When Tanya and I had the opportunity to travel to London last year we greatly enjoyed the ability to travel the subway system, or the tube as they called it. The tube was a great way to travel quickly around the city. What we especially enjoyed was the recorded voice that played constantly when passengers entered or exited the train cars. The voice was recorded in different versions of the English accent but always said the same three words – mind the gap. One of the recent James Bond movies has a chase scene in a tube station and I enjoyed hearing that voice in the background – mind the gap. I got so used to hearing that phrase – mind the gap – that I even bought a T-shirt with the expression.
Mind the gap is a reference to the space between the door of the train and the edge of the train platform. The gap could be as wide as several inches and it was possible, if one was not careful, to allow your foot to slip into that gap and if it did, the results would be incredibly disastrous.
This morning, as we continue our series of messages built upon the theme of Building, we come to a message titled Building Bridges. It is obvious that we live in a time of great division in our society, and the vastness of that divide became glaringly obvious during last year’s election campaign. We are a society where the gaps have grown so wide and so vast that we are coming to a point where it seems that we can neither talk to one another nor understand one another across those divides.
That gap was one of the reasons why, some months ago, I invited Linda Allewalt to write a series of columns with me in the Sentinel-News about belief and unbelief. Linda and I have been acquainted for a number of years, and she is well known for her non-belief views that she has made known through the Sentinel. The columns were published last summer and if you are a reader of my column you probably saw them in the paper. I don’t know if they started many conversations, especially between believers and unbelievers, but I continue to hear from people about them, some of whom are not at all people of faith, so perhaps they accomplished a little bit of their purpose. I hope they helped to bring about a conversation across the very wide gap between belief and unbelief. This morning I say that we must mind the gaps that have grown between us and we must work to build bridges across the divides that have come between us and threaten to tear us further asunder.
Our Scripture text this morning is comprised to two passages. The first one printed in the bulletin this morning is from John 15:9-17, which is part of the long section John shares about the Last Supper. The second passage comes from Acts 15:6-11. I am going to read these in reverse order from which they are printed, and read them separately.
Hear the words from Acts 15:6-11. Follow along as I read –
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.
8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
1. Bridges Take Us to Where We Wouldn’t Naturally Go.
Back in the 80s, when I was living in Anderson County, I was a member of one of the local civic clubs. We met at lunchtime on Thursdays and were typical of most groups in that we all had our preferred places of seating. One week, after installing a new president of the club, we came into the room to find a new arrangement. The new president of the club had decided we should sit in different places and so had placed our nametags in a manner that placed us by people we didn’t know as well and seated us near people we wouldn’t ordinarily sit beside. It seemed like a good idea to me, but some of the clubs members were surprisingly angry. They did not want their seating arrangements disturbed! We are, as the old adage reminds us, birds of a feather who flock together. This is the way we are as human beings; we associate with those who look like us, think like us, believe like us, and talk like us. Associating with those who are like us makes us comfortable.
I have longed believed that much of what affects church life, health, and growth is more sociological rather than theological. Churches are full of people, and it is the natural inclination of people to gravitate to those who are both like-minded and like us, but as people who follow Jesus we must resist the temptation to affiliate only with those who we know, only those who look like us, only those who talk like us, only those who think like us, and only those who believe like us.
This passage from the book of Acts is part of a longer one that tells us about what is known as the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened because of all the Gentiles coming into the early church, which was at that time mostly Jewish. Many members of the early church struggled to understand these new people who were flooding into the church. They talked different, acted different, thought differently; they were different in so many ways that large numbers of the early church were not interested in welcoming them. There were the, two groups in the early church – those who embraced the new people who were different and those who said those new people must conform to those already in the church before they would be accepted. It was an incredibly important moment in the life of the church, and the decision made would have tremendously important ramifications for the future of the church. Thankfully, the prevailing argument was the one that welcomed the Gentiles into the church without placing upon them unreasonable burdens or expectations.
At this point, I think it is important to add a further thought. I have a friend who once described our church to me in this way – Dave, your church is a niche church in our community. He went on to say that he was not intending the word niche to be insulting or judgmental in any way. His use of the word was to indicate that he saw our church as being different from most churches in the community, primarily in the fact that we are not governed by a creed and we are more open and accepting than many other congregations. I think this is true, and it is in great part due to the fact that we are a Disciples church. Disciples churches, historically, are very hesitant to tell people what they must believe. Disciples churches, historically, have understood that, in too many instances, people enshrine their personal opinions as God’s eternal truth and then require that people follow their opinions as though they are God’s eternal truth. It is dangerous when we equate our opinions with God’s truth; they are certainly not one and the same. In Disciples churches we acknowledge Peter’s confession of faith – you are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:16) – as the one creed around which we unite. From there, we respect the right and the responsibility of each person to come to their own conclusions about what the Bible means. This is not for everyone, obviously. Sometimes people, inquiring about our church, will ask me, what does your church believe? Well, I respond, it depends on who you ask. Well, they continue, are you conservative, moderate, or liberal, to which I answer, yes. We are a very diverse collection of people, some of whom are conservative, while others are moderate or liberal. In a recent phone call, I was asked, what are your church’s doctrinal positions; I looked on your web site and couldn’t find any listed. I told the caller that we don’t have doctrinal positions. Explaining that we don’t have creeds and that we encourage people to interpret the Bible for themselves, I could tell that we were not what the caller was seeking in a church. I could tell that the caller believed we should have statements about doctrines and even political matters. If that is what someone is looking for in a church, they will not find it here. In fact, I find it troubling that churches are increasingly reflecting the birds of a feather flocking together dynamic found in our society. It is possible now to find your own particular slice of the church pie that almost perfectly suits your individual taste. You can find liturgical churches, traditional churches, contemporary churches, biker churches, and cowboy churches; you can find traditional and modern architecture, storefronts or home churches; you can find churches that adhere to particular political ideologies; and churches of any other descriptive term that you so desire. But shouldn’t the church be reflective of the diversity of God’s wonderful and beautiful creation? It is distressing, I believe, that we have arrived at the point of such little diversity and variety within individual congregations.
To return to the analogy of a bridge this morning, we know that for most of history a river has created a natural divide. Rivers have almost always become the borders to mark the territory of different – and sometimes warring – groups. We see the people on the other side of the border as being somehow different from us. Most of you know that I play in a band. All the other members of our band, as well as our sound person and our merchandise person, live in Indiana. As the only Kentuckian in the band, I get to drive to Indiana every week for rehearsal. For the two-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the band I have enjoyed the gift of dealing with the bridge construction traffic in downtown Louisville. But I like to think positively, so I remind the band that I would be greatly impoverished if I didn’t get to drive across the river and visit to Indiana each week. If I didn’t come to Indiana, I tell them, I would not realize how fortunate I am to live in Kentucky!
Obviously, bridges take a great deal of time, effort, and expense. The same is true of the bridges we are called to build within humanity. It’s tough work to build bridges between people. It is work that often progresses slowly, if it progresses at all. And, building bridges to others can be costly, because some people will not stay with us when we build bridges to groups or individuals of whom they do not approve. But we must resist the temptation to remain in our bubbles, living in safe subcultures where we are no required to interact with those who are different and with those who make us uncomfortable.
The second passage I will read this morning is from John 15:9-17. Follow along as I read –
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.
2. God Has Called Us to Build Bridges out of Love.
I was changing a sign in front of a church years ago, and I don’t remember the exact message I was putting on the sign but it was something about love. A guy walked by on the sidewalk as I was about finished and remarked, Love. That’s what it’s all about. We just have to keep reminding people of it. We do. We must speak of love often, reminding one another that it is the central focus of our faith.
The problem we most often confront, in regards to love, is that we are conditioned by the surrounding culture to view most everything as being transactional; that is, most everything is based on conditions, primarily the condition of you do something for me and I will do something for you. If you are kind to me, I will be kind to you. If you are helpful to me, I will be helpful to you. If you love me, I will love you. If you want to see easy proof of this, you can prove it when you are driving. Let someone into traffic, and most often they will also let someone into traffic. But if you pull up close to the car in front of you, keeping someone from cutting into traffic because they tried to bypass everyone else, they probably won’t let anyone into traffic either. That’s transactional behavior, which is not the way love works. Love is not a transactional event, and that is why it is so difficult. Love continues when someone is not kind to us, when someone is not helpful to us, and when someone does not love us.
In this passage from John’s gospel, Jesus is very clear about his great command – love one another. Notice that two times Jesus uses the word if. In verse 10 he says if you keep my commands, you will remain in my love. In verse 14 he says you are my friends if you do what I command. Clearly, Jesus is not making a suggestion; he is issuing a command.
In verse 16 Jesus also spoke about the fruit that we would bear. He commissioned us to go and bear fruit – good fruit – but in too many cases it is a bitter fruit that has been sown by humanity, and it is a bitter harvest that we are reaping. Have you picked up a newspaper this weekend? Turned on the news? How much evidence of good fruit is printed in the paper or reported on the news? Not much, sadly. Time and again we see one act of violence bump a previous act of violence from the front page. In recent days we heard much in the news about the shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale airport; this morning that headline has been replaced by the headline of someone using a truck in Jerusalem as a weapon of violence and death. We are reaping a harvest of bitter fruit because humanity has sown the seeds of hatred and division.
It is easy to believe, considering all that happens in our world, that it is impossible to bridge the gaps that exist between us. Perhaps we have grown too skeptical, and too cynical. There is no shortage of talk about building bridges and bringing people together in our society, but not always a lot of evidence of it. We hear the talk after every election cycle, and then we quickly find it is the same old, same old, and we become skeptical about whether bridges can really be constructed.
But God has called us to build bridges of love. Which means, that person of a different political party, driving us crazy with their pronouncements? God loves them, so we must love them. That person of another race that makes us uncomfortable? God loves them, so we must love them. That person of another perspective that we simply can’t understand? God loves them, so we must love them. That person whose religious perspective is different from us and we think they must surely be a heretic? God loves them, so we must love them. And we must be willing to build that bridge, as difficult as it might be to do so.
There is a great parable about two brothers who shared adjoining farms. For over 40 years they worked side-by-side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.
One day the eldest brother was out in his fields when a truck pulled up. Out jumped a man who approached, carrying a carpenter’s toolbox. I’m looking for a few days work, he said. Perhaps you would have a few small jobs I could do for you? Well, yes I do, said the farmer. See that creek down there? It’s the border between my brother’s farm and mine. We don’t get along any more. In fact, I would prefer to not even see his farm. I want you to take that timber over there by the barn and build me a new fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look over at my brother and his farm. I’ll leave you to the work. I will be gone until later this evening and will check on your progress when I return.
The carpenter was glad to have the work, so set about working. The farmer drove into town and when he returned at sunset he was shocked to see what the carpenter had done. The carpenter was just finishing the project, but it was not a fence. In its place, he had built a bridge, and walking across it was the farmer’s younger brother. Calling out to his older brother he said, after all that’s been done and said I can’t believe you’d still reach out to me. I’m so glad you did. It’s time to put things behind us and start again. The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge and embraced. Turning to the carpenter the older brother asked that he stay on for a few days, but the carpenter replied, I’d love to stay, but I have more bridges to build.
Do you need to build a bridge today? Of course you do, because all of us have a bridge to build. The real question is, will we build that bridge?