28 October 2010

Tearing Downt the Walls: III. Creating a Safe Space

Ephesians 4: 1-6[1]

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th October 2010

 Always pay attention when the word “therefore” is used in scripture.    “Therefore” often signals a decisive shift in the argument or introduces a conclusion of considerable import.   It means, pay attention because this is really important.  It’s easy to miss in the English text; but this is a strong “therefore,” followed by, “I beg you,” or, “I beseech you,” which has a sense of urgency about it in Greek, yet also very warm and personal.  These four words, “Therefore,…I beg you…,”  tell us that this is the turning point in Ephesians. 

Up to this point, chapters 1-3, Paul has made the claim that God in Christ is forming a new humanity, a new people, formed together into a new community.  This community, this church, is marked by its diversity and inclusiveness.  Why? Because both Jews and Gentiles are now worshipping Jesus together under one roof as anew people. The enmity between Jew and Gentile is now healed in Christ.  “For Christ is our peace; and he has broken down the wall of hostility between us, declaring peace to those who are far off and those who are near.”  The church is a people known for reconciliation and welcome, not because they’re nice, not because they’re kind, not because it was the politically-correct thing to do (which it wasn’t in the Roman world), but because through Christ women and men came to see that reconciliation, welcome, and acceptance lie at the core of God’s being.  If they experienced God’s grace and love through Christ, then how can they withhold that grace and love and acceptance of their neighbor?    The love that rules among them is the result of God’s care for them; because God cares for them, they find themselves caring for each other, for their neighbor, even for the alien and the stranger who walks into their community.

            What we find here is a simple and profound rationale for the church.  Because of Christ the walls that separated humanity from God are now gone, this same power, known as love, has the ability to break down walls that divide and alienate individuals from others.  Because of the reconciliation in the vertical relationship (between humanity and God) there can now be reconciliation at the horizontal level, between person and person.  And the individuals who have experienced this kind of love and grace are now pulled together into a new community, a new family, a new race, a new people – into church.  Paul is trying to get the Ephesians to see is that God is at work in them and among them, we are like a beautiful piece of art, as Paul says earlier in Ephesians, created in Christ (Ephesians 2: 10), being formed and reformed into something beautiful and new, into a unity; and he’s trying to get them to see themselves as a people already united by the Holy Spirit, and therefore calls them to work hard to maintain this unity.

            We’re only looking at six verses here in Ephesians and yet they contain a whole new world, a different way of being, a still more excellent way.  It’s a way marked by mutual forbearance, of “bearing one another in love.”  The meaning of this Greek phrase suggests, to bear, to bear up, to hold oneself up, responding with patience to the other until a sense of provocation is past.  That’s what love does, it bears all thing, it endures (1 Corinthians 13).  To love is to bear, to bear is to love.  They are tied together; they interpret each other mutually.  “If to love includes bearing one’s neighbor, then love is not just an emotion, [or feeling,] or ideal of the individual soul.”  It isn’t love except in relation to neighbors.  The Christians doesn’t love in general, we love in particular; it’s always specific, it’s often costly and often, then, miraculous.[2]

            Then Paul says, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  “The unity of the Spirit is maintained, [not attained] as the members of the body function together harmoniously for the well-being of the whole.”  “Make every effort,” means “take pain, haste,” with passion, work to fulfill this responsibility.  The Greek here means to use your will, your senses your reason, your physical strength, your total attitude, to give it your all.   It means don’t be passive about this, there’s nothing quiet about this, there’s no space for “let’s wait and see” attitude.  You have the initiative.  Do it now.  I mean it.  You do it.  I mean you![3]

            And what do we have to do?  Maintain…the bond of peace.”  The Spirit is forming a bond.  This doesn’t mean the Spirit is some kind of super-glue.  The metaphor is more dynamic than that.  The Greek word Paul uses is from the world of construction, carpentry; it refers to that which holds a house together – the wooden beams, the fastenings, the ligaments.[4]  With these bonds in place we have a structure, a structure that houses the people of God.   We are being built into the household of God, Paul says, built upon the foundations of apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone.  “In him,” we heard last week, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple…, a dwelling for God.”  The church, then, is a place where God’s people live and breathe and move and grow.  It’s the space, the sacred space where God’s children are invited to live in freedom.  This is Paul’s image of the church.  The church is a people, yes, a community, but we become the people, know we are children of God from living in a particular space.  The church carves out a space in the world for us to embody the gospel, a sacred space for this new way of living and loving and bearing one’s burdens. 

            The last two weeks in this series I’ve been talking about tearing down the walls of separation and division, the “walls of hostility,” erected in fear between people, particularly fellow-Christians.  There is no place for these in the church.  Christ came to tear down walls that divide in order to establish in their place a new space in which to live.  The church can or should be that safe space where God’s children are allowed to live in freedom.  In order to say this space is different, set apart, requires boundaries, walls of a different kind, something that defines the dimensions of this space.  The church is called out to be different, that’s what ekklesia means, to be called out and set apart.  Our walls can be high or low, but they’re broad and wide, and permeable, and within them there is safety – or should be.

            What makes a space safe?  What makes space sacred?  Perhaps they share a common answer.  Theologian Pamela Cooper-White suggests that sacred spaces, whether it’s a sanctuary or a religious community, have a maternal quality to them.  Think of “mother Church.”   It’s the place where we are held and loved, where we feel the embrace of God, and feel the embrace of God in the way we are held by others in the community.  It’s the space where we know we are being held by someone larger than ourselves.   A sacred space is a kind of “maternal holding environment.”[5]  In this matrix we know ourselves reconciled to God and to our neighbor, we know ourselves loved unconditionally, we find ourselves welcomed and accepted.  A sacred space is a holding space, a space where we know ourselves to be safe.

            Of course we know this is not always the case.  Some have experienced the church as anything but safe.  Assuming it to be so, this sacred trust has been violated by religious leaders – Roman Catholic, Orthodox,  Protestant, Jew, and Muslim alike – who have abused their power and violated the rights of God’s children.  People come to church for healing from domestic violence, only to discover the dysfunction of churches.  On Thursday this week I attended the presbytery’s  all-day Healthy Boundaries workshop (Dorothy took the same class several months ago).  It’s a requirement for all clergy.  We shared stories of people who one time trusted of all places the church could be safe, only to discover the place and the people were toxic.  Once this trust is lost, it’s very difficult (not impossible), for it to be regained.  When the church segregates and discriminates it has stopped being a place of safety.

            And, of course, bullying has been in the news a lot this past month.  There was probably never a time without it.  The word was first coined in 1693.  It’s become more lethal in this world due to online social networking.  My guess is we’ve all been victims of bullying and maybe, dare I say, we at one time might have been the bully.  Webster’s dictionary from 1828 defines a bully as, “a noisy, blustering overbearing fellow, more distinguished for insolence and empty menaces, than for courage, and disposed to provoke quarrels.”  Most bullies I’ve met are full of fear.  And they project that unacknowledged fear on to others who remind them what they’re afraid of, but can’t admit.  Though they may be cowards, the damage done, as we know, can be costly.  Four teenagers last month took their lives because of the bullying they received, primarily because they were either gay or perceived to be so.  Seth Walsh and Asher Brown were 13, Billy Lucas was 15, and Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped from the George Washington Bridge, was 18.  These are tragic. This is a wake-up call for the culture and the church.

            Now, as Presbyterians, we generally don’t have a lot in common with Albert Mohler.  He’s the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.  Mohler is an extreme-right conservative Southern Baptist, he reads the Bible literally, he’s against legalizing same-sex marriage, and argues that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin.  He wrote an article recently and found myself in agreement, “I am haunted by the one question that seems so obvious and clear in the account of Tyler Clementi’s tragic death.  In those days of crushing anguish, humiliation, and confusion, was there no one who could have stood between that boy and that bridge?”  Mohler asks his fellow-conservatives, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church?  …would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?”[6]  Was there no safe space for Tyler Clementi or these others?  I don’t know if they were Christian or not.  It doesn’t matter.  Did they not know there are safe spaces?  Did they not know that the church could and should be such a place?  Regardless of belief, we are to provide sanctuary for the hurting and broken and scared. 

            It seems to me that creating safe space for people is what it means to work out our salvation.  Salvation does not mean my soul is safe and I’m going to heaven when I die.  Nor does it mean simply all my sins are forgiven.  It includes these, but, really salvation, from the Hebrew, yasha, means to be placed in a vast, broad, space where there is no cramping (Job 36:16).[7]  It means to have a wide, open space in which to live in freedom, to not be closed in.  It’s the opposite of being confined, restricted, or oppressed. Salvation is liberation from confinement, constrictions, and limitation.  It’s a place where one is free to grow and expand.  That’s the sacred space, I believe, that God gives us when we are in Christ and it’s what it means for the church to preach salvation and live it.  That’s what God desires for God’s children.

We can’t be responsible for the world.  We can’t take care of everyone.  But we can start with ourselves, take responsibility for ourselves. What is the nature of this church?  What does this sacred space look like and feel like for our members and everyone who enters here.  May it be said of us, more and more, that we care for one another, that people know here they are safe, young and old alike, that people can bring who they and all that they wrestle with here, we will cry with those who mourn and rejoice with those who are happy, that we share hopes and dreams.  That we see ourselves as a safe space, that we work to maintain this, and that we become even more passionate about it.  It would pain me infinitely (and I know Dorothy feels the same) if someone, particularly our youth, could not bring their fears to the church, their concerns, that some subject or issue was perceived to be off limits, that people would not feel safe to bring this to the church, particularly their pastors.  We can’t solve every problem, we won’t have answers to every question, we can’t extend healing (that’s God’s job), but we can bear and love and hold one another, and remind one another that God bears and loves and holds us too.





[1]Ephesians 2, along with 1 Corinthians 10, were the two texts at the center of the assembly that wrote the Belhar Confession from the Reformed Church of South Africa, denouncing the sin of Apartheid (meaning separateness) and the sin of racism.  Belhar rejects “any doctrine which…sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color [and by implication any other category] and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.”  Throughout the Belhar Confession there is an emphasis on the unity of God’s people who have “one calling, are of one soul and one mind, have one God and Father, and are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, … confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens,….”  You can hear here the language of Ephesians, especially 4: 1-6.
[2] Markus Barth, Ephesians:  Translation and Commentary on Chapter 4-6 (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, 1986), 427-428.
[3] Barth, 428.
[4] Barth, 428-429.
[5] Pamela Cooper-White, “Sacred Space and the Psyche:  Reflections on Potential Space and the Sacred Built Environment,” in Kathleen J. Greider, Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, and Felicity Brock Kelcourse, eds., Healing Wisdom:  Depth Psychology and the Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2010), 78-80.
[6] Albert Mohler, http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/10/04/between-the-boy-and-the-bridge-a-haunting-question/
[7] This is also an experience of the Spirit: ‘Thou has set my feet in a broad place.’ (Psalm 31:8). ‘You also he allured out of distress into a broad place where there is no cramping.’ (Job 36:16). According to Kabbalistic Jewish tradition, one of God’s secret names is MAKOM, the wide space. If God’s Spirit is experienced as this broad, open space for living conferred on created beings, then it is easy to understand the spatial designations which declare that people live ‘in’ God’s spirit, and experience God spatially as ‘breadth.’” Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress Press, 1993), 42-43.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Tear down walls based on fear and ignorance. Build strong permeable walls that create safe havens for all of God's creation. Reach out to those on the other side and forge community, understanding, empathy. Take a gift, any gift, and pay it forward to someone. Simple thoughts, right? No. A series of complex thoughts that when interwoven -- not in the abstract -- but in the reality, truly create the Kingdom of God.

Thanks, Rabbi, for another powerful message.