Breaking Down the Dividing Wall

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Joann H. Lee explored Breaking Down the Dividing Wall

The peace walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland are a visual reminder of our divisions. They help keep the violence at bay, but they don’t promote unity or reconciliation. How might we as followers of Christ work for true peace and unity despite our differences both in the world and in in our own lives? How might we be called to break down the dividing walls of race, class, politics, theology, and all that may divide us?

This service also featured The Dave Scott Ensemble.

Sermon Video


This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Ephesians 2:11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so 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, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.


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Poet Robert Frost, in his poem “Mending Wall” tells of two neighbors who routinely set out each spring to mend the wall between their two properties. One firmly believes that, quote, “Good fences make good neighbors. And yet, the narrator of this poem is not fully convinced. As he and his neighbor walk along the fence between their lives, he muses that there seems to be a force within creation itself that is determined to break down this wall that divides them. He says:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…

The poem’s narrator recognizes that there is something in nature; something in the ground; inherent in the very earth itself, that seems to push against and resist this human will to put walls up between people.

Walls give us as human beings a sense of privacy, a sense of boundaries and in some cases even a sense of security.

In the summer of 2009, I helped lead a youth mission trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Most of you know that Belfast is a deeply divided city. These divisions usually fall along political and cultural divides that include religious lines of Catholic and Protestant. Too many people have been killed or injured in the name of these divisions.

Since 1998, however, both sides have more or less agreed to a cease-fire, and today, folks would say that there is “peace” in Northern Ireland because the violence has ceased. But the challenge of reconciliation continues.

Our first few days in Belfast, we took a tour of the city led by Doug Baker, a mission co-worker of the Presbyterian Church who has been there since 1979, right in the midst of what is called “The Troubles” or the height of violence in Northern Ireland. As we walked the city with him, one of the things that struck all of us were the huge walls separating one neighborhood from another. Your bulletin cover shows a picture of one of them.

They’re called, “peace walls.” Ironic because these walls point to the lack of true peace, true shalom or wholeness, in this society, but quite fitting in that the presence of these walls is seen to “keep the peace.” In fact, they decrease the possibility of violence. In Belfast, Dividing Walls literally and visibly separate the city.

One of my fellow travelers asked a member of the Belfast City Council, if there were any plans to break down these walls, if there was a plan among politicians or leaders in Northern Ireland to get rid of these visible signs of division. And his response struck me and continues to resonate with me deeply even today.

He said that the decision to break down these walls is not for politicians or for the city council to make. Getting rid of those peace walls is, of course, the long-term goal, and the hope is that one day they’ll no longer be needed. But when that happens can’t be the decision of people in power but must be the decision of those who live closest to the walls. Until they feel safe with their neighbors on the other side, the peace walls will remain.

That’s when I realized that reconciliation is not just some elusive yet admirable goal. It’s not even an abstract theory or theological concept. Reconciliation is about people: people who are scared; people who are divided by the walls in their cities and by the walls in their hearts; people who’ve been hurt, and people who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, are learning to recognize the common humanity in us all.

Reconciliation is about people. It’s personal and close to our hearts. It involves the things we hold most dear, and quite frankly, it’s a risk. And it’s not just about breaking down the walls; we must also remove the hostility that keeps those walls up.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote to another kind of divided society. The Jews and Gentiles were separated by culture, ethnicity, religious practices and beliefs. And yet, in this new Christian community in Ephesus, they were brought together through their new-found belief in Jesus, the Christ. How were these two divided communities to live together as one?

Paul encourages this community to break down their walls of who’s in and who’s out, of who’s near to God and who’s far from God, of who’s circumcised and who’s not. Put those things aside, he says. Paul’s hope for Ephesus is that through Christ these two divided groups will be reconciled to God and reconciled to one another, becoming one new humanity.

We hear in this morning’s scripture, that while it may be the inclination of human beings to put walls up, it is the inclination of God through the person of Jesus Christ to break them down.

Like Robert Frost’s poem, there is a force that is breaking down the walls between us, and for us that force is Jesus Christ. For he is our peace” it says, and “he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

It’s sometimes hard to believe that this statement made nearly 2000 years ago is still true for us today. And yet, we need these words more than ever. Our divisions seem to only grow deeper.

We are divided by politics, by class, by culture, by race and ethnicity, by religion, by geography and language, and not language as in English and Spanish, which is certainly one form of division, but language as in the words we choose to use when speaking about the same thing.

The “harmful gay agenda,” is a “love wins” campaign for others. “Illegal immigrants” are “undocumented migrants” to others. A “symbol of southern heritage” is a symbol of slavery, racism, and white supremacy to others. We are living in a divided society that often speaks right past one another, and dialogue sometimes seems impossible.

And it is the dividing walls that we cannot see, the ones we’ve built around our own hearts or the invisible ones that stand around even this city of San Francisco, separating one neighborhood from another, that are actually the hardest to break down. Because even though they exist, creating separation from those with whom we are different, it is all too easy to ignore them, to pretend that they don’t exist.

That is until something like the massacre at Charleston happens, or the subsequent arsons that followed. That is until a historic moment in our society allows for equality but also brings out the ugly in people. That is until violence erupts, be it in Chattanooga or in Chicago, Oakland or in San Francisco. And the hatred that festers in our divisions boils over and explodes. We often pretend that our divisions don’t exist, until we are forced to face them.

Every once in a while, we are forced to face the walls we have helped build in this society, the deep divisions we participate in daily, sometimes even without our own knowing. But too often, we are unwilling to address these divisions head on, even when faced with them. We shake our heads, say a prayer, maybe keep vigil but life soon returns to “normal.” And rarely does anything change.

Unfortunately, these divisions in our society are often mirrored rather than challenged by people of faith. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that 11am on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. That was over 40 years ago, and not much has changed since.

This morning, we are called anew to do better. We are called through these words from the letter to the Ephesians to create change today in our current contexts. And it may just be that the church is actually the means by which God can bring about reconciliation in this world.

After all, when we look out into the world, we may see difference and diversity. We may see people who like one style of worship, and others who like another. We may see people who have suffered from years of oppression and people who have benefited from that oppression. We may see people who have more than enough for a lifetime and people who don’t have enough for today. We may see our differences.

But we also have the capacity to see that we are all members of the same household, God’s household. God’s family. Verse 19 says just that, “…You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

It seems that Paul in Ephesians understands that dividing walls are broken down by getting to actually know the stranger or “the other,” by building relationships and learning to love our neighbors.

It is so much easier to just be with people “get us,” people to whom we don’t have to explain everything. People who just agree with us and affirm who we are. And we definitely do need those people in our lives, but they cannot be the only people in our lives.

People who seek dialogue and understanding are rare. People who move beyond their comfort zones and live in that tension are few and far between. But we are called to be those people. For you and I are all each called to work towards the reconciliation of all humanity. And reconciliation is about people. It happens when the dividing walls are replaced with bridges.

In all the ways that we are divided, we are called to engage and know and humanize the other.

That certainly doesn’t mean we gloss over our differences. No, in fact to do so may only serve to build up rather than break down hostility.

We cannot pretend that my experience is the same as yours, nor can we ignore that some of us are given inherent power and privilege in our society, simply because of how and where we were born. Reconciliation doesn’t mean that we pretend that our differences don’t exist.

Rather we recognize them; honor them; listen for how these differences have shaped and made us unique as children of God. And by acknowledging our differences, we get to know the human being behind the labels. And in the midst of these differences, we can be reconciled.

But that is only made possible if we move beyond our comfort zones and choose to live, engage and learn from a diverse community.

Here at Calvary, we have chosen to take some strides towards this, to step outside what we know best, and try something different, to commit to do something now rather than wait for the next horrible event that forces us to face our dividing walls. We have chosen to start breaking them down now.

Among other things, that have taken us out of our comfort zones, in the past month, we shared two worship services with Grace Tabernacle and their pastor Bishop Ernie Jackson. We have met members from their congregation. We worshiped at their church in Hunter’s Point, and they have led us in worship here at Calvary. These steps won’t solve racism in this country; it won’t even solve racism in this city. But we are building relationships; we are stepping outside of our comfort zones, and it is one step towards building the unity that we read of in scripture.

And perhaps it is true, that we can indeed love one another without agreeing with one another on everything. We can be united without being uniform. We can accept one another without expecting us to be the same. We can be reconciled, for Christ has already done so for us.

In the words of the great Irish poet, Bono: “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.” Let us carry each other, and bear witness to a God who makes us one. Amen.


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