(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)
Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?
Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)
I heard walls coming down!
So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.
First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.
Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.
Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.
Shucking the corn? Unlawful.
Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.
Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.
Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”
In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?
We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.
In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.
Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”
We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?
Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!
And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.
So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?
Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”
In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”
He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”
That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.
This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.
“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”
Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.
Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.
I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.
I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.
The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.
Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.
Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
That something is God.