(a sermon for May 17, 2020, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on Ephesians 2:11-22)
Unless I miss my guess, I suspect that most of us can recall a time in our lives when, for whatever reason, we felt “left out.”
I remember one time in particular: I was about 13 or 14 at time, it’s summertime and I’m at the lake, and one day I’m just sitting down on our dock all alone and feeling incredibly lonely while all my friends were out there on “the pond” having fun together. Now, as I think back on it now I don’t think I could tell you the reason why; all the kids on our side of the lake had always hung together as one group. I don’t know: maybe it was that by this time of our lives some of the guys and girls were starting to find more than a passing interest in one another and I didn’t quite fit into that equation; could be that some of the locals, who knew each other from school, tended to stay separate from us “summer people;” or maybe it was just a typical case of teenagers being fickle and flighty over matters of popularity! All I know is that sitting down on the dock that day, I felt… awful!
I remember literally feeling hurt to think that I was, in essence, now standing on the outside looking in and feeling somehow excluded from all the fun that all my friends were all having: diving off Barker Rocks, having cookouts down at Sand Cove, waterskiing behind somebody’s motorboat or for that matter, just cruising up and down the shoreline, laughing and hanging out! I so wanted to be a part of that, I so wanted to be accepted and included and a part of things; but since I was far too shy and awkward at that point to do anything about that myself, basically I just sort of sat there on the dock all through that horrible afternoon feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded, all the while miserably watching from afar everybody else having a good time.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but at that very moment not only was I experiencing something of the ways of the world as it truly exists, I was also learning a very important lesson in Christian theology!
Now, I don’t think I have to convince any of us that you and I live in a world where people and groups are routinely and systematically “left out,” isolated and alienated from one another, and for any number of reasons: racism, economics, age, classism, geography, issues of gender inequality and identity, red state/blue state; it goes on and on, each and all of it a catalyst for how any semblance of unity and community can be torn asunder, creating an “us versus them” mentality. Sadly, note even the church is immune to such behavior: many is the time over the years when as a pastor I’ve seen firsthand how bad habits, misbegotten traditions and a wide array of deeply held prejudices serves only to create deep divisions within the church, leaving folks with the feeling that they’re unwelcome, unworthy and on the outside looking in.
And that, wherever or however it occurs, is not only a travesty, it’s also heresy. Because ours is the God who in Jesus Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that, in the words of our text for this morning, those “who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” with whatever dividing wall between us and God having been torn down, so that we are no longer “strangers and aliens, but… citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” What that means, friends, is that not only are we brought close to God through Christ, but also that the barriers that divide us are torn down as well, and we are joined together and built spiritually into one household that is no less than “a dwelling place for God,” with “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
Bottom line is that no one, for any reason, should ever feel left out of the fellowship that exists in this community of faith, this Body of Christ of which you and I are each a part; for the love that is sown here actively seeks to gather in all those who stand on life’s shoreline longing to be included. It is, as our hymn for this morning has so aptly proclaimed, our church’s “charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth,” and each and every one of us, friends, are invited to be a part of that divine charter. The good news, today and always, is that it is our Lord’s intent that no one should ever be left standing off to the sidelines, feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded from the sacred community of God’s people.
Of course, all that said, it should also be noted (and this will come as no surprise to you either!) that in these days of pandemic, the feeling of being “lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded” has taken on a whole new meaning, even as it pertains to the church.
What’s been interesting to me lately about all of this is that now, after two long months of having this unprecedented experience of having been unable to hold “in-person” services because of the threat of Covid-19, across the denominational spectrum we’re all trying to figure out what happens next. Do we seek to cautiously reopen, do we take a “wait and see” attitude, or do we just decide right now, as some congregations have already done, that for the sake of health and safety we need to shut down for a year or more? None of these are easy choices to make; and speaking as a pastor, believe me when I tell you that these are maybe the most difficult decisions for any of our churches will ever have to make.
But even more difficult is the reality that in these days of “staying at home” our congregations have become, well, scattered. As I’ve said to you before, I’m very gratified at your understanding and support of these online services; but I’ll admit it, what we do here can never be quite as satisfying or as meaningful as our physically coming together at church on a Sunday morning. And yes, I know, as the old saying goes, that “four walls and a steeple do not a church make,” but I do have to confess that there are times these days that I worry that in many ways without the building we end up feeling much like I did on that fateful day so long ago… as though we’re standing on the outside looking in, feeling as though we somehow don’t belong.
Well, if you’ve been worried about that, or if about now you’re kind of feeling on the outside looking in, then let me say to you that it seems to me that this good news that Paul brought to the Ephesians belongs to us as well.
To put this in its proper context, there was actually a fair amount of division amongst the early Christians in Ephesus. Obtensibly, it had to do with the Jewish ritual of circumcision and how the letter of the law was to be followed, but what it really was all about was “the insiders” versus “the outsiders;” about who amongst them were the truest, longest and most important members of the church, and who among them who… weren’t. And as far as Paul was concerned, this was unacceptable; it was a sin of division that not only compromised the church’s witness and its very existence, but which also grieved the Lord. Paul makes clear here that the church, as God intends it to be and as Jesus himself has gathered it, is meant to be ONE: as Paul says elsewhere in this epistle, “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
In other words, it’s not about the stone foundations and white clapboards of a church building, it’s not about the program, it’s not even about the joy of our singing and praying and sitting together on a set of admittedly uncomfortable pews for an hour or so on a Sunday morning… it’s about who we are and how we are as a people of faith; a people who “once were far off,” but who now are near to God and, in the process, drawn ever nearer to each other; a people who through Jesus Christ “share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.” As The Message translates this part of Paul’s epistle, “It’s plain enough. You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much to the name Christian as anyone.” And here’s the capper: “And he’s using us all – irrespective of how we got here – in what he is building… he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together… a temple in which God is quite at home.”
You see, that’s the thing that we really do need to keep reminding ourselves of right about now: that church is not something we go to; it’s something that we are, that strong and indefatigable identity that we bring to a hurting and divided world, an identity given to us in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Jesus is the one who invites us, Jesus is the one who makes us who we are, and it is Jesus who gives us what we need to survive and thrive. To quote Kevin Baker, “Jesus is the singular, God/human wrecking crew that demolishes division and gifts us with unity, peace and reconciliation.” And here’s the thing… even now – especially now (!) – Jesus will not ever leave us on the sidelines, apart from that unity and feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded. Never… because you and I, all of us together, beloved… have been made into his dwelling place, and that will never, ever change.
I should tell you that in my particular story about feeling left out, and the biggest reason I still remember it so clearly, it was actually an experience short lived. Maybe it’d been an oversight; perhaps one of them had seen me sitting there alone and figured I ought to be included. But before long, here were all of my friends, inviting me to come along with them; and ten minutes later, we’re swimming and cruising and water-skiing and it’s like nothing had ever happened. Just as quickly as I hopped into that boat, all those feelings of hurt over being left out vanished, replaced with this incredibly joyful feeling of… belonging. And it felt good: good to be invited, good to be welcomed in, good to be inside that circle of friendship rather than on the outside looking in.
And beloved, that’s what our God wants for each one of us, most especially in these days when it has become so easy to feel scattered and disconnected from one another.
I know that in the face of a still uncertain future it’s hard for us to think of ourselves as existing apart from our building, our traditions, our routine and our usual sense of purpose… but we need to understand that when our Lord talks of our being gathered together as the church, he’s talking about a house not made by human hands, but only by his loving hands; a house made up of people whose hearts and lives have been changed forever by the strong and saving v. Mgrace of Jesus Christ; and a house where community and fellowship and mission are not mere buzzwords, but the very way we live.
We are the church… you and me together, from wherever we happen to be… we are the “holy temple the Lord… built together into a dwelling place for God.”
May it be said of us, beloved, that God was and is alive and well at this church… and in us.
And may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
.© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.