Sermon by Pastor Mark Siler, 1/19/2020
Ephesians 2: 14, 19, 21-22
For Christ 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. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. In Christ, 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. This is the reason I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
From Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another person’s freedom.
Perhaps the most earth shattering words in scripture are at the end of Exodus Chapter 2, “Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their cry and God remembered the covenant.” Prior to that moment, the understanding was that God was too distant, too removed, too busy to be concerned with the nitty gritty of human affairs. I would argue we still often succumb to such a misunderstanding of God. To claim the Judeo-Christian faith is to claim a God of history, a God who hears the cries of the people and acts, laboring to bring about heaven on earth. That was true then and it’s true now. Of course, as we see in Exodus, God needs faithful people to join with these holy efforts. God can’t do it alone. That’s where things tend get bogged down.
We have two sacred texts today. One comes from the Bible the other does not. The first is written from jail, by Paul, to the church in Ephesus, where two groups of Christians, divided by race, Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles, are unable or unwilling to share their faith, their resources, their lives, together. The 2nd text is also written from jail, by Martin Luther King Jr., to the church in Alabama, where two groups of Christians, divided by race, Whites and Blacks, are unable or unwilling to share their faith, their resources, their lives, together. I often wonder if the God of History is getting tired of the same old struggle.
In our readings today, both Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. reference a particular peace that was revealed in and through Jesus Christ. As we listen, my question for us comes from Paul’s opening line, “What does it mean to say that Christ is our peace?”
- There is an inner peace that allows for courage.
- Jesus also says in Matthew 10 that I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. Revealing the injustices of the day involves conflict.
- We still remain segregated in so many ways. Real peace means not accepting that as normal.
- Christ’s peace gets me through when life gets hard.
We humans love walls. My earliest memory as a kid is building a wall of fallen autumn leaves in the backyard. I then yelled for my parents to come outside so that I could jump from behind it and scare them. They were great at acting startled and surprised. Wall building seems to be in our DNA. I remember a college professor saying that if you want to understand the big narrative of human history, just study the walls. Surely, not all walls are bad. They can provide us shelter. They give us places to gather. They can help reinforce the positive boundaries we all need to do things like rest, restore, reflect, worship, connect, heal and grow. As the serenity prayer reminds us, “Wisdom is knowing the difference.” What are the walls that we create really doing? Are the walls we consent to helping us hold and be held by God’s redeeming and restoring love or are they keeping us from it?
Of course, not all walls are physical. I would argue most of them aren’t. We certainly see that in our texts today. Paul describes a dividing wall of hostility between Christian Jews and Gentiles. Martin Luther King Jr. describes the Jim Crow dividing wall of injustice between Whites and Blacks that the White religious leaders hesitantly acknowledge, but they want to cautiously address this wall on their terms with their own timeline.
These words from our history of faith offer us little value unless we are ready to consider the dividing walls of our location, of our moment in history. No doubt, we could spend hours together naming these walls. I imagine some of them would be more personal, like our struggle to reconcile with family or friends, with sobriety, with a liberating forgiveness. Many would be more social, like all the ways that racial and economic injustice still fuel an appalling concentration of wealth and resources in the world, in our nation, in Asheville. We seem to be building higher and bigger walls, and it’s not just on the border.
Most of our conversations today about walls are political in nature. But we are here as people attempting the Way of Christ. That is our lens. I hear Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. offering the same essential message. If our lives, if our relationships, if our homes, if our bank accounts, if our efforts to be the church are not defying the walls of division that dominate our world, then we are no longer the church, at least the church of Christ. Without reconciliation, we are not able, as Paul says, to be a dwelling place for God.
Christian piety in the West has typically presented our faith as simply a personal matter. Do you, as an individual, believe? In this approach to God, the thing that matters is whether you, as an individual, are right with God or not. Paul and King seem to be saying we have it backwards. You, plural, you the church, must demonstrate the Beloved Community first. You, the church, are to be a community that shows the world another way. First and foremost, you, the church, are to be a people that are reconciled, across all worldly divisions, be it racism, economic exploitation, partisan politics, sexuality, nationalism…, and then, and only then, can you begin to understand what being right with God is, what it looks like, what it feels like, both the tensions and the gifts of faithful living.
It’s worth noting that Paul and King, along with Jesus and so many other faithful ancestors, found themselves in jail, even though their primary purpose and calling was religious. Clearly, the Gospel fully lived and embodied is also a threat to political power, which is no surprise. Jesus gives us a radically different vision of the earth’s resources and how they are to be used and shared. Let us remember that there is indeed a cost to discipleship, to really being the church. And, let us also remember that this cost is paired with a profound joy, a liberation like no other. Hear King’s last public words spoken the evening before he was killed, “I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to The Promised Land. And I am happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” May it be so for us and for all.