Saturday, November 29, 2014

A House of Prayer

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’ Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
   but you have made it a den of robbers.’
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. - Luke 19:41-48

We are always struck by the image of Jesus standing on a hill facing Jerusalem and weeping in the days prior to his arrest and execution. Although his ministry had touched many and he had gained many followers, Jerusalem remained an example of the rejection of the message God had sent him to proclaim. Like the prophets before him, the people would not listen, only continue on their chosen way and think that was enough.

It is no wonder that after the grief on the hilltop, there would be a stage of anger aimed directly at those who maintained the status quo for what was ostensibly their work for God but which, in reality, helped line their pockets as well. Jesus never got angry at the simple folk who sought him out for healing, and even his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman was more in the realm of exasperation rather than outright anger. Certainly the moneychangers and animal traders were making money, and assuredly the temple was as well. It was this desecration that was the focus of Jesus' anger.

"My house shall be a house of prayer" was a direct quotation from the prophet Isaiah (56:7d) and concerned not just the Jews but eunuchs and foreigners who observed the Sabbath and lived lives in accordance with the covenant. There is more to Isaiah's statement than Jesus quoted, namely, "[F]or 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" (7d-8).

Recently the Washington National Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul) made headlines by offering its nave to Muslims for their Friday prayers. For decades, the cathedral has been home to a number of budding congregations of various denominations in addition to its regular Episcopal attendees. It has featured speakers from other faiths and no faith, funerals for national figures whether Episcopalian or not, prayerful nondenominational services for times of trouble such as after 9/11, and has been the Episcopal presence on many Christmas Eves on video and television.

Both before and after the Muslim Friday prayers, however, there was a tidal wave of disapproval, disgust and condemnation over allowing a non-Christian (and possibly terrorist) group to actually pray in a sacred Christian place. The definition of "Christian" seems to vary from group to group, but for the National Cathedral and its supporters, it was and remains a house of prayer for all peoples, not just all Christian people. It honors God by opening its doors freely, and encouraging people to remember that it is a house of prayer, not just a beautiful monument.

In our climate of hate, fear and anxiety, we must be grounded in faith and in the teachings of Jesus. He taught Samaritans, traditional outcasts in the Jewish view, as well as the righteous. He healed and  the outcasts -- the sick, the crippled, the notorious sinners, the unclean, even gentiles--without discrimination. I wonder, would he have refused to give an invitation to a group that has felt the backlash of public opinion based on the actions of some? Would he have closed the doors to those brave enough to accept an invitation to prayer in a space that could prove hostile to them?

I think the National Cathedral upheld Jesus' "house of prayer for all peoples" in the very words and spirit of the text. I also think that the Muslim community was both gracious and brave to accept the invitation and truly make the Cathedral a place for all, not just Episcopalians or even Christians, but for all who wish to worship there.

I wonder--in the upcoming season of Advent, how can we as Advent people prepare for the coming of the Christ Child by opening our doors and inviting the world in? How can we share our sacred space with those of different beliefs but who are sincere in both their own faith and interested in closer ties with our communities? How can we make a house of prayer for all people in our own neighborhoods and areas?

Have a blessed and prayerful Advent.

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