Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Sermon 6/26/11
Matthew 10:40-42

            As some of you know I have another set of Doctor of Ministry classes coming up in July. This semester, one of my two classes is on Ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of what makes church church. Now, you might think that all my classes are probably a little about that – church – and you are right. But ecclesiology is the formal word for the study of what truly constitutes church. Think about it – we have probably hundreds of denominations, some large, and some quite small, that are made up of places that say they are churches. And yet, these places do very different things – we worship in different styles. We believe different things about the sacraments. We have different understandings of who can be pastors. We have different ways of organizing. Are we all church? Well, if one of you starts meeting with a group of Christians in your home, and you sing a hymn and read a scripture passage, are you church? Why or why not? What makes church church?
            Last week, I preached about the Trinity, and we read together the fourth century Nicene Creed. In it, and in the Apostle’s Creed, we say that we believe in the holy catholic church. This is a theme that is coming up a lot in my books for class. And that phrase – holy catholic church – usually perks up our Protestant ears. I am happy to say though that the one person that actually voiced the question out loud last week to a parent to then ask to me was one of our elementary students! You might notice a little asterisk next to catholic that at the bottom of the page tells us it means universal. But the word catholic is from two Greek words kata and olou, which mean according to the whole. In other words, the word catholic emphasize the oneness of the church – we believe in one church – the whole universal church, that we are all part of, even if we are splinted into fragments. It is one church, and it is for the whole people of God.
            So our church, this particular church, First United, here in this particular place, East Syraucse, is fully church – we represent the whole church universal, the body of Christ, in this particular place. At the same time, we are a part of, a piece of, the universal church, which is made up of many members, and the many members make up the one church, the one body of Christ. So we are, at the same time, completely church, and also part of the complete church.
            Today our gospel lesson is this short little passage from Matthew. It is so short, we might be tempted in fact, to oversimplify it. To think it doesn’t have much in the way of content for us take in. I know I did: I glanced at it when I was making my preaching schedule a couple of months ago, and noted to myself: Oh, a passage about being welcoming. But there is a lot in these three little verses, and a lot more than words of welcome here. This text takes place at the end of a chapter full of words of encouragement and instruction from Jesus to the twelve. He is about to send them out on a mission – they are about to travel around, preaching and teaching in the cities and villages just as Jesus has been. So Jesus says these words to prepare them. And theses three verses are the concluding words. He says: whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
            Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. In Jewish law, a person’s agent or a person’s messenger is considered to be like the person himself or herself. They are a legal, or valid stand-in for the one whom they represent. So what Jesus is saying to the twelve is that they are being sent out as stand-ins for him. They are agents of Jesus and so are to be like Jesus is, acting as Jesus would, and they can expect people to respond to them, in turn, as they would respond to Jesus. But not only that, Jesus says, but grace upon grace from God means that even the ones who welcome and receive not just Jesus, but these agents of Jesus – well, they will actually receive the same blessings and benefits as if they themselves were agents of Jesus. Whoever welcomes a prophet – one of the twelve – in the name of a prophet – Jesus – will receive a prophet’s reward – being part of this kingdom of God. That means that Jesus' agents play an extremely important role. How the twelve carry out their mission, how they act and behave when they are sent out to share the good news – well, there are consequences to their actions that are important and life-changing to the people they will meet.
            Remembering that we, too, are disciples then, and that Jesus' words to the twelve also apply to us might start to make us really interested in this passage then. Remember what I said earlier about the catholic church. Our church, this particular church, First United, here in this particular place, East Syracuse, is fully church – we represent the whole church universal, the body of Christ, in this particular place. At the same time, we are a part of, a piece of, the universal church, which is made up of many members, and the many members make up the one church, the one body of Christ. We can take that understanding and stretch it further and apply it to ourselves as individuals. If we are members of this church, formally or informally, and the church in a particular place is as fully church as the church universal, and we are the body of Christ, then we are agents, you might say, of First United Church when we are in our communities, at school, or at work, when we go about our daily lives. And since, as part of our church identity, we say we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then that means we are agents of Jesus, stand-ins for Jesus, representatives of Jesus wherever we go.
            What does that mean? Well, imagine. Consider. The next time you are driving your car and someone cuts you off in traffic, you are an agent of Jesus. The next time you walk by someone who is homeless, you are a stand-in for Jesus. How that homeless person sees you – well, they are getting a glimpse of Jesus. What will you show them? For our graduates, for Kristina when she heads to college – she is a stand-in for Jesus. Whenever we decide how we will spend our money or our time, we are stand-ins for Jesus. When we have to interact with that person who drives us up the wall, we are acting as an agent of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t mention any time limits to his words. He doesn’t mention that these rules apply only on Sunday mornings or only during office hours or only when we are working on a mission project. Once we are disciples, we represent Jesus all the time. He knew it was hard work. He warned the disciples again and again about what they were getting into. They still took him up on it. Because when we are agents for Jesus, messengers who represent what Jesus wants to say in the world, that also means that be our actions, by our lives, we might be the reason that someone else claims all those blessings from God these verses talk about. So when we invite someone to church and they find a new family here, we represent Jesus! When someone is mourning and we comfort them, we represent Jesus. When we teach a child and we see them learn and grow into a gifted young person, we represent Jesus. Three little verses. So much meaning.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year A

Sermon 6/19/11, Matthew 28:16-20 

How many of you have read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code? The book is now 8 years old, which is hard to believe. You probably remember all the controversy around the book when it was published – it suggested a lot of religious conspiracies – like thate Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. The book certainly wasn’t the first to propose such ideas, but it seemed to catch global attention, and after its publication, many similar books    followed from other authors. I certainly enjoyed the book – a page turner – but the book was fiction, not fact, and some scenes were just blatantly rewrites of history. I was thinking about it again though because today is Trinity Sunday, another one of those usually skimmed over special Sundays. It is the day when we celebrate our unique Christian belief in this three-in-one God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Sustain, Redeemer. You see, one of the characters in The DaVinci Code claims that Jesus was “voted” to be divine at a council meeting of the early church, where previously everyone just regarded him as a human. My recollection of my church history courses in seminary, though not what it once was, is strong enough to know that things didn’t unfold in quite that way! But, The DaVinci Code was right about something. The early church did sometimes discuss weighty matters in great council gatherings. And one of these discussions, the First Council of Nicea, was centered not on Jesus’ divinity, but on the nature of the Trinity. Our gospel lesson from Matthew appears in the lectionary on this day in particular because it highlights this Trinitarian language. But we will come back to that in a bit.
In actuality, the Trinity is something that only occasionally makes clear and explicit appearances in our scriptures, like in our text from Matthew. The scriptures certainly never describe the Trinity, or even use the label “trinity”, or define what it means in any way. So the early church councils tried to hammer out what this Trinity thing was. They debated many questions about the Trinity, and there were strong “parties” that supported certain views. One party, for example, thought that any concept of Trinity would need to show that Jesus, the Son, was not comparable to God the father. But the eventually “winning” party wanted to insist, with a very specific Greek word configuration, that God the father and God the son were “like according to substance,” even though this is never clearly stated in the scriptures anywhere. Another debate was over whether Christ was “begotten” or “made” – created by God the Father, or existing with God the Father in the beginning in a way different from the creation of human beings. Another debate questioned whether or not the fully human person of Jesus Christ was part of the Trinity, or just the divine Son. And they questioned what to do with that strange Holy Spirit thing, perhaps like we do today. They wanted to know if the Holy Spirit came from God the Father directly, or from the Father and the Son together. All these details they eventually hammered out, though not always in a friendly way, not always without labeling each other as heretics, kicking the losing party out of the Church. And the result of the Council, in part, is the Nicene Creed that we find still in our hymnals, which we’ll look at later. It is that mess, the Trinity, which we celebrate today!
Maybe we think that trying to define the nature of God, the nature of something as strange as the Trinity in a council meeting is crazy. It’s true, we don’t usually discuss such details at Parish Council meetings! But I think we do often engage in the same behavior – we’d really like to get a fix on God if we can. We’re always trying to define God, define our faith, define a set of rules for our life with God. It’s a natural urge – we want to know our Creator better, we want to know who this Being is who gives us life and who we gather to worship. We want to know who this God is that makes us and shapes us and calls us to do all of these things that are so difficult and challenging and frustrating. We want to know better who it is who gives us love and grace and calls us children as we call this Being a parent. It’s good and natural to want to know this God.
But sometimes we cross a line, where we go from wanting to know God better out of a desire for a relationship with God, to wanting to know God so that we can contain and control God, even if we wouldn’t admit it quite that way. After all, if we can control God, perhaps we can limit God’s control on us, and not feel so obligated to follow all of those pesky commands about loving our neighbors and enemies, about giving away all of our stuff, about following wherever we’re led, about being last and servant of all. We try to paint God into corner and put God into boxes. When we do that, we make God pretty small, and then we’re upset when our God is too small to handle our crises, to handle our pains and hurts and sufferings.  
On Trinity Sunday, we’re called to embrace all that God is and wants to be for us. Instead of trying to pin God down, we need to reorient our focus. The Trinity, in all its mystery, is clear in this: Our God is a God who is all about relationships. Our God is not satisfied to be just one thing, one essence, one expression. Our God is not only our Creator, but also one who is willing to come and be with us in human form, to take on all that it means to be a human on earth. And God is not only one who does those things, but also one who is willing to dwell within us, to live in our hearts, and so guide our lives right from within the very core of our beings. This is a God who will seek us out for relationships in any way possible, so desirous is God of being a part of who we are, and having us be part of who God is. Our God is persistent, asking again and again, in different expressions, to be let in to our lives. Our God is creative, meeting us where we’re least expecting to find God, and perhaps most likely to listen. And our God is pervasive, permeating every part of our existence. That’s the Trinity, even if it’s not a very defined definition.
Indeed, it seems some of the very best things in the world are the ones we are least able to put into clear words, concise definitions. Just think of that most basic thing – love. For all of the writings we have, movies and poems and books and classes that talk about love, it’s very hard to truly define what love is. But that doesn’t reduce love’s power or potency, or our desire to give and receive love in our lives. Love seems to be something you have to simply experience to know. It’s the same with this God who is Three in One and One in Three. Hard to define, but worth all the conversation. Easier to experience God – the best way we can go about knowing God.
So, instead of worrying so much about what we don’t know, what we can’t figure out, what we can’t categorize and label, we’d be better off if we worried about what is clear to us. In Matthew's gospel, these words that we hear this morning are the end of the book, the last things Matthew chooses to include in his account of Jesus' ministry. This is it. The last words, according to Matthew, that are important enough for him to record. It is here we find what we call the Great Commission. Jesus is with the eleven – the disciples have not yet replaced Judas Iscariot – and Jesus tells them he has all authority on earth and in heaven. And then he gives commands: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And finally, a comforting promise: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Jesus gives us a task: Go and make disciples and make them part of the faith community in the name of this dynamic God who is too big, too great, too much to be pinned down or boxed in. From this passage, we find the source of our denominational mission statements – go and make disciples! Jesus doesn’t tell us to go and make scholars, or make theologians, or make teachers or leaders, though all of these roles are valuable. Jesus calls us to make disciples, and ‘disciples’ literally means ‘students’. That means that we’re meant to be learners, students, pupils of Jesus. And to be a student means that we don’t know everything. We’re students of God, ever learning. So our aim isn’t to go and tell everyone we have all the answers – indeed, nothing could make people more suspicious, could it, than someone insisting they had all the answers! We are sent out to make more students! Invite people to come and learn with us, come and learn at the feet of Jesus, come and learn about this three-in-one God, come and learn how beyond our imagining is God and God's love for us. That’s a mission we can all take part in carrying out.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Year A

Sermon 6/12/11
Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13


Pentecost can be so hard for us to understand. At least I find it difficult sometimes. Trying to describe a day centered on the Holy Spirit – something sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost – well, it is bound to be a bit confusing. You have heard me call this day the birthday of the Christian church. And here is why. Remember last Sunday we celebrated the Ascension – Jesus returned to God – and God's messengers told the disciples to stop standing around staring at the sky. So what's next? That’s the big question, isn’t it? So the disciples are in Jerusalem, celebrating a holy day remembering the giving of the law by God to Moses. And while they are there, as Jesus has promised would soon happen, a sound comes like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the whole place where the disciples were. And Luke, our author, describes to us these “divided tongues,” like flames, resting on each apostle. And all of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability. The Jews in the city, who are from many countries, many places, all hear the disciples speaking in their own language, and they are amazed, dumbfounded, perplexed. Some even wonder if the disciples are drunk. But Peter stands with the rest of the twelve, and raises his voice to address the crowds that have gathered to witness this strange event.
            “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say,” Peter begins. They aren’t drunk, he insists, but instead, they embody the vision of God which the prophet Joel proclaimed: “God declares . . . I will pour out my Spirit upon all your flesh, and yours sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” Past our text for today, Peter continues preaching, talking about Jesus Christ, and people respond to his words. In his message, they hear something, catch something of the Spirit that has filled Peter and the other disciples, and from this day on, the disciples add believers day by day. That is Pentecost. But it isn’t just something in history we remember. It is something we continue to live into.
            As most of you know, Roxanne – who is our lay member to the United Methodist Annual Conference – and I attended the Annual Conference session in Rochester most of this past week. Our worship centered on the Pentecost story, a timely focus, and we were blessed by two special guests at conference – Bishop Larry McCleskey, and the choir of Africa University, a school founded by the denomination in Zimbabwe. The choir has a fantastic reputation, and we heard awesome music each day, which Bishop McCleskey wove into his sermon. As he was describing this strange speaking in tongues thing, he asked the choir to sing for us two songs – in different African languages that of course, most of us did not understand. When they were done, he asked what they were singing. Now, we didn’t know the words they had said. But we knew – we knew they were songs of praise. We knew they were songs that spoke in worship of God. Bishop McCleskey said that if we know how to be moved by music even if we don’t know the words, we know what Pentecost is all about.  It is the power of God, that transcends all boundaries. A movement that enables something to happen even when you thought that something would be impossible.
            Last week I had you write three items on slips of paper – three things you are good at, or at least, if you are somehow convinced God hasn’t gifted you with three skills, then at least three things you like. I’ve looked through all your responses, and put them together, and thought a lot about what it means, what we can do with these gifts. I noticed a few things from all the words I collected. First of all – I noticed some of you have a pretty good sense of humor, insisting your best skills are bossing people around, interrupting, or sleeping. As I have witnessed church members do all these things, I suppose I can vouch for your truthfulness! Second, I noticed that there were many common themes in the things you shared (explain graphic). Some things are standouts – not just gifts of an individual, but apparent gifts of the congregation.
            After I tabulated all your gifts, I asked friends and colleagues to help me brainstorm ways that each item – each item – could be used in service, mission, and ministry in this congregation and community. What you see is a beginning – a scratch on the surface of how these talents and interests could be used. Today after worship, I will ask you to add to the list too – not to the items you listed – but to the items others listed. It is usually easier for us to see how the gifts of others can be used than to see for our own. We can point out both ways we already have existing opportunities in our congregation to use certain gifts, and also brainstorm new ways. And we will continue to add to these lists in the weeks ahead, and begin to see some of the places we are led. This is just a step in a direction.
            The celebration of Pentecost and your gifts are strongly bound together. Our text from Paul's letter to the Corinthians says this: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Two things here: First, to each is given. To each. No exceptions noted in this text. And second, it is the Holy Spirit that activates gifts in each of us. We each have these gifts, and the work of the Holy Spirit is to activate them. Have you ever purchased a new cell phone? Before you can just start using it, you have to activate it. The phone may have all the working parts, but without being activated, you still can't make any phone calls. Or when you receive a new debit card in the mail – you have to call and activate the card before you can use it to spend money – it is a way of verifying that the card belongs uniquely to you and that you will be the one using it. It is your card to activate.
            Today, on this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate that we each have gifts, uniquely ours, that are activated, ready for use in God's kingdom, by the power of this Holy Spirit. On Pentecost, the disciples saw their gifts activated in a way that enabled them to become church, speak and act with boldness, change lives. Today is Pentecost for us. You have gifts – together we will help each other imagine all the ways we can put them to use. We pray that the Holy Spirit will activate our gifts, activate us, that we might be the church, speak and act with boldness, and change lives. Amen. 

Monday, June 06, 2011

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Year A

Sermon 6/5/11
Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11


            Last night I had the pleasure of attending my Uncles farewell celebration at his church. As most of you know, he is leaving Boonville after 20 years there to become a District Superintendent. It was really a joy and honor to hear him praised and honored – obviously, I am biased, but I find him to be inspiring as a pastor, uncle, and colleague. When all was said and done, plaques presented, presents given and received, speeches made, my uncle was invited to say a few words. And in his comments, and in his closing prayer, what he said was this: this church has been a place where my dreams and God's dreams for me have come true because of how you helped that to happen. So please make sure that you also partner with the new pastor to help make his dream and God's dreams come true in the future, in the years ahead as well. Because if this twenty year ministry has been all about me, I’ve been doing something very wrong. This ministry is about building up the kingdom of God. Because I know that for my uncle, the thing that would make him feel the worst would be to hear that Boonville United Methodist just couldn’t continue without him. The worst thing would be watching what he worked so hard to build fall apart. To know that the lessons he tried to teach hadn’t really sunk in after all, that the gifts he shared and cultivated had been in vain.
            Today is Ascension Sunday, and it is a weird in-between sort of day before Pentecost that we don’t spend much time thinking about. It is the day that we remember that Jesus, forty days after the Easter Resurrection, returned to heaven to be with God. That is what the Ascension is. But we need to know the why or it doesn’t much matter. Why is the Ascension important for us to think about? In some ways, actually, I think this time period – the time immediately following Jesus’ ascension, is actually the most critical time for the disciples, for Jesus, for the church, for the mission of the pervasive kingdom of God. Because I can imagine that Jesus, like my Uncle Bill, had to wonder a little bit: how exactly will things unfold after I leave. Jesus would be with the disciples always – but not in the flesh – not to walk with for miles between villages, not to quickly consult with. Jesus had been with the disciples for three years – and they were not getting another Jesus. There is only the one! Yes, they were promised a Comforter, an Advocate to help. But they were in effect stepping into Jesus’ shoes themselves! The students were becoming the preachers and teachers and spreaders of good news now. They had been called, equipped, sent out. But now it was up to them. They could return to their old lives, convinced they couldn’t do anything without Jesus physically present. Or they could believe that Jesus had provided the gifts they needed to be Christ’s presence in the world. What would they do?
            In some ways, we live our whole journey of discipleship in this moment of transition, for I think God is forever asking us the question, watching to see: what will we do? Because although we, like the Twelve, probably feel like we are in some respects always disciples, students, learning more about God, we, like the Twelve, also have, Jesus says, everything we need to change the world, make our dreams and God's dreams come true in us, through us, in our community. What will we do? What will we do?
            Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, wiping away excuses, giving them boldness, and setting off the birth of what we call the church. We know what the first disciples did, eventually, with God's help. They became the church. They shared about the kingdom and God's grace. They used their gifts. What will we do? I would like you to think about that this week – what will you do? What are you doing? What will we do in this place, this community?
            Today, to help us begin to think more deeply about these questions, I need your help. I want you to take your (index card), and write down three things you are good at. Three. It can be anything. Knitting, football, computers, shopping for deals, whatever. Three things. Three. You don’t need to write your name. Just three things. And if you can’t think of three, even though you are most definitely, I am telling you, good at three things, then at least write three things you like doing. Reading. Watching TV. Riding your bike. But give me three things on your card. I am asking Della to play music for three minutes while you write things down, and pass your cards to the ushers. Please, I really encourage you – just humor me, and fill out your cards! Right now.
By now, you are probably asking: what is Pastor Beth going to do? Next week, Pentecost Sunday, birthday of the church, I hope you will come to worship and find out!
Today is Ascension Sunday. Jesus is with God. God is with us. And we have a question to answer, and all creation is waiting with bated breath for our response: what will we do?

Non-lectionary Sermon, "Near and Far," Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Sermon 5/29/11         
Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Near and Far

I had a hard time figuring out where to go this week in my sermon. When I sent the bulletin in to Linda this week, I told her to leave the scriptures and sermon title blank – I would figure it out by Sunday. Usually I preach right from the lectionary, but this week, I just couldn’t make my mind work with the scheduled passages. So I went in a different direction, and chose a passage that perhaps reflects the dynamics we find at work all around us.  
I have been thinking about what a tumultuous busy year this has been. I decided to look for a timeline of 2011 online to confirm my feeling that a lot has happened already, and here is what I found. In January, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, along with several others, at a public meeting, by a young man who was just declared incompetent to stand trial. Protesting in Egypt began, and Southern Sudanese people voted in droves to become a separate nation from Sudan. By February, protesting in Egypt had spread throughout the region. A significant earthquake hit New Zealand. In March, violence in Libya increased with the government launching attacks on its own people, and coalition force in turn launching attacks on government targets. Also in March, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the nation of Japan. In April, President Obama realized a copy of his birth certificate, after Donald Trump’s claims that he had very serious reasons to believe that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Also in April, a string of tornadoes struck the South, and Prince William married Catherine Middleton, in a ceremony I will admit to watching, although I certainly did not watch at 5am. Thank God for DVR! May started with an announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, and the question: does his death make us safer or not? Later in May, we experienced extreme flooding in the South, and more incredibly destructive tornadoes. We also, apparently, avoided the rapture, although the prediction surely caught our global attention, didn’t it? All that, and we aren’t even ½ way through the year yet.
            Sometimes we seem drawn together as a global community – responding to the tragedy in Japan – the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster – sometimes we can really act as one people, and we catch glimpses of what we could be. But more often than not, what makes headlines is what divides us – our families, our communities, our nation, our world. In this midst of this chaos comes our text from Ephesians. Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, most of whom, in this context, were not born Jews, but Gentiles, converts to Christianity, but not to Judaism. Whether new converts had to become Jews before they could become followers of Christ was a matter of heated debate in the early Church. Peter and some other apostles thought that new Christians would of course follow the law and be circumcised, just as he and the rest of the Twelve were faithful Jews who were also disciples. But Paul argued adamantly that if Christ’s message was about grace, then his disciples weren’t under the law in the old way anymore. They are made righteous by faith, not law.
So Paul, writing to the Ephesians, writes to encourage them, to ensure them that they can draw as close to God as those children of Israel who already knew God in a different way, through the law. He says, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” In other words, for Paul, no matter your starting point, no matter your beginning context, God wants you to draw near, and will encourage you, lure you to do so, lure you into relationship. That’s good news for all of us! Wherever we are now, wherever we started, wherever we’ve been in our life to date, God is luring us closer, calling us to draw near.
But the problem comes when our human nature gets involved. For Peter, and some other leaders in the early church who were Jewish in their starting points, there was sense of priority given to the children of Israel when it came to relationships with God through Christ. They probably wouldn’t put it that way, but some of them seemed to feel very much like their brand of faith was better, and that everyone else who didn’t do it that way couldn’t possibly have a truly good relationship with God, and couldn’t possibly be right about their approach, and  couldn’t possibly be part of the community. They weren’t going to be welcoming, unless people could meet certain standards, unless people completed certain rituals, unless people met certain membership requirements, you might say.
Paul writes convincingly, eloquently, and firmly against this mindset. He says, “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [both Gentiles and Jews] 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, 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.” Peace, near and far.
            In some senses, Paul’s message sank in and pervaded the early Church, making it what it is today. Of course, we know, his inclusive view became the dominant view. Today, we do not have to adopt the Jewish faith in order to become disciples of Christ. And eventually, Peter and other leaders began, like Paul, to work with non-Jews in spreading the gospel as well. In fact, it was only a century or two later that the emperor became a Christian, something that would never have occurred if the Jewish/Gentile divide had remained embedded in the Christian movement. In fact, if the baby church hadn’t decided that we were one body in Christ, most of us today would not be Christians – the message would have never been meant for us, but only for a small, chosen few. So that’s the upside, the effect of Paul’s message.
            The downside? If we managed to let Christ break down that dividing wall of hostility between Jewish and Gentile disciples, we apparently took the pieces of the broken wall and used them to build other dividing walls. We acted as if the message Paul shared was helpful only in that context, and not to be applied elsewhere in our lives, in our faith. And so, in our story of Christianity, in our human story, we have a long history of building dividing walls between us and other.
            It wasn’t long after Christians grew in numbers that they actually turned on the very faith they’d once been so anxious to protect, and anti-Jewish sentiment has been a struggle ever since. A wall between us and them, new and old. It was only in 1968 when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged together that segregation in the church was taken off the book – little more than 40 years ago – 1983 that Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church reunited. A shameful history of racism, of building walls to keep people of color out, right in our own denominations. Today we can think of literal walls that have been built – the Berlin wall, torn down just 22 years ago. The walls built in Israel/Palestine. Proposed walls between the US and Mexico. Walls of hostility that divide us. And we have walls today in our churches too. These walls usually aren’t advertised. They aren’t named aloud. But they are there, the walls we put up between us and whoever it is we really don’t want to share our lives with. But people can sense when they aren’t welcome somewhere. When there is a boundary preventing them from being included. Sometimes our walls are more personal. Perhaps you’ve built a wall a between yourself and a particular person. With our walls in place, it means we never really see each other, never see face to face that we are both, are all created in God’s image. The walls allow us to make sure we always know the difference between us and them.
            So here we are, today. We live in a time of wall-building at an amazing, speedy, skillful, aggressive pace. We build walls seen and unseen, figurative and literal. We always work out the best excuses and arguments and intentions when it comes to wall building. We do it because – it will keep us safe. Because we’re afraid or in danger. Because we feel threatened. Because we’ve been hurt by others. Because we’re protecting what is ours, what we have. But all of our reasons add up to very little grace.   
To move beyond this, to learn to live as builders of the household of God, and not builders of dividing walls, we have to change the way we look at everything that is not us and ours. In today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus reuniting with the disciples after their time sent off two by two to preach and teach. Jesus himself is recovering from the loss of his cousin, John the Baptist, who was beheaded by King Herod. And so they want some time away. Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For, Mark tells us, with all the coming and going they had not time even to eat. They need a day off. A Sabbath. We can relate to that feeling, right? But the crowds, so anxious for Jesus, follow on foot and arrive ahead of Jesus and the disciples. Can you imagine, on your day off, getting called into work after all? Finding you had responsibilities that meant you couldn’t get time to yourself after all? You can probably feel the expression your face would make. Probably the disciples were making this face too. But Jesus – Jesus sees something else, as he always does. Sees more than we see. We read, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” His eyes see need, and he can’t look away. In fact the word compassion here is from the Greek word splanchnizomai, which means literally to "feel bowels of pity" - it is a physical, gut reaction of the insides - your stomach literally turning over in compassion. That's what Jesus feels when he sees the crowds. He sees not other, or enemy, or threat, or danger, or stranger. He sees them, the people, the ones in need, the names, the lives. He sees the creations of God – the sheep that need a shepherd.
We can only build walls between us and others if that is all we see – someone who is Other. That which is not us. Not-me. Not-us. Not-one-of-us. As long as we define everything else in the world as not-us and not-ours, we can go right along building walls and throwing bombs. But if we see what Jesus sees – if we see with compassion, if our stomachs literally turn over with love for who we see, if we see God’s face instead of no-names, then we won’t be able to build walls that divide. If we see the names, the hearts, the lives that struggle to be as we do in the world, if we see face to face, then we can’t make the other less than us, less than God’s precious children too.
Paul reminds us that he’s not advocating for a wall-less world. We need walls. We need to build. But instead of building to divide, we can build together. We can build to strengthen, build to serve. Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . and 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.”
Christ is our peace. He has broken down the dividing walls of hostility between us. Let us pray for a world that lives in this truth. Amen.