This week I am sharing for the “Week in the Word” a message I gave Sunday July 19th at First Christian United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC. First Christian is a beautiful congregation with some very loving souls. Apparently while he was attending UNC Andy Griffith worked there with the youth and the music programs. I was blessed to meet one of his former students among the many genuine people at worship.
Here is an audio recording of the message for those who prefer that:
I hope the words of my message at First Christian UCC this Sunday inspire and challenge you.
Your progressive redneck preacher
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. So spoke then-American president Ronald Reagan as he stood before the Berlin wall, a barrier of concrete and wire separating not just East and West Germany but symbolically dividing the world between two ideologies locked in a Cold War
The author of those words of course was not the President – it almost never is – but instead one of his speech writers. This writer of the conversation that inspired him to write these words.
After having had German officials asking him not to reference the wall, so that the people could become used to it, he asked friends of his in then-divided Berlin, “Is it true? Have you gotten used to the wall?”
His friends glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, a soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”
That call “tear down this wall!” calling for the dividing wall separating East and West to come down became prophetic. I still remember sitting spell-bound in a class-room with other kids my age watching as our teacher wheeled in a TV so we could see the many hands taking that wall down brick by brick. I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing then but I do now– one new people united out of the two. The end of a decades-long Cold War.
Our Scripture reading suggests to us that speech writers’ message became prophetic not so much due to the genius of the speech writer but more because of how it reflected the words of the original peacemaker, Jesus. Christ is the original one who came preaching to those who are far off and those who are near, proclaiming the walls of division must certainly fall. In every division we build up to keep others out, to push away those who are different, Christ joins us standing in our midst saying “tear down that wall”.
We still live in a world too divided by walls of fear and misunderstanding.
Just last month, our nation was rocked by witnessing the outcome of building such walls as the news was filled with footage of a historically black church in Charleston being shot up by a young white man whose heart was full of hate. Before that, we saw footage again and again of young people assaulted because of the color of their skin, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York, to within walking distance of the home I once lived in on the Bladen-Robeson County line of North Carolina.
Yet we don’t just build walls that separate us by skin color in this country, do we? Just a little after the new year, the town I live in was shaken by the death of three young people who devoted themselves to serving the least of these in their community through public service. These three were killed in cold blood because someone feared their Muslim faith, even though it was that faith which inspired their selfless service. The gun-shots which killed them were one man’s way to erect a wall to keep people like them out. Even when our recent Supreme Court ruling tore down walls of division by opening up more equal rights for LGBT people, how shockingly quickly did we see some in our communities began to try to raise walls again with the same worn rhetoric of hate and politics of exclusion!
Even in our own families, painful walls of division can raise their ugly head. Working as a hospice chaplain, one of the most heart-wrenching things I see is how far too often families come into the hospice torn asunder. They have not talked to each other for years over events now long forgotten and are scrambling to set things right with the one of them now passing. Often as a chaplain I am able to help them bridge across this divide, but far more often than I’d wish it is too little, too late. Illness strikes without giving time to set things right on this side of the veil.
It can look as if division, hatred, violence, are the final word in our world. In the face of such heartache, Christ appears saying “tear down those walls!’
Even in the midst of so much heartache, peace is possible. In fact Ephesians tells us Christ himself is already our peace, already making now into one new humanity such torn asunder groups by knocking down the walls that divide on the cross. From God’s side, all that is needed for peace, whether with God or with each other, is already accomplished. Christ says “tear down these walls” inviting us to be a part of his work.
The starting place in answering “tear down these walls” is realizing that God has already torn down every wall separating you and me from God. You may have heard over the years that those like you are too different, have no place in God’s family. Like the Ephesians once did you may feel like a stranger and outsider, exiled from God’s love.
A man named Troy felt like this. He felt like an exile, cut off from Christ. Disowned by his family for who he was, kicked out by the church, Troy decided God must have rejected him too. Full of despair, he took razors and tried to slit his own wrists. All went black. When we woke he was on a hospital bed and shocked to be alive beyond all hope. He opened his eyes with these words echoing in his heart: “I made you. I love you. I’ve never rejected you. Show others the same”. This experience both saved his life and launched his ministry. Knowing God loved him despite all who said otherwise, the Rev. Troy Perry became one of the first openly gay ministers in the United States in a day and age when you could be thrown in jail for being gay. His ministry helped birth the gay-affirming Christian movement which we see at work in our Open & Affirming churches in UCC. Not only has it helped many LGBT people find faith, but helped inspire the movement for LGBT civil rights behind the recent Supreme Court decision.
What a difference Troy knowing Christ said “tear down this wall made! What Troy learned in that experience is true for us. God says to each of us – “I made you. I love you. I’ve never rejected you. Show others the same”.
Answering Christ’s call begins with believing this to be true for you. Yet this last phrase – “Showing others the same” is part and parcel of the second way we live out this text.
We must learn to live out this grace we are given by being ones who says “yes” to Christ’s call “tear down this wall”. After the Charleston shooting, a friend from one of our historically black UCC churches put it well. “You know, folks are scared,” she said. “After Charleston, when we see some young white man walk into the church, people are going to be on alert. Instead of opening their arms in welcome people’s first thought will be ‘What is he doing here? Is he up to no good? Are we safe?’ And what’s sad is that isn’t what we need right now. That’s what people like that shooter wanted. What we need is to all stand together”. She hit the nail on the head of what tearing down that wall is about, didn’t she? It is so easy to huddle in fear only with those like us – white folks with white folks, people of color with people of color; straight folks with straight folks, gay folks with gay folks, … you name it … rather than to reach out across the aisle in love.
The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it well “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Learning to practice this is not easy, but it is the only way to God’s future for us.
“Tearing down that wall” might mean many things.
In our communities it might mean looking again at how we do education, policing, and other community practices. How is racial bias coloring what we are doing? How can we change that?
As churches, “tearing down that wall” can mean beginning to own up to our part in creating division. Dr. King used to say Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Not much has changed in America these long decades. We must ask: Are there things as a church we’ve done which helped create divisions over race, over sexuality, over class? Are there ways we can be more inclusive in our welcome, can partner more across the divides that exist?
“Tearing down that wall” might mean personally looking to ways you might be treating others in ways that push out those you feel are “different”. This might mean reaching out to build relationships and hear the stories of those who you are avoiding.
“Tearing down that wall” might mean, too, simply being willing to not give up on that person in your life you are tempted to throw in the towel regarding. It might involve being willing to reach out one more time to seek to make amends or to seek to extend grace. It might mean being willing to say you’re sorry, or to not give up when that one you need to hear “I’m sorry from” aren’t yet willing to.
At the heart of the outlook we need to live out is what Desmond Tutu described when he wrote in No Future without Forgiveness that the reconciling lifestyle says “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life… A person I a person through other persons. It is not ‘I think therefore I am’ [but] rather I am … because I belong. I participate. I share.”
May we learn to extend this mercy, this grace, this belonging to all people. May we learn to live out the lives of reconciliation Christ calls us to today, and always. Amen.