Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/DMadi2rn_ao.
Pentecost 8 B 19th July 2015
Well after the build up last week, I was going to talk to you about the generosity and hospitality of God’s table and how we should share what little we had with those around us. While Bob was speaking I was planning all the things I was going to say- and then I got to the lectionary and the actually feeding of the 5,000 was left right out! So I decided instead, in this Refugee week that we might talk about walls. Walls are something we need, aren’t they? Shelter is one of the basic needs of all human beings. If I asked anybody here today even the little they could tell us that the things we all need are water, food and shelter. That is one of the great tragedies of people living on the street, that they have no shelter and no one to shelter with. This is why people collect in the Refugee camps when they have been displaced because at least they have the temporary protection of canvas walls. Once we are within walls, we feel safe, we can get warm, and stay dry- well that is the theory though sometimes it can be hard to get warm even within the walls this weather, can’t it?
So walls are a very good thing, a very positive thing, but then there is the other side to walls- every wall has an inside and an outside and sometimes the purpose of walls is to keep people out as well as to keep people safe and warm.
Who remembers the Berlin Wall? It was a wall built in 1961 that separated the east from the west in Berlin, Germany after the war. The Eastern block was communist and the western block was capitalist and inside the Eastern block a very repressive regime held sway. People had very little power and were not free to do what they wanted and people were constantly trying to escape and then they would be shot trying to cross the wall. It took almost 30 years before that barrier to freedom came down on the 9th of Nov, 1989. What that wall was doing, or trying to do was to stop the crossing over of ideas. Of course it didn’t work very well- it did prevent people from going from the communist east to the wealthier west but nothing can ever stop the flow of ideas. And the euphoria when the wall came down was extreme. People were absolutely delighted, and excited by the end of control and the wall itself became a powerful symbol for the change that had taken place in the politics of the divided country of Germany. People were able to talk to each other again, people were able to love each other again and help each other again. And the richer people in the west were able to share with the poorer people in the east. The breaking down of the wall was one of the great moments of the last century.
Walls can be good and they can be bad. The writer of this letter to the Ephesians uses a slightly different metaphor for the thing that stopped people from mixing together but the commandments and ordinances were like a wall, and he says that Jesus broke down that dividing wall. The thing that the writer uses here as the central image of the argument is circumcision- “made in the flesh by human hands”. It was a bodily sign of who was in and who was out, who was inside the wall that was Jerusalem and who was a gentile outside the wall. God had made special promises to Israel of a covenant- an agreement between God and his people. But one of the big problems was that even though the prophets kept telling the people that they were there to help all the other nations, to be a light “to lighten the gentiles” as it says in the song of Simeon, the Jews thought that what it was all about was that they were superior and special and the only ones that God cared about. They were wrong, of course. God had chosen them to have the revelation, in other words the wisdom and the knowledge that was supposed to be for the benefit of all the nations. They were supposed to help other people to come into relationship with God and instead they thought that they had to build a wall to keep everyone else out. They made lots and lots of rules, and they had a special symbol, that was circumcision so that they would remember that they were marked as God’s special people but it made them think that they were the only ones that God loved. They thought they were superior and that everyone else had to be kept out and that is what the writer is demolishing here. Paul is saying, this is what the Jews thought, that you Gentiles were alien and without God, but now Jesus has broken down this wall and he has brought you near to God, instead of far away.
There is a very well known poem written by Robert Frost, called “Mending Wall”. Let me read it to you.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
It is all about walls and the difficulty of keeping them up- but underneath the question that this poem is asking is why we, as human beings want walls. Is it to keep the peace? Is that why neighbours have walls? As the poem says, you need walls or fences if you have beasts, to keep them in but if you don’t why do want to make the division clear. If we think about the walls that have been built in this century to keep the peace, like the wall that was built in Belfast, “The Peace Line” they call it, and the wall that Val talked about between Israel and Palestine, the West Bank Barrier, they have both inflamed tensions. They are not about peace, they are about constant struggle and violence. That is because no wall can make peace. That is what Robert Frost is getting at so obliquely in his poem. Good fences don’t make good neighbours, they serve to define one person against another, and create an “us and them” situation. Walls just make us want to destroy what’s on the other side of them.
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, knows this and tells us that the only true peace is Jesus himself. Jesus, through the cross, through his blood, in his flesh, has made reconciliation and peace possible. Jesus has brought those who were far from God together with those who were near, in other words, Jews and Gentiles, us and them.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the warring Arabs and Jews could be united in Christ now?
Its easy for us to see the big divisions, isn’t it? We can look at the conflicts that other people are having in the world and see them clearly. But what about our own country and the Border Protection- we don’t need a wall- we have the sea, and yet that now has to be patrolled and controlled so that nobody can breach our wall. Refugees, for thousands of years, have crossed the borders, climbed the walls to get in or to get out. When we look at others we see people in terms of us and them. There are many divisions, we vote for different political parties, greenies or not greenies, in favour of the gay marriage bill or not, lots and lots of things divide us. Who we support in Football, and other sports and all kinds of other things. We humans like divisions, we like ‘us and them’, because if we can put ‘them’ down enough it makes ‘us’ feel big. Jesus has come for reconciliation. Jesus teaches us that God loves and values each one of us, regardless of which football team we support. The writer here tells us that in Jesus we can all be in the same household. Of course, not even people in the same household are necessarily united, there can be divisions even there. God wants reconciliation in families, God wants reconciliation between any two people where there is division.
Paul gives us another picture of a wall to help us.
The other picture of a wall is that of stones all built up together, different sizes, different shapes, maybe even different bits of stone and brick all holding together to make a church with Jesus as the cornerstone. This means that Jesus is the stone that holding us together. And together we can grow up to be a temple for God himself, a spiritual dwelling place for God. That is a much more positive kind of wall isn’t it. Not a wall built to keep others out, but a wall to provide shelter and comfort, a wall to provide beauty and glory for God to dwell with us. It isn’t really a wall made of stones like this one I’m showing you. Its a wall built of the lives of people all united in the spirit of God, through the blood of Jesus shed for each of us on the cross. That is the thing that unites us. That God loved every single one of us so much that he sent his only son to die on the cross so that we could have eternal life if we believe in him. If we claim Jesus’ death on the cross for ourselves we can die to all the things in our lives that separate us from God and from one another.
God calls us to be good neighbours who truly love, with the generosity and hospitality that he shows to us.
Then we can take our place in the wall that is building up the temple and join in the worship of God.