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March 4, 2018

“Breaking Barriers: Setting the Boundaries”

Exodus 20.1-17

Amos 5.6-15

March 4, 2018

            Today I tried a social experiment – you may have noticed. I roped off some of the seats in the sanctuary. I wondered if you would stay within the boundaries or break the boundaries. There was no right or wrong – I just wanted to see how you would respond. Since we have been talking about boundaries throughout Lent I thought this would be interesting.

            Boundaries are everywhere we go. Some borders we know and some we don’t. Some we learn along the way. Churches set up boundaries, as well. Some of these are good because they keep us safe and tell us what traditions we follow and what we believe. Some are not as good because they can be exclusive and not welcoming. Some just are, but can be difficult to navigate. Imagine how newcomers feel in a church when they walk into a place for the first time and do not know the boundaries. Where do the regulars sit? They don’t want to take someone else’s seat! When should they sit? When should they stand? There are rules that we follow weekly that visitors might not know at first. Today, as you entered the sanctuary and saw the boundaries, maybe you felt uncomfortable and were unsure why these boundaries were put up. Tell me a little bit about how you felt and what you thought. (discussion)

            Whether churches intend to or not they set up boundaries. You probably have noticed the chicken wire surrounding the communion table. I’ve put this here as a way to imagine ways we set up boundaries about who can be included. Who is allowed to take communion? Who is not? Our polity has changed in the last couple years with the change of the Book of Order. Now, you don’t have to be a baptized member, but confess Christ in order to take communion. Before, anyone who was not baptized was not allowed to take communion.

            Sometimes when we put up boundaries we might think we are doing something positive but we don’t realize who we are excluding. On the front of your bulletin cover you will find a picture of a wall with graffiti. This wall surrounds Bethlehem partially. The Israelis have built the wall around Bethlehem to keep Palestinians in Bethlehem, making it very difficult for them to travel and access their own land, especially the land that lies outside the ever moving boundary. Where there isn’t a wall there is a double chain link fence to oppress the Palestinians. On this wall someone wrote: “Friends cannot be divided. Enemies should.” The first part we can agree with, but the second part is harsh. Enemies should be divided. Many people probably agree with this, but when we divide ourselves from our enemies we grow father and father apart. The breach between grows deeper and the gap is harder to fill. When we set up walls we don’t realize that we actually have so much in common with our enemies, and that – perhaps – they aren’t our enemies in the first place.

            The Amos passage is about the boundaries the people have set between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots. The distance is startling. God is trying to convince the people to change their ways. God wants them to seek justice within the gates.

            Last week we discussed some of the functions of the gates of city walls. There are walls that surround old Jerusalem and there are many gates to enter. In the time of Amos the gates had many public purposes beside entering and exiting a city. The government met there and made decisions and announcements. Items were sold and bought at the city gates. Judicial decisions were made, as well.[1] Being at the gates meant something because so much was happening. These gates were a prime metaphor, too, for who was allowed in and who was not – how accessible was the city? We might imagine the modern day equivalent of meeting in a doorway – blocking the way for people to come in, setting up important meetings and decisions in a location where you can be seen, but not everyone can access.

            The people in the Amos passage trample the poor and steal from them because they are not seeking God. They do not care for one another. Their punishment is similar to what we read in Psalm 127 last week. In that Psalm God warns that a house built without God will not stand and a gate not guarded by God would not be safe. The point was to do all things with God and through God. Here, the people have ignored God, so their homes are not inhabitable and their wine is not drinkable. God tells them to seek God and to seek good and to seek justice – to create a space for justice.

            The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, also tells about justice. This is a list of do’s and don’ts as a reflection of God’s goodness. This is not a list to earn God’s grace, but as a response to God’s grace. These are boundaries God sets for humankind – the boundary to preserve human life and to obey the Sabbath and love God and our neighbors. Sabbath is a boundary in and of itself. As Donna Schaper puts it, what do we keep in, and what do we keep out?[2] Will we allow distractions to creep in during our Sabbath time? Will we set a boundary of no computer use when we are taking Sabbath? Will we let small worries consume us when we could be resting with God? How do you put up boundaries around your Sabbath time?

            We all need to rest in God. When we focus on God and take time to be with God we see the boundaries that God builds for us so that we can do what God has called us to and not become burnt out or stressed. A colleague of mine likes to use the acronym “HALT” in speaking about boundaries. When we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired we are more likely to break boundaries. So, if we take time to rest in God, feed our body, mind, and soul, we are able to respect our boundaries and those of others.

            As I preached on Wednesday at the Lenten Lunch, theologian Walter Brueggemann states that the Sabbath commandment bridges the first three commandments and the last six.[3] The first three are about our relationship with God and the final six are about our relationships with humans. When we rest we bring our focus on God and can learn how to interact with God and with one another.

            Think about boundaries within the church – physical boundaries, invisible boundaries, mental boundaries. Is everyone truly welcome? Is our church accessible for someone in a wheelchair? Walk through the church, walk through the worship service and bulletin and think of ways we could be more inclusive. It means listening to people who feel a boundary is set up – it might be invisible to us, but to them it is a real boundary. See the world through someone else’s eyes and try to imagine the barriers that are put up. Then, let us try to take them down, little by little.

            Find rest in God and be aware of those boundaries you put up. Try to see how God is present in those boundaries and whether they are welcoming or keeping people out – and ask why they keep people out. Perhaps there is a good reason. Perhaps it needs to be reconsidered. Let us break down the barriers that separate us from God’s people. Let us lessen the gap between enemies and let us reach out to those who are poor, those who are oppressed, and those who cannot break down the barrier that tries to keep them down. Amen.


[1] Victor H. Matthews, A Brief History of Ancient Israel. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 101.

[2] Donna Schaper, Sabbath Keeping (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), 82.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 1