sermon delivered August 16, 2020 as Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church of Plainville
The Irish novelist and poet James Joyce, author of the masterpiece Ulysses, in 1939 wrote this: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
In 1965, from a jail in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these famous words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Sometime in the 8th century BCE, a prophet named Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets of his people and of all peoples, wrote these words in the moment of God’s inspiriting him:
“7 …my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel.”
What do these quotes all have in common? Well, I gave my answer away with the first quote from James Joyce – “in the particular is contained the universal.” These 3 quotes deal with the constant and pervasive tension between the particular – our here and now – and the universal – the universe’s here and now.
Put another way, these 3 quotes probe the relationship between the one and the many, or between one particular group or place here and all groups and places everywhere.
Religion has been dealing with this tension between the particular and the universal, between the here and now and the everywhere and all times, for as long as one religion came across another. Biblical religion, which we discuss every week here, is a great example.
It is clear in the Hebrew Bible, called the Tanakh, that God’s chooses a particular people, Israel. The Hebrew scripture paints a portrait of Creator God, the One and Only true God, choosing a people to be God’s people. It is often quite a lovely portrait. Despite the chosen people’s straying, field-playing, and forsaking of their faith, God again and again doesn’t give up on them. The Bible shows us how God has chosen Israel, and will not choose another.
Then came Jesus. With Christ, we see God expanding divine chosenness to include followers of Christ. The Jewish and the Christian faithful make up the particular peoples that God has chosen, according to New Testament authors.
But what about everyone else? What about the vast majority of people throughout time who were neither Jewish or Christian?
This is a question of the particular and the universal.
Our scripture from Isaiah hints at the answer.
The presumption is that God starts with a particular group. In this case, it is “the outcasts of Israel.” God has chosen and continually choose Israel, a people once enslaved, a people constantly facing threats and bullying by more powerful nations, a people currently occupied and oppressed by the Babylonian Empire. Likewise, in the New Testament, God chose and continually chose a humble nonconformist from the backwoods town of Nazareth as well as his followers, followers maligned by the powers that be and a culture that saw them as nobodies.
God starts with the particular.
But in the particular is found the universal, as James Joyce reminds us. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the nation of Israel as told in the Hebrew scripture, we are able to understand all peoples. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the community called the Christian church, we are able to understand all communities following their own religions that teach love, compassion, and truth.
Isaiah understood this some 2,700 years earlier. Isaiah is speaking from the particular vantage point of a Jewish prophet. He is part of the outcasts of Israel, a particular society and culture of people. From this particular vantage point, Isaiah, inspirited by God, calls for all peoples to join the singular people of Israel. Isaiah suggest, as God moves him, until all peoples see the singular people of Israel and their faith, until all peoples identify with, spiritually join with the outcasts of Israel, then the house of all peoples cannot be realized. Likewise those do see, identify with, and join with these outcasts in their time and place, then the house of all peoples can and will happen.
The larger aim is, yes, to make that house of all peoples, a universal house with God as Love its head, a reality. But this happens only when we collectively see, acknowledge, identify with, and join with the cast-out ones, those whom God has chosen, and start building that house together.
I’d like to close with a story from the Gospel of Mark. Maybe you know it. It is in Mark 2 and comes after Jesus has chosen a tax collector as a disciple. He has dinner with this tax collector along withother tax collectors and sinners, as Mark 2:16 says. Now, in Middle Eastern culture to this very day, to dine with someone means to indicate intimacy between guest and host. You dine with family. If you bring non-family in to dine with, they are in that moment family.
And that term “sinners,” it is actually a category of people, namely those who do not follow Torah. Sinners and Gentiles are synonymous, in other words. So Jesus is eating with and seeing as family both tax collectors, deemed traitors in Israel, and Gentiles innately seen as sinners. To the Jewish hierarchy, Jesus is eating with and declaring as family the outcasts, the rejects, the marginalized of his closed society.
This of course draws huge blowback from Jesus’ religious colleagues in high places. Let me paraphrase Mark 2:16-17. “16 When the religious hierarchy saw that Jesus was eating with the marginalized of his society as if they were family, they said to his disciples, “Why does he choose them?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are not well; I have chosen not the acceptable ones but the marginalized.”
What about us? What about us who are doing well enough, in the middle, feeling fine? We are called to humility. We are called to tap our own experiences of suffering and vulnerability, and connect it to others who experience far more suffering and vulnerability. We are called to lower self to see those at their lowest, those perennially seeking to find a way up and a way in, and be present with and for them.
That is humility. That is compassion. That is the way of Christ.
I close by paraphrasing Isaiah 56, recalling I John’s claim that God is Love.
Those who join
themselves to Love,
to minister to Love, to love what points to Love,
and to be servants of Love,
all who devote time to and rest in Love,
and do not profane Love,
and hold fast Love’s covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their worship and devotion
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says God who is
who gathers the outcasts,
I will gather others to
to stand next to those already gathered.