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Love Outside the Walls

Sermon - 12/24/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Micah 5: 1-5

The sermon text for this morning comes from the prophet Micah, the 5th chapter, verses 1 through 5:

Now you are walled around with a wall;
   siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel
   upon the cheek.

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
5and he shall be the one of peace.

I almost forgot my object for my sermon illustration, I had to go back and retrieve it.  This little piece of concrete, I have often wanted to mount in some way, and to place on a wall in my office.  Instead, it's been in the sock drawer for the last 15 years.  Anyone have any idea why on earth I've kept it?  Berlin.  Yeah, this is a piece of the Berlin Wall that a friend of mine sent to me.

As many of you know, I used to live in Berlin, for three years, from 1978-1981.  That's where I met my wife Judy, and our first year of marriage was in Berlin.  Of course at that time Berlin was a walled-in city, something that I discovered in great shock the night before I moved to Berlin.  I always thought it was on the border between East and West Germany, I didn't realize it was in the middle of East Germany, so that was a rude awakening.

But an incredible experience, those three years living there in that walled-in city.  I learned a little bit about walls, walls built around cities and between nations and how they provide for security on the one hand and yet how they also are often disruptive to human affairs and damaging to the human psyche.  How they divide families and become objects greatly despised by those living on both sides of the wall.

So I invite you to reflect with me this morning on the significance of walls.  Especially as we see walls being built once again in the Holy Land, and walls built on our southern border with Mexico.  

And to consider the alternative that is presented by Micah and how it is seen as realized in the birth of Jesus.

The first line of this text -- "Now you are walled around with a wall" -- refers to that time when Jerusalem was besieged by the Assyrian army in the year 701 before our common era (BCE).  And the wall that had been built for the protection of the city had now become its prison.  Standing on that wall, I've been told, you can see the hills of Bethlehem.  The Kennedy's were there this summer, Michael said, and Bethlehem is about 10 minutes from Jerusalem.  Not very far.  And yet because of the new wall that has been built separating Israel from the West Bank it takes an hour and a half to go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  And that wall has created tremendous economic hardship, especially for the people of Palestine, as farmers have been cut off from their land, laborers have been cut off from their jobs, etc.  So much so, the staff of our overseas mission division and the leadership of our church brought a resolution to our General Assembly last summer in Portland condemning that wall, and calling on the Israeli government to tear it down and to abide by the international agreements that prohibit such walls.

As we were reminded by the protesters who where there on that day, and some of you I know where there and were confronted by them, with their posters and pictures of the people of Israel who have been killed by the suicide bombings.  And if you spend any time listening to them, you heard them talk about the greater sense of security, stability, and peace that has been achieved since those walls have gone up, and the suicide bombings, as a result, have decreased.  

So it is a terribly difficult and complex issue with concrete results measured in very real pain and suffering of those who live within the shadows of those walls.  And it is precisely that complexity, that difficulty, which makes this text from Micah all the more challenging.

Here is Micah, 2700 years ago, in a very similar context as today -- of violence, destruction, and fear -- and from within those protective walls surrounding Jerusalem pointing to the little town of Bethlehem outside of the wall, defenseless.  And he says 'From you, Bethlehem, shall come our savior, our future, our security'.  And it's a striking contrast to the walled-in city.  A startling claim for those who equate security with power and military defenses.  This is not just a new ruler in the long line of Davidic descendents of which he speaks, but a new kind of ruler 'who will stand and keep his flock in the strength of the Lord', the prophet says.

In other words, the hope for peace lies not in the mighty warrior, but a gentle shepherd.  True security will not be found in fortress walls but in manger stalls.  It's not a coincidence, I think, therefore, that God chose Bethlehem to be that place of where the Messiah would come.  Because Bethlehem affirms that the meek will inherit the earth, that the mighty will be brought down, that the lowly will be lifted up. So God chose Bethlehem, and not only Bethlehem, but a manger as a another sign that God was doing something new, turning the world upside down.  God chose Bethlehem to show us that Kings and Caesars, dictators and presidents, ultimately will not be the ones who determine the fate of our world.  Bethlehem, now more than ever, outside the walls of Jerusalem, once again is that symbol of God's vulnerable presence in the world.

If you are following the ongoing saga, so critical peace and security in the world, of Harry Potter (J), fighting the battle against He who shall not be named, the evil Lord Voldemort, then you know in your heart that when the 7th and final book comes out sometime next year that it won't be the older, wiser, and more powerful wizards who save the world from this great evil.  But rather the young and innocent Harry Potter and his classmates.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Remember the prophet Isaiah, who said the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them.

The message of Micah, as well as the gospels is that if you want to find God, if you want to see the Messiah, don't look to the palaces of power and the fortresses of walls.  Look to the little town of Bethlehem.  To the manger.  To the shelters and the soup kitchens.  To the jails and the half-way houses.  To the places you least expect and there you will find our Lord and savior.

Thursday evening was a dark and somber night.  A long night in Eugene.  No, I'm not talking about Duck football -- what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas J [Ducks lost 38-8 in the Las Vegas bowl].  Thursday evening was the annual memorial service for the homeless who have died on the streets.  It's held traditionally on the longest night of the year, which is the Winter Solstice, December 21st.  It was a tradition that has now become a national event, began by homeless advocates in Portland.  

There were about 30 or 40 folk gathered here in our courtyard for Eugene's service.  Workers from the front-line agencies -- ShelterCare, soup kitchen's, Buckley House, Whitebird Clinic.  And the homeless, standing side-by-side, some who have come for the soup kitchen held here on Thursday nights.  Standing there side-by-side and lighting candles for each person who was named who has died on the street in the last year.  And then we rang the chimes, 33 times we rang them, and one for the unknown person yet to be found.  

Sacred Heart has this wonderful program -- No One Dies Alone -- that provides somewhere there constantly to the terminally ill, volunteers, so you have that assurance that someone will be with you at all times.  You think about how tragic it is that in our time, in this modern society with all of our affluence, and yet 30-some people have died on the streets alone, in the cold, without shelter.  

I was contemplating that tragic reality as I also wondered about any connections to the Christmas manger and the walls of Micah when I met Glen.  Glen was formerly homeless himself, and said he came to the service because of his experience of living on the street and wanted to remember those who are homeless.  And when he learned that I am the pastor of the church he asked me if I'd like to hear his poem about the homeless and churches.  I said 'sure'.  I'd like to share it with you -- it's rather long, there may be an offensive word or two in here for you, but I was so struck by it, it left me speechless in that context of standing outside after just remembering the homeless.  And he titles it "A Church Without Walls":

A Church Without Walls

A church without walls, I said to the Rev
Who purchased my burger, fries, and Coke.
It must have been Winter some years back
I was out on a lunch date with Pastor Jack.

His dream was big and kind were his lips
When he asked this question between thoughtful sips.
Glen, I care for the homeless, I really do
I'd like to see them fill my pew.

I'd like to build a new church, you see
One for the poor to come hear me.
I said to the Rev with no thought at all
You need to build a church without walls.

You put up a south wall that won't stay
An east and a west wall will keep them away.
Maybe a new north wall to hang your cross
But your four walls won't save the lost.

He looked at me a bit aloof
I said "That's right, Jack, forget the roof".
They've begged for a roof for a hundred years
You watched in the rain with crocodile tears.

You let them come sit down and dry
Then ran for the exit when they came by.
So for all the drunks that soiled your floor
I hope you found mercy for every whore.

It's too late for a roof, Rev, thanks for the lunch
He looked at me thoughtfully and nodded a bunch.
One year passed, Jack moved up the street
To a wonderful church where the wealthy meet.

Far up in the hills, too far to walk
Where gifted theologians love to talk.
I visited there, I ate rich foods
But I was a stranger and kind of rude.

I smelled back then, my clothes were old
Yet I walked into Jack's church bold.
Pastor Jack is busy sir, please wait by the wall
Knowing that they'd rather I didn't come at all.

Wonderful walls, painted halls, pristine toilets every floor
A fully stacked kitchen, what a score.
So I stuffed myself not knowing when
I would ever eat as well again.

And I had a few words with Pastor Jack
But I was crazy and not welcomed back.
Some years have passed and I've cleaned up
I found a church with communion cup.

I don't agree with all their views
I'm still upset they moved the pews.
We never sing my favorite hymn
But by-and-by I'm part of them.

I quit condemning their purple walls
But every chance I crowd there halls.
With homeless bums and smelly feet
Those who need a place to eat.

Crazies, roughly pushed away
They're the ones I want to stay.
And now my church is growing, see
Forgetting men who sometimes pee.

Chairs to be cleaned, carpets too
I love the homeless, how 'bout you?
They hide and sleep outside our wall
I wish they saw no wall at all.

Except for Josh, who likes our wall
He found a place where he can crawl.
One night it got under 25
I worried if he would stay alive.

Because if he froze outside our wall
Would it impact my church at all?
Hmm, I often think of Pastor Jack
Do you think that he would take it back?

If you go up class, you might find him
Give him my love and remind him
No need to say my name at all
Just whisper in his ear:  "No walls".

[Applause from the congregation]

I think that could be a poem about any church.  And about us too.

Do you want to know that love which knows no boundaries?  Which cannot be contained by any walls?  Come to Bethlehem.  Leave the walled-in fortresses of pride and privilege behind.  Come to the stable, where there are no walls, no barriers, no protection.  Just you and God.  Come to the place where we can be at peace with one another and with ourselves.  

Come where love is born and is here to stay.  Come this night of wonder, to the little town of Bethlehem, where God's love is found outside the walls.

 


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