On Friday we installed a new President, President Donald Trump. Every citizen of this nations should pray for President Trump, and all the leaders of our nation. I was not at the inauguration. If I had been, I would show you a picture. The picture that leads this article, is the picture of a former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, teaching Sunday School. I took it myself, because, recently, I was in his Sunday school class. It is an interesting story, and we will get to it, as a part of this sermon…
This morning, I want to talk about building, mending, and removing walls. The Bible records that there is a time to do all three.
Let’s talk about building walls. In Nehemiah 2:17 we read that when Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem from Babylon, he said to the people:
“You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” Nehemiah 2:17
The Bible teaches that there is a legitimate time for added security.
People sometimes need added security. When I was a boy, we never locked our doors at night. Now, I always do. Likewise, when my son was small, he sometimes put up a tent and slept in our back yard, and we thought nothing of it. We are in the same house, but I am not sure I would let my grandchildren do that today, at least, not without adult supervision.
Individuals need security, and so do nations. There is a time for locking our doors, and a time for fortifying our borders. President Trump wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. There is a history of walls in our world. The Great Wall of China was built to keep people out. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. I have no doubt that the United States of America is blessed to be isolated from the east and west with something even better than walls. On our east cost we have the Atlantic Ocean, and on our west coast, we have the Pacific Ocean. These oceans are highways of trade, but they are also moats of protection. Until the age of terrorism, these two oceans isolated us from many of the world’s great conflicts. Our northern and southern borders are not as formidable. The border between the United States and Canada is the longest unfortified border in the world. I say “unfortified” rather than “unguarded,” because in the age of terror we cannot afford to let our guard down. The border between the United States and Mexico is a greater cause for anxiety. It has always been semi-permeable, sometimes more and sometimes less able to protect our nation from things like illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
People cross southern borders, going from Mexico and to Mexico because we are richer than Mexico. People will always go where the money is, and companies will always go where labor is cheap. That means we will always get some of our workers from Mexico, and we will always loose some of our jobs to Mexico. And the only real fix for that is economic parity for both countries. That is a hard fix; and I don’t pretend to know how to do it. Drugs and violence cross our borders from Mexico, because we are addicted to drugs, especially our young people. As long as we want drugs, somebody will sell them to us, because there is money in drugs. I think I do know how to fix this. First, we must have zero tolerance for drugs. We need to be hard on drug dealers, and drug users. Second, we must give all of our children the hope of making a better future for themselves. If we do not help the least of our children with a good education, we will do harm to all of our children. We need strong public education in this country. It is the hallmark of our democracy. Third, we have got to train our children and grandchildren in the dangers of drugs, and alcohol and tobacco, and all addictive substances and behaviors. We have got to teach our children sooner rather than later that we make our choices and our choices make us. We are fools to use anything or do anything, that from the first used seeks to enslave us. It is o.k. to build a wall, but it is even better to address the reasons that make us want to build it.” If we build a wall and fail to address the reasons we build it, it will sever not to keep other out, but to keep us in, and that is a tragedy.
Now let’s talk about mending walls. There are many instances of mending walls in scripture, including the text from Nehemiah 2:17. However, my inspiration is a poem by Robert Frost entitled, “Mending Wall.” It describes an annual ritual that took place between the poet and his neighbor. Once a year they would pick a day to walk either side of the stone wall that separated one farm from the other. As they walked, keeping the wall between them, they would replace the stones that the frozen ground swell and the sun combined to spill into their fields. Frost said that the whole process was like some kind of outdoor game, one on a side. At some point in the ritual, Frost tired of playing the game, and says to his neighbor:
“We do not need the wall; (You are) all pine and I am apple orchard, and my apple trees will never get across and eat the cones from under (your) pines.”
And his neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Frost responds by telling his neighbor that his saying is more applicable to to people raising cattle than to people raising trees. Frost then tells his reader that:
“(My neighbor) will not go behind his father’s saying, and he likes having thought of it it so much than he says it again: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
I love this poem because it is practical, deep, and insightful. It is practical because it admits that good fences make good neighbors among cattleman and the like. It is deep because people need good fences, too. People become co-dependent because they allow the fences that separate us from one another to fall down in disrepair. Healthy people need good fences. Some will point out, the very act of falling in love is dependent upon the collapse of ego boundaries that separate one from another. I will answer that the act of loving demands those fences be mended. It was the Lebanese-American Christian poet Kahlil Gibran who wrote:
“Let their be spaces in your togetherness, for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in one another’s shadow. “
When two people without good fences and good boundaries marry, they are both miserable. You have got to be strong before you can bind your strength with the strength of another. Finally, this poem is insightful, because it reminds us that there are some fences that do not need to be mended at all. Frost’s neighbor could not get beyond the saying of his father, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but there are fences that do not need to be mended, and we must not allow a former generation to help us determine what they are. When I was a boy, we had a fence called separate but equal that kept blacks and whites apart. In his spiritual autobiography, “Living Faith,” Jimmy Carter struggled with that fence. He said that his father was a good man, and he accepted separate but equal as a necessary fact. He said that his mother was a nurse who served all races alike. Mrs. Lillian said there could never be equality as long as separation was the basis of it. Jimmy Carter broke with conventional wisdom, and listened to his mother rather than his father. To borrow one more phrase from Frost, Jimmy Carter took the road less traveled, and it made the difference. It proves the truth of the old hymn: “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth.”
And that leads me to removing walls. This part of the sermon was inspired by a Sunday school lesson on Ephesians 2 that I recently heard taught by Jimmy Carter himself. Thanks to Michael and Valerie Crane, Clyde Manning and Elayne and I were recently invited to be the guest of their friends, Bill and Marilyn C________ of Plains Georgia. They invited us down to stay in their home, and they arranged for us to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class at the Maranatha Baptist Church. Many of you do not think Jimmy Carter was a particularly good president. I am a political independent, and I vote both ways. I liked President Carter, but I only voted for him fifty-percent of the time. That said, I think most of you will agree with me that Jimmy Carter is one of the greatest ex-President’s we have ever had. Ronald Regan won the White House in 1980, and Carter did not get a second term; but since January of 1981 Carter has achieved some truly great things as an ex-President. The head of a major world health organization was recently asked who has done more to eradicate disease than anyone else in the history of our world. Without hesitation he answered, “Jimmy Carter.” The reporter said, “But what about Madama Cure, Louis Pasture, and Jonas Salk?” And he said, “They made great contributions; but, when it comes to eradicating disease, Carter is the one who has done the most.”
Carter has done many things in the thirty-six years since he left the White House. He has worked to improve the world’s health, and bring about peace, and build up democracy. More than anything else, I am excited by his Christian witness. His witness is multifaceted. Some people will point to the hundreds of doorsJimmy Carter knocked on as a Baptist lay-witness. Volunteers with Habitat for Humanity will speak of seeing President Carter work hundreds of 12 hour days, building dozens of houses alongside people that he met only after the week long building blitz had begun. Personally, I am most impressed that he is the only ex-President that regularly teaches Sunday school. Let me tell you what it is like to visit his class.
Depending upon whether or not you are an invited guest, people arrive between 5:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. At some point, the secret service arrives to process as many as 350 guest. Then the guest are seated, a member of Maranatha Baptist, in our case, Mrs. J______ W_______, comes out to tell them what they can and cannot do. The first thing she told us was to remember we were in church. “When President Carter comes in, do not applaud,” she said. She told us that when President Carter says, ‘Good Morning,’ we were to say, “GOOD MORNING!” And when President Carter asked, “Where are you from?”, we were to answer, by state, or by country, but only one person from a state or a country was to name that state or country. She told us when we could take pictures, and when we could not. She told us that there was only one “Mr. Presedent,” and that was soon to be “President Trump.” She said that all former presidents were called “President (Carter/Bush/Clinton/Bush and now Obama).” Then President Carter came in, and the session started. After the exchange of greeting, and after we told him where we were from, President Carter introduced several special guest. Last Sunday, we were fortunate to sit behind one pew behind former senator Sam Nunn and his family. Equally exciting, Linda Fuller, co-founder of Habitat for Humanity with her late husband Millard Fuller, was there, too, on the other side of the church. Then President Carter made several comments on current events. He told us that he would be in Washington for the inauguration of Donald Trump, and he promised, that before the lesson was over, he would tell us why.
Then he started teaching the lesson. He taught like a trained Bible scholar and theologian. His words were straight and true, and he pulled no punches. He spoke about Jesus Christ in an easy, natural way. The lesson was on Ephesians 2. There-in we read about how Jesus Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. President Carter said that Jesus did that on his cross, when he died for all of us. He told us, too, that the dividing wall of hostility was a real wall that once stood in the temple in Jerusalem. That it true. In the Jerusalem temple, it was the wall that separated the court of the Gentiles from the court of Jewish women. Of course, there was another wall that separated the court of Jewish women from the court of Jewish men, and yet another wall that separated the court of Jewish Men from the court of the high priests. The temple had lots of walls, but only the wall separating Gentiles from Jews bore the warning that any Gentile who passed beyond it was responsible for his own death.
President Carter then said that Jesus had torn down that wall, and all the others that separate us from one another. He quoted Galatians 3:28 saying that in Christ there is no jew, no greek, no slave, no free, no male, no female. He went n to say that in Christ there is no black, no white, no brown, no yellow, no red, no rich, no poor, no Republicans, and no Democrats, but all are one in Christ.
President Carter then said that Jesus wants each of us to be a wall-remover. He said that we cannot remove the wall erected by a neighbor, we can only remove the walls that we have erected. He pointed out that he was a Democrat, and that he had 22 other Democrats in his family, and that they had all voted Democratic in the last election. He said, “I cannot wait for my friends who are Republicans to reach across to me, I must reach across to them.” He said that he was going to the inauguration of President Trump, and he would do all he can to support as much of his agenda as he can. He also said he was hand-carrying several letters to give to the various members of the cabinet, who may want or need, the help of the Carter Center.
The highlight of the lesson was when President Carter said that our vocation and accomplishments are not nearly so important as our character. He said that the day is coming when all of us, will lay down all our honors and titles and accomplishments of every kind and everything else. He is right. When, at last, we stand before our God the only thing left to us is who we are at the core of our being, and what we have done for others–what we have done for Christ. On that day, I do not want to be remembered primarily for building walls, nor even for mending walls, though each is a legitimate task, I want to be remembered for being a wall remover. I want to be remembered as someone who knocked down the walls that kept me from others.