ESR Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality Carole Spencer brings us this report from North Carolina Yearly Meeting:
The 315th Annual Sessions of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (FUM) was held Aug. 31-Sept. 3, 2012 at Blue Ridge Assembly, an historic YMCA retreat in Black Mountain NC. I was asked to speak two evenings on the theme of “Community.” In choosing a text to speak from, I tried to image what scripture Jesus might have used if he had been asked to address NCYM on the theme of community. Since Jesus quoted from Isaiah 56:7 at the turning point in his ministry when he cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Mark 11:17), I chose as scripture for my two messages, Isaiah 56:1-8, in which we find the original context for Jesus’ words. The theme thus became “Becoming a House of Prayer for all Peoples.”
The points which this passage reflects relevant to community are: becoming a contemplative community (a house of prayer), and becoming an inclusive and missional community (for all peoples). Verses 2-5 are especially relevant today: welcoming the foreigner when our country seems to be entering a new era of prejudice against foreigners, and welcoming eunuchs, which relates to sexual differentness, so divisive in our churches today. The context of this passage, often called “Third Isaiah” is the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, rebuilding the Temple, and trying to regain their national identity by pursuing a policy of increasing exclusiveness, reflected in a kind of “purity movement” in which foreigners and eunuchs were excluded from the new worshiping community. Those who wanted to carefully preserve the Mosaic tradition of exclusivity had announced strict boundaries as to who was in and who was out. But the prophet counters with an astonishing announcement: these two most objectionable classes of people are to be gathered, welcomed and celebrated in the new community—a radical break with the law in Deuteronomy (Deut 23:1-6). The eunuchs were outcasts within the Israelite society, the Other, usually slaves or servants, the outsider who was sexually different, who could not bear children, thus would never have a “name” as they had no descendents. But Isaiah says: “Do not let the eunuch say ‘I am just a dry tree’ for they will be given “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isa. 58:2-5).
Isaiah envisions a gathering of diverse peoples—exiles, outcasts, outsiders, foreigners, all “joined to the Lord” in a house of prayer. While on one level he is envisioning the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, on another level he is envisioning an entirely new future community, a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, inclusive community of people united to God in prayer. The prophet’s radical vision was not realized in his time, so some 500 years later, God comes down, even more radically than the prophet’s message, into time and space, as a human being, to re-inaugurate a new community.
Jesus called this new community, the Kingdom of God. It was the heart of teaching and message. This kingdom is not simply about heaven, but a community of transformation on earth. God’s purpose in salvation is to form us into community, to become part of God’s mission in the world, which is what the word “missional” means—“participating with God in what God is doing in the world.”
Which brings us full circle back to the incident when Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56:7 as he overturns the tables in the Temple and drives out those who had made it a “den of thieves”. He is radically overturning the patterns of dominance and empire, the world’s understanding of power and privilege and exclusion. He casts outs the “thieves” and invites in the sick and lame and heals them.
Our communities are to be a foretaste, a sign, a mini-version of this new inclusive community, which we are already living in but has not been fully realized. We are to be missional communities participating in the ongoing building of the reign of God in this world. To be missional is to love God through loving our neighbors. “It is God’s mission, for which the Body of Christ—the church—exists. We participate in helping to build toward the dream God has planted in our hearts.”