregation of Wilbraham St Ninian’s United Reformed Church who gave this congregation a new home in 2009, and welcomed us with unconditional love and acceptance. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to ASHA – Asylum Support Housing Advice – to Maria, Gloria and Tony, for all the help, support and advice you have given. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Some of you have been placed in Merseyside. Thank you to Asylum Link Merseyside for their support, for their lunch club and food bank, and to Ewan, their manager, who will always go the extra mile. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to John Nicholson, barrister from Kenworthy’s Chambers, who has represented in court many we know. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit: thank you to Shakhura, Isobel, Sukhdeep, Ryan and all the other solicitors and caseworkers at GMIAU for their knowledge, insight and experience; thank you to James, Jackie, Khurshid and Joe, the office staff at GMIAU. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
Thank you to Denise McDowell, Director of GMIAU, for her tireless enthusiasm to make the world a better place. May God bless her and all involved in the new Greater Manchester Law Centre to bring access to justice for all. Thank you for doing what is just and right.
At the end of this National Refugee Week, let us give thanks to God for everyone who has found peace here with us, those whose journeys have come to an end on receiving leave to remain, and those whose strive towards that goal. May God bless the work of all those we have named, and those who work quietly behind the scenes.