Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, December 02, 2005

Broken Barriers

I've spent a good portion of my teaching during Advent not just focusing on preparing for the coming of Immanuel, but also in simply adoring the one who inexplicably chose to come and be with us in the first place.

One direction I felt pulled in as I meditated on the Advent passages was to examine the easily overlooked, yet revolutionary fact that God came to us and offered relationship. How does that one part of the Gospel story transform us? Yes, Jesus came and ministered to the sick and needy and leprous and impure. But the fact we use those labels implies self-rightiousness in some sense, because they often cover up the fact that even the best of us are in many ways needy, impure, sick and at least inwardly leprous (the physical disease kills your nerves, your ability to feel). Jesus didn't break down the barriers when he talked to and cared for prostitutes, or when he ate with tax collectors, or when he healed the broken and unclean. By that time, the real barrier had already been destroyed. It was destroyed the minute the infant Christ's flesh touched human skin. When he began to relationship with us "lowly worms"; when he lowered himself to become one of us.

The barrier that was broken was between human and God and Jesus wiped it out. The barriers between sick and well, pure and impure, needy and wealthy, etc. are largely of our own making, because we are all in the same boat. And for us to erect barriers is an affront to the Christ who tore them down. He came to open the gate...but we sure love our gates. To be able to close people out, to say that we won't relationship with them, they are not good enough is a precious ability to us. But it's not Christlike.

I'm not very good at predicting what the people in my congregation will respond to and what will offend them. At times I've shook with trepidation as I've preached something I knew would step on toes, only to be greeted with applause and congratulations. Other times I ram something home with confidence, expecting to be cheered, only to be met by icy silence and offense. This was one of those times. Although one good friend literally slapped the pew in front of him in agreement, I also saw several gaping jaws, many people turn away in disgust, and a few outright angry glares as I said something along the lines of this:

"We love hierarchies. All of us operate by them. You do, I do. We learn it through 'cultural transmission', but we all rank people. Somewhere in our heads exist some sort of list that ranks people from most valuable to least valuable. Our lists may vary a little, but I think if we wrote them down, we'd find that they are very, very similar, with celebrities and athletes, wealthy business men and politicians, maybe doctors and lawyers at the top. And at the bottom would be the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, the addict (at this point I at least have the full attention of our homeless addict, with whom I am good friends, and whom I will blog about sometime...we met him in our jail ministry). These hierarchies of human worth exist, but they are sinful. Jesus destroyed these destinctions, and left us an example that teaches us to root them out of our lives, too.

"Many of our problems of 'self-esteem' stem from these hierarchies, our feelings of inferiority. We fume and stew because some nobody treated us like we occupy a lower place on the totem pole than they do. We get upset because our current situation in life puts us on a lower rung on life's ladder than we deserve.

"I challenge you to start paying attention to how these hierarchies of worth play out in your life. Pay attention as you talk to people who are both higher than you and lower than you on your personal continuum of value. See how your entire attitude and habits and mannerisms change between people you encounter who are different sides of the scale. Force yourself to see and admit that which we all do...we assign value to people and treat them differently according to how those values make us feel about them. Then force yourself to admit that it's wrong.

"I challenge you to speak the exact same way to the lawyer you know and the next guy that you meet who is begging for money. Feel the same about them, value their God-given worth equally, I dare you. Treat the person who is not the same race you are the exact same way you'd treat someone who shares the same skin color with you. Talk to the person who speaks with an accent with the same amount of patience you'd show someone speaking English. Don't speak to the caretaker of the disabled person in the wheelchair, speak to them. Feel just as comfortable when someone with torn, dirty clothes steps onto a elevator with you as you would if they were wearing a suit. Treat a criminal like a human, Jesus did. Treat everybody the same. I promise you...if you haven't been practicing, you can't do it. You are too well trained. Too used to listening to the world's system of values and not to God's. Too used to valuing what looks and acts and speaks just like you and too used to being afraid of what's different.

Jesus came and when he came he broke down the barriers. Barriers between us and God, but also races, tribes, communities, economic groups, age groups, everything. And he challenges us to live like it. Can you?"

People didn't like it, can you believe it? :-) Well, I understand why now that I think about it...but it's one of the things that makes me love him more and convinces me that His is the true way.


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