I certainly can’t remember a time when differences didn’t divide. In fact, this truth has come to mind in a particular way this past week-end as I have watched my beloved Chicago Cubs fall once more to the Chicago White Sox. Fans from both teams may look alike, may work or worship or live side by side, but bring up the North Siders versus the South Siders and all commonalities seem to go out the window!
Indeed, when I was in college there was a virulent rivalry between Wartburg College and Luther College. These two colleges of the church are located but 70 miles apart in Northeast Iowa. One was founded by German and the other by Norwegian immigrants. Tales had been passed down for generations about the ‘terrible things’ which had been done by these rivals — whether it was temporarily absconding with the other’s mascot or burning a giant emblem on the other’s football field. Then I went to seminary and discovered a classmate and good friend was a Luther grad. And suddenly, all my stereotypes were destroyed.
These are small, relatively meaningless examples, I know, of ‘dividing walls.’ Sports team and school rivalries don’t typically result in real lasting damage (although there are exceptions to this, of course.) Not so with those dividing walls which are especially high these days for we do, in fact, seem to be divided by so very many things which matter. Oh yes, it is so that the issues being addressed in the powerful words before us now were written for a particular circumstance — specifically, how Gentile Christians would or should be welcomed. Even so, one does not have to think too hard to come up with the many painful things which divide us today, many of which have profound bearing on who we are as Church.
- We categorize ourselves and one another
- by race,
- by gender,
- by sexual orientation,
- by class,
- by citizenship status.
- We are deeply aware of our differences in
- political party
- and theological position
- and church denomination.
- And the wall seems to grow only higher as too much of the time, many of us listen only to those who already agree with us, afraid of being tainted or convinced or proven wrong, perhaps. As a result, we do not allow our positions and therefore our hopes and dreams — indeed, our very lives, to be refined by the fires of simple conversation back and forth.
Oh yes, there is so very much that divides us that we sometimes even find ourselves hesitant to bring up the controversial, fearful that our false sense of peace will be disrupted.
And so here is where my memory has been returning in these days. I am recalling a time when difference threatened to divide, and in the end, did not.
It was twenty five years ago, but it could have been yesterday I remember it so well.
It was in that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when plans were being firmed up for the next family gathering. My sister had come out to us just a few months before. Now in those days, at least in my family, we hardly had language for this and we were still discerning what to make of it. As I recall, I was standing with my dad in the living room of our childhood home. We had just received word that another part of the family was threatening not to come for Christmas if she was there.
Now I seldom saw my dad angry, but his eyes were flashing then as he insisted,
“No one tells one of my children she can’t come home.”
It still brings tears to my eyes to remember it. He who truly hardly knew how to begin to understand this and honestly was more than a little uncomfortable talking about it, sided with love and with welcome, even if it cost. I have never been prouder that he was my dad. And yes, let me say, my mother was in those words as well. He just happened to be the one speaking them that night.
There is so very much that divides us in these days. And along with many of you, I find myself at a loss as to how to begin to take bricks out of the wall which stands between us. But as I think of my dad and his instinctive response to what threatened to tear us apart, I find I am still learning. For him, love and welcome came first. These values were deeply ingrained in him and this wasn’t going to change that. Indeed, I imagine that this threat to unity helped him to sort out what mattered most.
So then. How are we called to talk about this and so many other matters which threaten to divide? How might we rely on the certain truth that “Jesus is our peace” and the promise that what divides us has already been broken down in him? Is it possible that it is not my job, not your job, to remove the bricks from the wall because Jesus has already done so? Is it so that all we have to do is walk through the opening which Jesus has already created for us? Certainly, that is what these words to the Ephesians seem to say.
And so I wonder:
- Is it enough to remember that Jesus died for all? For those like me as well as those so profoundly unlike me that it’s hard to know where to start to delineate the differences?
- How does the certainty that Jesus’ first response was never judgment, but welcome — especially for those on the margins, for those outcast by the rest, inform us now?
- What difference does it make if our defining values are love and welcome?
- And is it enough to know that both the goal and the method God’s people is given is always peace?
Oh, I know that the content of that peace is now and perhaps always will be debated. Even so, if some are excluded from the conversation, if some are not welcomed home, if those who we perceive to be on the other side of the ‘dividing wall’ are not brought near, then I don’t know how we can even begin to sort out what this peace will be. And when I say ‘welcomed home,’ I mean in a safe way, where one’s whole being is treated with integrity and kindness.
As for me, it has been twenty five years now. In that time my world view has changed a lot. I have heard stories, listened deeply to the experiences, and come to love profoundly those whose life experiences are significantly different from my own. Some of these are the dearest, most courageous, kindest people I know. I can’t believe the welcome of Jesus is any less for ‘them’ than it is for me. But finally, not because of who they are, but because of who Jesus is. Even so, this came to me because someone I loved had the courage to say who she was. I will always be grateful.
And you know that Christmas so long ago? Everyone came. Even those who threatened they would not. For they, too were welcome.