"My House shall be a House of Prayer for all People"

18 September 2013

The following is a sermon given by the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing on July 28th, 2013, at St. Andrew’s Dune Church in Southampton, New York.

Isaiah   56: 3 – 8
Mark  11: 15 - 19

Jesus did not make up these words:  "My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all people."  Those words were written about 500 years before He was born.   Jesus didn't make up those words, but he thought about them....a lot. And he added a few words of his own.  And he did something dramatic to make those words come alive in the great temple in Jerusalem.

The temple, the church, the synagogue—all of them were intended, not for one group or for one religion, but for all people to come in and say their prayers.  That is a pretty tall order.  One of the reasons that I love this little chapel so much is that you have clergy from various religions here in the summertime.  You don't have everyone, but you've made a start.  There is more religious diversity here in two months than most houses of prayer have in two years or two decades.

We may not agree on what should be done in Egypt or Syria, we may not agree on the Trayvon Martin verdict, but all people who pray to God by whatever Name are commanded to find their kinship in prayer.  We don't have to have one religion but we have to have respect for the prayers of all religions....and we have to discover our kinship and holy hospitality.

In 2007, I was working with our United Religions Initiative in Buenos Aires, and I received an invitation from the local Roman Catholic Cardinal to come to his Cathedral; bring all of my Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Indigenous friends, and we would have an interfaith prayer service.  We did, and afterwards, this humble, insightful, and strong prelate asked me to pray for him—Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that this modest man would today be Pope Francis the First.  This Pope made sure that his cathedral and his Church will be a House of Prayer....for all people—all.  If you are a Roman Catholic sitting in this church today, please know that your Pope is a man of Isaiah and Jesus.  He understands the command to make God's house a house of prayer for ALL people.

This is not easy to do, or easy to figure out how to go about, because you are always working with two things at once—our house, our people, our prayer on the one hand; on the other hand, all of those other houses and other people and other prayers: tension!  How do you resolve the tension between our righteousness and their righteousness? 

A couple of years ago, I was walking across St. Peter's Square with an Archbishop, and we were on our way to visit the Cardinal in charge of Christian Unity.  Before we arrived, I asked my friend:  Christian Unity, hmm, Christian Unity…what does that means to you all?  Do you anticipate the day when people of all of the varieties of Christian expressions will leave their establishments and come together in the middle of the street, and the Holy Spirit will sweep everyone up into a new and transformed state of Christian Unity?  Or does Christian Unity mean for you all that the time will come when all of the other Christians will become Roman Catholics?  

"Good question," said my friend.  "It would be all right to ask it but do it respectfully and not cynically."  

I received a Zen-like answer that reflected the tension of holding together my prayer and all of the other prayers in the House of God.   

Now here comes the addition that Jesus makes to Isaiah’s ancient words: standing in the midst of the most beautiful and sacred space of its time, Jesus said, “And you all have made this place a den of thieves.”  

The ones in charge of the Temple have taken the highest, most transcendent experience of prayer and exploited it; commercialized it until nothing is sacred.  You could imagine the reaction of the chief priests to these words.  Jesus is certainly not going to have a long career in Jerusalem.  He is sadly and certainly aware that holy people will exploit Houses of Prayer for political reasons, economic reasons, sexual reasons, and military, tribal, and national reasons. Not to mention personal reasons.

But the problem is not merely Jerusalem.  Religion and its prayer are exploited all over the world.  A few weeks ago, in the Marching Season in Ireland, the Protestants and the Catholics were still attacking each other on the streets of Belfast.  In Syria, the Alawites and the Shias are plotting to combine with the Shias of Lebanon to create one rich, lovely country on the water for themselves and leave dry, inland Syria to the Sunnis.  In Burma (Myanmar), the gentle Buddhists started the year by killing 70 Muslims and burning thousands of their homes.  In Nigeria, the Boka Haram Muslims are slaughtering Christian students and burning their schools.  

We could add to that list thousands of instances of child molestation, cover-ups, financial improprieties, and gross hypocrisy.  Why can’t a House of Prayer simply be content with being a House of Prayer for all people?  The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.  Why do the people in charge of religions turn it into a den of thieves?  Irony abounds where prayers are said.  And the consequences bring colossal hurt to this earth.  Someone has to speak to it.  Jesus did just that.  “You have made it a den of thieves.”

I can guarantee to you that there is a sea of preachers standing in pulpits this week exhorting their congregants to rise up and kill people of other religions. They didn’t hear Isaiah saying that houses of prayers are supposed to be open for ALL people to say their prayers.  It is far easier to kill people of other faiths than to make room for those people to pray in your church, your synagogue, or your mosque.  Something is radically wrong in the world of religion, and Jesus will simply not let them get away with turning the Temple into a den of thieves.

Jesus wasn’t just talking in the wind.  He physically drove people out of the Temple.  When he found someone selling, he would overturn their tables.  He was a one man riot squad.  This was only incidentally about Jesus having a temper and being demonstrative. At this moment, he was a living parable, demonstrating how it is going to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Prayer will be the main thing, and you had better get used to praying with all of the other people because heaven isn’t about your religion, heaven is about All prayers.  This exploitation, this turning the holy into a den of thieves, will come to an end by the mighty power of God.  The power of God will be elicited so that the purpose of God might be fulfilled.  And the House of God will be for All People.

Notice the context of Isaiah.  He writes: ”Thus says the Lord: my House shall be a House of Prayer for all people.”  Shall!  This is not a suggestion.  “My House shall be.” This a declaration, a command, a prophesy.  In time this world will finally move all of the way to honoring the inspiration of Isaiah and the vigor of accountability of Jesus.  In the meantime we will simply make incremental steps in that direction.

This past winter the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, invited heads of states, heads of religions, and heads of interfaith organizations to come to Vienna to dedicate his new and truly wonderful interfaith and intercultural center.  Sitting at the banquet I had two thoughts:  One: in 1683, in this very city, the Christians turned back the Ottoman Turks (the Muslims) in the Second Siege of Vienna.  And now here we are in Vienna 329 years later, heralding a Muslim that raised interfaith togetherness to a new height.  We are making progress.   Two: Why didn’t he build it in Saudi Arabia where he is King?  The answer is obvious and points out that we have a long way to go, nevertheless.

Finally, Mary Swing and I have dedicated the back nine of our lives to the creation of a United Religions.  We work on an initiative that is both complicated and simple.  Complicated because we are operating in 86 countries and have over 600,000 people; simple because it comes down to obeying just a few words,  words from Isaiah:  “Thus says the Lord, My House shall be a House of Prayer for all People.”