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A Church of All Doors
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
July 10, 2016
A reading from Isaiah:
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;
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.
One of the books that is basic to this series of sermons on the Sabbath is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. It’s only one hundred pages, and as you can tell by the sub-title, it’s not that modern of a book, written some sixty-five years ago. But in the years since its publication, we still face what Abraham Heschel saw as the greatest challenge confronting the modern Western world: the loss of a sense ofthe sacred.
He wrote that in our attempts to master our physical surroundings through technological advancement, )remember, this is over sixty years ago) that, he said we have become desensitized to the magnificence and beauty of life, both in the natural world and in the faces of other people.
He wrote that we have become so focused on gaining economic and political power that we have forgotten our ultimate purpose: to serve as co-creators with the Divine in the establishment of a just and compassionate world. That is the thrust of this passage in the book of Isaiah as the people of God moved from the Exile back into their homeland, as in the second verse, righteous behavior is defined by specifically referring to keeping the Sabbath–our purpose, co-creators of this day God gave us.
This final portion of the book of Isaiah begins with a reminder, a summary statement of this prophet of the exile: Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come and my deliverance be revealed.
And here’s the second verse…Happy is the mortal who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.
For those Israelites who thought that this move back into the homeland would be a journey into peace and prosperity, remember the ‘comfort, comfort my people’ of Isaiah 40, the events of these years of our passage raise questions about God and injustice and social unrest. More than simply the promise of God, Isaiah shifts from a proclamation of what God is about to do to a warning about what God’s people are to do.
And this is where Abraham Heschel reveals his own prophetic gift He had escaped Poland just a few weeks before the German invasion and had come to America, he’s now writing just a few years after World War II, but he could be writing as an eye-witness to this time in Israel’s history just as he speaks to us today.
He says: “Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, [humanity] is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth.”
As we look at the landscape of our world, our country, our cities this past week, to say the obvious: We live in a time of upheaval and confusion, anger, and fear, and violence. In ruins. In the dust.
And that’s why so many people want the church to separate them from ambiguity and shelter them from anxiety. They’re looking for ‘comfort, comfort my people’ far more than they are for the challenge of keeping the Sabbath, as Isaiah challenges God’s people in terms of justice and righteousness and deliverance. It is in this context that Heschel introduces the importance of the Sabbath to modern life. He describes the Sabbath as a ‘palace in time’ and says that Shabbat, “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man…”
A time and place where human obedience and divine initiative encounter each other…to enter this ‘palace in time’ in which we can come together on the common ground of our vulnerability, neither sheltered nor shielded from the radical truth of God’s mercy for all to be a house of prayer: to keep Sabbath.
I’m wondering if this could describe our church.
Listen to this from Ernest Gordon, who served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, but during World War II, he was a prisoner of war in the Japanese camp of Chungkai. You know of this camp through the movie Bridge on the River Kwai. Ernest Gordon was one of the prisoners who built that bridge.
“I do not know,” this Presbyterian minister says, “when the church at Chungkai was built. Perhaps ‘built’ is not the right word, for it was no more than a clearing in the jungle. It had for a roof the great vault of the firmament and for its walls the forest of bamboo. There were no doors. One could enter at any point. It was all door.”
Is it possible that we could be a place, a people, a ‘palace in time’ on this corner that is all door? To be so open in the same way as Isaiah expanded the covenant of God, not by nation, race, gender, culture or any other secular filter, but in terms of keeping the Sabbath, that the love and grace of God are radical and inclusive?
Should we only care about injustice when it affects us directly? Does supporting human rights only matter when the rights of myself, my family, my church, my ‘whatever’ are assaulted?
No, it is Sabbath, a house of prayer for all peoples, and because it’s all door, we find our way in to God, into this ‘palace in time’ where we find God as we’ve never found God before, who has mercy on our brokenness and frees us from our bondage to shame and guilt and fear.
The Sabbath is not only a spiritual oasis in the ruins and dust of the week, as Heschel says, the Sabbath shapes us to go out into the other six days of the week. We keep Sabbath as we pray with our entire soul in this ‘palace of time’. And, maybe there’s an architecture for this. Maybe it is the architecture of prayer, the four walls, the ground, the ceiling in which there is no door, but we enter into the presence of God. One of the architects I’ve found is Sarah Lisherness, the director of the Presbyterian Peace and Compassion ministry. She has blueprints that help us understand and come to this place in this last week, a prayer she put together:
We pray for peace – Not with easy words that make no demands,
but the peace of the cross,
Where we bear agony in love, overcoming divisions,
Being we the bridges of love in Christ.
Where enmity and fear give place to forgiveness.
We pray for hope – A hope that springs from resurrection, not founded on human solutions, But the hope that is in the One who has and will come again.
We pray for power – The power to endure the long night of waiting, that we may be faithful to the end, The power to be unmoved when evil appears triumphant and the battle for truth seems lost, The power to love when hate explodes into violence and we are tempted to see violence as the only way, The power to start building again when all we trusted in is crashing around us.
We pray for courage – The courage to be a pilgrim people traveling into the unknown in the confidence that the way is known to God. The courage to be the body of Christ, so that all who have sorrow may know the love of Christ through us.
We keep Sabbath by turning those prayers into actions, so that our prayers become blessings of justice and righteousness and deliverance, the open heart of God for the world. A house of prayer for all peoples, coming in and going out.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.