Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
March 26, 2001
Down the Barriers Between Us
sermon is also available in audio.)
I do want to move to the preaching task because I've got more to say than I've got time to say it in, and I want to be faithful to the time. I bring your attention to a brief word of scripture in the book of Second Corinthians in the tenth chapter, and I read it for your hearing from the fourth to the seventh verse:
In June 1986, my wife Joyce and I lost a daughter that lived only nine hours on this earth. She was born with a hole in her diaphragm, which means that her heart and her lungs grew together as one. As long as she was breathing the liquid of the womb she was fine, but when she came from the womb into the air, she couldn't breathe air. Immediately surgery was called for, and subsequently she lived nine hours and died on the operating table in the hospital. It was a very difficult and traumatic and tragic time for our family, and through the gracious and kind support and prayer of friends we were able to get through it. Even as I speak to you now, there is yet a scar, but the scar is healed and everything is all right.
A friend of mine, who was a pastor, was setting up a grief ministry in his church. Since he knew of the journey that I had made and because I was a clergy person, he felt me to be uniquely qualified to come to his place and talk to them about grief and how the church can be helpful in the grief process. I agreed to come, and when I got there I had the opportunity to tell our story. I really did not expect to cry over our story, because I had pretty well healed from that, but after hearing the stories of several other people that were invited, I began to cry.
There was a woman there whose 23-year-old son was murdered at point blank range in a gang drive-by shooting. She admitted that he was a member of a gang. She said she tried to deal with him, but at twenty-three she could not pick his friends for him, and he chose these folks. She was at work one day when the phone rang, and she heard the very sad news that her son was in the hospital. Subsequently, he died. She said that the police dropped the matter (in inner city neighborhoods black youth shootings are much too common), so she began to pick up and investigate to find out who it was that killed her son.
She kept talking about the fact that we underestimate the penetration of violence into the lives of our young people. She told us how she believed that the gangs and violence have penetrated even the police force, and she felt a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and frustration. She commented that before the power of the gangs, before the uselessness of the police, before the apathy of the church, and before the compliance of the community, she felt powerless and helpless. As she talked about her feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, I thought of a quote I once heard: "We are standing helpless before the towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, feeling our helpless inadequacy as we face the grim fact of man's inhumanity to man."
looked at the power of and the ruthlessness of gangs--their lack of respect
for life, their indiscriminate dispensing of pain and suffering, their
evangelizing of our youth into the demonic. This mother experienced an
evil so large and so awesome that it threatened to swallow her up in despair.
This mother looked at evil and saw it for what it really was: senseless
and purposeless destruction, destruction and ruin for no other reason
than destruction and ruin, tearing up for the hell of it, killing people
for the hell of it, inflicting pain in people's lives for the hell of
it, taking away people's loved ones for the hell of it. She was confronting
evil that was a stronghold. She was "standing helpless before the
towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, feeling her helpless inadequacy
as she faced the grim fact of man's inhumanity to man."
Close to one million people slaughtered between April and May of 1994, as we were watching our stock portfolios, as we were getting our degrees, as we were going to our churches. Even the church was involved. In this one particular place, people flocked to the churches for safety. The churches sent these people, forty thousand of them, to a warehouse, and then the church picked up the phone and told the government that the people were there. The government troops came and dropped hand grenades and killed forty thousand people in a building, because the church was in with the government. "We are standing helpless before the towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, facing, trying to face, the grim fact of man's inhumanity to man, feeling our helplessness and inadequacies."
Look at the list of countries that are in endless turmoil today with people dying: Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda, Iraq, Sierra Leon, East Tumoi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Angola, not to mention, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, the Palestinians and the Israelis. Humanity's capacity for evil is almost endless. "We are standing helpless before the towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, feeling our helpless inadequacy as we face the grim fact of man's inhumanity to man."
I was reading some statistics that said that in the decade of the nineteen-nineties, thirty four million people, soldiers and civilians, were killed in violence around the world. While our stock market is zooming up, thirty four million people are being killed. While we were having our Lenten Series and our installation services, thirty four million people were being killed from 1990 to the year 2000.
When we talk about the twentieth century, when we talk about the century of scientific discovery and invention, when we mention that we went to the moon and the Internet and all these computer e-mails flying all around everywhere, we discover that 180,000,000 have been killed in war in the twentieth century. That is more than the last 5,000 years all put together. While we are making scientific and technological advances, "we are standing helpless before the towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, feeling our helpless inadequacy as we face the grim fact of man's inhumanity to man."
We have not even talked yet about the possibility of thermo-nuclear destruction. We have bombs in our arsenal to destroy the world many times over. We are standing helpless. We have the creativity and the ability to surprise ourselves at how evil we can be. The Bible calls this, a stronghold.
At the root of all this murder, and at the root of all this mayhem, at the root of all these gangs, and I should say, at the root of all these suburban California shootings (you know, we used to think that it was just the "hoods" involved when there was youth violence going on), at the root of all this violence is the thinking that my group is better than your group. My group is superior to your group. My group is human, and your group is sub-human. My group is right and smart and wise, and your group is dumb and stupid and arrogant and ignorant. My group is pure and virginal; your group is loose and indecent. My group is righteous, and your group is an abomination before God. I like this one especially: God gave my group the right to take your land because my group is better than your group.
At the root of all this murder and mayhem is a lie, and the lie is that my group is better than your group--middle class blacks are better than economically disadvantaged blacks, those who have reached middle class suburban status are better than those in urban cities. I think it is called elitism. I think that's what it is called when you decide that your group is better than somebody else's group. When you decide that white skin is better than black skin. When you decide that Christian skin is better than Jewish skin. When you decide that your group is better than somebody else's group--that your group is smarter than somebody else's group, that your group is this and that other-- that is called elitism, and that is a lie. And when then you put a court system around the lie and then you get a legislative system to legislate for the courts around the lie; then when you put a banking system around the lie, and then when you put a school system to teach the lie, and then when you get churches to gloss the lie--that is called a stronghold.
This is a
stronghold. A stronghold is a fortified place. It's when evil is entrenched.
A stronghold is when evil is apparently residing in an impregnable fortress.
It's when the enemy has the worldly weapons and the fortifications and
the troops and has gigantic advantage. And it is a stronghold. It is a
lie that is entrenched. It's a lie that's guarded. It's a lie that's protected.
And when we look at the world and the levels of evil in the world, it
looks like evil is entrenched, and it seems that, "We are standing
helpless before the towering mystery of sin, evil, and chaos, feeling
our helpless inadequacy as we face the grim fact of man's inhumanity to
I went to the prison at Shelby Farms, and it's no different. I have to wonder, why are there so many black youth in prison? Why are we twelve percent of the population, but fifty-five percent of the prison population? What's going on in the system and the culture? We are standing helpless. We are standing helpless.
But the text says, "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal. The weapons of our warfare are good for pulling down our strongholds." The text says that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. Because we are engaged in spiritual warfare, we can't fight the war the way the world fights, because if we fight the war the way the world fight,s we will fight with the world's weapons. And when we fight with the world's weapons, we can't win. In other words, you can't murder murder, because as soon as you murder murder you become a murderer. In other words, you can't lie to defeat a lie, because as soon as you lie to defeat a lie, you become a liar. In other words, "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but are good for the pulling down of strongholds. Our weapons have divine power to smash arguments and every lie that sets itself up against the knowledge of God."
The belief that any one group is better than another group is a lie that sets itself up against the knowledge of God. If we believe that the "first" world is better than the "second" and the "third" world, that is a lie that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we have weapons to pull down that lie.
Well, preacher, what are the weapons that we have to pull down that lie? Well, the weapons that we have are Truth. Truth pulls down every lie. Truth of God pulls down every lie. The Truth of God pulls down every barrier. The Truth of God pulls down every fortification, every entrenchment, every impregnable fortress of evil, the Truth of God pulls it down. Well, preacher, what is the Truth of God that pulls down this lie that our group is better than everybody else's group? Well, it's a very simple truth, and the Truth is that he died to save us all. Christ died to save us all. I like that. All means all. It means everybody. It means Christ died to save blacks, and Christ died to save whites, and Christ died to save Disciple of Christ, and Christ died to save the Methodist and Episcopalians. Christ died to save city folks and suburban folks, and green folks and yellow folks, and African folks and American folks, and Chinese folks and Presbyterian folks.
Christ died for everybody, and the fact that the word says "all" shatters that lie [that says our group is better than everybody else's group.] In other words, God died for people who don't think like you or talk like you or dress like you. God died for people you might not even like. God died still. God died for all, for everybody.
So what am I talking about? I am talking about pulling down strongholds of ignorance and prejudice and lust and vain imaginations and high thoughts and proud conceits. I am talking about pulling down every charade, every sham, every deceit, every excuse, every rationale, every argument that keeps us from joining together as brothers and sisters to make a world of peace. The fact that Jesus died for all is the truth, and that Truth puts us all on level ground. My group is not better than your group. My group is not smarter than your group. My group is not necessarily more athletic than your group. The Bible says that God died to save us all.
There's a song we sing in the African-American tradition, and it is called, "There is a Balm in Gilead." One of the verses says, "If you cannot sing like angels; if you cannot preach like Paul; you can tell the love of Jesus that he died to save us all." Everybody out in this room can go out of here and live and say that he died to save us all, and because he died to save us all, every one of you is my brother and my sister. You may not like me, but you are still my brother and my sister. He died to save us all. I want you to reach out and take a neighbor by the hand. This is an African-American church tradition. We do a lot of touching in the African-American church, grabbing hands and grabbing hearts, as a sign and a symbol of the benediction. I think it's pretty close, as a sign and symbol of our unity and the fact that Christ did die to save us all.
We live in a time where there is so much division, not only racial division, but class division. Amongst African-Americans there is a tremendous class gap now. In a time when we can't get together on why our schools are so miserable, I want you to touch somebody. And I hope you are touching somebody who is very different than you, everybody's different from you, but you know what I mean. And I just want to have a word of prayer that God will do something unusual in the city of Memphis.
Copyright 2001 The Rev. Dr. Frank A. Thomas
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