Sermon: It Takes More Than Words to Build a House of Prayer for All Peoples

Sunday, August 20, 2017
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

This has been a disturbing and difficult week for our country. I’m sure you all, like me, have been horrified by the news of the violence in Charlottesville. The hatred displayed by these groups is poisoning our nation with violence; and their white supremacy and antisemitism are sin and evil that have no place in the body of Christ.

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White supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

In response all these things that have happened, our texts for today offer both comfort and challenge. Our first text, from Isaiah, seems like a very clear message directly from the mouth of God. God speaks, saying, “I will bring [all people] to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This inclusive vision of God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to the division and hatred in Charlottesville. Instead of chants of “blood and soil” and “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us,” this vision resounds with joyful voices raised in prayer and worship: “let the peoples praise you, O God, let all the peoples praise you.” Instead of clashes and deadly violence between protestors and counter-protestors, this vision calls all of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity – as one people before God. It is a beautiful and life-giving vision.

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A candlelight vigil reclaims the space used for the hate groups’ demonstrations

But the very ugly side of human nature that Charlottesville revealed – in broad daylight – has shown us that we still have a long way to go. I mean, imagine what it would actually look like right now for all the nations of the world to come streaming to a house of prayer. You’d have the United States and Mexico and Canada and Germany and Great Britain and so on, and they all get along fine. But then you’d also have North Korea and Iran and Syria and Russia. You’d have fascists and anti-fascists, white nationalists and black nationalists, fundamentalists and atheists, terrorists and refugees… Aggies and Lobos.

As Christians, we love the idea of bringing all people together in peace, and we know very well that it is God’s will that it should be so. We express our sincere commitment to God’s radical hospitality by proclaiming to the world that all are welcome. And we should proclaim it. It is a message that needs to be said more loudly now than ever. But we also must be honest with ourselves, and admit that making all people welcome is not nearly as easy as saying it.

Our gospel text for today reflects just how messy and tense things can get when different groups of people are brought together. Jesus and his followers have wandered into the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is not Jewish territory. It is Gentile territory in the borderlands between Galilee and Syria. Now, I have no idea what Jesus was doing there; after the stress of being followed around by crowds and the first century paparazzi, saving his disciples from drowning, and still carrying the grief of John the Baptist’s death, maybe Jesus was just trying to take a break in a place where no one would recognize him. Who knows?3In any case, it doesn’t work. Jesus and his disciples are caught off guard when one of the locals – a Canaanite woman – recognizes him and starts shouting after him. This makes the disciples deeply uncomfortable and they ask Jesus to make the whole situation go away. And even Jesus himself seems perturbed – this was clearly not part of the plan. Sure, Jesus had come to fulfill the vision laid out in Isaiah of a house of prayer for all peoples, but there was a timeline! Jewish people first, then everybody else. This woman was messing everything up.

Thinking about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in this way makes me remember my time in the Peace Corps. I worked with a community projects committee in the Dominican Republic. And our interactions were often marked by frustration and poor communication.

I had a very Anglo-European approach to our work together, with scheduled meetings and specific goals and timelines, but my project partners had a much more relaxed, “mañana” approach to things. People would show up 45 minutes late to meetings, if they came at all. I quickly learned that “yes” often actually meant “no.” We all came together to work with good intentions, but when the rubber met the road, we had very different ways of going about it, and like our gospel story, that led to a lot of conflict.

But I find Jesus’ words and actions in this story both inspiring and encouraging. After his initial grumpy response, the Canaanite woman calls him out for being dismissive of her. And instead of getting angry or defensive or trying to explain his words away, Jesus responds to her with remarkable humility. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Instead of seeing her as the disciples did – an annoyance who was getting in the way of things – he sees her for who she is: the mother of a sick child, full of faith, who is desperately seeking help for her daughter. And Jesus helps her. Jesus opens his heart to her and allows himself to be changed by the experience.

My time in the Peace Corps changed me, humbled me. It taught me that valuing plans over people and timelines over coffee time gets in the way of relationship with others. I had to learn the hard way to open myself to the ways of other people and to recognize that the work would get done even if we didn’t do it my way. What mattered most was that we found a way to work together, side by side.

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Some of my Peace Corps project partners

When I look at the prejudice of the groups acting in Charlottesville, I see hearts that are unwilling to be changed by encounters with the other. I see people who fail to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in other people, to recognize them as fellow members of the body of Christ. This is completely contrary to the vision of the house of prayer for all peoples that God desires. And as Christians, we are called to this work of opening hearts for transformation – beginning with our own.

I know for a fact that this is work that is very familiar to all of you here at Peace Lutheran. When you made the decision to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation (welcoming and affirming LGBTQ folks), you opened your hearts to the transformation of the Holy Spirit. You showed clearly that your commitment to welcoming all people is more than just words. And all of you who have come here today to be commissioned as Border Servant Corps Volunteers have shown your willingness to engage in relationship with our siblings here in the borderlands. And I hope that you will become leaders and guides for us all in relating more fully to our neighbors. In times like these, I am glad and grateful that I get to be part of a community like this one. Because these times demand that we continue showing up to do this work of radical hospitality together.

It is difficult work, and weeks like this one may make it seem impossible. But never forget that we are working for God’s vision, and God’s Holy Spirit is at work in us. Brick by brick, heart by heart, we are participating in the building of a house of prayer for all peoples – a house where joyful voices will be lifted in praise, where all people will be welcomed, and where the potlucks will surely be epic.

God invites us into this work, my friends, so let us have courage to continue living out our call to radical hospitality in the face of division and violence. Let us have the humility to continue seeking out relationship with people of other races, regions, and religions, with our hearts open to transformation by the Spirit. And let us look forward to the day when we finally stand in God’s house of prayer for all peoples and join our voices in proclaiming, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” May it be so.

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