Us and Them: The Dividing Wall
One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” written in 1914. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it begins. The poem describes two farmers – the narrator and another farmer who are neighbors. After winter, they find both set out to repair the wall between their properties, which has cracks and gaps after the weather of the season. As they’re walking the line together, the narrator asks his neighbor why they even need a wall, since the narrator has apple trees and the neighbor has pine trees, and it is clear which part belongs to each. The neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the narrator persists: “‘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.’” But in the end, his neighbor only repeats the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
I wonder: is that the only way we can relate to each other? Across fences? Is that the best we can hope for when it comes to being neighbors? Somehow, when Jesus calls to us throughout the gospels to love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves, I feel like he had something deeper in mind. And yet, we’re experiencing a time of extreme division, polarization as a nation, as a global community, and I’m sure you would agree that the impact of this division is spilling over into our local communities, into our everyday lives. Here, in our own congregations, we have some folks who voted for Donald Trump, and some who voted for Hillary Clinton, and maybe some who voted for someone else, and some who chose not to vote. Can we still be in relationship with each other? Could we actually talk about what we believe and why without resorting to arguments and heated words and strained friendships? And where does our faith come into play in the midst of this?
Today we’re starting a new sermon series: “Us and Them.” We’ll be thinking about how we respond, as people of faith, to a nation, a world divided. We’ll be asking ourselves what God calls us to do and say, how God calls us to act, in light of all that is happening around us. And we’ll ask questions about what it means for Christians to be involved in politics. Should we do that? How do we do that? We’ll see what we can discover together over these next few weeks.
Our reading today is from the letter to the Ephesians, the community of Jesus-followers in Ephesus. We kind of drop right into the middle of the letter, where the author has been talking about God’s grace and how the Christians in Ephesians have been blessed and redeemed not by good works, as if salvation is something we can earn, but simply by the abundant gift of God’s grace. The Christians in Ephesus are Gentiles; that is, they were not Jewish or converts to Judaism. Instead, they simply became followers of Jesus once they heard the gospel, the good news preached to them. In the early church, there were a lot of different feelings about Gentile followers of Jesus. Some folks thought Gentile Christians should convert to Judaism as a part of their discipleship. After all, Jesus was Jewish and never abandoned following Jewish customs even as he taught people a new way of understanding their relationship with God. But others thought it made more sense simply to follow the teachings of Jesus. Circumcision was a physical difference that marked these groups of Christians. Jewish Christians were circumcised, and Gentile Christians were not. In many of our New Testament readings, like in the writings of Paul, we discover that there are ongoing tensions between the two groups of Christians, and how they related to each other and the church as a whole.
Our author, though, doesn’t see any reason for tension and division. In fact, just the opposite. He argues that in Jesus Christ, those who were “far off” – that is those who were Gentiles and not part of the covenant God made with the Israelites that we read of in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament – those who were far off are brought near to God, near to God’s promises. “For [Christ] is our peace,” he says, and in his very flesh “he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Jesus creates “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” All of us are reconciled to God through the same Jesus, he argues, so any hostility we have is put to death in the process. Jesus isn’t sent just to one group of people, but to all. Jesus proclaims peace “to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” he writes, and all of us have access to one God, one Spirit, through Christ.
That’s not all, though. God doesn’t just knock down the dividing walls between us. Instead, God calls us to build something up, together. We read, “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.”
In other words: our citizenship, our allegiance is important. But before we get to any national identities, and certainly before we claim allegiance to any political parties, our primary citizenship is as members of the household of God, and our primary allegiance is to Jesus. Our lives without God were no lives at all. But Jesus gives everything, even his life, to reconcile us to God and one another. And so God calls us together, to work together to serve God in love. Jesus is the cornerstone. The apostle and prophets, the teachers of faith are the foundation. And together we create whatever dreams God is calling us to make a reality in this world.
Our citizenship is in the household of God, and our allegiance is to Jesus, who we’ve promised to follow as our Savior. What would that change about how we relate to each other if we reminded ourselves of that, our primary identity? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, shared these words in his sermon called On a Catholic Spirit: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” What do you think, friends? Can we love alike, and be of one heart, even if we aren’t of one opinion?
Next week we’ll be talking more specifically about what we do when we disagree – vehemently even – with each other about important issues. But today, as we think about the dividing walls, the barriers we’re putting up between heart and heart, here are some things I’ve been thinking about:
We might not understand someone, might not understand why they think the way they do. What should be our response when we don’t understand why someone believes what they believe? We might not understand why someone is afraid. You might not understand why someone is afraid of terrorists or losing our national identity. How might you help ease their fears? You might not understand why someone fears they will lose their rights, lose their protections under the law. How might you help ease their fears? We might not even be able to consider someone a friend, because we’re so baffled, disgusted, even by what they think and feel. We might even count them as an enemy. Even so, how does Jesus call us to treat our enemies? Jesus challenges us to love them! But if your enemy interprets your words and actions to be hateful or hurtful instead of loving, it’s likely your approach to loving your enemy needs some significant work!
It wasn’t long ago – just last month, in fact, that we talked about Jesus’ baptism and renewed our baptismal covenant as a congregation. Still, I think it is worth looking at again, particularly looking at the questions and responses we’re asked when we’re baptized, when we stand for someone being baptized, or when we are confirmed or become members by professing our faith. Here’s what we’re asked:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? The response: I do. One mark of our citizenship as God’s children is a commitment to turning away from evil. We commit to repenting of our own sin. This isn’t a call for us to point out the sins of others, but to examine our own lives, and to turn back toward God if we’ve been going in a different direction, away from God. That’s what repentance means – turning our minds, hearts, and lives back to God’s direction.
We’re asked: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? The response: I do. We accept both the freedom and the power, the responsibility, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, however they show up in the world. Resisting evil isn’t exclusive to the realm of politics. Fighting injustice and oppression isn’t something we support because of our political affiliation. It’s part of our baptismal identity. When we see people hurting in God’s world, we’re called to respond because of our identity in Christ Jesus. We’re called to combat racism, and fight discrimination, and champion the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the most vulnerable that God lifts up all throughout the scriptures. It’s a part of our very baptismal covenant to do so, because our citizenship is in the household of God, and we have to stand up for all of God’s children.
We’re asked: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? The response: I do. In our baptismal vows, we confess that it is Jesus Christ, and not the President, or Congress, or the Supreme Court, or anyone else who saves us. We promise that it is Jesus who is our Lord, Jesus who we serve, and not our own agendas, and not the promise of success and power and fortune. And we remember that God has extended the same invitation to all people, and all kinds of people.
And finally, we’re asked: According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ's holy Church and serve as Christ's representatives in the world? Our response: I will. We represent Jesus in the world. We take it pretty seriously that our elected officials represent us in our nation’s politics. We expect them to listen to our concerns. We expect to be able to hold them accountable or we can choose not to elect them anymore, not to have them represent us anymore. We give it a lot of weight, don’t we? How much weight do we give to our vows to represent Christ to the world? Are we doing a good job of representing Christ’s interests in the world? Do we listen to his concerns? Are we a good representation of Jesus to those around us? How do we demonstrate our allegiance to Jesus?
Do good fences make good neighbors? Maybe. But I think we can do better. Jesus is our peace, and he is constantly working in our lives to break down the hostilities that we make between ourselves and others. He brings together those who are far off and those who are near, so that we might be one body in Christ, serving one God, members of the one household of God. So friends, as we begin, though we may not always think alike, let us love alike. Though we may not always be of one opinion, let us be of one heart, in word and deed and spirit. There’s far too much at stake in our world for us to let it be otherwise.