Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146; James 2.1-10,14-17; Mark 7.24-37
Safety is really important. Most of my adult life, I have worked in jobs where the safety of children has been put in my hands. One summer, I was a site director for mission trips. The ministry I was working for had over 80 sites across the country, so they had a voice mail system set up so that people from headquarters could leave voice mails for all of the site directors. At least every week we got a voice mail about safety. Always upbeat, always energetic, reminding us to ‘wave the flag of safety’ or ‘beat the drum of safety.’ It got almost comical by the end of the summer. But it was true. Keeping ourselves and others safe is how we survive.
The instinct to protect ourselves is a good one. Often we protect ourselves by putting up walls. Which can be good. We teach our children to not talk to strangers, we lock our car doors and put alarms on our houses. But in the midst of putting up walls, sometimes we get carried away….we build walls when we didn’t need to, we build walls because we are scared.
A few months ago, I stopped at the Subway just down the road by Albertsons. I was waiting in line when a woman approached me and asked me if I could buy her some food. I was incredibly flustered and taken off-guard, and simply answered no. And I felt simply horrible, almost immediately. What on earth made me say no to that? That interaction would have posed zero danger – we were in a public place in the middle of the day, lots of people around. She wouldn’t even know who I was, where I lived, where I worked. But she looked different then me – she wasn’t dressed great, she was obviously in need. I realized after that interaction, that for years I had been mixing mortar and slowly stacking bricks – building a wall much taller and thicker than the one needed to keep me safe while I went about my life, thinking I was doing the best I could to help those around me.
In January of 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. In Haiti at that time were three of my classmates and friends from seminary. Two came home, one did not. Ben, who died, was married to Renee, who was one of the two to come home. In the months following, once Renee had returned to class, I saw a widow my own age. She had loved freely and with gusto. And now, her pain was deep. I saw what Ben’s death did to her and to some of my closest friends. And it terrified me. As someone who had been barely touched by death in my life thus far, I saw the deep pain that can come with loving that much. And so I mixed mortar, stacked bricks, and built a huge wall.
Your stories are different, but your walls are the same. Some are important and necessary. Some just aren’t and prevent us from loving and doing in the world. Eventually, we as individuals and a society build walls just to keep ourselves comfortable. We avoid dealing with class issues by living in neighborhoods with those just like us. We avoid dealing with complicated issues of race or violence by acting like there are only two sides. If you say black lives matter, it must mean you don’t care about police officers. If you don’t support war, you must be against the troops. We avoid dealing with international crises like the drowned refugee children washing up on the shores of Europe because that could never happen to us. We will hug our kids a little bit closer when we are confronted with those pictures, but will we do anything to change the circumstances for those families halfway around the world?
We have to do better. The walls we build to keep us safe are one thing, but the walls we have built to keep us comfortable are deeply wounding our world. We have to do better.
In the midst of a world of walls we are taken to task this week in our readings. We are reminded that the God we worship is a God that builds no walls. When Jesus says to the deaf man “be opened”, so much more opens that just the man’s ears. The proclamation about Jesus becomes an unstoppable force, Jesus can’t even stop people from spreading the good news. When we hear these words (be opened) today, we are pushed to think about the ways that Jesus can open us by breaking down the unnecessary walls that we have built.
At the end of today’s psalm we hear about how God watches over the resident alien, orphan and widow. We hear these three named again and again in scripture. They are the lowest of the low in their context – the outcast, dejected. They have no means of support and no ties to anyone who can help. These are the people who would have been most likely to encounter the walls other people had built up as they worked to survive. And yet – God watches over them, God does not put up walls.
The author of James pushes back against those who have faith and a sincere desire that all those around them will be clothed and fed, but are not actually doing anything. Sometimes we can use our faith as a wall – if we wish hard enough, or learn enough, or pray hard enough, God will take care of those in need without us having to get messy or be inconvenienced. And yet this is not how prayer works. Pope Francis says – “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”
(This poem was written by Rev. John Stott based on Matthew 25)
“Be opened.” Jesus said. While there are many ways for us to practice open-ness in our lives, this week it seems we are invited to be open by breaking down walls and barriers. Our world so desperately needs it. In the midst of the turmoil and crises and violence of the world, we do find openness. Over 10,000 families in Iceland have expressed their willingness to commit to hosting a refuge family in their own homes after the government said they could only take 50 refugees. There are groups on the Mediterranean working to rescue drowning men, women and children. In the midst of a world of walls, we can see cracks in the layer of brick, we can see God at work.
Because God’s open-ness is what empowers us to be open. God refuses to build walls, to the point of coming down to earth as a lowly human. On God’s watch nothing will come between us and God. On God’s watch, grace has the final word, for all people.
When the world tries to push stereotypes down our throats, God’s grace and openness teaches us to see each person as beloved. When the tragedies of life tempt us to back away from those we love, God’s grace and openness encourages us that the risk is worth it. When we run headlong into the walls we have built, God’s grace and openness helps us break those walls down.
That would have been a great place to end a sermon. It all sounds good, but you’ll notice I haven’t presented any on the ground solutions for the class-ism, racism, violence, and tragedies in this world. I wish I could. I don’t have any easy answers, or even any complicated ones. Some days it feels like all I have up here are words – the kind that make us feel good and don’t stir any action. We leave here and what really changes? And that’s frustrating and hard and really uncomfortable. But maybe uncomfortable is exactly where we need to be.