“Justice, Healing, Wholeness”
Ephesians 2:14-17 – August 21, 2016
The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have been going on for two weeks. The Olympics has been a marvelous time of both competition and camaraderie, crossing international borders. I have not spent as much time as in years past watching the different competitions, but there have been some exciting and nail-biting times in these past weeks. Swimming and diving, gymnastics, track and field: the United States has won medals in these and many more. And yes, there have also been some scandalous things that happened, both on and off the field of play.
Scandals, quarreling, fighting, bombing. Attacks, sniping, terrorism, and even warfare. So often those are common events in the world today. Sadly, common, and sadly, robbing countries of their best and brightest young people.
From the time that I was little, I was drawn to the Olympic competitions not only for the sake of sport, but also for the sake of the Olympic values and traditions. The Olympic values strive to counteract those negative traits and actions I just mentioned. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, wanted the Olympics to lift up the ideals of respect, fair balance, pursuit of excellence, joy in effort, and balance between mind, body and will. He held up these as the essential Olympic values. What wonderful ideals to reach for!
However, as faulty, error-filled people in this mixed-up world, we have a big problem. Sin gets in the way of these lofty ideals. Negative feelings like hatred, xenophobia, classism, separation of all kinds get in the way. Sin also includes the haves versus the have-nots, all over again, in a myriad of ways.
I would like us to switch gears and look at the Scripture passage for this morning from Ephesians 2. The Apostle Paul is in the middle of a very long paragraph about Jesus Christ and why He came to earth: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who … has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility; His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross..”
As is typical with the Apostle Paul, he makes a complex argument and brings a whole bunch of ideas into play. But I want to highlight this central fact from Ephesians chapter 2. Humanity was once far away from God, made far away by our separation and sin. There was—and is still—a dividing wall of hostility. Hostility between us and God, and hostility between human beings. Hostility between individuals, neighborhoods, groups, nations, races, classes, and a whole host of other separations.
The Olympic ideals, values and tradition help in counteracting this hostility and separation between humanity. The United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission helps to counteract this, too. I have been preaching through the Statement of Mission this summer. The sentence for this week states: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life.” Wonderful things to strive for! And, worthy ideals to shoot for, from the point of view of the Olympic ideals, or from a Christian framework.
Jesus Christ came to earth to reconcile us to God, to destroy that dividing wall of hostility, so that each of us could have healing and wholeness of life. Praise God! Alleluia! That involves our relationship with God. Our vertical relationship, which is so important. Jesus has done that for us. No longer separated and far away, we now have a relationship with God.
But, that is not the end of the story. No! God wants us to take the next step. God calls us to work for justice, healing and wholeness of life, not only for us individually, but for others as well. That is our mission, from the UCC Statement of Mission.
I spoke about this several weeks ago, when several moms from Morton Grove went to the south side of Chicago, into the Englewood neighborhood. Two of us went again this past Wednesday, to help serve at a dinner outreach to that community. We took this opportunity to reconnect with the good people in the Englewood neighborhood and show them that friends outside of their community care, and are concerned. Friends want to help them strengthen relationships, and bring peace into their streets. Their neighborhood. Their community.
By several of us going to the Englewood neighborhood, this was a concrete way of showing our love and caring for others. As a follower of Christ, it was and is my responsibility to work for justice, healing and wholeness of life. Not because I am a pastor, not because I am a leader of this congregation, but because I follow Christ and strive to do the things He did and to say the words He said. And most especially, I strive to love the way Jesus loves.
All of us are called to do that same thing. To follow Christ to the best of our ability.
Let me switch gears and talk about the Olympics again. I did have the opportunity to watch a bunch of races last week. My son and daughter got really excited about the men’s and women’s swimming. We were awestruck to watch Michael Phelps add to his haul of Olympic medals, plus all of the other American swimmers doing an outstanding job in the pool.
I also made note of Simone Manuel, who won two gold medals, one for the 100 meter freestyle and the other as a member of the 4 by 400 relay team. Ms. Manuel is one of the fastest swimmers on the planet today. She also happens to be African-American, the first black woman to medal for the United States in swimming. Ever.
Articles and news stories immediately proliferated on the Internet, television, newspaper and other forms of media. Yes, they all praised Ms. Manuel for her grand achievement. Yet, some of the longer articles told a different story. About how the history of swimming pools and racism are closely tied together in this country. About how “according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, in the United States, a black 11-year-old is 10 times as likely to drown in a swimming pool as a white 11-year-old. And as of 2010, around 70 percent of African-Americans said they couldn’t swim, compared with some 40 percent of white folks.” 
I quote from an article in Rolling Stone, “the fraught dynamics of segregation were fought within swimming pools as well. Often whites would shut down or avoid pools rather than have to intermingle with black people. There were legal battles fought throughout the 1950s over the access black people had to swimming pools and beaches that continued even after Brown v. the Board of Education and the idea that “separate but equal” facilities were deemed unconstitutional.”  A large percentage of American children having a likelihood of drowning. It doesn’t matter who, or what, or where. They are our country’s children. All of our children. And, this is a matter of justice—or, injustice.
This racist attitude is changing. Praise God! Plus, I am so happy for Simone Manuel and her two gold medals in swimming! This aspect of justice is something we all can do something about. And healing, and wholeness. Can you hear God calling? Calling to each of us? As the book of Isaiah says, “God will teach us His ways, so that we may walk in God’s paths.”
We can all look forward to God’s shalom, healing, peace, and wholeness, and verdant life. God wants us to try to communicate this Good News, work for justice, and do our best to spread healing and wholeness. To our friends, our neighbors, those we work with. Let us strive to live healing-filled lives, with God’s help. Alleluia, amen!
(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog, A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)