Steve Lindsley

Ephesians 2: 11-22

The family table is set up in the dining room.  Or the kitchen, or maybe the screened-in porch outside.  Wherever it is, meals are consumed there; stories shared, lives made real.  A table where each one gathered around it is held up by everyone else there, through all the good and all the bad that life can dish out.  It is, in its own way, very much a sacred space.

A table is more or less what the apostle Paul is writing about in the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesian church, the one right before what Rebecca just read –  the gathering of the community of faith for mutual love and support.  It is precisely the kind of table we all want to be part of.

And if that’s what the first chapter of Ephesians is about – the gathering of the community of faith around the proverbial table – the second chapter poses a question for us about that table; an important question: what happens to those who don’t already have a place at the table?  Or, to put it another way – how far should the reach of this table be?

And with this question you and I are thrust into what was for the early church an ongoing and consuming debate; one captured most concretely in Ephesians.  It is the debate on how, if at all, and to what degree, Gentiles were welcomed into the life of the church.

So some quick context: in the world of the early church there were Jews and there were 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.  In the life and ministry of Jesus, and in the very early days of the church, only Jews were at the table, due simply to the fact that 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 being the term for anyone not a Jew.  Which is a lot of people.  These Gentiles were drawn to Jesus and the work of the church, just as their Jewish siblings were.  And they wanted a seat at the table.  They wanted to become part of the life and mission of the church.

But could they?  Should they?  It sounds like a simple enough question, but in truth it was more complicated than that.  Because up to that point, it had only been Jews there; and Jews were bound together by all kinds of customs and practices that were unique to the Jewish community.  Jews were circumcised.  Jews followed certain dietary laws.  Jews worshiped a particular way.  Gentiles, on the other hand, were composed of all different kinds of people with all different kinds of customs and practices.  So the presenting issue became: did Gentiles have to become Jewish first before they could follow Jesus?

Now 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 there were others who said that, while the table is indeed for everyone, those who want to have a seat at the table must become Jewish first, because that’s the context in which the table was originally set.

And so we are thrust head-first into this debate in the second chapter of Ephesians.  And while it’s pretty clear that the writer embraces the inclusion of the Gentile community, he also understands there is still plenty of work to do in changing perceptions before this ideal can become reality.  So he reminds his Jewish Christian siblings that at one point they, too, were on the outside looking in.  He implores them to “remember” – remember when they were, as he puts it, “aliens from the commonwealth.”  That Greek word for “aliens” means excluded, separated.  That’s what these Jewish Christians once were themselves.  That’s what they’re being called to remember, painful as it might be.  Not a table, but a wall.

That’s what this second chapter is about.  If the previous chapter is about tables, this one is about walls.

Now there are all kinds of walls among us.  There are actual walls, fences, borders – physical structures with a design and a purpose.  Sometimes these walls are meant to keep someone or something in.  A little over ten years ago, one of the first things our family did when we moved here was to have a split rail fence with wire mesh installed all the way around our backyard, for the sole purpose of keeping our beloved pets from wandering off.  Currently our fence keeps Sunny and Tam 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 it that say “Keep Out.”

Some walls are built in the hopes of keeping the peace.  It was the poet Robert Frost who once quipped that “good fences make good neighbors.”[1]  Every child who has ever shared a room – and every parent of those children – knows 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, embedded in the culture.  But other times – perhaps more often than not – we make our own walls.

In the book The Wall: A Parable, one of those children’s books that isn’t just a children’s book, author Gloria Jay Evans tells the story of how these kinds of walls come into being.  Listen.  She writes:

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.  But some people didn’t notice.  They just stepped right over it.  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 it, 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 stone-ness.  And for the first time, I felt what it was like to be truly alone.[2]

That’s the thing about walls, isn’t it?  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’re always going to feel alone.  Along with the fact that, while walls are easy enough to build, they are a whole lot harder to tear down.

We are living in an era of walls, beloved.  We know this because it is impossible to turn on the news or check our notifications and not see story after story, tale after tale of walls, barriers, lines drawn in the sand.   Walls made of stone, steel, wire.  Walls made of barriers on college campuses with Israeli-Palestinian protests. Walls made of police tape stretched across a scene of terrible violence in our very own city this past week.

And as significant as those physical walls can be, the stronger walls are the ones made out of words, actions, even inaction.  Walls designed to keep some in and keep others out.  Walls that create not just separation but distance.  That word “alien” in our passage not only speaks to separation and exclusion but distance – being far off, being away from.  It’s almost as if the walls not only grow in height but in width.  So we’re not just separated from each other.  We’re growing further and further apart.

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

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Mr. Rogers movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the wonderful documentary about the life of this Presbyterian minister (yes, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister).  One of the neat things about the movie is how it reveals all the ways that Fred handled some of the tumultuous events happening in the larger culture during the 60’s and 70’s’, the kinds of things that most kids’ shows steered clear from.

Case in point: it was 1969 and racial tensions were running 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 people of color, 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.  In one horrific incident caught on film, a hotel manager dumped gallons of muriatic acid in a pool as people of color were swimming in it.

Into this walled and distanced mess, Fred Rogers brought on his kids TV 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 police officer.

And in Episode 1065, which aired only a few months after Clemmons’ arrival, Rogers forewent his comfy living room for a kiddie pool in the front yard on a hot summer day.  And so there he is, soaking his feet in the pool, cooling off, when Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit.  They engage in small chit chat, and then Mr. Rogers nonchalantly invites Officer Clemmons to share the pool with him. Clemmons sits down in a chair next to Rogers, takes off his socks and shoes, rolls up his pant legs, and places his very brown feet right beside Rogers’ very white feet.  Side by side in the same water.  The camera holds that shot for several seconds.[3]

Noted author Brene Brown once said: people are hard to hate up close.  So move closer.  Move closer.

Move closer to the ones you don’t understand.  Move closer to the ones who’ve disappointed you.

Move closer when the pain hurts most.

Move closer because that is where we start to recognize that the walls are not as great as we once thought they were.

Move closer because only then can we really see who’s on the other side.

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

Move closer because we are always stronger when we are together.

That is how we begin to break down the walls: we move closer.  Because the only construction project Jesus is interested in is building up the body of Christ – 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 twice as big as any of the others, placed strategically at the corner of a structure, so it brought and held 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], visited on 7.16.2018.