A House of Prayer

By Rev. Heidi L. Barham |  August 20, 2023

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Read Isaiah 56:1, 6 – 8
Our second reading today comes from the 56th chapter of the Book of Isaiah which begins a shift in focus from the time of exile found in chapters 40 – 55… to the promise of salvation that is yet come through the Messiah.  This final section of Isaiah, chapters 56 – 66, looks to the future while it also addresses the reality of what it means to live righteously in the present.
It is over in Micah 6:8 that we read, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
It is this same call for justice, mercy, and humility that we hear resonating from Isaiah in the first verse of our text for this morning.  It is a reminder to us that although we may be waiting in anticipation for the Messiah to come… it does not excuse us or relieve us of our responsibility to do what is right in this present moment… in the here and now.
If we were to place these two verses from Isaiah and Micah side-by-side… we would discover a command to do what is fair and just as it relates to our neighbor… a call to be compassionate and loyal in loving others… and a charge to remain humble… thinking the most of God while thinking much less about ourselves.
And yet, it is simply astounding that when we turn on the TV or listen to news reports on the radio or scroll through the Internet… we see story after story that reflects just the opposite…
We are bombarded with images of people showing contempt for their neighbors… being inconsiderate and hateful toward others… thinking they are the end-all be-all and that the world revolves around them.
But as the other verses of our text demonstrate… we should be living in harmony with our neighbor… whoever they are and wherever they are from…
Isaiah encourages us that we are called to welcome in the foreigner… the stranger… the outsider. 
In fact, listen again to verses 6 – 8 from Isaiah 56 as they are found in the Message Paraphrase:

“And as for the outsiders who now follow me, working for me, loving my name, and wanting to be my servants— all who keep Sabbath and don’t defile it, holding fast to my covenant— I’ll bring them to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.  They’ll be welcome to worship the same as the ‘insiders,’ to bring burnt offerings and sacrifices to my altar.  Oh yes, my house of worship will be known as a house of prayer for all people.”  The Decree of the Master, God himself, who gathers in the exiles of Israel: “I will gather others also, gather them in with those already gathered.”
And while it may be contrary to popular opinion… the children of God are not defined simply as those who share certain human biological traits…
The children of God do come from the same bloodline… however, it is the blood of Jesus our Savior… the Messiah… that is what makes us one.
As it says in the Gospel of John (1:12 – 13):
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
It is through Jesus that we have become the children of God… brothers and sisters in Christ… the body of believers… and it is all of us collectively that form the church… More than brick and mortar, pulpit and pews… it is the people who are filled with a passion that come together with a purpose to be A HOUSE OF PRAYER… and it is there that all are welcome.
And so, this passage from Isaiah that calls for our attention this morning brings with it a simple message…
We have a responsibility to ensure that this place where we come to worship the Lord… this sacred space where we gather together week after week… physically as well as virtually… this shall be A HOUSE OF PRAYER… not just for some… but for ALL nations.
Now to be clear, this concept of A HOUSE OF PRAYER is not something that was limited strictly to the time of the Old Testament. 
In fact, after Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, He told them, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:13).
In those days, the temple had become a place filled with commercial activity… where corruption found a safe haven to operate… can you imagine?
It was there… in the temple… that those who came to worship God were taken advantage of by folks looking to make a hefty profit off of foreigners who may not have known the right exchange rates for the temple coins which were the only money the merchants would accept in payment for the sacrificial animals that they sold at inflated prices… talk about exploiting people for personal gain.
And judging by His reaction, this practice was clearly something that angered Jesus back then… and it no doubt still angers Him today…
I do not believe that the Lord is the least bit pleased when places of worship become money making ventures rather than spaces where healing and restoration can take place… or when churches and synagogues operate more like country clubs with exclusive requirements for membership… all for the purpose of deliberately leaving out the very ones who need a faith community the most.
It calls to mind the story of Jesus eating dinner in the home of a tax collector named, Levi [also known as Matthew], that we find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 
The Pharisees raised the question of why Jesus would consort with “those people” …referring to sinners and tax collectors. 
Jesus’ response left no room for debate, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31).
At its best, the church should serve as a hospital for those of us who come in search of the Master Physician… looking for the One who has the ability to heal us and make us whole…
But unlike the modern-day hospitals we are more familiar with… once we have been blessed to find our healing and wholeness… we are not simply discharged and sent back home as if nothing was ever wrong.
On the contrary… each of us are called to stay right here in this hospital known as the church… because we all have a role to fulfill… and while that role will change from time to time by necessity … make no mistake… we all have a part in being the church.
In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul provides a comparison of how the body of Christ is made up of many parts, just as the human body is.  And after explaining how each part of a body has value, Paul encourages them as well as us with the words, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (see 1 Corinthians 12:12 – 27).
Several weeks ago, I came across an image of two ships on Facebook, and the caption read, “The church is not a cruise ship where a handful of people serve everyone else who is relaxing.  No, the church is a battleship where it is ‘all hands on deck’ and everyone serves the mission.”
In other words, there is work for ALL of us to do.  And that calls to mind the words of Jesus that are found in Mark 10 (45), “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And as I reflected on that verse, it reminded me of my trip to Beargrass Christian Church in Louisville where the Governor, Andy Beshear, and his family are members.  On that Sunday, when many of the attendees from the General Assembly were at Beargrass for worship, one of the people who served Communion to us was actually the Governor’s wife, Britainy.
Let that image sink in for just a moment… the First Lady of the State of Kentucky was serving us… a whole bunch of strangers who the church had welcomed in…
And let me just say it did not appear that this was the First Lady’s first time serving… there was no sense that this was some type of “show” that was being put on for the benefit of the multitude of visitors who were there.
And I thought back to the previous day when Governor Beshear spoke at the General Assembly… after he shared his “prepared” remarks… it was the Governor’s extemporaneous testimony after he closed his notebook that allowed us to see that, for him, being a disciple… being a follower of Christ… was not just something that was in name-only.
And my hope and prayer for all of us is that when people see us and when they come through the doors of Ledgewood… they will know that they have entered into A HOUSE OF PRAYER and find that we are a welcoming group of people who are more than disciples and Christians in name only.
Now, in just a moment we will have stand and sing our Hymn of Discipleship which is #272 The Church’s One Foundation… but before we do that, I want to call our attention to what appears at the top of that page in the Chalice Hymnal.
The heading on the page reads, “God’s Church” which is something critical that we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of… this is not my church or your church… this is God’s Church. 
And immediately under that heading what we find is actually the first article of the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which is the denomination’s governing document.
Now, what appears in the hymnal was taken from a previous version of the Design that has since been revised… so,
I want to read it from the current version:
Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.
Believe it or not, there has been some talk lately about certain groups of people who are trying to co-opt and subvert the mission of the church in furtherance of their own personal agenda… going so far as to label the very words of Jesus as weak… and referring to them as “a bunch of liberal talking points.”
But let the record show… the words of Jesus are anything but weak and they are certainly much more than liberal talking points.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus Himself is the Word made flesh.
In the Gospel of John 1 (1 – 5) we read:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And in the first of John’s three epistles, in 1 John 1 (1 – 2), we read:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
Regardless of what anyone else may try to convince us to believe, the Word of life does not carry a label of liberal or conservative or even independent… the Word of life is indisputably and undeniably the Word of Truth.
And as we read in John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
And lest anyone be confused as to what the truth is, further on in John’s Gospel, we read these words of Jesus who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Jesus is the Word of life and Jesus is the truth.
And at the end of the day, what it all boils down to is this… the church’s one foundation always has been and always will be Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is Jesus who paid the penalty that our sins deserved and gave His life as a ransom for us… so that together, we can be the church.
And it is Jesus who taught us what it means to be His disciples and who commissioned us to go and make more disciples… of ALL nations… inviting them to be the church with us… welcoming them into His house of worship… into what truly is A HOUSE OF PRAYER.
And it is in this HOUSE OF PRAYER that we are all invited to stand now and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: The Church’s One Foundation (v. 1, 2, 5) #272.