Of Walls, Gates, and Angels

Nehemiah 2: 13-18; John 10: 9; Revelation 21

Novella Carpenter glanced out her window and saw a man walk through her backyard gate.  He went over to her garden, and pull up a carrot.  Novella hurried outside.  She greeted the stranger and was about to explain that the carrots were small because it was too soon to pick them, but the young man spoke first.  “This place reminds me of my grandma,” he said, tears filling his eyes.  “Everything’s so growing.”  Now Novella was the one with tears in her eyes as she thought about what it would be like to grow up in this poor neighborhood of Oakland, CA, far from anything green or lush or flourishing (Farm City, 2009).

Novella shared an unlikely moment of social bonding with a stranger.  They connected over their love for the garden.  We’ve all had instances like that.  We’ll strike up a conversation with a stranger sitting next to us or while standing in a line, and sometimes we feel a sense of understanding and closeness grow between us as we talk.

These positive experiences are more likely to occur when two conditions are present.  First, we need to feel safe.

Consider the residents of Jerusalem in Chapter 21 of The Story.   Without a wall they felt vulnerable and exposed.  They worried about what harm their enemies meant to cause the city.  

Once the wall was back up though the mood in the city changed.  The residents relaxed, they had time to study God’s law and get to know God better.  They had time to plan a religious festival and celebrate.  Once the wall was rebuilt and they stopped being afraid, their lives expanded and improved.   They flourished behind their wall of safety.

For love to flourish, first we need to feel safe.  The second thing we need is a way to connect.  Walls in and of themselves are not enough to promote love. Jerusalem’s walls had gates, an easy way for outsiders to come in and for residents to go out.

The vision of the New Jerusalem depicts the heavenly city with a wall around it and with gates that are always open.  An angel is stationed at each gate.  I like this vision of angelic gatekeepers.  People from every era, nation, race, ethnicity are streaming through these gates, bonding with each other, unafraid to be around so many strangers.  The angel-guards will see to it that everyone who enters is there to praise, to say “thank you,” and “I love you” to Christ.

The “gates” so to speak that allow easy, safe connections to be established between strangers are eye contact and smiles.  When we exchange a friendly glance and a smile with a stranger, a fleeting connection is made that is like a micro-moment in heaven.  

The more social connections we make over the course of a day, the better we feel.  Love affects the body in many positive ways.  That’s what scientists have discovered and that’s what I’ll be preaching about this month-- the religious implications of scientific research on love.  It seems appropriate to focus on love this month as we move closer to Easter because the next four chapters of The Story are about the life and ministry of Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s love.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson is the professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina and her research indicates that we become more knowledgeable, more resilient, more social, and healthier the more we share micro-moments of love with others (Love 2.0, 2013).

When Fredrickson writes that “positive emotions can set off upward spirals in your life, self-sustaining trajectories of growth that lift you up to become a better version of yourself.” this sounds very Wesleyan to me.  United Methodist doctrine also talks about the possibility that everyone can experience the upward-spiral of God’s love as it transforms them into a living, breathing example of Christ’s Spirit.

Consider the example of Novella again.  The wall around her garden had a gate.  When a stranger came through the gate, she did not confront him with gun, she greeted him with a smile.  She looked him in the eyes.

Novella had formed enough social connections with the poor people living in her neighborhood that she could accurately read the situation.  She took in the stranger’s dress and behavior and body language and she recognized that he was not a threat.  She was safe in his presence.  This is one of the benefits of micro-moments of love.  The more we have them, the better we get at judging people’s behavior.

Here’s some homework that can help us experience more micro-moments love.  First, try to make eye contact and to smile at everyone you meet during the week.  We’ll practice this during communion.  More about that later.  (I had them serve communion to each other and asked them to smile and look each other in the eye as they offered the bread and the cup.)

The second homework assignment is based on Dr. Frederickson’s research.  At the end of the day, think about your three longest social interactions either with one person or with a group.  For each of those occasions ask yourself two questions--

“Did I feel ‘in tune’ with the person or people?  Did I feel close to the person or people?”

Dr. Frederickson has found that simply reflecting on those two questions is enough to make people more aware of the opportunities they have to connect with others.

So let’s put this scientist’s research to the test this month and see if it can help us become more knowledgeable, more resilient, more social, and healthier-- better versions of ourselves, angles who cause their neighborhoods to flourish.

I believe that this is possible not because of what the scientists report but because of what the Gospel proclaims.  Jesus said, “I am the Gate.”  He is our gateway to the source of love.  That’s the light that can gleam in our eyes and brighten our smiles.  Strangers can connect with us, who are in turn connected to Christ, who is in turn connected to love everlasting.  God’s grace fuels the upward spiral of love’s action in our lives.

What do you say we strengthen our connection to Christ right now, first by offering our gifts, then by offering ourselves to God and each other by celebrating the Lord’s Supper?