“Tear Down This Wall”

This morning’s sermon!

I would like to note that I was doing my usual “kick my heels and move around” routine and almost completely wiped out when my heel got caught on the stairs up to the altar.  Bruce and I had the following conversation after church:

Bruce: So what did you trip on?
Me: My heel got caught on the step.
Bruce: Maybe you should stand still while you preach.
Me: Yeah. That’s not going to happen.

And in the spirit of not taking myself too seriously …

I spoke briefly about the Berlin Wall in today’s sermon.  This was me at the Berlin Wall.

I was 11.

I’ve made better fashion choices in my life.

Once you’ve stopped laughing, enjoy the sermon …

Ephesians 2:11-22

“Tear Down This Wall”

When I was 11 years old, my parents took my sister and me to Europe. While I do appreciate their generosity and desire to show me a different part of the world, I am afraid that much of the historical allure and even the romantic appeal of a three-week European adventure is lost on an 11-year-old. By the end of the trip, I had a tendency to wake up in the morning, find out what we were doing that day, look at my mom and day and say, “You’re taking me to see ANOTHER church?”

There are, however, a few moments that I remember fairly clearly from that trip. I remember standing at the door to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, the place where Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses in 1517. I remember walking into a German McDonalds and finding it amusing that you could order a “McBeer” off of the drink menu. I remember traveling everywhere by train. I remember testing my mother’s fear of heights as we drove, by bus, up a narrow road on the edge of mountain on our way to Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden. I remember tripping and falling down the stairs to the Eifel Tower.

I also remember Berlin, where I saw, protected behind a fence, the remnants of the Berlin Wall. At that point I had not had much world history in school, so my parents had to explain to me that there was a time when Germany was divided into east and west, and that the wall essentially prevented mass emigration and defection into the Eastern Bloc for almost 30 years.

I am not sure why our visit to Berlin stuck with me, but over the years the image of a wall that once divided European nations has remained in my mind. As I got older and learned more both about this specific conflict in Germany and also about people in general, I realized that it was not just one generation of people living in a certain part of the world that put up a divisive wall.

The wall was put up to act as a physical barrier, but over the years I wonder if it has continued to act as a metaphor for the way we, as human beings, interact with one another. I think we often put up walls – most often not physical ones and sometimes unintentionally – that divide us from one another. It happens in our families, in our friendships, in our communities, in our schools, in our churches, in our country and in the world.

This morning’s scripture lesson talks about the unification that we have through Jesus Christ. Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “[Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.” In other words, we are united through Christ; male or female, black or white, rich or poor, we are united by the love that Jesus showed to each and every one of us. God created us to be united; Jesus redeemed us so that we would be united; and the Holy Spirit touches us all so that we can unite with one another, despite the differences that threaten to divide us. “For he is our peace,” Paul said. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall.”

When I read this scripture, I could not help but think about Ronald Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Reagan was calling for a physical destruction of the barrier that divided the people of Europe. Paul said that Jesus was the destruction of the barriers that divided God’s people. Obviously, Paul was referring directly to the division between the Jews and the Gentiles. But Jesus also broke down the dividing walls that people anywhere and everywhere put up between one another – and he calls each generation to do the same.

Edwin Searcy, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, looked at this text and explored what it meant for Paul to say that Jesus broke down dividing walls.

“The heart of the text is Paul’s reminder that in Jesus Christ the two distinctive peoples—Jews and Gentiles—have become “one new humanity” (v. 15). The powerful image of the dividing wall of hostility being broken down provides the preacher with direct links to the hostilities and division that emerge in the reconciled community called the church even now. Encampments form, and the dividing wall of hostility is reconstructed in spite of our best intentions. Instead of “Jew” and “Gentile,” it is now right and left, orthodox and progressive, mainline and evangelical. We fall into habitual battles, dreaming of the day when “our side” is finally triumphant. But the text dreams of another day. It says that Christ has already “made both groups into one” (v. 14), “putting to death that hostility” (v. 16).

We read these words 2,000 years later and the message is the same, we are simply hearing it through the lens of a different generation. We are a divided people. And Jesus so badly wanted us to be united.

This is the logo for the United Church of Christ:

The logo comprises a crown, a cross and an orb. It is enclosed within a double oval that bears the name of our denomination on the top and the prayer of Jesus, “That they may all be one,” on the bottom. The crown represents sovereignty, the cross represents suffering and the orb, which is divided into three parts, reminds us of Jesus’ command to us in Acts 1:8 to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” This verse in scripture represents the United Church of Christ’s historical commitment to the “restoration of unity among the separated churches of Jesus Christ.” (www.ucc.org/about-us/ucc-logo.htm)

We are part of a denomination that cares about unity. We are part of denomination that cares about tearing down the walls that are likely to divide us. The words that encircle the bottom of our logo, “That they may all be one,” are words that Jesus prayed to God for. The Gospel of John recorded that Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

I know that this church has had its fair share of ups and downs, but I truly believe that we are part of a congregation that cares about unity as well. The Youth Group went on a mission trip this past week to New York City. They worked with the Youth Service Opportunities Project (Y.S.O.P.) and also with the day camp at the Flatbush Reformed Church in Brooklyn. Throughout the week they worked with children, in soup kitchens and with persons living in homelessness. At the last minute, I was not able to go with them, so we all met and said a prayer on the bus before they left. When I hopped off the bus last Sunday afternoon, I left a group of excited, but also nervous looking youth. They were sitting in separate rows, not overly talkative and waving to their parents outside. On Thursday evening, when the bus pulled back into the parking lot and I jumped on to say hello, the mood was completely different. The kids were all crammed together in two rows; they were giggling, smiling and – despite not getting much sleep throughout the week – full of energy. They had been invigorated by a week of outreach and service, by intentionally tearing down barriers of race and class, reaching out to people in need and seeing the potential for a world united.

I had a feeling the mood would be different when the group returned. The emails, text messages and phone calls from the chaperones had been nothing but positive all week. On Monday night, Caroline emailed the following message:

Hello everyone,
I am sure that you have all been receiving texts from your children, but I just wanted to let you know that everything has been going very smoothly. Some may be questioning how an amusement park fits in to Missions, but it all made sense today when you saw your children working with the campers. They were selfless in their efforts as they served others. The campers loved your kids and bonds were formed quickly. I couldn’t be more proud of them!
Tomorrow we begin work with YSOP (a more traditional Missions experience).
Sleep tight!

On Tuesday night, this was the message we all received:

We are back at the church after a long rewarding day. Our group split into two groups. Each group worked tirelessly to serve the homeless and disadvantaged. So many lessons learned.
After work we had a chance to do some sightseeing.
I would love to write more, but I’m just too tired!!!
Sleep tight knowing that your children are safe and happy.

And finally, on Wednesday, this email popped into my inbox:

It’s hard to believe that it’s our last night here! This experience has been amazing. Our youth have formed a tight knit pack. Everyone seems to get along so well and there are no cliques.
Once again today, we split into two work groups. Team A went to work in the Children’s Garden in Queens. Team B worked at a soup kitchen near the Bronx.
At both sites the heat got a bit intense at times. No one went home with a dry T-shirt!
We left work and returned to the YSOP center where we made and served dinner to a group of women from a local shelter. Before dinner we had a chance to play games and chat with the women. It was a bit tense in the beginning, but by the end, laughter could be heard throughout the building!
I was so impressed with our group. They were gracious hosts. Once again they were tireless in their efforts.
Well it’s time to finish off the night with a group devotional. Rest assured knowing that your children are safe, fulfilled and happy.
See you all tomorrow night!!

I am so proud of the youth of our church. This past week they walked outside of their comfort zones; they intentionally passed through the barriers that keep them protected from the outside world and they absolutely thrived. And not only that, but I think they truly did make a difference along the way.

Jesus prayed, “That they may all be one.” The thought crossed my mind this week as I was thinking about this text from scripture and also hearing from the chaperones in New York that perhaps unity is not the goal, but the starting point. Jesus tore down the walls that divided us from one another and prayed to God, “That they made all be one.” Maybe we were united in that moment; we may put up barriers every now and that divide us temporarily, but in the end we are united through Christ – always.

Out of curiosity, I pulled up Ronald Reagan’s speech to hear the context of the “Tear down this wall” cry. The speech – while obviously targeting a specific moments in history – I think speaks to us today. “Standing before the Brandenburg Gate,” President Reagan said, “every man is German separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. President Von Weizsäcker has said, ‘The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed.’ Well today—today I say: As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.”

As long as there is even one wall of division up in our homes, in our churches, in our schools, in our communities, in our countries and in our world, there is still work that needs to be done. Christ united us because we were – and are – a people divided. Our basic human nature puts up those walls – sometimes we cannot help it. But we are called to tear down the walls that divide us. We are called to be united with one another.

Let us tear down the walls that we see around us. We are united. We are the Body of Christ.

Thanks be to God!


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