The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

FLATTENING FENCES

Delivered 7/26/09
Text: Ephesians 3:14-21
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"For this reason I kneel before the Father..." Don't you just LOVE it when a lectionary passage begins like that? "For this reason..." WHAT "reason," preacher? OK, I'll tell you. The "reason" for Paul's prayer is that an incredibly special process has begun in the world through this unique new organism called the Church of Jesus Christ, and Paul is praying that the church be strengthened so the task might be completed.

What process? The process of breaking down barriers, removing roadblocks, flattening fences, bringing harmony and unity to a world that is sadly out of tune. In the verses preceding these that we have just read, the Apostle has noted the particular division of his own culture, that between Jew and Gentile. It was a society in which the ethnic divide was as deep and wide as ever existed between races in our own day. The Jewish morning prayer included thanks to God for NOT being a Gentile; there was the deeply held belief that Gentiles were not much more than fuel for the fires of hell. And Gentiles thought no more highly of Jews. Gracious!!! And now Paul says these divisions are being overcome in Christ in the church.

Truth be known, we live in a world that is often defined by its divisions. Whether it be in literature or legend (the Montagues and the Capulets, the Hatfields and McCoys), politics (Republicans and Democrats; liberals and conservatives), society (rich and poor, black and white), the divisions exist, often disastrously so. There is something deep inside us that is always wanting to choose up sides.

So saying, we agree with Robert Frost when he says "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The message of Ephesians is a big AMEN! Are there still divisions that we experience in the church of 2009? Unquestionably. Is there any real reason for them to continue? Paul says NO. Is it really possible? Experience says YES.

Let me tell you a true story. It happened just over 25 years ago, 1983, in the tiny rural town of Liberty Hill, South Carolina, about an hour north of Columbia. (1) It was in Liberty Hill that I had begun my ministry just two years before. I was serving as pastor to the saints of the Liberty Hill Presbyterian Church as I completed my seminary work.

Liberty Hill was very much "Old South." There were (and are) large antebellum homes interspersed here and there with unpainted shacks. No one had any difficulty imagining which were occupied by whom. There was little fraternization between blacks and whites except on a level that respected the other's "position."

The village at one time had been a thriving community. Prior to the Civil War, there had been active plantations all around producing any number of agricultural products. There were several stores in the town, a doctor's office, a library, even a school which at times educated as many as seventy students. Families were large and prosperous. But with the advent of hostilities between the states, Liberty Hill fell victim to the ravages of the conflict, even to the extent of playing unwilling hostess to the armies of General Sherman for ten days on his march through the south. The area was desolated and never recovered again.

There were two churches in Liberty Hill, one black, one white, both presbyterian, sitting 300-yards from one another, separated by a graveyard, a stand of trees, and a racial/cultural gulf that was wider than any ocean. The white congregation - the Liberty Hill Presbyterian Church - was founded in 1851 during the halcyon days of the town and was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church US (the southern church); the black congregation - the Liberty Hill United Presbyterian Church - was founded in 1873 during the depths of the reconstruction and was affiliated with the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (the northern church, which had offered the congregation support in earlier days through the denomination's "colored work"). Now, we come to 1983, the year that the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (the northern church) and The Presbyterian Church in the US (the southern church) merged after a 122-year separation. It took the nation some four years to settle the war; it took us presbyterians a bit longer.

It would be lovely to say that once the national church became reunited, the little churches in Liberty Hill saw the wisdom of such an action at their own level and decided to do the same. After all, the two churches had been originally one until the difficulties of reconstruction. It would not be a merger; it would legitimately be a reunion. And it surely would have made Paul's lofty vision of the church in Ephesians a reality. But...

Sunday, June 12. Two days after the historic vote in Atlanta that reunited the Presbyterians in North and South. Our Session met on the second Sunday afternoon of the month. As we came to the end of our business that day, one of the elders said that since the two churches in the village were now members of the same denomination, we should make some efforts at getting to know our PCUSA neighbors with an eye to building some fraternal relationships. The rest of the session unanimously agreed. Since we had had absolutely no contact with the other congregation up to this point, the plan of action was for one of the elders to find out the names of the officers of the black church (including the minister) and then report back. Once that was accomplished, I was commissioned to contact my counterpart in the neighboring pulpit (the Rev. Jesse L. Moore, as I was to learn) to simply get acquainted and begin to feel out possibilities for some joint efforts.

In the meantime, new information came to light that, in my mind, made our mission of fence-flattening all the more urgent - it was learned that the black congregation wanted to build a new church. Good thing. Their building was quite literally falling down around their ears. It was only upright because it was braced that way by a series of strategically placed 2x4's. Without those braces, the structure would have been a pile of rubble. In other circumstances, one could have hardly objected to that congregation's desire for a new facility. But now that there was another church building of the same denomination as theirs only 300 yards away (a building which was in excellent condition, by the way), it made no sense to me to see thousands of dollars spent to preserve a division which had no more need of existence.

By this time I was getting excited about the possibilities. I knew there would be certain difficulties concerning reunion because of the racial situation in the south, but I began to see that the Lord was giving an opportunity to the Christians in this sleepy little village to provide a witness, not only to the new church, but to the whole world, of what could be done when the gospel is taken seriously. Not only were the black and white presbyterians in Liberty Hill now members of the same denomination, but a day could soon come when they might be members of the same congregation - an incredible event in the rural south, similar to the union of Jew and Gentile in the early church.

Meanwhile, Jesse Moore and I made efforts at getting together to follow-up on becoming acquainted. Somehow, we just could not seem to manage - we were simply never able to get our schedules to mesh. He lived almost an hour away from Liberty Hill and was unable to travel at will - I was to learn later that Jesse was totally blind, the result of an advanced diabetic condition. As it turned out, it would take more than two months after that June 12 session meeting for the pastors to meet face-to-face.

It was a Sunday afternoon. My living room. We talked for about an hour-and-a-half about a wide range of common interests: the reunion, our community, our churches, the dilapidated building, what we might do together. Finally, near the end of our visit, Pastor Moore said, "You know they'll come after you, don't you?"

"They?" I replied. "What do you mean?"

"The Klan. The Ku Klux Klan. They won't come after me because I'm just a poor ol' blind preacher. But you're young. You have a family. Have you thought about them?"

I honestly had to say that I had not. I knew that the Ku Klux Klan was still alive and well in our part of the south, but it had not occurred to me that two tiny congregations in an obscure little village wanting to worship together would attract their attention. I finally said to my guest, "I am not a masochist. I am not into pain, either for myself or for my family. But I have to say that if I am ever called upon to die for a cause, I cannot think of a cause better than this one." I really meant that then, and I mean it today. Fortunately, I was never called upon to back up my bravado.

It took until Christmas for anything to happen between our two congregations - a special program to be held at 5:00 PM on Sunday, December 18. Individuals from both congregations would participate in a time of scripture reading and singing which would be conducted in the ramshackle black sanctuary. That would be followed by a time of light refreshment and fellowship in the educational building of the white church.

The big day finally came and my wife and I got in our car for the quick ride from the one church to the other. As we arrived I recall being delightfully surprised at the number of cars parked there. The crowd turned out to be much larger than I would have hoped - about thirty-five whites and twenty-five blacks. There were even some there who had been very vocal in their displeasure with the whole concept. All in all, most everyone in attendance was soon enraptured by the proceedings. The music was exciting and the scriptures inspiring. The presence of the Holy Spirit was almost palpable. It was an incredible experience. A miracle had taken place. Both during the service and in the car on the way back to the fellowship hall of our church, Christie was in tears because she had been so moved by what had happened.

Within a few minutes both black and white worshipers were gathered for the refreshments, and something else incredible occurred - they actually sat down and ate together, something that WAS NOT DONE in that culture. Folks had trouble knowing how to act. One dear white lady, in an effort to be sociable, was going around to the black visitors, asking their names, and then with happy recognition, identifying the white families to which their grandfathers had belonged as slaves. She was just being friendly. (I wanted to strangle her!)

There was more to come. There were black faces in our white congregation on Christmas Eve, a joint worship service on Christmas morning. On the first Sunday in February, Race Relations Sunday, there was a joint communion service, elders from both congregations distributing the elements, the first time black and white Christians had ever come TOGETHER to the Lord's Table in Liberty Hill. Those were special, Spirit-filled days.

Of course, all was not sweetness and light. There were a few hate-filled phone calls and a couple of nasty letters from people outside our community who had heard what we were doing. There were complaints in my congregation about the damage that would occur to our sanctuary if we let blacks in...they would get things dirty, might carve their initials in the pews. One white lady, on that Communion Sunday, refused to partake of bread or juice that had been carried by black hands - she ceremoniously took what was offered and disdainfully set it down. I thought at the time, "Good thing, it would probably poison her." No, it was not perfect...but it was a beginning.

I would love to say that time was finally able to heal the old racial wounds and now those two congregations are one, but I cannot. There is still a way to go. But that time just over a quarter of a century ago was a foretaste of what CAN BE and WILL BE when the gospel that flattens fences is actually LIVED.

With every fibre of my being, I believe that the day will come when
  • In the church, between rich and poor, the fence is flattened;
  • In the church, between young and old, the fence is flattened;
  • In the church, between the powerful and the powerless, the fence is flattened.
  • In the church, between the eloquent and the hesitant, the fence is flattened.
  • In the church, between the educated and the illiterate, the fence is flattened.
  • In the church, even between black and white, just as between Jew and Gentile so long ago, the fence is flattened.


How? Not by our doing. Rather, by the one "who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!"

Amen.

1. A more complete account of this story can be found in my book, A Colorblind Church: Integration Under the Steeple, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2007)

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