Sunday, May 11, 2014

The World of Walls

Reading from the Commemoration of Nickolaus von Zinzendorf

Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with rejoicing, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. The companies of the singers gathered together from the circuit around Jerusalem and from the villages of the Netophathites; also from Beth-gilgal and from the region of Geba and Azmaveth; for the singers had built for themselves villages around Jerusalem. And the priests and the Levites purified themselves; and they purified the people and the gates and the wall.
 Then I brought the leaders of Judah up on to the wall, and appointed two great companies that gave thanks and went in procession. One went to the right on the wall to the Dung Gate; They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away. -- Nehemiah 12:27-31,43

The world, like the part in which I currently live, is a world of walls. There are walls around subdivisions and walls that separate houses. They aren't low picket fences of about three feet or so like the one around my childhood home, these are block walls five feet or more in height. They are serious barriers meant to keep out noise and most wandering animals, keep in children and family pets and also to preserve privacy. It's a kind of throwback to the towns and cities of the past where walls were necessary to keep the citizens safe and keep out wandering animals and brigands.

Nehemiah and the Israelites had just returned from the Babylonian exile. One of the first tasks was to rebuild Jerusalem complete with a protecting wall and gates. That accomplished, they held a great dedication and party to celebrate not just their return but their real beginning of a return to normalcy, or at least what they considered normal to be. It marked a new start in a new home that many of them had never seen before, but Nehemiah was there to fill them in, lay down the rules of not only good citizenship but the worship of and honor to God and the history of what had taken place. It took quite a while, but the people listened and assented. Of course, like a lot of times, they gradually forgot all those things they had embraced so happily that day, but that's human nature, I suppose.

Sometimes walls are good things, creating a safe area in which people can live and move relatively free from worry about their personal well-being. Sometimes, though, they are excuses to separate people from each other and the same for nations. The US spent $2.4 billion dollars to erect a fence across 700 miles of border between it and Mexico to keep out "illegals," most of whom sought to enter the US in order to find jobs to support their families but without having the months or years of waiting to get official papers which would allow them to do so legally.

The wall was also supposed to create a barrier to drug trafficking, but lo and behold, the drug cartels simply dug tunnels under it, flew over it, drove around it or came in by a different route. Meanwhile the poor who really only wanted to work a decent job with decent pay were stuck trying to swim rivers, cross hundreds of miles of desert, avoid posses and law enforcement, and/or try to scale the barrier. Many died, and, unfortunately, a lot of people think that was perfectly fine; they got what they deserved. That wall was there to protect us and not let in riff-raff, to their way of thinking.

Church walls can do the same thing. It can wall in ideas and attitudes while keeping the world at arm's length. Some have walls that serve to shelter graveyards and memorial gardens, and some have walls merely to decorate. What is important, though, is how wide is the entrance to the church and who is allowed to enter there?

Walls prevent people inside from interacting with those outside; that's part of their function. One side effect of this is that misunderstandings occur and often arguments or even wars begin. Each group is sure they are right and the other is wrong. Rather than having them come to blows over it, it's usually preferable to have both parties meet and talk, hopefully learning about the other and seeing the other as a part of humanity just as they are. What results are new trade agreements, mutual aid in time of trouble and even possible sharing of resources and information? The two parties don’t have to be identical in culture, belief or even appearance; they simply have to be willing to step outside their walls and meet the rest of the world fairly and respectfully.
This goes for the church as well. Where nations involve themselves in international dialogues, churches do theirs in interdenominational and even interfaith talks. It isn't about converting others to one particular belief system or denominational statement; it's about learning to live harmoniously with people who don't necessarily share the same POV or religious tenets. People could sit comfortably inside their church walls and never figuratively go outside of them, but that leads to a kind of flat faith, no matter how sincerely the belief system of that particular church (or parish or denomination) is held.

We live in a world populated with lots more people than just us. It seems like hubris to think we have all the answers and they have very few or even none. We've integrated beliefs and practices from other groups in the past, so it can be done. We should think about that next time we put up a Christmas tree. Meditation techniques from other spiritual paths can and are useful and used to increase the power and beneficence of our own personal and corporate Christian reflections. There are lots of possibilities for meeting on common ground but first we have to venture outside the walls and consent to be part of the conversations.

Jesus spent time in the walled towns and cities of the world in which he lived. He also spent time in the wilderness and in the small villages scattered about. He may have said to one woman that he had come for the Jews but that didn't stop him from changing his mind and helping her, a Syrophoenician woman, by healing her daughter. He didn't ignore the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, or the Gerasene demoniac, all of whom would have been considered outside the walls of conventional Judaism or even Judaism at all. Wasn't that interfaith dialog or was it the perfect example of it? Maybe that is stretching the point a bit, but the intent is what matters. If we never talk to the people around us, we never recognize them as our neighbors and allow them inside our walls and hearts where God has said they are supposed to be.

If nothing else, God is a God of diversity, the creator and sustainer of it. God's children come in many colors and sizes and cultures. If Jesus could cross what were thought to be solid cultural barriers-- like visiting Samaria, healing someone with connections to the hated Roman occupiers, call a collaborator to his side and speak and heal women of various cultures--then what does that say to us about staying in one place, sticking to our own community and family and insisting others do the same?

I have to venture outside to see what the world has to show me. I don't leave Jesus behind; he's got my back no matter what. But he has a lot of things to show me and a lot of maybe false information and belief to correct. I can't let him unless I open the gates to my walls or even tear them down. It's the only way. Really.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 10, 2014.

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