A House of Prayer for All Peoples

A House of Prayer for All Peoples

“. . .my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 20, 2017 – 11A Pentecost

Later this morning, we will welcome Bishop Gayle Harris to dedicate and bless this new entrance to our church, literally opening a new door into our future. Many, many people have contributed to this important project, and we will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to give our thanks to them in appropriate ways. But today I want to spend a little time reflecting on the theological significance of what we are doing.

On the surface, this new entrance may seem to be merely an accommodation to our friends who have trouble walking, who are wheel-chair bound, or who use a walker. And yes, our hope is that this new entrance will meet those important needs. But this new door is much more than that. When our bishop blesses the entrance, the words she will use are these:

“Sanctify, O Lord, this entrance to be an enduring expression of your extravagant welcome and hospitality to us, and to all persons who seek a deeper relationship with you, and bless this community as it seeks, with your help, to break down all barriers that separate us one from the other; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

What happens in this Church every Sunday, you see, is that Christ welcomes us into the heart of God. It doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done or not done, where we’re from, how much money we make, what color we are, none of that matters to Christ. Christ welcomes everyone to hear his good news, to be transformed by it, and to be fed at His table.

But a responsibility comes with this welcome. And that is that we share it, we reflect it, we embody it for the rest of the world. And that is what we are doing by opening the doors of our church even wider than they already are. As Christ welcomes us, we are welcoming too.

We hear the deep biblical roots of this commandment to welcome in our first lesson from Isaiah. At the time of the great prophet’s writing, the Hebrew people are returning to their homeland after their long and difficult exile in Babylon. Having been captive for decades in a strange land, these dispersed Israelites now long to re-establish their home. What they find upon their return to Jerusalem, however, is that all kinds of foreigners and strangers and outcasts are now living in their homeland. Indignant, bitter, and eager to oust these perceived trespassers, they turn to their God for his blessing and guidance, no doubt looking for permission to rid themselves of these interlopers and cleanse the land.

But notice what God tells them. Speaking through his prophet, Isaiah, God tells his people that they are to welcome these foreigners and outcasts, and that God’s dream for his holy mountain is different than theirs. God’s dream is not for the Israelites to have an exclusive claim upon God’s blessing, and upon his land, but rather that all people who love God and listen to his Word are to be welcomed to his holy mountain, and that God’s house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.

We hear the same refrain in our Psalm. “Let your ways be known upon earth,” says the Psalmist, “your saving health among all nations.” “…Let all the peoples praise you…let all the nations upon earth be glad and sing.”

But it’s in our gospel lesson this morning where this point is driven home most dramatically. It is a difficult text, let there be no doubt about it. A foreign woman, a stranger from another tribe, a Canaanite, approaches Jesus begging him to heal her ailing daughter. And initially, Jesus’ response is anything but compassionate. He ignores her pleas. Initially, he even seems tempted to give in to the tribal bias of saying, ‘she is not one of us, so I have no obligation to help her.’ But then, Jesus sees her pain, hears her cries, and is moved by her faithfulness. In this encounter, Christ comes to see that He must love this woman and her daughter too, no matter their identity.

This story marks a pivotal turn in the Gospel of Matthew and in Jesus’ ministry. Through this encounter with a foreign woman, God’s plan for humanity begins to emerge: Christ becomes a savior not only for Israel, but for all nations, all peoples. Through the outspoken faithfulness of this unnamed Canaanite woman, we catch a glimpse of God’s vision for our world: It’s a world where grace comes to us in the most unexpected ways, where the smallest speak with the loudest voices, where the powerful receive the most vulnerable with mercy and humility, and where tribalism gives way to an expansive vision of God’s Kingdom where all people are welcomed around his holy mountain.

All of which is why what we witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend is such blasphemy. I’m sure you were as sickened as I was to see so many angry, young, white men parading the streets spewing such hate. “Jews will not replace us.” “They will not replace us,” referring to people of color. “Blood and soil,” they chanted, invoking the despicable phrase from the Nazi past.

This notion that one race, or one class of people, is inherently superior to others is not only morally repugnant; it is contrary to every lesson of Scripture we hear this morning and is an affront to Christ Himself.

Of all the troubling scenes from last weekend, the one that has stayed with me the most is an interview I saw with the rabbis of Congregation Beth Israel in downtown Charlottesville. Like our own little church, Beth Israel was founded in 1882. It is the oldest synagogue still standing in Virginia.

Last Saturday morning, as armed neo-Nazis and Klansmen paraded through the town, men, women and children were inside Beth Israel’s sanctuary attempting to pray. And as they did, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Then, throughout the service, these neo-Nazis circled the building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil.’ ”

Because of the threat, the temple’s Torah scrolls, which are considered the most sacred ritual item in the Jewish faith, had to be removed from the building to a congregant’s house for safeguarding. And because the local police did not provide an officer to guard the synagogue, the rabbis were compelled to hire their own private security guard for protection. At the end of services, worshippers were so fearful that they were directed to leave through a side door—in groups—because exiting the front door alone was too dangerous.

Try to imagine what it might be like if a group of armed, hate-spewing men encircled our little church, right now, in this place, with the intent to intimidate and threaten us. It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? One of the real challenges of being as privileged and secure as we are is that we really can’t imagine that happening to us. And yet it just did happen to people who, but for the grace of God, could be our neighbors.

I confess that for most of my life I have assumed that the KKK and neo-Nazis were mere fringe groups, soon to die out, and posed little real threat to American democracy or to Christian values. Plainly, I have been wrong in assuming that.

Earlier this week, I was reminded about the risks of such complacency, when a rabbi friend emailed me, and other friends of his who are Christian clergy. In his email, he reminded us that Boston’s own Holocaust Memorial has now been vandalized twice this summer, the second time right after the incidents in Charlottesville. Then he wrote: “A lot of Jewish people in our community are feeling quite vulnerable now, just as I know many people of color are, too. It would mean a lot if you would just check in with those neighbors and friends who you know may likewise be feeling threatened these days.”

My friend is absolutely right, of course. We cannot say that we are Christians and remain silent in this climate of bigotry and hate. For, if Christ’s life teaches us anything, it is that we have to be willing to risk ourselves for the welfare of others who are hurting.

During the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., made this observation: “History will have to record,” he said, “that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

As Christ’s body in the world, we are called to speak up on behalf of those being persecuted.   The church, with a humility born of its own sins, but a boldness born of its faith in Jesus, must stand up to evil with the clarity of the Gospel. Let us not be bystanders, but upstanders. Let us speak out and name evil where we see it — whether it is in our leaders, or within our own equivocating souls.

For all these reasons, my hope this morning is that this new entrance we are blessing today may become for us more than just a means of welcoming our friends and neighbors who are physically challenged. My hope is that it will also be a sign that reminds us of our commitment to welcome and care for all people, those who are disabled not just in body, but also those who are the victims of bigotry and hate. Amen.