A House of Prayer for All

The sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017 on Isaiah 56:1-8

Last week we talked about  the experiences of two prophets, Elijah and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week we focus on the words of another, the prophet Isaiah, who brought wisdom and witness into the world more than 700 years before the birth of Christ.

It was a time of war and threat, of erasure, death, and conquest. Sound familiar?

You know, if people listened to prophets, there wouldn’t have to be so many prophets. If people heard them the first time and learned their lessons and changed their lives and opened their hearts and turned away from wickedness and toward both God’s justice and God’s mercy – if people did that, well, there wouldn’t be much need for prophets and their prophetic voices.

Instead, we have many, many chapters of Scripture filled with the words of the prophets, their counsel and their courage. In the centuries since, we have the enduring witness of prophetic voices, calling us and helping us to live closer to God, to repent of the harm we’ve caused and to go forth living a different way.

Y’all have seen those government job forecasts? The ones that say that the market for steelworkers and typists is looking pretty rough in the years ahead, but the economy will continue to demand more nurses and occupational therapists and systems administrators and so on. I don’t know that the pay scale or the working conditions are so promising for prophets, but there is always a tremendous need for prophetic voices  – because we need the vision and the accountability that they offer us.

So let us hear the words of Isaiah – and I’m going to read some verses that the lectionary leaves out – so Isaiah 56: 1- 6 –

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;

In the realization of God’s salvation and deliverance, the outcast is brought into the community. They are included in the covenant.  In the realization of God’s salvation and deliverance, we practice inclusion. We recognize the wideness of the invitation to covenant.

In the realization of God’s salvation and deliverance, the foreigner, the outcast, the outsider, the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, the black, brown, Asian, Muslim, transgender, queer, homeless, rejected, alienated, alone body – all are invited to participate fully in the realm of God.

Such an interpretation will come as no surprise to anyone who participates regularly in the life of this church. We know that the world plays by different rules, rules of exclusion and hierarchy. Rules that tolerate not only blatant bigotry, but more subtle forms of the devaluation of life.

We pay attention to terrorism in Spain, but not catastrophic flooding in Sierra Leone. We play competitive victimization. We play cynical, brutal, violent games of power. We worship Confederate idols rather than pay reparations.

We play it safe. “You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.”  That’s a quote from the great Dick Gregory, the black comedian and activist who died yesterday. It’s easy to stop short and only embrace the cute, fuzzy, loveable parts of this world. But that is violence too. That is not what we’re talking about here.

This passage speaks of the inclusion of the outcast.

Of course to do that you have to cast some things out – you have to cast out patriarchy and white supremacy and religious bigotry and transphobia and ableism and homophobia and economic discrimination and xenophobia. Those practices must be rejected. Those cultural patterns must be cast out.

This is the turn we need to take tonight, however, and in the weeks ahead, as we look at what healing means (healing as individuals and as communities, healing in the face of continual assault and wounding – that will be our task in the weeks ahead). We look also at the question of how we go forward in this work together.

The young woman who was killed in Charlottesville last week, Heather Heyer, reportedly had as her last Facebook post a phrase from the justice movement – “ ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’

We are rightly outraged in our world and we are rightly pained by it. If you are paying attention, you’re not only outraged but likely worn out, grieving, and at least sometimes hopeless. To open our hearts is to have them broken, over and over again.

I look around the sanctuary and I see people who bear the weight of society’s malice – directly because of our bodies – because of who we are – and indirectly because of our acts of solidarity with the oppressed.

We are wounded people.  We are exhausted people. We are hurt people who in turn hurt other people.

How are we to get past this?

The 7th and 8th verses of Isaiah 56 –

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.

There is the beginning of our healing.

I think there’s healing in there – and I want to talk about it on 3 levels with this term “house” of prayer

The term ‘house’ in the Hebrew Scriptures is often used to refer to the whole of the nation – so there will be the house of Israel or the house of Judah. That house? It’s a mighty big tent. It’s national. Let us understand that this is a claim for the soul of a nation. When our work seems overwhelming, let us remember that we are doing big work.

We are trying to bring about the realm of God’s justice and God’s mercy for ALL. It’s an enormous task. It’s the scope of the whole world. Salvation and deliverance constitute the well-being of the planet and all its people. That could be overwhelming, but you know what?

That’s so huge that it becomes obvious that it doesn’t all depend on us. We are called to be a house – a giant global house – of inclusion. But we don’t do it alone. This is a communal endeavor. We do what we can do. This is much bigger than us, any one of us. We must do what we can do, but we are not called to do more than that.

If you are exhausted, rest. If you have been resting, the work awaits. Do not be intimidated. Do the work you are called to do. You are a vital part of the house of prayer for all people.

On a second level, we hear a house of prayer for all people and we think about the Temple of that time – or the church of ours.

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

NOT “it might be”. It will be.

The true place of worship, the true church will be a house of prayer for all people.


And most certainly we work to provide an inclusive welcome. That’s what this church is all about, right? True inclusive community is what we aim for. We make mistakes. We fall short. But that – in and through God – is our compass point. We will be a house of prayer for all people.

One more way to hear that phrase –

What about our own house, our own bodies, our own sense of home and wholeness in the world?

A house of prayer for all people. We are called to pray and to work (because there’s praying to be done with our hands and our feet) for all people.

Not for some people. Not just the people like us or the people we like.

For all people.

Look at that beautiful call upon our lives. That our practice of prayer is to be directed for all.

I promise you this, my friends, if you open your hearts to the practice of prayer for all people – if you let your body and soul be a house of prayer for all people, you will surely have your heart broken by the sorrow – but you will also be transformed in wholeness and connection and love and integrity.  

You cannot pray with an open heart for the well-being of all people and the integrity of the planet day in and day out without be changed by it. People who say that praying is doing nothing do not understand the practice of true prayer.

Do you need hope and energy and blessing for the work of justice and mercy in the world? Can you turn your soul into a house of prayer for all people?

This isn’t about praying with an agenda. This is about holding the world, holding all people, close in your heart with a deliberate intention of goodness – just as God holds us close to God’s heart.

That is a deeply hopeful move. That is a restorative move. Let yourself become a house of prayer for all.  That means that you witness continually for a just and merciful world. It is an act of hope and energy and interdependence.

Can you – yourself – become a house of prayer for all people? You have to do the work, but the result is a rich blessing – for yourself and for the world.  

Nobody said this would be easy. It’s work on a grand global scale. It is work of day-to-day engagement in community with people who are radically different than you, people wearing scars and wounds. It is the work of your own soul and its continual opening to the things that are good in this world.

We can do it. We can do it together. We can do it daily. We can do it no matter what happens around us.

Let us be so filled with the sacred that our hearts become a prayer – for all people.


Mosaic map image is from St. George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan.

Share This: