With the world full of walls everywhere we go—fences and gates, partitions and barriers; racism, sexism, classism—what are we suppose to do with the idea that Christ has torn down all these walls”
So 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— remember 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For 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. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
When they were young, my children made forts out of blankets and chairs; and at the beach, they loved to build sand castles, with outer walls to prevent the surf water from washing into the castle. I spent my childhood summers on a farm near the town of Locke; and one of my favorite games that I played with my cousins was building forts and hide-outs out of bales of hay. As we grow older and wiser, we seem not to have too much difficulty learning that words and attitudes make better walls than wet sand and blankets and hay. In fact, they seem to get the job done better and they can’t be torn down as easily. Besides, the walls we built as children were a part of the games we played; and when the game was over, the walls came down. But when we got older, the walls we built and the walls that we had to live with didn’t come down so easily. Unlike the games we played for fun, the game of life doesn’t seem to follow the same rules that when the game is over, the walls are to be taken down. In the game of life, the walls seem permanent and indestructible. The world is full of walls. Everywhere we go, there are fences, gates, partitions and other ingeniously constructed barriers—all aimed at keeping something or someone in and keeping something or someone else out. We need walls: walls in our homes to protect us against the wind and rain; walls to keep livestock safely in and predators out; walls to separate spaces and improve organization and efficiency.
I. All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purposes of God. I joined a fraternity when I was in college. But the only fraternity that I could join was a local fraternity because all the national fraternities had a racial barrier, a wall, which did not permit non-whites like me to become members. Growing up in Chinatown, I can remember when Chinese could not rent or buy homes in most of San Francisco. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60’s, blacks in the South were permitted to sit only in the back of the bus and were excluded from certain drinking fountains, public restrooms, and motels and restaurants that were accessible only to whites. Since those days of fighting for and winning the battle of voting rights for blacks, new walls have been constructed to cause votes to be wasted. Known as “gerrymandering”, voting districts are redrawn to benefit one party over another in elections, forcing the other side to “waste” votes. With the upcoming 2020 Census, the emerging controversy is how the census will be conducted, namely who will be counted. Congressional districts are redrawn based on updated U.S. Census data; yet another potential wall. You’ve heard of terms like “driving while black” and “driving while brown” or “shopping while black”. This practice is known as racial profiling, another example of how we build walls. It’s not the first time, unfortunately, but the Bible has been a handy tool for wall construction. Only in recent years has the wall denying ordination to LGBTQ candidates for ministry come down. The Bible was cited then to justify the wall just as the Bible was cited this past month by the Justice Department to justify the wall separating children from their parents.
Not all walls are visible. Some walls are created quite innocently, but they are walls nevertheless. It is like single people feeling walled out when they are in the company of married couples; or married couples without children in the company of couples with children, whose conversations are all about their children. We have all suffered one time or another the pain of being walled out, of being excluded, of being rejected. A couple in the church separates and divorces; how do we embrace both without taking sides? I have heard that within the first 5 minutes, a visitor to a church can tell whether he or she is welcomed. Some of us build walls to hide behind. Some of us spend much of our lives in closets, in hiding, for fear of what others might think of us or do to us when they discover who we really are. I grew up in a closet, so to speak, because my family was a paper-family, in that my parents were illegal immigrants. My great fear growing up as a child, was that my parents would be sent back to China. So, we hid in the protective closet of Chinatown. Some of us lock ourselves in closets of shame, because of failure—in school, in marriage, in career, in parenting.
II. Well, if so much of our lives are lived behind walls, what are we supposed to do with the idea that Christ has torn down all these walls? Here we have been working for years, refining our skills at wall-building and Christ has torn them down. Have we been too busy to notice? It is time for us to look at our reading from Ephesians. For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall. According to Ephesians, Jesus is the singular wrecking crew that demolishes division; and more than that, Jesus gives us the gift of unity, peace, and reconciliation. It is hard to receive a gift when our hands are not open. It is even harder when our hands are clutching bricks for personal building projects that have nothing to do with God’s architectural plans. I have learned in my many years of ministry that any human attempt to build unity, no matter how valiant and well-intended, will fall far short of the spiritual structure that has Jesus as the chief cornerstone. More often than not, our human constructions tend to create thicker walls. Don’t get me wrong, recognizing unity as a gift does not make receiving the gift a passive affair. Receiving gifts can be hard, costly work. We have to strip ourselves of pride and clothe ourselves in humility. And if it is an undeserved gift, we have to put away tight-fisted objections that are rooted in self-sufficiency.
When I started seminary, I also started therapy. In the beginning, I felt such shame that I hid that from everyone. The therapist’s office was on the second floor of Donaldina Cameron House. On the day of my appointment, I purposefully arrived early when the building was relatively quiet and empty and snuck upstairs. I did not want anyone to know that I was there for therapy. As the year of therapy progressed, I knew I was making progress as my fear of exposure decreased. Healing arrived when I started to let go of my sense of self-sufficiency, of the facade of perfection. In the final months of therapy, I came to the surprised realization that not only was I walking upstairs to the second floor slowly and greeting people along the way, but I was even telling them why I was there.
III. When God gives us a gift, it must be received and accepted as the Giver intended. Baptism is such a gift, especially when it is given to children who are unable to answer for themselves. We are claimed by Christ; and that claim is not based on our worthiness or our deservedness. That claim is a gift, and as a gift, we have no right to exclude anyone, for a gift is not a gift if it is not for all—the Jew and the Gentile, the poor and the rich, the young and the old, male and female, gay and straight, undocumented immigrant and citizen, black and white. That is why I have a hard time with testimonies like: When I gave my life to Christ or When I asked Jesus to come into my heart. It’s all about me, my, myself. In today’s lesson from Ephesians, it is God who has called us here. If you are here in church today, following Jesus, it is because you have been put here by God in Christ. It is God who has broken down the dividing walls.
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall. On my very first trip to Washington, DC, many years ago, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, especially the internment exhibit. My sister-in-law, Ann, urged me to check out the exhibit to look for her grandmother’s suitcase (which I believe I found). The very next day, I visited the Holocaust Museum. In the midst of that horribly dark, depressing exhibit, one of the points of light was learning that the very first American troops to arrive at the Nazi Concentration Camps, to liberate the Jews who were systematically exterminated in these camps, were Japanese American soldiers, many of whom came from families who themselves were interned in American concentration camps. In Christ, all walls of hostility are torn down.
Blind and deaf, Tim Cook, 64, on an Alaska Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles wanted to communicate to the flight attendants that he needed a cup of water, among other things. But being blind and deaf, there was no way for him to relay his needs other than using sign language. “Does anyone on board know American Sign Language”?, one of the flight attendants asked passengers more than an hour into the over five-hour long flight. Clara Daly, 15, pressed her call button. She had taken a year of sign language classes to help with her dyslexia. She knelt near Mr. Cook and began signing into his hand. A passenger documented the exchange in a Facebook post which went viral. “I don’t know when I’ve ever seen so many people rally to take care of another human being”. The writer went on to describe how at various points in their conversation, “they were both laughing; I was so struck by the kindness of Clara. I think people were starving for something beautiful.” Mr. Cook lives in Portland, Oregon. He told a local television station that he was “deeply moved” that Clara took the time to speak with him and that it was “the best trip” he had ever had.
In every Presbyterian Church, the two most important pieces of furniture are the Baptismal Font and the Lord’s Table. Baptism is our sacrament of belonging; and the Lord’s Supper is our sacrament of unity, where Jesus sat down at the Table and ate and drank with prostitutes, thieves, beggars, prisoners, the outcasts of every sort. If we stayed away from table fellowship until we were perfect, we would never get to the table. The Table is not about being right or wrong. The Table is a place of mystery, of healing and of grace. For in Christ, we are no longer strangers and aliens and enemies, but fellow citizens with the saints and all the members of the family of God.