An Inclusive Welcome
Scriptures: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 10:11-16
As I said in the eNews this week, our church has received three cemetery plots at Washington Memorial Park near SeaTac, donated by the family of Bill and Darlene Adams. Bill and Darlene were members of this church from 1964 to the 1980s. After Bill’s death in 2014 and Darlene’s death last year, they were buried at a cemetery in Sequim closer to where their daughter lives, and the daughter then decided to donate to our church the plots they had owned in SeaTac.
Two weeks ago Bill Gwyn and I met Bill and Darlene’s daughter to look at the plots and see about transferring the deed. They are in a lovely section of the cemetery, and it was very kind of the family to donate them. My shock came when I read the original 1952 deed. The second paragraph says, “The Company agrees to sell, and the Purchaser to buy, according to the terms hereof, a Memorial Plot in Washington Memorial Park, … containing 3 adult internment spaces to be used exclusively for the internment of members of the Caucasian Race.” I was stunned. I had no idea there were segregated cemeteries in Seattle in the 1950s.
I should not have been surprised since I knew there were intentionally segregated neighborhoods across Washington. I once saw a covenant document from the 1950s prohibiting non-whites from buying houses in certain Spokane neighborhoods, which had profound economic implications, since white veterans, for example, were able to come back from World War II and get loans to buy houses in a growing real estate market from which African American veterans were excluded. And that equity advantage got passed on for generations. I knew that, so I should not have been surprise that cemeteries were segregated.
But it got me thinking. Why segregate a cemetery? What is the fear? That crime will go up? That people of color will rise up out of their graves and assault the white folks? That black folks and white folks mixing six feet underground will kill the grass? What were they afraid of?
Then I got to thinking theologically. What happens on the other side of these graves? What happens when all these white people buried in this cemetery get to the pearly gates and discover they are standing next to people of color, people of every race, language, and nation together before the throne of God singing God’s praise? Do they turn around and leave? Do they decide to go to the other place where people might go when they die, where there probably is segregation?
All these thoughts were going through my head looking at those cemetery plots. Then I began studying today’s scripture passage from Isaiah 56. Verse 3:
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.”
Apparently when the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon, some of the Babylonians heard from them about the Lord and became attracted to their faith. They wanted to serve a God like the Lord, a God who created people for love, not sport, who believed that every person from the king on down had equal dignity in the sight of God. They were attracted to a God like that, and when the people of Israel were allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple, they wanted to come. But would they be welcome?
The same issue applied to eunuchs. Eunuchs were people who were castrated—rendered sexually incapacitated—in order to serve in the king’s palace. The fear was that these palace officials might try to have an affair with one of the king’s wives, and they were castrated to prevent that from happening. This happened even to some of the people of Israel.
These eunuchs felt like a dried tree because they could produce no fruit, no children, which meant they would have no future descendants to remember them after they were gone. But look at what God says to the eunuchs. Verses 4-5:
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 to the foreigners God says—verses 6-7:
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.
Jesus makes an interesting reference to this verse when he throws the money changers out of the temple, who were exploiting foreigners by charging them to exchange their foreign coins for temple coins in order to make an offering. Jesus quotes this verse when he says to the moneychangers in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Jesus also has in mind Isaiah 56 when he says in our first scripture reading: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”—in other words, people who are not already part of the in-group. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus is probably talking here about Gentiles—non-Jews, people of other races, nations, and languages who will be included in his family.
In God’s new kingdom, those who have been excluded are welcomed in. Those we may not have felt comfortable associating with will be there. Those we may have deemed unworthy to be buried next to us, will be standing with us on the other side of that grave. That’s how it will be in God’s kingdom. So we better get used to it here and now.
Which brings me back to the deed for the cemetery plots. When I saw the wording of the original deed, I said to the funeral director, “You don’t still have this wording, right?” He smiled at me, because as it turned out our funeral director was African American. He assured me that those provisions were gone. But when we get our own deed to those cemetery plots, I’m going to look to make sure, because eventually we intend to sell these plots at a discount or donate them to a needy family, but we will have nothing to do with them if that provision still applies.
And here’s why: It is not just an issue of justice, though it is that. It is also a matter of getting ready for God’s kingdom. We all of us need to start practicing now for the kingdom of God. That’s why we had a delightful dinner last Sunday night at our church with the folks from City of Glory, the Swahili speaking Christian fellowship that meets at our church. I know that one small event does not solve all the problems of racism in our world, or even in the church. But still I think it is an important sign. In our church all people are welcome. In our cemetery plots all races are welcome. Because the kingdom of God is not going to be segregated, friends. When it comes to an eternal relationship with God, we are all in this together. We are all in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and that grace—not our race, not our sexuality, not our economic status—that grace will bring us home.