No Longer Strangers – Move Closer

Steve Lindsley
(Ephesians 2: 11-22)

Last week, as we kicked off this “No Longer Strangers” sermon series, you may recall that we talked about a table.  A family table, where “there’s room for everyone,” where we’re “held up through the best of times and when times get tough.”  A table where all are sisters and brothers in Christ; where we view each other and treat each other and live among each other as adopted siblings.  Not just fellow church members, but siblings – and all the joy and struggle that involves.

So if the first chapter of Ephesians is more or less about a table, as we look to the second chapter today we find ourselves facing a question, and a very important one at that.  And that question is, what happens if people cannot get to the table?

And with this question you and I are brought into what for the early church was an ongoing dispute of sorts; one that is captured in Ephesians as well as other letters of the New Testament.  It is the dispute about how, if at all, and to what degree, Gentiles were welcomed into the life of the church.

So a quick recap: in the world of the early church there were Jews and Gentiles.  Jews were, metaphorically speaking, the first to the table, as Jesus himself was a Jew and the church sprung out of the context of Judaism and the Hebrew faith.  In the life and ministry of Jesus, and in the very early days of the church, it was predominately Jews at the table, since that’s about as far as the geographical reach of the table went.

But it wasn’t too long before word of Jesus began spreading outside Jewish circles to the Gentile community – Gentiles, of course, being the term for anyone not a Jew.  That’s a lot of people.  These Gentiles were drawn to Jesus and the work of the church, just as their Jewish sisters and brothers were.  And they, too, wanted a seat at the table.  They wanted to become part of the life and mission of the church.

But could they?  It’s not a simple question.  Up to that point, it had only been Jews there.  And Jews were bound together by all kinds of Jewish customs.  Jews were circumcised.  Jews followed dietary laws and customs.  Jews worshipped a certain way.  Gentiles, by and large, did none of those things.  So did Gentiles have to become Jewish first before they could follow Jesus?  That was the fundamental question.

There were some, like the apostle Paul, who said no.  Gentiles do not have to become Jewish first because Jesus intended all along that the church be for everyone, no prerequisite required.  But others said that, while the table is indeed for everyone, those who want to have a seat there must become Jewish first, because that’s the context in which the table was first built.

Our second chapter of Ephesians speaks directly to this divide.  It’s obvious that the writer is speaking to those on the Gentile side of things, and it’s also obvious that this particular community of faith has followed the likes of Paul and others, for he speaks of the divide in past tense.  But from the very first verse he implores them to “remember” – remember when they were “aliens from the commonwealth,” as he puts it.  That Greek word for “aliens” means excluded, separated.  That’s what they once were.  That’s what they’re being called to remember.

But what is it exactly they are called to remember?  What is this second chapter trying to get at?

Walls.

That’s what this week’s scripture is about.  Last week was about tables.  This week, it’s about walls.

There are all kinds of walls around us.  There are actual walls, fences, borders – physical structures with a design and purpose.  Sometimes these walls are meant to keep someone or something in.  Five years ago when my family moved to Charlotte, we built a wooden fence around our backyard to keep our beloved pets from wandering off, because we don’t want them getting lost.  Our fence keeps Rocky, Lady and Sunny in.  Other kinds of walls are designed to keep someone or something out.  The ten-foot high chain link fence that surrounds a power transformer station serves that very purpose, because of the dangers that lurk within; its intent underscored by the large black and white signs hung around them that say “Keep Out.”

Some walls are built in the hopes of keeping the peace.  It was the great poet Robert Frost who coined the phrase, “good fences make good neighbors.”[1]  Every child who has ever shared a room – and every parent of those children – know the necessity of the figurative or literal line across the middle of the room to clearly define which side belongs to whom. 

Sometimes we find these walls, these fences, these dividing lines already made for us, already part of the scenery, part of the culture.  And we have to decide if we’re going to continue living with them there or do something about them.   But other times – more times than not, I would ay – we make our own walls.  In the children’s book that isn’t just a children’s book called The Wall: A Parable, author Gloria Jay Evans tells the story of how these kind of walls are made.  Listen:

I don’t know when I first began to build the wall.  And I don’t know exactly why I started to build it.  I’d been hurt before in friendships; I trusted people and got burned.  I just didn’t want to put up with it anymore.  And so one day I started to build the wall.

At first the wall was only knee-high.  I thought it looked rather nice.  The wall was small at first and some people didn’t notice.  Or they just stepped over it and came to me anyway.  I didn’t like it when they did that – didn’t they know what a wall was for?  So I built the wall higher.

As I continued to build, I felt good about what I was doing.  I even painted designs on my stones and put in smoke-glass windows – windows that distorted the light so no one could see in or out.

And you know, way back when I first started the wall, I had a lot of people asking questions about it.  But as time passed, less and less people came by.  And even when they did, I could barely see the tops of their heads.  They weren’t interested in me anymore.  I didn’t need them anyway.

Listen to what happens next: 

Then one day I realized the wall was so high that I no longer saw anyone.  I didn’t even hear anyone – everything was so quiet.  This went on for days, and I stopped building the wall.  I yelled out, “Is anyone there? 

There was no answer.  It was dark inside the wall.  I’d never noticed until now how dark it was.  And now the stones I so carefully placed just stared back at me with their cold darkness.  And for the first time, I felt what it was like to be truly alone.[2]

That’s the thing about walls.  It doesn’t really matter if you or someone else builds it; it doesn’t matter which side of it you’re on.  In the end, you always feel alone.  And the thing with walls is that they’re relatively easy to build.  They’re a whole lot harder to take down.

We are living in an era of walls, my friends.  We know this because it is impossible to turn on the news or surf the web and not see story after story, tale after tale of walls, barriers, lines in the sand.  Walls made of stone, made of words, physical and rhetorical.  Walls designed to keep some in, keep others out.  Walls supposedly to keep the peace, but honestly, when all you wind up feeling is alone, there is no peace there. 

Walls that create not just separation but distance.  That word “alien” in our Ephesians passage, it not only speaks to separation and exclusion but also to distance – being far off.  It’s almost as if the wall not only grows in height but in width.  So it’s not just that we’re separated from each other.  We’re growing further and further apart.  

And our calling as followers of Jesus is not just to break down those walls, but bring those on either side of them closer together.

I don’t know if you’ve seen yet the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, otherwise known as the Mr. Rogers movie, the wonderful documentary of the life of Fred Rogers and his long-running television show.  Rarely a day of my childhood went by without a visit to Mr. Rogers neighborhood, wondering why this guy wanted to change his shoes and why he had so many cardigan sweaters.  Rarely a day went by without King Friday the 13th, Mr. McFeely, Anna Platypus, Henrietta Pussycat making an appearance.

As a kid I don’t know that I was aware how radical this show was; how radical this sweater-donned Presbyterian minister was (yes, a Presbyterian minister – he was one of our own!)  One of the really neat things about the documentary is how it reveals all the ways that Fred handled some of the tumultuous events in the larger culture, the Vietnam and civil rights 60’s and 70’s – the kinds of things most kids’ shows steered clear from, Fred chose to go head-first into.  Walls that Fred chose to knock down; distances he chose to make closer.

It was 1969 and racial tensions of the 20th century were high.  And like public fountains, public transportation, and public schools, the public pool had become a battleground of racial segregation. Under Jim Crow era policy, not only could blacks and whites not swim at the same time, many pools were entirely off limits to blacks, fueled by a fear that African-Americans and their dark skin would somehow “dirty” the water.  Like the lunch counter and public buses, beaches and swimming pools became a location for protest, with both black and white protestors staging wade-ins and swim-ins.  In one horrific incident, caught on film, a hotel manager dumped gallons of muriatic acid in a pool as people of color were swimming. 

Into this walled and distanced mess, Fred Rogers brought on his show black opera singer Francois Clemmons, who played the role of Officer Clemmons.  It was not by chance that Mr. Rogers cast a person of color as your friendly neighborhood officer.  And in Episode 1065, which aired only a few months after Clemmons’ arrival, Rogers foregoes his iconic cardigan introduction and instead talks about how hot a day it it and how nice it’d be to put his feet in a pool of cool water. So he moves to his front yard where he fills a small plastic pool with water and begins to soak his bare feet. Soon Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit and Mr. Rogers invites him to share the pool with him. Clemmons takes off his socks and shoes, rolls up his pant legs, and places his very brown feet beside Rogers’ very white feet in the same water.  The camera holds the shot for several seconds.[3]

Walls, broken down.  Distance, made closer.

Noted author Brene Brown, in her most recent book, has this wonderful quote; one that’s been resonating in my brain since I happened upon it a few weeks ago: people are hard to hate up close, she says.  So move closer.

People are hard to hate up close.  Move closer.

And it’s hard, right? It is so hard!   It is the exact opposite of what nearly everything in our being tells us to do.  When people say hurtful things, or things we don’t agree with; when people frustrate or disappoint us; when fears take hold and we don’t understand, everything in us says, move back.  Make the distance greater.  Throw another brick on the wall.

And the thing is, that is exactly when you and I need to step in and move closer.   Going against everything society tells us, going against every fiber of our being, we make ourselves move closer.

Move closer to the one we don’t understand.

Move closer to the one who’s disappointed us.

Move closer when we are living in fear.

Move closer when the pain hurts the worst. 

Move closer because that is when we start seeing that the walls are not as great as we thought they were.

Move closer because only then can we see, really see, the other in a way we’d never seen them before.

Move closer because in the end, we have more in common than we first thought.

Move closer because we are stronger when we are together.

That is how we begin to break down the walls: we move closer.  In those situations where we are compelled to move away, where we create distance, the gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the second chapter of Ephesians tells us to do the exact opposite, and to move closer.

Because the only construction project Jesus is really all that interested in is not walls, but the building up of the community of faith – a community with Jesus himself, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, as the “cornerstone.”  Did you know, people of God, that in the ancient world the cornerstone was a stone of double size, placed strategically at the corner of a structure, so it brought the two sides together?

Move closer, people of God.  For Jesus, our cornerstone, is already there, ready and willing to make the two one.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Vol. 3, pg. 256.
[2] The Wall: A Parable by Gloria Jan Evans (Xulon Press).
[3] https://christandpopculture.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-mister-rogers/, visited on 7.16.2018.