Rev. Teri Peterson
Broken Into One
28 June 2015, Pentecost 1-6 (Moved by the Spirit)
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 keystone. 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.
play David LaMotte’s song Hope
Since the last time we gathered in this sanctuary together, four buildings of black churches in three states have been intentionally set on fire, the KKK held a rally at the South Carolina capitol building, and funerals were held for four of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.
In the 20 years since David LaMotte wrote that song, it seems not much has changed.
And yet this week the Supreme Court showed us just how much has changed at the same time.
It’s been a week of ups and downs, one moment seeing the dividing wall of hostility crumbling before our eyes, the next seeing it built back up brick by brick. One minute, we seem so close to touching the kingdom of God, and the next minute any glimpse of grace seems impossibly far away.
The Ephesians were a divided people too. Their division was based on the accident of birth, and to be called “the uncircumcision” was a derogatory slur used to keep Gentiles in their place. Those who used it said with just one word that a person was outside the realm of God, an alien among the people of Israel, completely without hope and alone in the world.
Our human talent for separating ourselves from those who are different has deep roots.
But now, this letter says: but now—right this minute, not later, not someday in heaven, now—you have been brought near in Christ. Now, Christ has made one body, one family, one commonwealth, one household, by breaking down all our walls and legalese and categories. In his own broken and glorified body, he has broken our fractured humanity into one.
And still churches burn, and children die, and families are separated at the most crucial moments of their lives.
And the dividing wall seems to fly high and run deep in so many places.
And we try to brush off history and shut out voices that disagree and then watch in horror as it happens again and again.
“How can we come any closer if I just shake my head where I stand? There can never be any handshakes until somebody puts out their hand.”
It seems naïve at best to stand here and say “Christ is our peace” and “you are no longer strangers or aliens or outcasts, all of us are part of the household of God.” They are beautiful words, and they are true words, and even the truest words are meaningless when our action and our inaction perpetuate sin rather than renewed relationship.
And yet I’ve got a lot of hope for the future, and dreams for a better world. Hopes and dreams are not the same as optimism or fantasy—our hope is rooted in God’s promise, and our dreams are the same ones God has been giving people since Genesis. Hope implies trust. Do we trust God’s promise enough to have hope? Enough to work to make it a reality, not just a nice but meaningless word? We have seen the work of hope triumph, and we have seen it fall under rubble…all in one week.
No one ever tells you that it’s hard work to be in a family. The household of God is just as complex as any of ours, with personality clashes, inside jokes, old photo albums, and deeply ingrained prejudice right alongside laughter and tears and board games and the dress-up box. We have awkward holiday dinners, joyous reunions, frustrating conversations, unimaginable support, and so much love we wouldn’t have it any other way. And like any other family, we don’t choose who is in the household of God. We don’t get to choose which branch of the family we’ll be born into, or who marries who, or where babies are born. The Lord builds the house, drawing humanity together into one family, one body, one household—a dwelling place for the spirit. Not just a gathering of individuals, not just a collection of special interest groups—a dwelling place for the Spirit.
I love the image the writer of Ephesians uses here. He says that the house of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets—those who spoke the word, even when no one was listening. And the whole structure holds together because Christ is the keystone. When that one stone at the top of an arch is taken out, the arch falls. But here’s the thing: it is hard work to remove a keystone. Once it is in its place at the peak, it’s really only mother nature that can get it out. But God is our solid rock, and the living Word of God can never be swept away by erosion. And though the earth should shake and mountains crumble, the living Word of God stands forever, holding the whole household of God together from the pinnacle. And we, the living stones built together for God’s glory, look around and find ourselves wedged in together with people we never expected to see—people of every color and nation, every language, every immigration status, every sexual orientation, every age, every part of God’s great and glorious family throughout all time and space.
Sometimes we get a glimpse of the glorious diversity of God’s household, and we rejoice to see God’s promise of love. Sometimes we shut the door and hope the Spirit won’t notice. Sometimes we pretend that the door is wide open…as long as you look and act and love right. Sometimes we try to remodel according to our own specifications, and sometimes we follow the plans of the master builder. Sometimes we do all those things in one week.
But no matter how many dividing walls we put up, the cross shatters everything we thought we knew and bridges the gap between people, drawing us all into Christ’s body.
So what would happen if we put out our empty hand, rather than adding planks to a crumbling security fence?
To put out an empty hand is to be vulnerable—which is to say, on equal footing rather than in a position of giving to the underprivileged.
To put out an empty hand is to make the first move to cross the divide, rather than wait for them to come to us.
To put out an empty hand is to look into the eyes of another child of God, bringing the only thing we have to offer: gratitude.
To put out an empty hand is to be ready to receive tools to use for the building of the kingdom, rather than clinging to the weapons used for the building of empire.
Or we could stand and shake our heads and look away, whether from fear or indifference or disgust or hate or helplessness or privilege…and when we look up we will find Christ, bruised and weeping, hungry and angry, pleading and reaching out to us. For as often as we have done it to the least of these who are members of his family, we have done it to him. Or, if we take seriously that we are the body of Christ, then we have done it to ourselves—for when one member suffers, all suffer together with it, and when one member rejoices, all rejoice together with it.
Christ is our peace—he has broken open his own flesh to make one humanity in place of the dozens we have created, he has broken down the door of the grave to bring the kingdom of heaven to all creation, he has broken down the dividing wall of our prejudice and privilege and built us into one house, one body, with one Spirit and of one mind with him. And he calls us to be a part of this work—dismantling the dividing walls one flag at a time, one stereotype, one joke, one gut reaction, one silence, one historical lie, one unloving thought at a time.
This week, the challenge for us is to go out from our comfortable place and reach out a hand across a wall—whether it’s a wall of class or race, gender or orientation, religion or language. Make the first move to participate in Christ’s work of breaking down walls, and see what happens when we view every single person as a member of our household, rather than someone else’s.
I’ve got a lot of hope for the future, and a lot of dreams…and a lot of work to do.
May we all reach out a hand and do the work.