Back years ago when Lisa and I were homeowners, one of our first big projects was to erect a cedar fence around a fairly large portion of our yard. Now, our reasons for doing so were noble: our son Jake was still a toddler at the time, we lived on a busy street and we wanted to keep him “corralled” and away from the road; and yes, there was some desire for a bit of privacy on our parts, given that the houses in that neighborhood were built so close together (what was it that Robert Frost wrote about good fences making good neighbors?). And besides, the fence actually looked good, it kind of suited the layout of the house and yard, and since we were young and ambitious in those days, we were doing this job ourselves; and that was certainly worth something!
At the same time, however, I have to confess that even as we were deeply involved in the long and laborious process of digging fence post holes and nailing up section after section of this heavy stockade fencing, I was beginning to have second thoughts as to the value of such a project! As little by little our yard was closing in around us, I actually found myself thinking a great deal about fences; and how they are decidedly a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, a fence can give you a sense of location and it shows where you belong; moreover, it protects and offers security and even some measure of strength. On the other hand, if you’re not careful that same fence can easily isolate you from what’s outside of it; other places, other experiences, other people. How tempting it is to become suspicious and distrustful of that which you can’t see, or don’t know, or perhaps worst of all, choose to shut out of your sight and experience! I mean, good fences might indeed make good neighbors, but how will you know unless you risk connecting with those neighbors in the first place? It’s all too easy to allow that fence keep you separate from anything and everyone (to quote another poet of his age, “I touch no one and no one touches me!”).
So we’re building this fence around our house, and the whole time I’m thinking that we’re running the risk of enclosing ourselves within our own personal fortress; even at the cost of friendship, community, shared compassion, and by the way, as a Christian, this opportunity we’re given for serving God in our relationships with others! I know… and I do think Lisa pointed this out to me at the time; that I was perhaps overthinking it (!) and that one stockade fence does not an impenetrable fortress make!
But the memory of that momentary doubt remained for me something of a parable; a good reminder and a bit of a warning of all that can be lost because of the barriers that exist around us; understanding, of course, that the greatest barriers we face in this life are not the ones created by fences or walls; nor, for that matter, the ones drawn by international borders or in differences of political ideology. Ultimately, in this world the greatest barriers; the walls that isolate us from one another the most come about because of things within us; things like fear and anger and hatred. And I think we all know that to be particularly true right about now.
Beloved, as we all struggle to understand and to find some kind of reason for tragedies such as what occurred at the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina this week, we may rightly point to racism, or to a growing culture of violence in this country, or to any number of other factors as having impacted such a heinous act. But the truth is that none of these things come about on their own, but are fueled by something deeper; and quite frankly it’s evil, at the heart of it all, our human propensity to sinfulness and our own sad determination to isolate ourselves from one another, and most especially, to isolate ourselves from God. Like it or not, this is part of the human condition; and it is no exaggeration to say that the barriers we build for ourselves as a result of that have served to create a culture which would seek to destroy us from within and without; and also, if we are not working against it will be our undoing as persons and as a people.
And so, given that, it is good news indeed that ours is a Savior who, in everything he says and does, not only actively disregards those barriers we’ve created for ourselves, but who also seeks to break them down forever.
One of the first things we discover in reading the Gospel story is that Jesus lived in an age of purposeful division; in which the barriers of life were built up full and strong. Not all that different from today, really; the lines between the rich and poor, politically powerful and socially week were always clearly drawn, and even in matters of religion there was an effort to maintain purity by those who sought to be faithful keeping separate from all others who, at least in their minds, were not. In that regard, Gentiles were to be avoided at all costs, Samaritans were never to be trusted, sinners were outcast, lepers were quarantined, the sick were kept apart from society and even those who buried the dead were for at least a short period of time considered unclean. In short, there were barriers of just about every size, shape and variety put into place at just about every juncture of human life; they were a people who were living together but apart… apart from each other, and yes, apart from God
Which is what makes it all the more interesting that early on his ministry, “as Jesus was walking along” the way, he sees “a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth,” and amazingly, calls this man as his disciple; and make no mistake, it is a bold and scandalous act on Jesus’ part. Matthew, you see, is a tax collector; but more than merely your friendly agent from the IRS, Matthew could best have been described as a lackey for the Roman government. The Roman conquerors had long since outsourced tax collecting, quite literally to the highest bidder amongst those they had conquered; and these people would go out, Roman soldiers in tow, to fleece their fellow citizens not only by collecting the exorbitant taxes for the Romans, but also by lining their own pockets by anything extra they could get! So needless to say, these tax collectors were universally despised by the people; they were not even allowed, by religious law, to set foot in a house of worship!
Basically, Matthew and his ilk were considered to be nothing more than oppressors of their own people, low-life criminals and sinners of the lowest order; and this is who Jesus calls to follow him! And it is no small thing; as Clayton J. Schmidt, of Fuller Seminary in California has written, “no faithful rabbi would [ever] consider [such a man] for his disciple. Such a sinner would be too evil to employ in godly matters. But, Matthew had some quality of leadership that Jesus could see. [And so] he stepped into Matthew’s world, ate with his friends, and put Matthew to work in spreading the good news of God’s love.”
In other words, here comes Jesus and immediately, the barrier gets broken down; and suddenly, where there was once this sharp division between the so-called “righteous uprights” and those dwelling on the outside of godliness, now there’s a community of faithfulness, unified by this common need to be made whole before the Lord. I love how when the Pharisees, as the Pharisees are wont to do, begin to complain about Jesus “eat[ing] with tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus simply responds by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” And then Jesus says something really interesting; and I might add, with what seems like a bit of an edge to his voice: “Go and learn what his means,” he says, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Mercy, not sacrifice… love, not judgment; caring and acceptance, not isolation and division and rejection; do you see what Jesus was doing here? Right from the very beginning, Jesus knew that there are to be no barriers, no borders, no walls; nothing in life, death or all creation that can or should seek to separate us from the love of God! For Jesus, you see, it’s not about the proper adherence to the law or espousing the right kind of doctrine; it’s not about political affiliation, or gender, or ethnicity or social standing. All Jesus is looking at is one’s need to be touched, to be healed, to be loved, and to be forgiven. To quote Clayton Schmidt again, Jesus “responds to a need in them that unites us all – the need to be made whole… [because ultimately] no one is well. And our human distinctions do not help us. None of us is whole, no matter our education, gender, nationality, race, convictions, [or] affiliations.”
In other words, as we so often say here in preparing to come to the Lord ’s Table, we all stand in the need of God’s mercy and assurance! And thanks be to God, Jesus is relentless in breaking down all the barriers that stand in the way of that. It is good that we remember this, beloved; for what Jesus did for Matthew “along the way,” what he has done for countless others throughout the ages, and what he does for you and for me even now is the very model for who you and I are to be as believers, as disciples of Jesus Christ, and yes, as the church.
You know, for me one of the saddest and most tragic aspects of this shooting in Charleston, and yet in its own way, one of the most inspiring parts of it, is that those people who were gathered for Bible Study that night were doing exactly what they were called to do in faith and in love as disciples of Jesus Christ. They were being attentive to God’s Word; they were caring for one another in the Spirit and learning what it was to make that Word real in their own lives and out in the community; and they willingly, albeit unknowingly, welcomed this young man into their midst. And isn’t it amazing, and a true blessing, that even now, the families of those who died, along with many of the members of that congregation are out their offering forgiveness… it is a true testimony of not being “overcome with by evil, but overcome[ing] evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
Friends, I can’t even begin to wrap my mind and heart around this tragedy; and I don’t think that as much as some would like to tell us that there are any easy answers in addressing the issues surrounding it. But I do know this: as God’s people in the places where we dwell, we are called by our Lord Jesus to follow him into the into the joys and challenges of real life and real living; for us to be seeking, as he has always done and continues to do, ways to tear down the barriers that would seek to pull us apart from one another and from him; to let our lives, even in the simplest of ways, embody the love and mercy that is the fuel of a better and more just world.
One of the things I’ve come to discover over the years in making pastoral calls at hospitals is the importance of touch; the incredibly simple, human yet powerfully loving act of holding a hand. Of course, there are times when things like latex gloves and gauze masks become necessary for the patient’s healing; likewise, it’s good for the caregivers to scrub up and regularly use hand sanitizer. But just as often, it’s essential to be bold enough to, as the song says, “reach out and touch somebody’s hand;” to look them in the eye, to say a good and loving word, maybe say a prayer, and certainly to let a tear be shed for the sake of healing.
It seems to me, beloved, that this is what Jesus does for us in every circumstance we face “along the way;” touching us, healing us, comforting us in our grief, and removing all of that which stands in the way of wholeness and true salvation. This is who we are as God’s own people; this is how you and I have been so greatly blessed.
And this is our calling: as we receive, let us also give in every way we can.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry