Click here to view the full sermon video for July 18, 2021 entitled, "Healing Words."
In 1925 Malcolm Little was born in Omaha into a deeply troubled family. After bouncing around in several foster homes, in 1946 he got into trouble with the law for burglary and was sentenced to ten years in prison. While in prison he converted to the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam held that all whites were devils who were responsible for the plight of black people in America. Its leader, Elijah Muhammad, was headquartered in New York City.
After Malcolm X was paroled in 1952, he soon began his work with the Nation of Islam and became their spokesman. An incredibly charismatic speaker, he spared with white liberals and black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X became something of a national celebrity in the early 1960s, adored by many but feared by many anxious whites. Threats of violence were heavy in the air.
But something remarkable happened to Malcolm X in 1964. Disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm began a spiritual journey through the Middle East and West Africa. While there he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and witnessed something he had never seen before: people of all races and nationalities treating each other respectfully. He wrote that the pilgrims “were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was warm and friendly. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of prison again.”
Malcolm abandoned his trademark black suit and dark tie for the two-piece white garment all pilgrims to Mecca must wear. These garments visibly reflect the ultimate equality of all people before God. At the great mosque in Mecca he circled the Ka’ba with thousands of pilgrims praying and chanting, pilgrims of “every size, shape, color and race in the world.” It was that pilgrimage that changed Malcolm X forever. No longer were white people inherently evil. Rather it was America’s racist past that influences whites to act unjustly. He entreated sincere white people to teach justice and non-violence within their own communities. And it was this change of heart that just months later on February 21, 1965, led to his assassination in New York City.
At the end of his life, Malcolm X discovered the ultimate vision of Islam: to unite all people before the one God of Abraham. A faith that from the beginning intended to be a “blessing to all nations”. That is the vision of Judaism. That is the vision of Islam. And that, brothers and sisters, is the vision of Christianity, a universal family of love. Something like what Malcolm X experienced on his pilgrimage to Mecca. What Abraham saw in his epiphany in Genesis 12. And what the writer to the Ephesians celebrates in our text for today.
Ephesians 2 is addressed directly to Gentiles, those who previously had “no hope and were without God in the world.” Gentiles were considered far from God, “strangers and aliens”. In fact, this writer uses the imagery of a “dividing wall of hostility” erected between Gentiles and Jews. And between Gentiles and God as well. It is a very dark picture of Gentiles as “children of wrath”, dead in their trespasses and sins. This may be the darkest assessment of Gentiles anywhere in the Scriptures.
That “dividing wall of hostility” may refer to the divisions within Jerusalem’s temple itself, the wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews. Death was the penalty for any Gentile who crossed that divide. In Acts 21, the apostle Paul was falsely accused of bringing the Gentile Trophimus the Ephesian across that barrier. The enraged Jewish crowd tried to kill Paul, but the Roman officers rescued Paul and took him into custody. That wall of separation almost led to Paul’s stoning.
That “wall of hostility” has been dismantled by Christ Jesus, who has become our peace. Christ reconciled “both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility.” The cross forges a new people out of two warring camps-Jews and Gentiles. The cross brings together estranged folks who have been so far apart, so deeply hostile to one other.
Think Israelis and Palestinians. Think Anglos and people of color. Think rich and poor, socialists and capitalists, Democrats and Republicans. The cross brings everyone to their knees, equidistant before the foot of our crucified Redeemer. There on our knees we are no longer strangers, but sisters and brothers for whom Christ died, fellow citizens in the coming Kingdom of God. We are joined together in a new and holy temple united in one Spirit.
This is a grand and glorious vision. What Abraham and Sarah were promised, that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), was coming to fruition through Christ our Lord. The hope of the world, peace and reconciliation, was offered at the cross, and no one was excluded. Every dividing wall of hostility torn down in and through Christ. The promise is that the hatchet will be buried, the enmity destroyed, and the estrangement overcome. Ephesians 2 is aspirational literature at its best, a grand vision ultimately realized when leaves from the Tree of Life bring healing to all the nations.
So how do we get from here to there, from dividing walls of hostility to reconciliation and peace? For us, Christ is that bridge, our peace and our hope. For Malcolm X, it took going on pilgrimage to Mecca to catch a glimpse of a reconciled humanity. Sometimes you have to go way out of your comfort zone to catch a glimpse of what could be. It happened for me in Bremerhaven, in what was then called West Germany. The year was 1966.
But a little background first. I grew up in the segregated South, in the piney woods of East Texas. My hometown of Tyler was not unlike towns scattered all across the Jim Crow South, a statue honoring the Confederate dead on the courthouse square. My high school was named after Robert E. Lee and we proudly wore the word “Rebels” across our uniforms. Our school motto was “The Sun that sets may never rise but Rebel Spirit never dies.” The Rebel Guard with its replica of a Civil War cannon fired off celebratory shots whenever the Red and Gray scored a touchdown. Before the game, we unfurled on the football field a giant Rebel flag stretching from one thirty-yard line to the other. At halftime, the Rebelletes strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. In this world south of the Mason-Dixon line during my senior year I was voted “Best Rebel.” You could say that when I was 18 years old, I was a true believer: Pickett’s Charge, “the stillness at Appomattox”, the Lost Cause, Southern chivalry, “I wish I were in Dixie”, “Gone with the Wind”-the whole nine yards.
Now my brother Steve, five years my elder, joined the Navy in the early 60’s and was stationed in Bremerhaven on the North Sea. He had experienced all the diversity the Navy had to offer. And he had come to believe that our little world in East Texas needed to change and change radically. Steve had befriended many sailors along the way who were not white. And he felt that his little brother needed to break out of our segregated world. Now both of us had grown up in the church singing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” But that was for foreign missionaries, not us.
So Steve concocted a plan just for his younger brother who came to visit him in the summer of 1966. Steve got permission for me to stay in the Navy barracks, but he claimed there was no room in his quarters. So he asked some friends to let me stay with them. What I did not know was that this was all a set-up. His friends were two very large black sailors from the Bronx. Steve said, “They will care of you.” Did they ever! These two articulate black sailors took me to their room and set me down for a discussion, actually a two-hour interrogation.
They wanted me to know what it was like to grow up in a black ghetto. They introduced me to their world-the crime, the poverty, the blead public housing, the lack of jobs, the poor schools, the inadequate healthcare, the police brutality, and above all, the despair. Then they got to their main question for me: “What makes you think you are better than us?” It was a question that was like an arrow shot from the Bronx into my frightened East Texas heart. I was speechless. I had no answer. Actually I was ashamed. Ashamed at how much of my world was built on white privilege and disdain for others. Ashamed of all the illusions of racist ideology. It was a question that changed my life: “What makes you think you are better than us?”
At an agreed upon point, my brother Steve came into the room. Then he and his friends broke out in laughter. I mustered some nervous laughter and then went with my brother back to his room. It was the night, as the old song says, “they drove ole Dixie down.” And it has never been resurrected for me since. Sometimes we have to go to Mecca or Bremerhaven to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Then the dividing walls of hostility come crashing down. By the grace of God, they can and they will. Thanks be to God.