Diocese of North Carolina Service of Repentance, Healing, and Reconciliation
Three blocks from the Church Center in New York is a public park called Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Itâs the site of many rallies, a weekly farmerâs market, and the occasional protest, since itâs across the street from the United Nations. A couple of weeks ago, I was going through the park before dawn, and ran by what I thought was a person standing alone. I quickly met others, sitting on benches or standing around. These werenât living people, but a new sculpture installation â 26 human forms lined up through the block-long plaza. They are life-sized statues, half of them of cast iron, and half of cast aluminum. There are 13 pairs, in different attitudes, an iron figure mirroring the stance of an aluminum one â sitting, standing, puzzled, welcoming, even one pair bent over on their knees in prayerful contemplation. Twelve pairs are lined up, and the thirteenth pair embraces all the others â with one at each end of the park. The figures were cast by an Icelandic artist, Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, and will be there until the end of September. She calls the installation, âBorders.â
This collection of human forms has haunted me as today has approached. White and black, black and white, engaged in the same acts of life, reaching out for relationship â each member of these pairs faces the other. They are not living in parallel, ignoring each other, nor are they turned away, or going apart. Yet there is still a space needing to be crossed between them â the ones closest together are the ones in prayer, and theyâre still a good ten feet apart. These are like the ones Paul speaks of â those who are near and those who are far off. The borders have something to do with their different colors â a rich, rusty brown, or a matte silver-gray â and with the space between them.
In our history those borders have been implemented as a value judgment, and used to justify all sorts of injustice. Yet the color line hasnât always been the only source of inhuman behavior â white Americans have turned other immigrants like the Irish and the Italians into wage slaves, and Africans were deeply involved in enslaving fellow Africans. Other color lines have been used to excuse vast indignities committed on Native Americans and Asian Americans, and todayâs grievous inhumanity to Latino migrants in our midst. Those kinds of borders have too often become bonds of injustice, yokes of oppression, and the finger pointing and evil speech that Isaiah condemns.
Human beings are capable of the most wretched behavior â as the old confession put it, âthere is no health in us.â Yet through human prophets God continues to call us to turn in a new direction, toward healing, wholeness, and holiness of life. In the wider world, we call that justice. Some have said that justice is simply love in public action. Justice is what Isaiah is talking about when he says, feed the hungry, house the homeless, cover the naked, emancipate the slaves, and redeem prisoners. Jesus reads from the same prophet when he claims anointing to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to slaves and prisoners, and to proclaim the year of Godâs favor.
Weâre here this morning because we know something about the consequences of having âno health in us.â Weâre here to turn away from the prison pipeline, and the multi-generational consequences of poverty, and the great gaps between current reality and our national aspirations for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness â for all Godâs children. There is an enormous breach in that promise. We have not yet found the year of the Lordâs favor.
When Isaiah urges us to turn toward a society of justice, he promises that those who set the captives free, feed the hungry, and stop the finger pointing and hate speech will be called repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in. Weâre all hungry for those safe and healthy cities, where we can grow old watching children play in those streets, growing into health and abundant life in a community of peace. That is the ancient dream of Godâs people. It is the promised land, Zion, and the beautiful city of God. Itâs a long way down the road, but we move a few steps closer this morning.
How are we going to close that breach, and restore those streets, and build that city? Paul offers a hint â reminding us that Jesus has already broken down the walls between us: the borders of color and race and gender and language. We are all children of the same God, weâre all searching for that same city of abundant life. We do not have to remain strangers to each other, for we are citizens of the same, heavenly realm, fellow travelers on the same Jesus road.
What maintains those borders? What keeps us 20 feet apart, wary of those who donât look like us, or speak with a different accent? Whoever we call other is the image of God, and none of us will be complete until we can embrace another aspect of Godâs good creation. Without moving toward the other the breach continues. The fear that keeps us on edge and distant never leads to healing. Why is it that the angels always start out by saying, âfear notâ? Encountering the image of God is usually challenging, but itâs not deadly â death and diminishment and despair come from avoiding the image of God. We should be praying for courage to cross the space between us. Thatâs where the journey to freedom begins â in reaching out to the image of God so close at hand, without whom we will never be free or whole.
Thereâs a poem thatâs famous among aviators, written by a young pilot in the Second World War. He was the son of an Episcopal priest who had crossed other boundaries to serve as a missionary in China. Most people think the poem is about the glory of flying. It is. Yet I think itâs even more deeply about the courage to keep reaching out across whatever separates us from God. Think of being sent like an angel to a neighbor, bearing the message, âfear notâ:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward Iâve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds â and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of â wheeled and soared and swung
high in the sunlit silence. Hovering there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.
I share a love of that poem with an African-American pilot, now well into his 80s, who flew more than 100 missions in Viet Nam. He loves flying so much that he learned to maintain airplanes, too. Heâs still flying, and still doing aircraft inspections. I give thanks for his gifts, and for the gruff and gentle way heâs challenged me to grow â both as a pilot and a pastor. Heâs shown me something of the face of God.
Touching the face of God is our work, of whatever mettle/metal our craft may be â iron or aluminum, or some new and holy alloy â it can and must bear us Godward, to bridge the borders between us. Fear not. Courage will bear us across.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., âHigh Flightâ