Tear down the walls!

For four years from 2005 to 2009, I was an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in Sudan. That means that I was your missionary, representing you, to the people of Sudan, the largest nation in Africa.

I was there at the end of a long civil war, a 23-year civil war, and I lived on the border between North and South, where Northerners met Southerners, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians. I lived in an area that is now the northernmost point of the new country of South Sudan.

The area in which I lived, called Renk, was an area during which the 23-year civil war, the North was in control. Which meant there was no fighting going on. So people would flock to Renk from all over South Sudan, so that they could avoid a brutal civil war.

By the time I got there, the town was about 3,000 people and we had members of least 15 different tribes living in this small town. Now this is highly unusual in South Sudan, because that was a country, still to this day, where your tribe counts – more than anything else. Not the nation in which you live, not the region in which you live, but what tribe you belong to.

Because we had people from so many tribes living in South Sudan, it meant that our common language was Arabic, the language of the oppressors of the North. We didn’t speak classical Arabic; we actually spoke what is known as Sudani Creole, meaning, “Heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb.” We never conjugated our verbs; that’s what Creole means.

And so the language I spoke, and the language in which I still pray, is Arabic. But every once in a while, people would challenge me on this and want to know why I was not learning the language of the predominant tribe in the area in which I lived. That tribe is more commonly known as Dinka; they are correctly known as the Jieng.

It was very important for them, they thought, that I spoke their language because then I would be proclaiming that I belonged to their tribe.

Well, one day, I was up in Khartoum, in the capital of what was then the whole country, now the capital of the northern part known as Sudan, and we were sitting on the street corner of a dusty road, and we were drinking tea, because Starbucks in Sudan – wait a minute, no, I’m up in New England – Dunkin’ Donuts in Sudan is out on a log, and the lady makes your coffee or your tea over a little open charcoal fire.

And so a bunch of us were sitting out there, and dusk was coming, so the heat was coming down, and we were drinking our tea, and these three young men, who did not know me – but they knew I was a white person, and they knew I was with the Church – challenged me. “What tribe do you belong to?” they said.

Now, I have to tell you by this time, I was tired as spit of this question. I was tired of being told I had to declare for one of the tribes, when I had friends in all 15 of the tribes in my own town. I was tired of being told I had to learn one of the tribal languages, which would exclude, necessarily, all the other people.

And so I looked at these young men and said, “I belong to the most important tribe there is. I belong to the tribe of God.

They looked at me, and I said, “There is nothing more important, nothing else I need to know in my life. I belong to the tribe of God.”

I went back to my town, and I found out that word was spreading, that people were saying, “Lauren is refusing to join any of our tribes because she belongs to the tribe of God.”

And that is what the Church in South Sudan is doing. The Church in South Sudan is breaking down those barriers, overcoming those barriers, crossing all the boundaries, so that they can proclaim that all of us are indeed of one tribe, the tribe of God.

My friends, I need to tell you, this is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians this morning. Now if you go back and look at the letter to the Ephesians – which I highly recommend you do – take a look at what Paul is saying in there.

I’m going to tell you that lots of preachers right now are talking about how this is a way in which we’re supposed to come together in unity and stop arguing over the color of the carpet in your church.[1]

This is the time when we’re supposed to stop arguing over whether we heat the water in the bathrooms. That’s how this letter is used – very mildly, very tamely.

Anybody who uses it that way, though, is not paying any attention to Paul. Because this letter of Paul, this section of Paul’s letter? This is a cry for revolution!

This is a cry to turn over the powers and principalities which in Paul’s day were known as Rome.

In the days when Paul walked the earth, people were segregated. They were segregated by their tribes, their race, their ethnicity, their language, and most of all, by their jobs. You didn’t get to choose what job you had in those days. If you were born into a family of farmers, you were going to be a farmer. If you were born in a fisherman’s family, you were going to fish. If you were born into a tentmaker’s family, you were going to make tents. This was not an option. This is how society worked. And people gathered together around their jobs, and then they subdivided around their race, their ethnicity, and their language. That was how you got protection. They formed unions to take care of each other. If you got sick, and your family was a thousand miles away, the union took care of you. You paid your dues in, and they took care of you. Everybody was subdivided that way, and Rome used this to rule the world. They

made sure that everybody knew their little place, and by God, don’t you ever get out of place. Because any time you tried to get out of place, it was like Whack-a-Mole™ – whack! And they would knock you down.

So what is Paul talking about in his letter to the Ephesians? He’s talking about those who were aliens and strangers now being joined together. The circumcised – the Jews – and the uncircumcised – the Gentiles – are now coming together. He’s talking about tearing down all the barriers, all the boundaries; he’s talking about tearing down the walls that divide us, so that we could all unite in the one tribe that matters, the tribe of God.

He is preaching sedition.
“Let me just send a nice little letter to the people in the church. ‘Dear People of the Church of St. James in Amesbury, Massachusetts: RISE UP! TEAR DOWN YOUR WALLS! IT’S TIME FOR REVOLUTION!’” This is subversive.

That’s what Paul is doing!

He’s calling for a revolution. No wonder the Romans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Paul was doing the same thing that Jesus did. He was changing people. He was changing society.

My friends, this is our call. In this day and age. We are hearing a clarion call to subversion, to revolution, to tear down the walls!

Now I know y’all know something about tearing down walls. Because I understand you had to tear down this wall (in the back of the church) down to its bare basics, and change out the window. You had to do something different, and you had to rebuild it.

That’s what you are being called to do in society.

So that nobody ever says, “What tribe do you belong to? What tribe do you belong to?” and separates you out. Nobody says, “So what do you do for a living,” knowing that you can only hang out with people who do the exact same thing.

The revolution we’re being called to participate in, the revolution we’re being called to lead, is to tear down all the walls so that we can all proclaim that we … belong … to the … tribe … of God. And that the tribe of God is the only tribe that counts.

It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what your age is, doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter the language you speak. Nothing matters at all; that’s all gravy. The only thing that matters is that you are a beloved child of God and belong to the tribe of God, and that’s it. Everything else? Meh! That’s just the way the genetics worked out. It’s a chemical crapshoot. It’s not important.

The revolution we are being called to lead, my friends, is a revolution that lets every person in the community, every person in the world, know that they belong. It’s a way of saying to every person, “You are a beloved child of God.” It’s a way of saying, “God loves you. And God loves you. And you. And you. And you. And you. And you. That God loves you. And you. That God loves you. And you. And you. And you.

If we all belong to the tribe of God, and we’re all beloved children of God, then our call is to live out that love in the world.

Now I want to take a moment to kind of do a sidestep in this sermon and to address something that I know is on everybody’s hearts and minds, which are the shootings out in Aurora, Colorado, that took place on Thursday night/Friday morning. Where a young man, for unknown reasons, walked into a movie theater and shot 70 people, killing 12 of them.

We don’t know why he did it. We know enough of this young man’s history to know that he is brilliant. He was a PhD candidate soaring through his program in psychology. And then something happened. And we don’t know what.

Well, I can tell you this:

If we were all out there proclaiming revolution, proclaiming the revolutionary idea that you are a beloved child of God and you belong to the tribe of God, I can tell you that incidents like this would happen a whole lot less.

Was this this young man’s cri de couer, “Pay attention to me, notice me, let know that I’m important”?

I don’t know.

But if we take the time to let each person know that they are important, that they are beloved, that they are accepted, that they belong, I am telling you there will be fewer incidents like this.

Paul is telling us to tear down the walls. If we tear down the walls, more people will belong, more people will understand that they are beloved, and fewer people will do what Mr. Holmes did in Aurora, Colorado, at 1 o’clock in the morning on Friday.

I want to step back in and tell you that for two weeks, I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. It was my fifth General Convention, and I love going. I love going to big family reunions where we engage the entire world and stare at our navels at the exact same moment! I love it when we have amendments to the amendments to the substitution, call the question! I love what we do at General Convention. I walked out of this particular General Convention, where we as a church said, “By God, we’re going to include people. All means all, and all belong, and all are beloved children of God.”

I walked out of that Convention going, “Yes! Finally we’re beginning to get it.” And I walked right to the airport, smack dab into an article in The Wall Street Journal, where some guy in New York says, “I’m an Episcopalian. I didn’t like what they did. They have lost their way. Those Episcopalians are too liberal. Those Episcopalians are just following society.” And then he told a bunch of lies about what we did there. It would help if he had paid attention. But he actually did not pay any attention, and so he was misquoting us 17 ways from Sunday, and he said we did things we hand’t done, and I’m like, “Dude. You so missed that boat.”

I was ready to write him off. Until The New York Times, on Sunday, last week, decided to run an article by Ross Douthat, who is – for some unknown reason – supposed to be the spokesman in the country right now about the future of Christianity. I don’t know why – because he says we’re dead.

And he turns around and he says, “The liberal Episcopalians are doing nothing, except following society. The liberal Episcopalians have no idea what their theology is. The liberal Episcopalians” – he must have called us that like, 14 times – and I’ll tell you something. You know what my answer is?

We are not following society willy-nilly. We are dragging society forward to where God wants us to be! We are at the forefront of saying to people, “Enough! Tear down the damn walls! Everybody belongs! All really does mean all!” God does not differentiate. God doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re in, and you’re out.”

There are no “us’s” and “thems” in God’s very good creation, folks. There are no “us’s” and “thems.” God does not say, “Well, I don’t like you. But I like you.” God doesn’t run around doing that! God says, “You are my beloved.”

God created us in God’s image, an image of love – because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot be necessary. So guess what? That means God loved us into being. That God desired us into being. So it means that we are each beloved.

And because we are Trinitarians, we are Christians, we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, we believe in community. Because nowhere in the way we read the Scriptures do God the Father and God the Son go off and do the work while God the Holy Spirit is over here, drinking a martini. If they’re drinking martinis, they’re all doing it together! If they’re working, they’re all doing it together. We’re created in that image. That means we’re created in community.

So, we are created in love and in community to live in love and in community. And The Episcopal Church is leading the way in doing this by saying, “All does mean all. There will be no more walls! You come into this church, we baptize you, you have access to everything in the church.” We’re no longer going to say, “Well, we’ll baptize you, we’ll confirm you, but we won’t marry you. We won’t let you be a priest. Or we’ll let you be a priest, but you can’t be a bishop. Uh, uh, uh, uh, we have limits.” No! Because there are no limits to God’s love.

That’s what Paul is talking about in this morning’s epistle. It’s not some namby-pamby-don’t-argue-over-the-color-of-the-carpet-in-the-church.

He’s calling us to revolution.

And I want to know:

Are you all ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries?

Are you ready to go into the world and to show the world a whole new way to live?

Are you ready to be bold? (A young teen cries out, “Yes!”)

You are! Good!

Are you ready to be bold and to say, “All means all”? That each of you is a beloved child of God?

I’ve got one volunteer here, do I have any more?

How many of you want to be told you don’t belong? How many of you want to stand at that door and be told, “You can’t come in”? Anybody here?

If you’re not willing to be excluded, if you are not willing to be told that you are not loved, then how dare you exclude? And how dare you tell anybody that they are not loved? Because then you have to answer, not to me, not to Susan, not to your bishop. You have to answer to God.

The only question God will ask you, when you get to those pearly gates: “Did you love?”

Tear down the walls that get in the way of God’s love.

Tear down the walls that separate us as a society.

Tear down the walls that keep us in, and them out, because there are no “us’s” and “thems.”

My friends, we’re supposed to be revolutionaries!

Are you ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries for God?


Sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, at St. James Episcopal Church, Amesbury, Mass., 22 July 2012.

[1] Sally A. Brown, Princeton Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=1




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Occupy God!

Luke 2:1-20

                   In the summer of 1992, I was blessed to go to the Barcelona Olympics, to serve as an editor at that great sporting and cultural events. To do my job properly, I had to lug along one whole extra suitcase filled with reference books not for sports, but for the world – because this was in the days before the Internet, when Google wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s mind.

The summer of 1992 was the culmination of some of the wildest three years in history. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Germanies were united, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. The map of the world was changing so fast we could barely figure out who was competing for what country, how old that country might be, which flags and anthems went with which new country, and who led each new nation. I swear to you that I was the only editor present who knew that Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president of the new country of Kazakstan.

Revolutions had made the world go crazy. Everything we knew – everything we had grown up with – was topsy-turvy, and it took that extra suitcase of books just to be able to edit a basic sports story.

We thought we would never see the likes of this confusion again.

Until this year.

When once again, the world turned upside down. Starting with the death of a vegetable-cart owner named Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, we have seen the people of numerous lands rise up, dictators fall, civil wars break out – and in some cases, end – and, just like the late 1980s and early ’90s, confusion reigns.

The world once again has gone crazy with revolution, which eventually landed on our own shores, in the form of Occupy movement that started on Wall Street and spread like wildfire from city to city and across the ocean to London and cities throughout Europe and even, shockingly, to Russia.

The one thing that all these revolutions – those two decades ago, and those this past year – all have in common?

The dream of a better life.

The knowledge that life indeed can be different, that all it take is the unwavering conviction that if enough of us stand up, if enough of us band together, if enough of us can occupy the attention of the world, the attention of the powers and principalities that be, if enough of us work for the common good, we can change the world.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Changing the world?

Isn’t that why Jesus came? To show us that the world can be different, that life can be different, that it doesn’t have to be dog-eat-dog, I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-ever-get-yours, that life itself can be better?

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when we celebrate anew the fact that God decided to become one of us. This isn’t like the 4th of July, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of the Independence. And it isn’t like a celebration of a birthday, where someone asks, “So … what’s it feel like to be (fill in your own age)?”

We aren’t just remembering an event that took place long ago!

This night, my friends … this night is about God making a revolution in our lives!

This is the night when God comes down to occupy the world, to occupy us.[1] As the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, said recently,

Christmas doesn’t commemorate the birth of a super-good person who shows us how to get it right every time, but the arrival in the world of someone who tells us that everything can be different. [2]

Everything … can … be … different!

That’s the true meaning of Christmas … that God is occupying us, whispering in our ears, “Life can be different, my child. Life, my beloved, can be better.

God is willing, despite our faults and shortcomings and willfulness, to occupy us … because God loves us … each of us and all of us, wildly, incredibly, inexplicably and eternally.

It doesn’t make much sense, when we look at the world around us, when we look at how we treat that world … when we look at each other and look at how we treat each other some days.

But … despite every indication to the contrary, God still comes to us … this night … in a revolution of love, to occupy us.

And all God asks in return is that we occupy God.

Jesus came to be with us … as a little baby boy … born in a manger (which, I have to tell you, was not and to this day is not, that unusual) … so that we could, at last, see God in the flesh, see God living and moving and having his being among us as one of us, so that we could, through God’s incredible Occupy Movement, know that indeed, the world can be a better place.

If only we are willing to occupy God.

Now, I warn you, occupying God is not an easy thing to do. God occupying us? Piece of cake. God has occupied us from before time began, God is occupying us right this very second, in this very place, and God will continue to occupy us … whether we like it or not, know it or not, acknowledge it or not … until the ages of ages.

But us …. occupying God?

That’s a whole ’nother bailiwick.

Because to occupy God, we have to be willing to set aside all our own wants and needs and desires and demands. We have to be willing set aside our version of truth, and claim God’s version of truth.

If we want to occupy God, we’re going to have to let … go …

If we really want to see the great light that is shining upon us, if we really yearn to increase our joy, if we really desire to experience the endless peace that comes only from the Lord of hosts, we are going to have to move out of the darkness that envelops us – and Lord knows, in this day and age, with revolutions happening all around us all the time, we are engulfed in darkness – if this is what we really want, we are going to have to leave that darkness behind, and embrace that Light that God is sending into the world, into our lives, right here. And right now.

The salvation we so desperately desire in our own lives does not come from us. It is not ours to decide, ours to give, ours to take away. Salvation, we know – and in our best moments we do know this – salvation comes from God alone.

So on this night, when God comes to occupy us in the form of a little baby boy, on this night, this is what I want you to do:

I want you to look around at the people gathered here tonight … at your loved ones and your friends, at the people sitting next to you and in front of you and in back of you and across the church from you, at the choir and acolytes and lay ministers up here, at the ushers in the back … I want you to look at each person here.

I want you to look for God Incarnate – for Jesus, for the Christ child – occupying every single person here.

Go ahead.


Do you see the Word that became flesh among you? Do you see God occupying not just yourselves, but each other?

If not, look again.

And again.

And yet again.

I want you to look until you do see Jesus … occupying each and every person here.

And when you leave this place tonight, I want you to look for God occupying every single person you meet … the other people on the road, scurrying to or from a service. The FedEx and UPS folks, hurrying to deliver one more present … the clerk at the store … the neighbor whose name you do not yet know …

I want you to look at every single person you meet, every person whose path you cross, not just this night, but every night, and I want you to see God Incarnate in each one of those people.

Only when we spend our time looking for God Incarnate – for Jesus – occupying each other, only then do we truly occupy God ourselves.

It is a revolutionary thing to occupy God as God occupies us … greater than any revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union three decades ago, greater than any revolution taking place this very day.

Because when we decide to occupy God, we … change … the … world. We worry less about ourselves … and more about each other. We give grace … and we get grace. We see God’s love in each other … as we give God’s love to each other … as we receive God’s love from each other.

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when more than any other night in our lives, God comes to occupy us, in the form of the Christ child.

Look for that Christ child occupying each other, look for that occupation and honor that occupation, and I guarantee you, we will indeed be occupying God.

And when we do occupy God, I guarantee you this as well, the world will be a better place.

Let us pray:

How may God’s Love take shape in our world?

                  In dreams which move us to risk compassion for each other …

                  In a vision of a community whole and peace-filled …

                  In hope, which leads us to work for peace …

                  Lord of Hosts, King of Kings,

                  Occupy us … wholly, fully, eternally,

                  So that we may occupy you … wholly, fully, and eternally in return.



Christmas Eve 2011 sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Burke, Va., 5 p.m. service (a variation of this was preached at the 3 p.m. service.)

[1] “God’s occupation of the world in Jesus Christ.” The Rev. Michael T. Sniffen, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, New York, arrested Saturday, 17 Dec 2011, at Duarte Square (the property owned by Trinity Wall Street), along with a retired bishop, numerous other clergy, and scores of laity for trespassing. (via The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Keaton, “No Time For Anglican Circumspection,” Telling Secrets, http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/2011/12/no-time-for-anglican-circumspection.html

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Celebrations and challenges in Egypt

My friend and fellow missionary, The Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, has written an eloquent piece on Episcopal News Service about what is going on in Egypt, where he is serves, particularly between the Muslims and Christians. Paul-Gordon, a mission partner with The Episcopal Church, is an author, Episcopal priest and interfaith advocate serving as the rector of St. John the Baptist Church in Cairo.

Paul-Gordon writes especially of how he is called to help facilitate dialogue and understanding between the two faiths and Egypt struggles to live into its new identity. He speaks, too, of how he helped the United Nations organize a recent meeting of the most influential religious leaders, Muslim and Christian.

The article begins:

Celebrations and challenges: Muslims and Christians look toward the future in Egypt

By Paul-Gordon Chandler, March 28, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] Against the background buzz of the now-familiar sound of army helicopters flying overhead, it is an interesting time to pull aside from all that has recently made this region seem like the “Wild East” to reflect on Egypt’s present situation. On Friday, March 25, we celebrated the two-month anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, popularly known as the “25 January Revolution.” We have indeed witnessed history. And it has been a time of profound emotion, full of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows.

In contrast to the protests all over the Middle East, such as in Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen, Egypt’s context is unique in that up to 10 percent of its population is Christian, mostly from the historic Coptic Orthodox Church founded by St. Mark. In the heat of the revolution and during its ongoing aftermath, this significant indigenous Christian presence has paradoxically allowed both for opportunities of unity and significant tension. If I had to sum up our recent experiences in the last two months, it would be in two words: celebrations and challenges.

There is so much to celebrate. In addition to the obvious new freedoms that exist due to the overthrow of the oppressive regime, the revolution has brought about a new and profound interfaith spirit among the youth. Time and time again, thousands of young Egyptian Muslims and Christians have taken to the streets together, first to protest the repressive system, and then to celebrate their victory. The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as “The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.” Around the country, Muslim imams address religious harmony and the importance of unity in their Friday sermons.  In the now world famous Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians have prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt. In essence the Egyptian revolution ended up as a summons to national unity, thereby condemning religious sectarianism. It has been deeply inspirational.

To read the rest of his post, click here.

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