The Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and the Epistles- basically, the entirety of the Scriptural tradition- are each full of stories of what it means to belong. The story of the Israelites that we’ve been following these last few weeks in our community exploration of Sabbath, is a journey marked by a disparate people becoming God’s people.
“Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” says God in Exodus 19:5-6.
We, too, as a Christian community, seek to discover what it means to more and more become God’s people. What are the markers of membership? Christians have long understood Baptism to be entry point- but what of the ongoing requirements? The Hebrew scriptures offer different traditions which seek to answer that same question. The Priestly tradition focuses primarily on holiness and purity as markers of identity- think the Leviticus holiness codes. The Deuteronomic tradition focuses more on justice and concern with the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants as the bedrock of identity, though still alongside issues of purity. Today, Christians continue to argue, sometimes violently, over who can claim the “true” Christian identity. Conversely, the historical and contemporary concern is also, “who, then, must be excluded?” Our own Episcopal church has split over questions of inclusion and exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We have not yet come to consensus on what it means to be the people of God.
“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)
For a little bit of context here, foreigners and eunuchs represent groups of people the Israelites long struggled to understand and include within the confines and concerns of purity, holiness, and chosen-ness. In this one passage, we see a different answer to the question, “who belongs and who doesn’t”. In it, God says that the only marker if identity, is Sabbath-keeping.
“Keep Sabbath! This is the single, solitary mark of membership, an act of generous incorporation…that lets the life of God’s Israel spill over among those who have been excluded but are now welcomed”.
-How do you understand the markers of Christian identity? What are they? Have you ever struggled to embody them all?
-What if we understood identity and membership in this same way? What long-entrenched arguments could be set aside? What about now, in our polarized political climate?
-Last week we explored Sabbath-keeping as a way of breaking through the competition-based world we so often live in. How does this week’s reflection fit with last week’s? What could it mean to live as an inclusive people who embody God’s own practice of trust and rest, together in community?
-What is one way, this week, that you could practice this kind of Sabbath with people that you love- family, friends, colleagues?
-Create a home altar this week, full of items that mean something to you and/or your family (however you understand that word). Maybe you have pictures or heirlooms that help you understand yourself/selves. Maybe there are things you love to do together that you could put there. Maybe pieces of God’s creation are grounding to you; in which case, you could put flowers, or branches, or a packet of seeds. Use the altar as a touch-point when you feel scattered this week. Sometimes having a physical space that calls us to remember who we are and whose we are, can help to ground us in times when it’s easy to forget.
-If multiple people are making this altar together, invite reflections on why each person put on the object they did. What does it mean to you? What called you to put it on the altar?
Friday Night Prayer:
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.
 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 54.