A Great Wall

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

It is commonly, but apparently incorrectly, asserted that the only man-made structure visible from outer space is the Great Wall of China. Even if the Wall does not stand alone in this regard, it remains in a small category of things that can still be seen with what we might think of as a God’s-eye-view. Which makes it all the more interesting to learn of the discovery recently of an additional 180 miles of the Great Wall that were built during the Ming dynasty but had been covered up by shifting sands over the centuries. This is not the first time new sections of the Wall have been discovered. And it does tease the imagination to wonder how you lose track of something so monumental.

It is a point of reflection that the Great Wall, the construction of which was begun about the time of Jesus’ ministry, was built generally to keep invaders from the north on their side of the wall. I can’t say how effective it was over the millennia, but one imagines that it was less so in the areas where the Wall was lost to the sand.

The propensity of men and women to build walls is itself a perennial point of reflection about more than just the architectural and structural purposes of a wall – just think of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, or Robert Frost. A wall can say a lot about a society and its people. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians is thinking of a wall when he explores the meaning of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant of hope and salvation that is the Christian faith. The early church had struggled with the question of whether salvation was for the Jews alone, or if the gifts of God’s grace were more magnanimously offered in Jesus Christ. “Remember,” the letter says, “that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

Strangers and aliens to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world – this is a harsh description to apply to someone else, and even harsher to think of someone who would look in the mirror and believe that it applies to them. Yet it is very much the description that has been so often foisted onto people who we routinely refer to these days by a four-letter code: GLBT. To be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered has often meant to be identified as a stranger and alien to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world, hence the higher rate of suicide amongst teens who discover themselves to be so strange, so alien, so without hope, so without God.

Our Episcopal Church has been tied up knots over the matter of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, often pitting conservatives against liberals. Last week our church used its General Convention (which is its triennial legislative gathering) to address this matter in a meaningful way. The delegates there (bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people) ended a moratorium on the ordination of any real person whose so-called manner of life might be offensive to some hypothetical person anywhere in the world. This unrealistic standard was never more than a euphemism for a person who was romantically and sexually involved with another person of the same gender. You might even say two such people were in love, but I digress.

The word on the street is now schism – the breaking apart of the church, now that long-exposed fault lines have so clearly fractured. And the debate about who is leaving whom has already begun. And we seem to be waiting to discover whether or not the sky is falling on the Episcopal Church.

It is surely just a coincidence that 2000 years ago or so, when God looked down from heaven he noticed the beginnings of the building of a Great Wall to keep the Mongols to the north from invading China. But did this sight – visible from the heavens because of its monumental ambition – prompt God to sigh about all the other monumental divisions that separated his people? Did he begin to regret, perhaps, the success of his experiment at Babel to keep men from getting too close to heaven? And did he see, with a clarity that only he could have, the carefully fortified and vast networks of the walls of race and tribe and nation that were the fruits of that experiment? Did he lament that after Babel we left off building towers for a while and chose instead to become experts at building walls?

Was it his God’s-eye-view that moved him to send his Son into the world for a ministry of reconciliation – bringing all people closer to each other, binding them in a relationship of service and love, and so, bringing them closer to his own heart?

And did he send his Holy Spirit into the world to use his mighty breath to blow sand over great sections of the walls that divide us – even bringing Jew and Gentile together: his own chosen people joined to those who were strangers and aliens to the covenants of hope?

To imagine this is to indulge in the fantasy that either God thinks like me or that from time to time he allows me to think a little bit like him.

The “issue” of what to do with gay, lesbian, and transgendered people in the church is very much like a section of ancient wall that the church has discovered. And the question of what to do with it begs the question of which fantasy we want to indulge: the idea that God thinks like us, or that from time to time he allows us to think like him.

And what we choose to do with the wall seems to be a reasonable indication of which fantasy we are indulging. Do we believe that it is providential that previous generations built us a wall and that we should not only preserve it but strengthen it? Or does it seem to us a rather good and godly thing that the sands of time have covered up this old division?

It is that image from the Epistle to the Ephesians that gives me confidence in my fantasy: “in his flesh [Christ] has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Remember that Jesus was a carpenter not a mason. He was not skilled at building walls that could last. He was, however, prone to spend time with the unlikely, the unwashed, the unprepared, and the unsuitable. In Ephesians the grace of this propensity of Jesus’ is called “our peace.” It is what reconciles our differences, brings us together, teaches us tolerance, instructs us in love, and knocks down lasting barriers. It is the peace of Christ which passes all understanding. And it is a peace that has held sway in this parish at least for the past 60 years or so, and, I am prepared to believe, for the previous hundred years before that. A peace that comes of letting the broken-down, covered-up, lost walls of our past remain broken-down, covered-up and lost to all but memory.

It seems odd that this peace would be disrupted because of an insistence that we must agree – on pain of schism – with every Anglican around the globe on how to include the people captured by those four letters, GLBT, in the life of the church. Inasmuch as we do not require a universal agreement about the meaning of either the Eucharist or Holy Baptism within and among all Anglicans, why should such a rigorous demand be made of our understanding of the meaning of sexual orientation, erotic expression, and romantic affection?

The early church realized, St. Paul attests, that Gentiles would have to be included in the communion of saints because the Holy Spirit had already visited them, blessed them and made them a part of the Body of Christ. Who were they, St. Paul asked, to second-guess the Holy Spirit when his work and presence were so obvious in those who had once been far off?

Today’s church - at least in America – has increasingly understood that gay men, lesbian women, bi-sexual and transgendered people have already been visited and blessed by the Holy Spirit and made a part of the Body of Christ, for this is what most of us mean when we perform the sacrament of Holy Baptism. (And it has never seemed wise or necessary to stop and ask whether this child at the font might grow up to be a gay boy, a lesbian girl, a bi-sexual teen, or a transgendered adult.) Who are we to second guess the work and presence of the Holy Spirit, made obvious by the faithfulness and fruitfulness of the lives of people we so casually categorize with a letter: G,L,B,T, as though those letters tell us very much at all about the people to whom we affix them?

For at least thirty years in the Episcopal church we have been excavating around this section of some great wall that we have discovered. We have been wondering, praying, thinking, fighting about what to do with it. We have been invited, encouraged, enjoined, threatened and cajoled to build it up, strengthen it, mark it out as a border and a boundary not to be crossed. We have been told, incredibly, that its foundations rest on the consistent biblical record attesting to the sanctity of marriage, that was supposedly established in the Garden of Eden (though I have searched the Book of Genesis in vain for a marriage rite), but which seems to falter when we consider almost all the patriarchs of our faith, beginning with Abraham, and which was rejected for reasons unknown to us by our Lord.

Instead, Jesus went to the Cross, where his blood marked the spot where the cornerstone of his grace was laid. On the cornerstone of his sacrifice he would build, it turned out, not a wall, but a holy temple that knits together all the unlikely lives of all the sinners like me and like you who will go to him when he calls. It is just a fact that Jesus has been as generous with his grace to people who wear the badges G,L,B,T as he has to princes and harlots, rich and poor, black and white, Gentile and Jew.

And he has determined to build with us – whether we agree with one another or not – a dwelling place for God. If this is God’s purpose for us and our vocation in the world, we may find that we fulfill it much more easily and joyfully if we give up our habit of so fixating on the walls we would like to shore up that we never get around to building the temple that God has invited every one of us to be a part of.

“Remember that [we] were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Thanks be to God.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 July 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 19, 2009 .