July 22, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year B, Proper 11, Track 2, Revised Common Lectionary
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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As a child growing up around Lake Tahoe, I remember visiting the famous resort called the Cal-Neva Lodge. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s been closed since 2013, but its glory days were much longer ago; it was a hangout in the fifties and sixties for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and other assorted celebrities and hangers-on. I remember being fascinated by its swimming pool, which straddles the Nevada-California border, so you can swim from one state to the next. There was something so strange about the idea that an arbitrary line down the middle of a pool was a real boundary between two places. In a way, the line was completely imaginary. Birds could hop from one side to the other. The pines and aspens were the same on both sides. Yet in another way this artificial, human-made line had very real consequences, because the gambling laws were very different on each side. Inside the lobby, inches from the Nevada side of the line, the slot machines began.

Borders are like that. Artificial, arbitrary, and yet often with very real consequences. There are satellite photos of the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti where the line is as clear as if it were drawn on a map: the Dominican side is green and thick with trees, while the poorer Haitian side is almost completely deforested. Or maybe you’ve seen the satellite photos of the world at night, where South Korea glows with electric light, while North Korea is almost completely dark. Three months ago we saw a dramatic scene at that border as the North Korean dictator stepped over the concrete divider to shake hands with the South Korean president. Borders are a major issue in this country too, of course, especially our southern border. People risk their lives routinely there to try to cross into a better life. Our politicians grapple over whether to enforce our laws there with compassion or brutality, and whether our resources would be well spent in fortifying that border with a massive wall.

Borders matter, don’t they? They can be places of friendship and meeting, or places of hostility and division. Today in the epistle reading from Ephesians we heard a reference to a very specific border, and in fact a very specific boundary wall. To understand that reference, you have to know that in first-century Christianity, the biggest issue of contention was the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. This was a conflicted question for Christians in the first century in much the same way that questions about sexual morality have been for Christians in the past few decades. Did Gentiles have to become Jewish in order to become part of the Christian church? If not, were Jewish Christians supposed to eat and drink with them even though they didn’t keep the practices of Torah? Could the two groups really be one community? In this letter Paul—or, more likely, a later follower of his writing in his name—has a clear answer, and makes that point by referring to a famous wall at the Temple in Jerusalem. This was the wall that separated the outer courtyard, the Court of the Gentiles where anyone could enter, from the first of the inner courtyards where only the people of Israel could go. Archeologists have actually found two of the stone tablets that served as warning signs.[1] In Greek, they say, “No foreigner is permitted to enter . . . anyone who is caught will be to blame for their own death.”

It’s that wall that the author of Ephesians has in mind—a reference that would have been familiar to first-century readers. And the author writes that Jesus has broken down that wall in his own flesh. That through his death he has put to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and by incorporating both groups into himself he has created “one new humanity in place of two.” Two parts of the same body can’t be divided any more than a hand from an arm or a leg from a torso. And so in Christ the differences among different groups of people are no longer to divide us.

I think it’s important that this doesn’t mean the obliteration of all differences. God loves variety and thinks differences are a good thing. In the book of Revelation we’re told that “every tribe and language and nation” praises God in heaven. In the story of Pentecost, the disciples are given the gift of speaking in many different languages, so that every ethnic group hears the gospel in their own native tongue. So the point isn’t that being in Christ flattens out humanity into a kind of bland lowest common denominator. Rather it’s that in Christ our differences and diversity are a source of glory and joy, a testament to God’s creativity, instead of a reason for hostility and division.

How desperately our world needs to hear that message today. We live in a society drastically divided in almost every way. Discrimination by race, by gender, by age and by ability. And an almost utter division by political ideology in which those who disagree are demonized, so that opponents are turned into enemies. These divisions and injustices make God weep. Jesus Christ came into the world to reconcile us to God and to one another. And Jesus has entrusted the church with that ministry of reconciliation, so that we are to model a different way of being together in the world.

A few months ago, a few Episcopalians I know started a small project called the Pentecost Challenge. They were inspired by that story of the Holy Spirit enabling people to communicate across differences. They’ve begun developing some suggestions of ways that we can challenge ourselves to stretch across some of those boundaries of division. Here are a few:[2]

  • This week, change your routine: your commute route, your dog walk, your favorite coffee shop, your habit of choice. Talk to someone along the way.
  • This week, reach out and take back a hurtful exchange you wish you’d never had.
  • This week, pick up the phone and reach out to someone from whom you feel separated.
  • This week, find a news source you do not usually track. Listen for common ground.
  • This week, put pen to paper and write a letter to an old friend or distant relative.
  • This week, ask a co-worker an open-ended question. Listen and learn something new about them.
  • This week, ask a good friend if there was a time when you could have been a better listener.
  • This week, ask someone you know of a different faith to share an aspect of their practice that is important to them.

Practices like that may not fix the whole world overnight. But they’re a start. And they might open us to experience Jesus in an unexpected place—or an unexpected person. To that unexpected Jesus, who has created in himself a new humanity, be honor and glory forever.

[1] Ilan Ben Zion, “Ancient Temple Mount ‘Warning’ Stone Is ‘Closest Thing We Have to the Temple,’” Times of Israel (October 22, 2015), https://www.timesofisrael.com/ancient-temple-mount-warning-stone-is-closest-thing-we-have-to-the-temple/.

[2] Phil Brochard, “Re-Investing in Relationships,” Pathfinder (newsletter of All Souls Episcopal Parish, Berkeley, CA, July 19, 2018), http://www.allsoulsparish.org/about-all-souls/pathfinder-newsletter/.