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No Strangers Here
July 17, 1994


Last week I read about a woman talking about her fears for our nation. The loudest and most painful noise she hears in our beloved country is the sound of minds snapping shut all over America. We are feeling overwhelmed by the violence and financial cutbacks. The tendency then is to shrink the circumference of our circle, thinking a small circle will give us comfort and security. We spin cocoons to protect us from them, and them is labeled immigrants, refugees, people on welfare, gangs, gays and lesbians. All over America we hear the sound of minds closing. We circle the wagons against strangers, making them unknown enemies. Democracy is a fragile ship that floats on the willingness of diverse people to work with one another despite their differences of opinion, to find ways to get along with one another. When walls are built to divide people--walls of distrust, suspicion, prejudice, and discrimination--democracy is in deep trouble.

Our Scripture lesson today is about strangers and walls. Last week we rejoiced with the first chapter of Ephesians celebrating the grace of God, God's action on our behalf. In chapter two, verse 11 (look it up, this is a powerful passage), Paul says, So then, remember... So then, because of God's all-embracing love, remember that you were strangers. He is writing to the Gentiles, to all of us non-Jews, reminding us (verse 12) that Gentiles were separated from Jesus Christ, separated from the Jewish community, the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, and therefore, having no hope and without God in the world. Remember.

Verse 13 completely transforms this dismal memory with just four words, But now in Christ. Miraculous changes are possible because we have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Jew and Gentile, separated for centuries; Gentile and Jew, enemies, hostile enemies for centuries, are brought together in Christ in the church. The wall of hostility has been broken down. Verse 14, he is our peace. The peace Christ brings is of two kinds. It is a peace between Gentiles and Jews (vv. 14-15). Yet even more remarkable, it is a peace between all humanity and God (vv. 16-17). The dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Verse 19, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

God is still at work tearing down walls, bringing people together. Perhaps the most dramatic example in recent years is the falling of the Berlin wall. Ellie and I were in East Germany a few months after the wall fell. We were on study leave. We interviewed five clergy and one lay person who with awe and wonder credited the collapse of the Berlin wall to prayer, a miracle wrought by prayer. In 1980, you might recall, many became concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We signed petitions. The movement spread to East Germany as well. A peace march was organized to protest nuclear weapons. From this event, Monday evening Prayer Groups began meeting in churches. The church was the only institution the communist government allowed to hold public meetings. Soon, these Monday evening Prayer Groups expanded to include forums for discussion and training in democratic processes.

In 1989, increasingly large demonstrations began protesting the totalitarian government. On October 9, 1989, it appeared that things might get very bloody as the people were becoming bolder in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's recent visit. The Lutheran bishop warned of a blood-bath; but, the leaders of the Nicolai Church in Leipzig decided not to cancel the prayer service for that evening. The prayer service grew to 50,000 people. By the end of the evening, there were 150,000 people in the crowd. The government crumbled, without violence. The wall fell, Germany was reunited. Strangers became neighbors, wrought by prayer. Some weeks later, demonstrators hung a banner across a Leipzig street: Wir Danken Dir, Kirche (WE THANK YOU, CHURCH).

Equally dramatic was the revolution in former Czechoslovakia one month later in November of 1989. It is called the Velvet Revolution because it was peaceful. No one died. There were skirmishes with the police, and the police were very violent on occasions, but no one died. The leaders of the Communist Party resigned, elections were held, and noncommunists were elected to leadership positions.

Of course there were many forces at work, but do you know what finally, publicly brought down the Communist government in Czechoslovakia? What weapons were used? Candles! Primarily young people, although there were people of all ages participating, filled Wenceslas Square in Prague, singing, chanting, lighting candles, and asking for dialog with the government leaders. The demonstration was spontaneous, lasting for days. There were no announcements in the media. There was no word on television, radio or in the newspapers because they were all controlled by the government; but, even so, crowds gathered.

It started back in January, 1989, when the young people tried to observe the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palack, who burned himself publicly as a protest of the Soviet invasion in 1968. The police prevented the youths from visiting his grave, so they began gathering in Wenceslas Square and lighting candles. There is a mound of candle wax there, resembling an altar, with photos of heroes placed around the photo of Jan Palack who burned himself and became a martyr, a folk hero. He was only 21 years old.

By November, the momentum was building. Day after day people gathered in Wenceslas Square, 24 hours a day. At times, there were over 100,000 people jammed in, lighting candles on the improvised altar, holding candles at night. On our trip to Prague, we saw a documentary film of the revolution There were the police, armed to the teeth, lined up like Napoleon's army, wearing crash helmets, holding plastic shields to protect themselves. To protect themselves from what? From young people holding candles! What a contrast! Armed police who, by the way, were also mostly young people, confronting other young people who were burning candles and singing. Isn't it sad how we old folks send our young people to the front lines of all wars. Kids against kids. The communist government in Czechoslovakia resigned, without bloodshed, without violence, without war. The 40-year-old despised regime was brought down by candles, singing, and prayer.

Walls are coming down. Israel and the PLO now recognize one another. The PLO have their own territory, tenuous but actual. Israel and Jordan are now talking peace. The wall in Korea is still there, but thanks to former President Jimmy Carter, tension has eased. The headline of an editorial in the current edition of the United Methodist Review reads, "Carter's Christianity Defused Korean Nuke Crisis."

God brings down walls. Jesus Christ broke down the wall of hostility between Gentile and Jew, turning hated enemies into brothers and sisters, turning strangers into neighbors. The church is the microcosm of the kingdom of God. The church is the model to the world of how God turns enemies into friends, strangers into neighbors. In the church, when a church is the church, there are no strangers. Whatever the color, whatever the national origin, whatever the economic status, whatever the marital status, whatever the sexual orientation, there are no strangers here. Huddling with people like ourselves, excluding folks who are different, is not the church. The church, with open hearts, with open minds, with open arms, embraces all God's people.

In the church there is no wall between rich and poor.

In the church there is no wall between the powerful and the powerless.

In the church there is no wall between restless youth and senior citizens.

In the church there is no wall between the eloquent and the hesitant.

In the church there is no wall between the well-educated and the illiterate.

In the church there is only one humanity, one body, one peace.

In the church there are no strangers.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris