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Outside The Gates

Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Lesson audio

Permit me a story, if you will. Many years ago, in this class, I delivered a lesson which included within it my observations on racial prejudice. I am proud to say that my class paid excellent attention that day, because many of them came up afterwards and explained to me (vigorously) that there was no racial prejudice in this church. In short words they told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

But after all the white folks left, one minority member of the class came up. He explained to me that I had no idea how bad things were. I had barely scratched the surface, in his view. He then told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

So next week I began the lesson by summarizing these two views and announcing that, unfortunately, the only thing held in Christian unity was the fact that I didn’t know what I was talking about. So if I seem to be approaching the topic more forcefully than you think required, remember I want to know what I’m talking about.

Three Radical Ideas

Permit me to introduce to you three ideas, brought forward by that most radical of thinkers, one Jesus of Nazareth. While all of these ideas are found in the Old Testament, they are most clearly taught by Jesus directly.

Radical Concept: the Fatherhood of God

Jesus introduced us to the idea that God is our Father – remember the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer? So?

  • This means that He has authority over us by the nature of His responsibility for us. He is our creator. We are obliged to obey His physical laws; we should also obey His moral precepts.
  • As is fitting, He disciplines us. He sends adversity or discontent to bring His church to where she should be.
  • This also implies, as is stated quite clearly, that He loves us. Indeed, He loves us to the point of sending the Son to die on the Cross.
Radical Concept: the brotherhood of man

If we are His children, we are then to be known as brothers and sisters. Some thoughts:

  • Secular history has divorced the civil rights movement of the 1960’s from the church – but that’s not what happened. The Reverend Martin Luther King appealed to the white church on the basis of the brotherhood. The white church resisted his political appeals, but could not resist his appeal to the Scripture for this.
  • This idea – that the church is one – is scriptural, and is one which is part of the very heart of God: the unity of the church. He prayed[1] that we all might be one.
  • The idea resounds in our nation’s heritage: “that all men are created equal.” The great experiment, the democratic nation, was laid on the foundation of the Word of God.
Radical Concept: the imitation of Christ

Of all lives lived, the greatest is that of Christ – the sinless man. He is the one man who can safely lift up his own example; even Paul said “follow me, as I follow Christ.”[2] We are taught that Christ gave his life as a ransom for many, indeed for “whosoever will.” We are told to preach this to the nations.

Therein lies a paradox. When the chance arises, dozens of people in this church will jump at the opportunity to spend several thousand dollars for the privilege of two weeks in a slum in Kenya, just to spread the Gospel. But when we seem to be invaded by Mexicans, our reaction is? It sure isn’t hospitality!


Fences – why do we build them? Why do we habitually surround ourselves with barriers of our own making?

  • We build them to keep out the strange, the alien, the unknown. We are comfortable where we are in an uncomfortable world.
  • We build them to keep out the dangerous – physically or otherwise. This isn’t always guaranteed to work, but we try.
  • We build them to keep out the different. We do not wish to be disturbed by disturbing people or ideas

Perhaps we can see this in a different way: just what kind of fences do we build?

  • Physical fences, obviously. See the US-Mexican border for an example.
  • Social fences, too. Those who don’t dress right, who are too old, too young, too fat can be kept out by social fences.[3]
  • There are walls in our minds, too. Things we don’t want to talk about; people we don’t want to talk to.

May I suggest to you that your service to Christ will call you to break down those walls? There are those who will steal from you; consider it a sacrifice for Christ if you are doing His will. They will change us, somehow; perhaps God wants us to change. In all these things there is fear; but remember that perfect love casts out fear. Is He perfecting your love?[4]

Breaking down the walls

Are we really required to break down our social and mental walls? Here’s what the Bible gives us as an example:

Jas 2:1-13 NIV Favoritism Forbidden

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. (2) Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. (3) If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," (4) have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (5) Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (6) But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? (7) Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? (8) If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself,"[1] you are doing right. (9) But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (10) For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (11) For he who said, "Do not commit adultery,"[2] also said, "Do not murder."[3] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (12) Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, (13) because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Could this happen in the church today? Probably not. But the principle remains the same: no favoritism, the doors open to all. We give gifts to the poor; but we can’t stand their presence???

How is this done? By individuals. Church programs to break down walls rarely work, because they are top down. Individual programs do work – because they start with the Christians closest to the problem. An excellent example is found in our Celebrate Recovery program.[5] The church leadership didn’t start it – though they blessed it when Sandi Mason did.

Need another example? I give you the one and only Loud Larry.[6] He was welcomed not by the church – he specializes in not fitting in – but by a few members.

But is this all necessary for the church? Why don’t we just let those who care to participate do so, and the rest of us be comfortable as is? Consider:

  • If we break down these barriers, we speak with one voice to the world – no matter who in the world it is.
  • We appeal to everyone, not just more sheep like us. Middle class is not a prerequisite for church membership.
  • The church is called in her material, physical view to the world to portray the kingdom of God. In that kingdom, neither slave nor free, male nor female…

Al this is the imitation of Christ. He has broken down the wall of hostility between us and God the Father by His sacrifice on the Cross. We can at least imitate Him by breaking down the walls that divide His children.

[1] John 17:11

[2] 1st Corinthians 11:1, paraphrased

[3] The author wears an eye patch on the right eye. On one occasion I have seen a four year old daughter, shocked that Eastside allowed pirates in, take her mother’s hand in both of hers and tow mom out of danger. Wearing an eye patch gives you the sight of one eye – and visibility into our walls.

[4] 1st John 4:18

[5] A very euphonious name, unlike Alcoholics Anonymous – which invented the techniques. Sometimes we need to sugarcoat the name to make it respectable.

[6] More piercings, more tattoos and more outrageous hair coloring.

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