Monday, June 19, 2017

June 18, 2017 The Gift of Leadership



To let you know where we will be going in the coming weeks, I will begin a four-message series next Sunday titled Music of the Heart.  Each message will be based on a song that carries a spiritual truth.  They are not what we would normally refer to as sacred music, and that is intentional.  They are pop songs that are favorites of mine, and one of the reasons why I chose to use pop songs is because I believe that we sometimes create too much of a division between the sacred and the secular.  I believe all of God’s creation is sacred, regardless of whether or not we see a particular part of that creation as sacred or not.  Music, in particular, is sacred because of the way it can move us and touch our hearts.  Few things in life carry the power of music, and I believe that is part of God’s intent for music.  The songs I will use are – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, by The Hollies.  The spiritual theme is that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.  You’re My Best Friend, by Queen, and the theme of friendship, from the story of David and Jonathan.  One, by U2, and the theme of unity, as spoken to by Jesus at the Last Supper.  The Long and Winding Road, by the Beatles, and the them of the wandering path that our lives sometimes takes, but the way in which God leads us along that path.

Upon the conclusion of that series we will move into a series of messages titled The Great Commands, in which we will study some of the great commands of Scripture, such as Micah 6:8 – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  From there, it will be a series about ministering to others in various situations.

Today we ordain Diane Bland and Julie Mulcahy as elders, so I will use the occasion to speak about the importance of leadership, with a message titled The Gift of Leadership.
Our text for the morning is John 13:1-9, a familiar passage where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples –

1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

There are so many things we can say about leadership and the qualities of a leader –

A leader should model humility.  Leadership can produce inflated egos – or feed egos already inflated – and that is when problems can become apparent, especially in churches.  There have been too many tragic examples of church leaders who have struggled, and at the root of their problems is often a lack of humility.
A leader should lead by example.
A leader must be committed.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for those who are unwilling to make a commitment to what leadership asks.
A leader cannot be easily encouraged.  There have been numerous times over the years when I wanted to quit.  On some occasions I prayed and asked God to give me something else to do, but when things are difficult, that is the time to become recommitted.
A leader must be willing to make sacrifices.  Time is certainly one of the areas of sacrifice, as being in a position of leadership requires a lot of time.
A leader must have thick skin.  Criticism often comes with being a leader, and none of us enjoy criticism, but we must learn how to deal with it and not become discouraged by it.
A leader must have a strong prayer life.  There are times when being a leader is very lonely, and a leader must have a place to turn in order to find support and strength, and prayer will certainly provide this.
There are many more qualities that can be mentioned, but I will focus on four this morning –

1.  Leadership Is A Gift.

Leadership is important in every area of life, be it business, political, or spiritual.  Leadership, however, is a somewhat elusive and rare gift.  While there are many positions of leadership, not every position is filled by someone who possesses the gift of leadership.  And make no mistake about it – leadership is a gift.

When I say that leadership is a gift, I mean that in the expected sense, as a spiritual gift possessed by the person who is gifted to be a leader.  But there is another way in which leadership is a gift, and that is what I want us to think about this morning.  Leadership just a gift in the sense of being a talent or an ability, as we might say that someone has a talent for music, or art, or athletics; leadership is also a gift to the people the leader serves.

One of the ways in which leadership is a gift to people is through the providing of a vision and focus.  When I was on vacation last week we were visiting a beach one day.  I was sitting on the beach, reading a book, and became aware of music coming from all directions.  Many people on the beach had radios and music devices with them and there was a lot of music.  I would find my ear drifting toward a song, then another song, and another song, making it hard not only to concentrate on my book, but even to listen to just one of the songs.  I thought about how that was analogous to what a leader often faces.  There are so many things that come our way in terms of opportunities – good and worthy opportunities – but there it is not possible to take up every opportunity.  At times, the many opportunities can be like trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant.  Imagine turning on a fire hydrant and then trying to take a drink out of the rushing water – it would be very difficult!  Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do is to say that is a very good opportunity, but we simply cannot take it on at this time.  We are involved in so many good and worthy endeavors already that we cannot stretch our resources that thin.  This is an important part of providing vision.  We are all familiar with Proverbs 29:18, which tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish.  Vision provides focus, and focus allows individuals and congregations, to better use their gifts and abilities.

2.  Leadership Seeks the Person; the Person Does Not Seek Leadership.

In terms of spiritual leadership, I believe a true leader never seeks a position of leadership, but the position seeks the person.  Leadership finds the person.

I was given some very good advice years ago, when a trusted member of a church told me how to find the true leaders in a congregation.  Don’t look at the list of leaders they told me; instead, find out who it is that people listen to when they speak. The people who have the ear of the congregation are the true leaders, regardless of what might be listed on a piece of paper.  I have found that advice to be very accurate.  In the churches I have served, I have watched and observed in order to discover those leaders.

People search out leadership opportunities in business.  People search out leadership opportunities in politics.  In spiritual endeavors, however, we do not seek out leadership, but allow leadership to seek us.  It is not appropriate, in my opinion, for a person to seek a position of spiritual leadership because that is not the way that spiritual leadership operates.  We recognize spiritual leadership and then follow that leadership; we do not award spiritual leadership to a person simply because they are seeking it.

People are often surprised when asked to serve in positions of leadership, which is exactly how it should be.  Peter was not looking to be an apostle.  He was just some guy trying to make a living as a fisherman.  The same was true of James, John, and Andrew.  Matthew was counting his money in his tax office or whatever else he did in his office.  And Paul!  What was Paul doing?  He was out to persecute followers of Jesus!  Not only was he not looking to be an apostle, he was out to rid the world of followers of Jesus!

3. Leadership Relies Upon Power, But It Is the Power of Servanthood.

Power is, obviously, a major part of much of the leadership in our world. 
     
Our Scripture text is one of the best examples of what we call servant leadership.  Servant leadership is not the same as the kind of leadership we find in politics and business.  Servant leadership is found in positions of spiritual leadership, and as it is based in spirituality it functions according to different principles than other forms of leadership.  Servant leadership, for example, does not view power in the same way as political leadership.  Political leadership operates on power – the kind of power that operates by a majority of votes and, when necessary, coercion.  Spiritual leadership also operates on power, but a different type of power – never coercive, but the power of example.  When Jesus knelt and washed the feet of the disciples he was demonstrating, by example, how they were to live and how they were to treat one another.  It was the power of Jesus’ example – as a servant – that taught the disciples about how they were to lead others.  If, for instance, a leader wants people to be compassionate, the leader must be compassionate.  If the leader wants people to be kind, the leader must be kind.  If the leader wants people to be generous, the leader must be generous.  A good example for us this morning is Laine’s leadership with Vacation Bible School.  Look around the sanctuary at all the decorations, and throughout the building.  Laine does not ask people to come and do the work while she stays at home; she is hearing providing the example of leadership, investing many hours of work.

This is the type of leadership that is in short supply these days, unfortunately.

Jesus often gave examples of servant leadership when he made statements such as, Matthew 20:16, the last will be first, and the first will be last and Mark 8:35, whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  He certainly demonstrated servant leadership when he washed the feet of the disciples.  When Peter protested that Jesus should not be washing feet, it was probably because Peter was struggling to accept the role of being a servant in his own life.  It is not easy to be a servant.  It is, oftentimes, easier to adopt the types of leadership that exalt us to positions of privilege and security, but servant leadership is what we are called to, as modeled by Jesus.

4.  Leadership Is Hard.

Leadership has always been hard, but in the hyper-partisan, divided times in which we live, it’s become even harder.

When I was an associate minister, back in the 80s, there were many times when I observed the decisions and difficulties placed upon our minister.  On many occasions I thought to myself, I am so glad I do not have to deal with that.  Upon leaving that position, and entering senior minister positions, I learned what it was like to be in a position where I am faced with difficult decisions and difficult circumstances that I cannot avoid.  Personally, I have often found leadership to be a heavy mantle to carry.  Going into ministry, I did not think of myself as a leader, although ministers are required to function as a leader, whether or not they envision themselves in that role.  I think of myself more as a pastor than as a leader.  Understanding that a pastor is also a leader, I believe my natural gifts and tendencies gravitate toward encouragement, caring, and comforting, so stepping into the role of leadership is not what comes natural to me.

Don’t be surprised that leadership is difficult.  Don’t be discouraged.  Don’t take it personally.  Don’t blame yourself when things are difficult.  It’s not your fault that leadership is difficult; it’s just reality.  Do you think Peter found it easy?  Do you think Paul found it easy?  Do you think Moses found it easy?  They did not.  Exodus 17:8-13 contains a story about one of the difficulties Moses faced as a leader –

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.
Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill.
11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.
12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

I like the image of Aaron and Hur holding up the hands of Moses when he became tired.  As leaders, we depend upon the support, care, and prayers of others.  Take the time to encourage leaders and assure them of your prayers.

Last month, on the 23rd, I came to the 38th anniversary of my ordination.  I remember that service very well, and in particular I remember the laying on of hands portion of the service.  I remember the weight of those hands upon me, and when I looked at my ordination certificate the other day, I realized that of the twelve people who signed it, only two are still alive.  The others have joined what Hebrews 12:1 describes as that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.  Even though most of the individuals who took part in my ordination are now gone, they continue to mold and shape my life in important ways.  And when I think of the weight of their hands upon me, all those years ago, I think about the ways in which they continue to lift me up and to encourage me, and that in a spiritual sense, their hands are still upon me.


Leaders are never alone.  Never.  However difficult it gets, leaders are never alone.  I am grateful to God for that knowledge, and I am grateful for The Gift of Leadership.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

June 4, 2017 Life Lessons On Faith: Learning the Hard Way



This morning we conclude the series of messages on the theme Life Lessons On Faith.  Two weeks from today we ordain two new elders and the message will center on the idea of calling.  I will begin a new series, on June 25th, tentatively called Music of the Heart.  In that series I will offer four messages that are based on songs. 

I’ve been thinking about that series for a long time.  I spend a good deal of time in my car, driving to meetings, hospitals, and other places, and as I do I listen to a lot of music on the radio.  I’ve long been interested in the amount of spiritual affirmation and longing that is presented in so many songs, of almost every genre.  Being the one who is writing the messages, I will take the liberty of selecting songs that are not only favorites of mine, but ones that I believe present important spiritual messages.
From there we will go to a series titled The Great Commands, such as Micah 6:8 – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

As we complete our present series, we turn to the book of James, one of the most straightforwardly practical books in the Bible. It is so practical, and so straightforward, that it can be downright painful at times.  James uses plain, every day, blunt, language to make his points.  While other writers – most notably Paul – sometimes overwhelm us with deeply theological writing and concepts, James is down to earth and plainspoken.  His brief, to the point letter, is one to which I often turn, in my own study and often in my preaching, as James is always worth taking the time to study.

The title of today’s message is Learning the Hard Way.  I don’t know about you, but much of what I have learned in life has had to come to me by “the hard way.”  Sometimes, unfortunately, I am a slow learner.  Sometimes, I’m kind of oblivious to certain lessons and truths and need something to get my attention, a process that can be quite painful and difficult in its attention-getting.

And perhaps nowhere is that more true that in the things that we say, or, don’t say.

Listen as I read our text for today, from James 3:3-13 –

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 
10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 
12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?  Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

I want to say four things briefly this morning – sometimes we say what we shouldn’t and sometimes we fail to say what we should say.  Sometimes we do what we shouldn’t, and sometimes we fail to do what we should do.

I will say first of all, that every one of us is guilty on these four points.  There might be variations of guilt, but we are all guilty, so that should, first of all, remind us to not be judgmental about others when they fail on this points.

1.  Sometimes we say what we shouldn’t.

When I was in college, I was often looking for the easy route, academically speaking.  All students were required to take six hours of Humanities for the first two years, and I registered for a specific professor because he had no attendance requirements in his class.  Several of my friends registered with professors who had very rigorous attendance requirements I had a grand old time not going to class while my friends were working hard in their Humanities classes.  I reminded them often of how foolish they were to miss out on my wise decision to take advantage of a no attendance policy.  And then came the first exam (although we had different professors, we all took the same exams).  Suddenly, I realized I had no notes or any other helps to prepare me for the exam.  I asked my friends if I could use their notes and if they could help me to catch up on what I missed.  Understandably, I did not get much sympathy, or help.  And guess who’s fault it was when I did badly on the exam?  Surely not me – it was the professor’s fault!  After the exam, on which I did very poorly, I was very loudly telling my roommate about the professor and what a disservice he did to our class.  We were standing just outside a partially opened door and I was offering a blistering critique of the professor.  I did not know that he was standing on the other side of the door, and he obviously heard every word I said.  When he walked through the door, and right past me, he gave me a look that I will never forget.  I wish I could say I learned my lesson after that moment, but I didn’t.  It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn!

James uses such strong language in this passage – bit, rudder, spark, out of control, raging fire.  We all say things we shouldn’t, and then we are left with days, months, years, lifetimes of regret.  James is telling us this for good reason, and it makes me wonder, did James have to learn this lesson the hard way?  Had James said some things he wished he could take back?  Or, perhaps, he was thinking of some others in mind when he wrote those words.  Perhaps he was thinking of Peter, and his denials.
There is an old fable about a young man who seeks out the wisdom of a much older, and wiser, man.  The young man, it seems, had said some harsh words; words he wished he could take back, as they were very hurtful.  He asked the older man what he could to.  The old man replied, take a feather pillow and go outside on a windy day.  Cut the pillow open and scatter the feathers to the wind.  Let the wind blow the feathers far and wide.  When the wind stops, go and gather up all of the feathers.  The young man protested, but that’s impossible!  There is no way to gather up all those feathers once they have scattered on the wind.  The old man had made his point, but the young man had not yet caught on, so the old man said, it’s the same way with our words.  Once they are spoken it is impossible to gather them up again.  I wish I could tell you that you could recapture your words, but you cannot.  Better to never speak them than to try and recapture them.

There is no one among us who has not wished – multiple times – that we had not held our tongue.  Who among us has not felt the sting of regret for saying something we should not have said?  Too often words come across our minds and out our mouths.  Let them sit awhile.  Let those words linger in our minds before they are spoken.

2.  Sometimes we fail to say what we should say.

While it is true that we often think about the things we wish we had not said, how often do we think about the things we have not said, but should have? The tongue, James says, also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  Strong and truthful words, certainly, but let us also remember that the tongue can be a powerful weapon in speaking about issues and matters that need to be addressed. There is, no doubt, times when we must hold our tongues, but there are times when we must use them as well.

The prophets of the Old Testament are powerful examples of this truth, as they often railed against the powers of their day and their unjust and unfair treatment of people.  I admire the Old Testament prophets for several reasons, one being that they had the right word for the right moment.  The prophets were not always railing against the injustices of society.  Sometimes they were very pastoral and very comforting.  But when the moment called for a forceful word, they were ready with it.

Jesus, very often, spoke out forcefully about issues that needed to be addressed.  Jesus did not pull punches in much of what he had to say, as he spoke powerfully and bluntly and that is why he had some enemies.  You don’t call people a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33), as he did the Pharisees, and not get people upset.  You don’t tell people they are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean (Matthew 23:27) and not have pushback.  I’ll be honest and say, when it comes to knowing the right word for the right time, knowing when to speak prophetically and when to speak pastorally, knowing when to speak and when not to speak, I’m certainly not Jesus or one of the prophets.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself that preaching seems easy, let me assure you – it is certainly not.  And one of the most difficult parts of preaching is to know not what to say, but when to say it.  Some people want to hear more about particular issues and some want less.  Some want more preaching about politics, some less.  The refrain we ministers sometimes hear is say this, don’t say that, which can make it more difficult to know not only what to say, but when to say it.

I often struggle with the question of how we, as a congregation can or ought to speak to issues in our community and world.  In my preaching I often wonder how specific to get.  One of the reasons why I agreed to write a column in the Sentinel-News is because you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to hear it.  But the larger question remains – how do we, as very diverse people in our congregation, come to any agreement about the issues to which we should speak?  Is it possible to come to any agreement?  Should we be speaking to particular issues that are taking place in our community and world?

They are important questions to consider, especially in light of the truth that sometimes we do need to speak, and speak very plainly and forcefully.

3.  Sometimes we do what we shouldn’t do.

I did not include other passages from James in our Scripture reading for this morning, but I would encourage you to take a few minutes today or sometime this week and read through his letter.  It doesn’t take very long, but do not mistake his brevity for a lack of punch in what he has to say.
In 2:1-7 James writes this –

1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”
have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

James sounds a lot like an Old Testament prophet there, doesn’t he?  Now that’s some preaching!  James uses very simple, plain, down to earth language to say there are some things we should not do, and one of those is to make distinctions between people.

When I traveled with Tanya several weeks ago to Boston we visited some of the old churches there, such as the Old North Church, where Paul Revere placed the lanterns in the steeple as a warning that the British were marching on the city.  If you have visited some of the oldest churches in our country – especially in the northeast – you have noticed that the pews are often boxed in, and on the outside of the box there are names, signifying who has the privilege of sitting in those boxes.  This was a common practice early in our nation’s history, as a person’s social status could be measured by which box they occupied in church.  Incidentally, those boxes were secured for a price, and the boxes closest to the front were the most expensive.  The seats in the back and the balcony were cheaper, so if you are sitting in the back, you are sitting in what were, years ago, quite literally the cheap seats (not that I’m insinuating anything about those of you on the back rows!). 

I wonder what James would make of such seating arrangements?  Clearly, social status and differences between people are brought into church worship services, where they obviously should not exist.  We too quickly and too easily buy into the social standards of wealth and status as the basis for the value we place upon people.  Rich?  You’re more valuable as a person than someone who is poor.  Have a high social standing?  You’re more valuable as a person than someone who is on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

The distinctions that are too easily made between people – even in church – are one of the reasons why we need the corrective of the Scriptures and worship (even though we sometimes hurt worship by bringing in social distinctions).  We need a corporate reminder that sometimes we do what we shouldn’t do, and worship is the place where we receive this reminder.

4.  Sometimes we fail to do what we should do.

You are probably familiar with the terms sins of omission and commission.  We don’t talk about them much these days, but sins of omission and commission remind us that sometimes we deliberately fail to do what we should do, while at other times we do the wrong thing or fail to do what we should simply as an oversight, without any intended malice.

It is not the sins of commission (the deliberate sins) that worry me as much as the sins of omission (the ones we commit without realizing we have committed them).  Sins of omission reveal the painful truth of our true character, such as the fact that we might make a distinction between people without realizing it because we feel entitled to our privilege.  We might, for instance, look at our society and react negatively to what goes on in some communities because we don’t understand what it’s like to live in those communities.  We can often – and do often – criticize poor communities for what happens there, such as crime, because we don’t understand what it is like to live in those communities.  Poverty does, after all, give birth to crime because of the desperation that comes with living in a poor community.

This is why it is important for us not just to speak out against some things, but why we should speak out for some things.  We shouldn’t simply speak out against crime; we should speak up for solutions that seek to rectify the root causes of that crime.  For churches, this means that we need to be seen and heard.  We can’t just talk about the evils of the world; we need to get out of our buildings and work to help those who are oppressed by the evils of the world and who suffer because of those evils.  We can’t just say we are to love our enemies; we need to go out and love our enemies.

It is not easy to do what is right.  Sometimes we say the wrong thing and sometimes we do the wrong things.  At other times, we don’t say anything and don’t do anything.  All of this is proof, I believe, of why we need to be working together as brothers in sisters in faith, challenging and encouraging one another.  It sure beats Learning the Hard Way.



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 28, 2017 Life Lessons On Faith: Tearing Down Walls



On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan presented a speech in Berlin, West Germany. Speaking near the Brandenburg Gate of the infamous Berlin Wall, President Reagan offered the now-famous line, addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!  As I remember, and admittedly my memory is a bit foggy, I thought the line was more than a little bit of wishful thinking.  That’s never going to happen was my initial reaction.

But we certainly remember when the wall fell, don’t we?  It was an amazing historical moment, especially for those of us who grew up in the era of the Cold War and remember the control the Soviet Union exerted across Eastern Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall created a great sense of hope, a hope that the many divisions among humanity could be healed.  Perhaps, many believed, the fall of that wall was a harbinger of things to come, of a new era in which more bridges would be built and fewer walls erected.  Obviously that hasn’t happened, but we can continue to hope.
     
This morning we continue our series of messages Life Lessons On Faith, and today’s topic is Tearing Down Walls.  In my family, we were taught to treat everyone fairly and equally.  My siblings and I were taught that all people were equal, regardless of race, social or economic status, or any other factor.  That is how we were raised.  That does not mean, however, that I am without prejudices and judgments about others.  We are influenced by many factors, and we can be unaware of the reality that we have attitudes and beliefs that cause us to see some people differently.  When we see people differently, and when we judge them because we see them differently, we help to erect the walls that separate people from one another.

Our text for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, and he is writing about the walls that had been erected between people, specifically the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile.

Ephesians 2:11-22 –

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,
16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

1.  Walls of Separation Are Not the Natural State of Humanity.

One of the reasons why I chose this picture is because it is ugly.  There is a beauty, of course, when a wall of separation such as the Berlin Wall comes down, but it’s an ugly wall.  It was a blight on the landscape.  It was a blight upon God’s beautiful creation.

God did not create humanity with a sense of division.  There is a great deal of diversity, obviously, which is a sign that God loves diversity and variety, but the intent of God was not that those differences would build walls.  Can you imagine only one kind of bird in the world?  Can you imagine only one kind of flower?  One kind of tree?  One season (although I could go with summer all the time)?  One kind of music?  If you’ve heard the band in which I play, Hush Harbor, you know what kind of music I like – loud rock music.  Sorry.  I just do.  I don’t like opera, even though I tried it once.  When I was in seminary, one of my roommates was in a production of La Boheme.  At his invitation I attended one of the performances.  I made it until intermission before giving up and going home.  I don’t like bluegrass, I don’t like traditional country, and I don’t like much classical.  There’s nothing wrong with those other styles of music; I’m just not a fan.  And I know some of you are not fans of what I like, and that’s okay. 

Unfortunately, even simple difference as taste in music (or, in Kentucky, our choice of UofL or UK) can help to create walls between people.  In the time of Paul there was a wide gulf between Jew and Gentile.  It was a chasm so wide and so deep, that it seemed the very definition of impossible to bridge.  The majority of members of the early church were unfamiliar with Gentile people, who were anyone not Jewish.  Those who opposed the inclusion of Gentiles into the church had what they believed to be good reasons – they aren’t like us, they don’t talk like us, they don’t eat like us, they don’t observe any of the rituals and commands we observe.  They found their language, culture, wardrobe, diet, and many other things about them strange and unsettling.  Because of those differences they weren’t sure about the Gentiles, especially as they began to pour into the church in large numbers.  There was a great deal of resistance to those Gentiles.  There were things said, probably along the lines of this – they don’t worship the way we do.  They like a different style of music.  Look at how some of them dress – is that appropriate for worship?  They think kind of strange.  They are trying to change the way we’ve always done things.  Sound familiar?  Everything old is new again, goes the old saying.

Walls of separation are ugly, and they are especially ugly when they receive the approval of religious people against the will of God and when those walls are built in churches and places of faith, where walls should be dismantled rather than constructed.

Throughout much of the early history of God’s people it was incorrectly assumed that the call to be different meant to build a wall of protection to keep one’s self safe and separate from those on the outside of the wall and to make sure that they do not manage to get inside that wall.

Even the Temple, the holiest site in all of Judaism, served as a reminder of the division between people.  Not everyone was allowed in all parts of the Temple.  In 1871 a rock was discovered in Jerusalem, dating to the time of Paul, that was originally a sign in the Temple.  The inscription reads, Let no foreigner enter inside the barrier and the fence around the sanctuary.  Whosoever is caught will be the cause of death following as a penalty.  Not exactly a word of welcome for a place of worship!  Imagine printing that on a church bulletin!

Listen to what Paul writes in verse 14 – For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.  Isn’t that a beautiful sentence?  Christ has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.  In this day and age of talk about walls – real and imagined, physical and spiritual – Paul reminds us that we are not to be builders of walls.  Walls are not the natural state of humanity.  Walls are not the way of God or part of his creation.

2.  Walls Are Very Difficult to Dismantle.

One of the other reasons why I chose this picture is because it shows how difficult it can be to dismantle a wall.  How many of you have ever hit concrete with a sledgehammer?  I have, and I can guarantee you that not much happens, especially when the concrete is full of rebar, like the wall in this picture, which is the Berlin Wall. 

When I was a senior in college I was called to my first “official” church position.  I was called to serve as the Youth Minister at Bethel Christian Church, a small Disciples church in Jonesboro, Tennessee.  I served there for thirteen months, and it was a great experience for me, although in all honesty I have to say that it was probably a better experience for me than it was for the church, as I had very little idea what I was doing.

Bethel Christian Church is an African-American congregation, and in the late 70s, in northeast Tennessee, race relations were not always positive.  On more than one occasion, when I would be out with the youth group, some harsh things would be said by passersby.  One trip, to a local skating rink, was an experience I will never forget.  I was going around the rink with one of the kids from the group – one of the young ladies – and after a few times around I noticed a group of young men lining up along a low wall, obviously watching us very closely.  When we came off the rink, and skated between them, some very harsh language was directed to us, and I wondered – and half-expected – to be tripped or knocked down by one of them.  Thankfully, progress has been made since that time, but we still have a ways to go.

As important as it is to talk about tearing down walls, we cannot forget that it is very hard work.  And notice there is only one person in this picture actually tearing down the wall; the rest are spectators. Now granted, they might have been taking turns, but the reality is there are generally more observers than actual tearers-down of walls.  Plenty of people will be happy to watch from the safety of the sidelines but will not join in the effort until it seems very safe.

Dismantling a wall is hard work, and it comes down bit by bit, and, unfortunately, there is always the chance that while one wall is coming down, another is being built.  Sometimes it’s one step forward and two or three backwards. 

Dismantling walls, after all, can be dangerous.  Dismantling walls was dangerous for Paul.  He not only faced the disapproval of others; he faced other challenges as well.  He faced a great deal of pushback, some of which was violent.  It’s very difficult to be the guy taking the sledgehammer – real or symbolic – to the walls that need to be dismantled.  Listen to what Paul says in verse 13 –But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  Brought near by the blood of Christ.  Did you catch that phrase – brought near by the blood of Christ.  Blood reminds us of the difficulty and the cost of dismantling a wall.  Dismantling walls is costly.  Walls are not easily removed.  They were built to serve a purpose, a purpose in which many people have a vested interest.

3.  Paul Was A Champion of Dismantling Walls and Welcoming People.

Listen again to verses 14 – 19 –
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,
16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.

There are some beautiful phrases in that passage – who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace…and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.

Paul always championed the cause of inclusion.  Paul, who saw himself as an ambassador of Christ to his own people, eventually moved to the mission of reaching the Gentile people with the Gospel message.  His desire to reach the Gentiles put him squarely into conflict with those who opposed his work.  Everywhere Paul traveled, he ran into representatives of the opposition.  On more than one occasion, Paul’s opponents stirred up crowds against him, often leading to physical violence against him and even arrest.  But Paul was never deterred, because he knew he was doing the work of God.

When my mother-in-law lived on Tybee Island, Georgia, my family and I would often visit two sites.  On the northern end of the island we would visit the military bunkers that dated to the time of the Civil War.  The bunkers now house a museum, and we toured the museum on many occasions.  We also visit Fort Pulaski, located on a small, neighboring island.  Fort Pulaski is now a national park, and began its life as a Civil War fort.  The walls of the fort are very wide – at least 20 feet wide – and we would walk along the top of the walls, looking out from where the cannons once fired.  There was something very pleasing about seeing that fort now as a museum of a bygone era.  No longer was it a place of warfare, bombing, and conflict, but a place where the walls of war had become walls of historical curiosity.  But I also know, as I walked along those walls, that while the fort’s cannons had been retired and the walls no longer were purposed for exclusion, there were plenty of places where walls of separation continue to be built.  The work of dismantling walls is never complete. 

Perhaps walls of division will always be with us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept them or fail to work to bring them down.  We would do well, certainly, to remember the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Those words continue to resonate powerfully in our world, and they are as needed as they ever were.  While we proclaim oneness in Christ, there are those who will continue to proclaim oh no we aren’t!  We are not one!

But we are.  We are one because God created us as one and proclaims his desire that we live in love and unity.  Perhaps one day that great dream of God will come to fruition.  Until then, we will keep on Tearing Down Walls.