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February 25, 2018

“Breaking Barriers: Open or Shut?”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 127

Acts 12.5-19

February 25, 2018

            Boundaries cannot be changed individually – we can only make a difference with God and with one another. Lutheran minister, Rev. Heidi Neumark recently wrote an article in Christian Century about breaking boundaries. Her life was drastically altered while in seminary when she heard a Bishop from Argentina speak about the difficulties Argentinians were facing in the 1980s following the disappearance of over 30,000 people. The government had been taken over by a military group that had used force and created absolute terror in the community. Touched by this story, Neumark spoke with the Bishop, who urged her to go and experience this terror for herself so that she could make a difference.

            She went to a seminary in Argentina for one year, where she met people and heard their stories. She had taken with her liberation theology books written in English because she wanted something to read. These books were prohibited by the military, though. She had smuggled them in. A year before she had arrived the seminary library had been bombed and the liberation books were not allowed in the newly restored library. With the help of David Wartluft, a seminary librarian, they found a series of books in the library that were the same size as the liberation books. He cut open the books, pasted the covers on the liberation books, and replaced them. One was even placed in Celtic Fairy Tales ­– perhaps the last place one would look for liberation theology.[1] Neumark made a difference in her time there, breaking the unreasonable rules placed by an oppressive regime. She did so with the help of a friend, and could not have done so without his expert library skills, nor could he without her willingness to smuggle in the books.

            The scripture passage about Peter portrays help from God and help from others, but is also pretty comical. It is reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello bit or a Mel Brooks film, with slapstick comedy. This is a comedy of the gates and is appropriate as we talk about boundaries and gates in Lent.

            We begin with Peter in prison. Herod had killed James and arrested Peter for their talk of Jesus. Peter is meant to be executed the next day. Somehow, with his death imminent and two guards on either side of him, he is sleeping, chained in prison walls. Suddenly, an angel appears before him and invites him to follow. No questions asked, Peter goes. The scripture tells us that Peter thought this was a dream of some kind. This begs the question of when Peter finally realized it wasn’t a dream, but reality. He really was busting out of prison with a divine being and set free.

            The iron gate of the prison magically, or divinely, opens. Did God open it? The angel? Was a divine presence needed to open the gate without a key? This is the first gate we encounter in this passage and Peter does not open it himself. He is reliant on God, whether he recognizes it or not.

            Immediately he ran to Mary’s house. At this point we can assume he no longer thinks this was all a dream. He finds himself at another gate. Why doesn’t he just bust in? Perhaps this gate was larger than gates we envision around our own homes. We might envision a chain link fence, one where you can see through and even poke your fingers through to lift a latch. Or we might think of a beautiful garden entry with a wooden gate that swings open. No, this must be taller and more complex. We read that his voice is heard, rather than Peter being seen. So, this truly is a large barrier that he cannot simply jump over or unlatch by himself.

            All this time, while he was in prison, his friends have been praying for him. He has been surrounded by community and they have cared for him through their thoughts and prayers. Rhoda, a maid, hears his voice. She is startled and doesn’t open the gate. Instead, she rushes to the others and announces his presence.

            The group can hardly believe this news! “You are out of your mind!” they tell her. Day and night they have dedicated themselves to prayer and when their prayers are finally answered they don’t believe it to be true![2] Suddenly, they realize that in all the excitement, doubt, and confusion, Peter is still on the other side of the gate, knocking. He is patient, and waits for them. He cannot open the gate himself – he needs help. The first time a gate is opened, Peter needs God’s help. The second time he needs the help of his friends - the community.

            Last week we began Lent by talking about boundaries and rules and laws. Who makes these boundaries and what boundaries need to change? Laws are meant to keep us safe, but sometimes they are broken or need to be altered because of changing times. For Neumark, she was breaking a rule, but it was necessary in order to offer resources to an oppressed people. How do we change boundaries? Who has the power to do this? We certainly don’t do this alone. God helps us break open the gates and God works through others, and through us, to create change. We cannot make a difference in this world alone.

            A similar message is found in Psalm 147. The psalmist gives various situations in which people toil without God and fail because they do not have God’s support.[3] A house cannot be built without God’s foundation. Someone who guards is not successful without God. All of these are through God’s support.

            The final example is in regards to having male children. This is less about having male children, and more about the continued message of community and being supported by God and community. At the time this psalm was written it was assumed that having sons was a blessing from God. To say that assumes that people without children, or with female children, are not blessed by God – which is simply not true.

The communities in that time were male-centered and women without husbands or without sons, or some male representative did not have a means of income or voice in the community. So, at the end of this passage the psalmist states that having a son means one will always have support when in the city gates. During this time period the city gates were where disputes and lawsuits were handled.[4]  Without a son, or a male, these lawsuits could not be disputed. So, the rationale behind this dated passage is that without community, you cannot settle within the city gates. The gates represented a means of coming to some terms of agreement or reconciliation, and without others surrounding you, that reconciliation might not take place.

The city gates protected the city. Jerusalem has gates and walls surrounding it –at least what is considered ancient Jerusalem. It has since grown beyond the walls, but they still remain. In fact, the picture on your bulletin cover is of the Damascus Gate, one of the gates in Jerusalem. They were massive and kept intruders from entering, or at least discouraged them. Even gardens and farms had gates in ancient Israel, which was to thwart soil erosion.[5] Gates could be very helpful – protecting a city, keeping soil safe, and creating space for reconciliation. Yet, to understand the concept of community and reconciliation in this context, we would have to change the boundary of who is able to approach the city gates. In scripture, it is focused on males. In our context, it is different. Sometimes boundaries need to change.

The psalm also reminds us that we are dependent upon God – that we are weak and cannot do this alone.[6] We must have community, we must have God, or we can accomplish nothing – we cannot make a change. In Lent we recognize that we are human and that we are finite. We need God and we need each other. Let us surround ourselves with community and rely on God to push ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Heidi Neumark, “Contraband Theology” in Christian Century, February 14, 2018, Vol. 135, No. 4, pp.11-12.

[2] Loveday Alexander, “Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: University Press, 2001), 104.

[3] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 462.

[4] C. S. Rodd, “Psalms” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: University Press, 2001), 400.

[5] Gerald L. Mattingly, “Walls” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 1116.

[6] Thomas D. Parker, “Psalm 127” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 274.