October 11, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Nehemiah 2:11-20

When the Walls Let Us Down… The People and the Place, Fifth in a Series

In Northern Ireland, these long walls run along the border streets between conflicting neighborhoods. It would be like if the Broadway neighborhood were unionist, mostly Protestant, British leaning, and if the Longview neighborhood were nationalist, mostly Catholic, Irish leaning. Then imagine if the families from both neighborhoods were in a centuries-long feud. Then right along Fifteenth Street, imagine a long wall maybe twenty feet tall running right between.

There are dozens of these walls throughout Northern Ireland. Some of them host police stations that sit right along the wall. Some of them have gates that open during the day. The walls are called “Peace Lines.” They were first built around forty years ago at the beginning of the “Troubles” which is absolutely the most understated name for a war that I can imagine. The Troubles officially came to an end with the Belfast agreement of nineteen ninety-eight, so you might think that would be the end of the Peace Lines.[1] Actually in recent years, the construction of these walls is on the rise and so is the controversy.

See some people, perhaps especially outsiders like me and political officials there, want the walls to come down to make peacemaking more possible and more critical. Some people, especially those living closest to the walls, want them to remain. They fear the violence will rise up if the walls come down, and they might be right. Some say the walls are a vestige from a war that should be over. Some say the walls are the only thing keeping them safe in their homes.[2]

Throughout history in different regions of the world, we’ve seen this human impulse to build a wall between peoples. Walls have more than one side, so does the wall make you feel protected or imprisoned? The walls clarify identity, but is their goal to keep all of us together inside or to keep all of them away? You could convince me, it’s not always a bad thing to build a wall. But I think it might be problem for us to expect a wall to do the work of peacemaking. It might even be a problem for us to put our faith in the walls expecting them to stand so silent and forever.

Today our scripture comes from the book of Nehemiah, the sequel to Ezra. Because we have a couple of special Sundays coming up, we’ll conclude our series today, even though we’re just dipping our toes into the waters of Nehemiah. You might remember, in Ezra, the main focus is the work of rebuilding the temple. In Nehemiah, it’s the rest of Jerusalem that needs to be rebuilt.

Nehemiah worked as a servant to the king when he experienced a call from God to go rebuild the city. He’s only been in town three days, and on the third night, Nehemiah launches a covert operation to inspect the crumbling walls around the city. Soon thereafter, he approaches the officials with this rallying cry: “You see the trouble we’re in! Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so we may no longer suffer disgrace” (Nehemiah 2:17).

As is the case with walls, some people were right with Nehemiah ready to start building while other people opposed the project. This tension continues throughout the book, and at one point, it is said the builders of the wall work with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4:17).

All through Ezra-Nehemiah, you feel the back-and-forth rhythm of building a little bit, then facing opposition from neighboring nations, building a little more, resisting a little more opposition… With both the temple and the wall, the success of building was attributed to the will of God. This work of building and defending is what made the people a people. It revived their faithfulness to God and established their identity.

Remember this question of identity lives at the heart of Ezra-Nehemiah. It’s why Ezra advocates for renewed zeal to following the law of God. It’s why Nehemiah advocates for building the wall. The law and the wall are doing the same work. They give structure and safety. Both the wall and the law proclaim: This is how we know who we are. Who’s in and who’s out.

It’s easy for me to look at this story and find the divisiveness off-putting, but you know, I can empathize with this impulse to build a structure that proclaims: This is who we are! Whether it’s building a law or a wall, building a budget, or a schedule, or a church…when it’s done well, this is the kind of work that builds a people.

Ask me to lead a youth group lock in; the first thing we’ll do is play a game to learn each other’s names, but the second thing we’ll do is make a covenant for how we’ll get along. Then everybody signs it. Then we order pizza. It is good to develop policies and write them down. It is good for organizations to draft and revise their bylaws. This is creative, caring work and when it’s done well, it can build peace and understanding.

But here’s what I’m wondering… After the structure gets built, then what?

The book of Nehemiah ends with an ugly scene. Nehemiah struggles to enforce the laws. He finds that merchants are camping out in front of the wall hoping to sell their goods on the sabbath. He chases them off and threatens them, and he reinforces the guard on the wall (Nehemiah 13:20-22).

It’s not just that we build walls, what concerns me is when we put our faith in the walls. We think, now that we have established this policy, we’ll never have this problem again. Now that we have a wall, it will stand so silent, and forever, and keep us safe. I’m not so sure…

Along the coast of Washington state there is a phenomenon called a ghost forest. It sounds like a Halloween attraction. But really it’s a collection of western red cedars that stand along a salt marsh. The trees have no branches or leaves, and their trunks have turned gray. There’s a theory that the trees died abruptly in the year sixteen ninety-nine when an earthquake caused the land to drop and the salt water to come up and flood their roots. These trees have been dead for centuries, yet their trunks still stand so silent and forever.[3]

Now you would not be wrong to see this as a grim metaphor for what the institutional Church might become. It is exactly the worry of the church growth experts, that congregations will keep their structures standing upright in their spots, but the life will have gone out. This is a real risk for some congregations: keeping the structure, but losing the life.

But I will tell you, that is not the greatest risk. The greatest risk is not that our churches will go the way of the ghost forests. It’s that our faith in God will.

Maybe our faith gets made of creeds and catechisms. Maybe it gets made of slogans it seems like we’re supposed to believe.“God has a plan…” “Everything happens for a reason…” you know the ones. Without even noticing, these beliefs can harden and turn into stone. I can let my faith become a structure so solid and forever, until the day I go to roll away the stone and see the Lord is not here. And if I’m mistaken about one thing, who knows what else? If God doesn’t have everything all the way planned; if there isn’t a reason that causes everything to happen, and maybe there isn’t. Now what?

This could happen to you. Once again you go to the sturdy structure of your faith, but this time, God is not here. And maybe it’s not that God is missing or never was. It might be that God is alive. It might be that our faith can come back to life too. The trick is to look for the life and put our faith where the life is; then we’ll help coax it along.

Together we can find the pulse in the church. We can watch for movement at the edges, see where the breath of God makes our being rise and fall. Listen for the stirring and the struggle. Watch the ones who get back up. Let’s look at our own faith to see which beliefs hold the holy spark of life and which beliefs come crumblin’ down.

Where is the life? See that, then we will find God. We will find out who we are as a people, not by the structures we dwell inside, but by the life we make together.

Of course, the thing about life, it is not easily stopped; it can even get into the walls. The prophet Habakkuk condemns the Babylonians for their plundering. But he says it like this: “You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork” (Habakkuk 2:10-11). The power of God gets into the walls like mold.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus rides into Jerusalem days before he gets killed. The people are throwing their cloaks on the ground praising God, and the Pharisees tell Jesus, “Teacher, make your disciples be quiet!” Jesus explains, “ ‘I tell you if they were silent, the stones would shout out.’ As he approached the city, he wept over it saying, ‘If you had only recognized the things that make for peace…’” (Luke 19:40-41a).

And so it is. Even those Peace Lines in Northern Ireland do not stay silent. Many of them are covered with graffiti. On one, there’s a guest book painted on the wall for visitors to sign. Magnificent political murals appear all over the walls in Northern Ireland. Through paint, the people are protesting on the walls; now the people are talking about the walls.

Now all on their own, those walls don’t make peace. But this conversation might. Now the structure of God may not teach us who we are. But the life of God just might. Together, let us put our faith where the life is. We’ll come back to life ourselves. Every time. Thank God. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_lines

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-11/barbara-miller-on-peace-walls/4745202

[3] Schulz, Kathryn. “The Really Big One,” The New Yorker. July 20, 2015. page 55.

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