Building Up Walls

Posted on 19 May 2019, Pastor: Adam Yates
  • Acts 11:1-18

    Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

One of the things that I find endearing about Connecticut, and New England in general, are its many stone walls. There is something very quaint about a house with a low stone wall along its front, whether it is a carefully constructed and very neat wall, or something that is little more than a long pile of stones. But what I truly love are the stone walls that run, seeming without reason, through the woods, carefully dividing the land for purposes long forgotten. You can see them crisscrossing through the thick trees along our country roads (I’ve even spotted them cutting through the median along parts of 84), or when walking along the many trails in Eastern Connecticut.

These abandoned old walls evoke a sense of history, calling to mind the many hands that placed each stone where it now rests. I find myself wondering about the people who built them, and to what end they spent so much backbreaking labor—was it to clear fields for cultivation so that they could feed their family?  Was it to wrangle livestock into place and protect them from predators? Was it to settle property disputes with neighbors? Did these walls ever serve as a barrier to hide quarrelsome neighbors from sight?

The truth is that humans are quite good at building walls; we like building walls. Sometimes they are for very practical reasons, clearing the soil for farming and keeping in animals. But most of the walls we build, be they physical walls of stone and wood or steel and iron, or walls of laws and customs, are meant to keep the “other” at bay. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a story about these walls.

“Peter’s Vision” by Doug Jaques

The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and it was with some concern and scandal that they had received word of some of Peter’s activities during his travels. “You ate with them?” they ask when Peter returned to Jerusalem one day. “They were uncircumcised, they were gentiles, and they were unclean!” Peter’s contemporaries exclaim in surprise.

While the concern that these people felt at Peter’s transgressions of the barriers that separated Jew from Gentile might seem somewhat foreign of a concern to us today, the underlying sentiment isn’t. After all, we have our own walls that keep us separated from people who are different than ourselves—we call them things like “immigration reform” or “Jim Crow laws” or “gender roles” or “Ghetto” or even on occasion, “Planning and Zoning.”

I witnessed this last one in a city in which I once lived—I have never seen so many citizens publically concerned about the potential of a building to impact traffic flow as when a local Muslim community kept trying to find a location to build a Mosque. And I have experienced first hand the concern that arises when one of these barriers is transgressed when a church community to which I belonged once learned that I was living in the ghetto—it was all that I heard about for a few weeks.

Like I said, humans are very good at building walls, and we are not content to stop at building barriers designed to keep “others” away, we also build walls within ourselves to hide parts of ourselves from others and even from ourselves. These are walls not built of stone but of judgment, shame, and even fear. We erect these walls to cope with things like divorce, abusive relationships, addiction, mental illness, and even sexuality. For example, much attention is given to “coming-out” stories, when individuals first share with family and close friends their sexuality. What isn’t talked about as much is the internal “coming-out” that these individuals must first go through when they break through the walls built within themselves and acknowledge and accept their own sexuality.

The most tragic of barriers of all are the walls that we put up to separate others and ourselves from God. We build up walls to define where God can be found in the world; we build walls to say who God will save; we build walls to set apart what we think should be holy and sacred to God; and we build walls to say who God can love. We build so many walls that you would think God was some sort of livestock, at risk of wandering off or being attacked by wild animals.

Yes, we humans are very good at building walls, and we worship a God who excels at breaking them down. Because the funny thing about God is that every time we build up a new wall, whether it is to keep others out and in their place or walls for us to hide behind, God ends up on the other side. God is always found at the fringe, along the barriers we have erected, looking in at us, calling to us.

God beckons to us to transgress the barriers we have raised so that we can approach God and enter into a relationship with God. God invites us to climb over our walls so that we experience a new thing, so that we can see that everyone is worthy of God, so that we can see that God loves all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our gender, regardless of our immigration status or the country of our origin, regardless of our faith tradition, regardless of our sexuality, and regardless of whether we think ourselves to be worthy.

Regardless of all the things we think are important enough to build walls around, God loves us and has made us all holy. And if all are made holy in God, then we are called to break bread and share our meals with all people, whether they are immigrants from foreign lands, ex-convicts, those of other religious traditions, those who look and speak differently than ourselves, those who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum than we are, and those who have had different life experiences than our own.

This is not easy work and it will make many upset and uncomfortable because we will be transgressing the barriers of tradition and taboo. Like Peter in today’s story, we do it not because scripture or the teachings of the church say to do it—after all they are more often than not concerned with maintaining walls than tearing them down—we do it because our experience of God compels us to do so.

God called to Peter in a vision, “break down these walls, for I know what I have made holy.” So too does God call to us, “break down your walls, for I know what I have made sacred.” My sisters and brothers, soon we will gather together at this table, shoulder to shoulder, to share a meal. Come and break bread with us, because God has made all of us holy. And if God has made all of us holy, then God has made the whole world holy, so may this be the first of many meals that we share with the whole world.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Preached by Adam Yates