9TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, 7-22-2018
Pentecost 9 B 2018
Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
“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, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross” Ephesians 2:14-16
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
There are weeks that I agonize over which reading I am going to preach on Sunday. And then there are weeks where the reading I am supposed to preach on is so obvious it just kind of slaps me upside the head as soon as I read it. This was one of those kind of weeks.
Given daily events we read about in the news, given the strident rhetoric coming from all political sides and the dis-ease at best and the distrust at worst of Christians for fellow Christians on a different side of any particular issue that faces us as the body of Christ, well, it was as if this particular epistle text was the Hermione Granger of Ephesians, shooting its hand in the air and squirming and saying, “Oh! Preach me! Preach me!”
The truth of the matter is I love preaching on the epistles and in the next year you are as likely to hear me preach on the epistle reading as you are the gospel and there is good reason for that. The time from Advent through Pentecost is known for the stories of Jesus. These are the stories we know well and love to hear.
The season after Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday is known for the stories of the church. These are the stories we need to hear. In one season we learn about how Jesus is God and in the other we learn about how we are supposed to be God’s Church. And for that reason we need to pay attention to these letters.
Ephesus, which is modern day Turkey, was a Greek city that was swallowed up by the Romans and, in fact, it was second only in importance to Rome. The Ephesians were Gentile Christians-pagans that had heard the word of God and had come together to live a life radically different than the surrounding culture.
There was conflict between the Jewish Christians known as “the circumcision” and the Gentile Christians who were known as “the uncircumcision.” Did the Gentiles really belong to the people of God? Did they really get to share in the inheritance of the Covenant and Kingdom? The mark of the Covenant between God and God’s chosen people was circumcision; it said so in the Torah. If you did not bear the mark you did not belong.
And then along comes Paul saying that they did belong. They were not circumcised, they had been far away from God, aliens to Israel and “strangers to the covenants of promise.” But Paul says an amazing thing, he tells them that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection they are as near to God as those who had been given the promise and Covenant to begin with.
Paul tells them that all those boundaries, all those walls that separated them from being a part of the people of promise and God’s Covenant has been broken down by Jesus. There weren’t two people of the promise, there was one people. There wasn’t hostility between them, there was peace.
Peace was a not a thing to be worked towards, it was already achieved. It just needed to be claimed. Peace came not in the form of a state of being, or in the form of a military truce, a cessation of hostilities, but in the form of a person-Jesus Christ.
The boundaries of the law were a good thing. They gave definition to Israel’s beliefs and laid out the expectations of God for Israel. Paul tells the Ephesians that the law, the Torah, was a gift, it was a good thing and it was something for which he was grateful.
But what had been given in the spirit of inclusiveness had come to be used for exclusiveness. The law was being used in a way that created division and hostility between God’s people. Jesus came and fulfilled the law and in doing so broke down the dividing wall between the people of God.
I have two experiences, one on a communal level and one on a personal level that I want to share with you because I cannot hear this passage in Ephesians without both of them rushing back to me. One of these experiences saddened me greatly and the other was a moment of great grace and beauty and both of them were very, very difficult. Both have showed me how far we still have to go to claim the peace that Jesus already has given to us.
In 2012 and 2015 I was a General Convention Deputy. During the 2012 Convention in Indianapolis, we debated some really hot, heavy and difficult issues. The authorization of same-sex blessings was at the root of the situation I am about to describe. People approached the microphones and spoke for and against the resolution. The chair did as good a job as possible in having alternate sides speak to the resolution. When the vote came to accept or reject the resolution, it was accepted by a 3-1 margin.
As a result of that vote the deputation of South Carolina left the following day leaving one clerical and one lay deputy on the floor.
During the debate and throughout the time at convention, I personally witnessed deputies from many dioceses going over to speak to the deputation from South Carolina.
The deputation from South Carolina was told how glad people were that they were there, that their voice was important and whereas the other deputations that approached South Carolina in friendship and sincerity might not share the same opinion and theological leanings as South Carolina on this issue, it was important to hear them and be with them.
The deputy I sat next to, a gay woman from my diocese, said to me a few times as we were taking hard votes, votes that we knew were not going to go the way South Carolina wanted, “I really feel for them. This must be so hard for them.” There was real compassion and empathy in Lisa’s voice. She also knew what it was like to be on the losing end of resolutions passed by General Convention, resolutions that would affect her life in the Church she loved.
It was with much pain that a few days later I read a post from a clerical deputy from South Carolina to his parish about what he considered a “patting us on our heads” when people came over to extend the hand of friendship and tell him how glad they were that they were there.
There are times, certainly, when one side or the other projects a sense of smugness-but there was no sense of that at least not that I could tell. There was genuine gladness that South Carolina was there, and there was genuine regret when they made the decision to leave. The convention felt less whole than it would have been had they decided to stay.
The second experience was early in my tenure as rector of St. Matthew’s in St. Louis. About five months after I was called and a mere five weeks after I had been installed, there was tremendous conflict in the vestry. The issue dividing the vestry came up unexpectedly and wasn’t an issue for most of the vestry but was really an issue for three of them. Following a very difficult and very contentious vestry meeting those three left the vestry and two of them left the congregation. It was a very challenging and painful time for all involved.
The one individual who stayed was named Neil. Neil was a very congenial man who looked like Santa Claus. When he loved you, he loved you fiercely, but he also had a hair trigger temper and woe to those who crossed him. His wrath was just as fierce as his love.
The Sunday following the vestry meeting, I didn’t know what to expect. I saw Neil come into the church late and sit in his normal pew. We sang, the lessons were read, and I preached. And then, after the Prayers of the People and the Confession and Absolution came the passing of the peace.
In my years as a priest, I have had people turn their back on me and refuse to extend their hand to me. I have had others extend their hand but not their grace and refuse to make eye contact with me. I did not know what was going to happen.
I walked down the aisle greeting my congregation in the name of Christ and I got to Neil’s pew.
I looked at Neil and he looked at me and we both started to weep and the next thing I knew I was enveloped in a huge bear hug and Neil was saying into my ear through our tears, “It’s going to be Ok. We are going to be Ok. I love you.” My husband will tell you that I am rarely at a loss for words, but that was one moment where I could not speak.
Neil died last year. His daughter came to me and told me he had one request-he wanted me to do his funeral service.
What I believe happens, and happens with all of us, is that rather than claiming the peace of Christ already won for us, we build walls and boundaries and fences, because of our anger and because we believe they are good. We think they give us important information like who is in and who is out and who is right and who is wrong.
An unintended consequence of building those walls is that it prevents us from seeing the hand of friendship that is being extended over it. Building walls and boundaries helps us continue believing the worst about something or someone rather than believing the best about them and starting again from there. Building walls and boundaries allows us to believe that the other’s attempts at reconciliation are suspect and their motives sinister.
Kevin Baker, a United Methodist pastor, has written, “We know we have helped to build walls of hostility. We’ve built many of them not out of bricks and mortar, but out of the raw material of sin and division. Then we’ve cemented them with the mortar of name-calling, labeling and prejudice.”
What Paul is telling the Ephesians and what I believe the message is for us in the 21st century, is that those walls and boundaries are of our own making. It is not that these differing issues are unimportant things, it is that they are not the most important things. The most important thing is Jesus.
Instead of claiming the one people we are, we insist on keeping ourselves separate. Today the divisions and labels are not about belonging to the circumcision or uncircumcision parties but about belonging to the progressive Christian or evangelical parties, the Democratic of Republican parties, the Pro-life or Pro-Choice parties.
But God is a God of reconciliation, not division. And when we insist on keeping ourselves separate, what we often forget is that the one we become most separate from is God. Reconciliation with one another in and through Jesus becomes our route to being reconciled with God.
This reconciliation that we are offered is not just some future hope or current possibility. This reconciliation we are offered is a present reality, if we decide to claim it.
We have proven that we cannot eliminate those boundaries by ourselves. The only way the walls and boundaries can come down is to accept the peace that Christ has already made available to us, and then to decide that we will live every moment of our lives in that radical new reality.