Sermon, July 19

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood; travel lightly. That’s the prescription – or the marching orders – for the Episcopal Church, offered by the Task Force to Re-Imagine the Episcopal Church, based on Jesus’ sending forth of the disciples to proclaim, heal, and serve, in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. You’ve heard me talk about it in several sermons now. And our current, soon-to-retire Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, made this prescription the theme of her sermon at General Convention, the triennial gathering of bishops, priests, and lay people from all over our church to worship and pray and talk and shape our church’s future.

In a sermon studded with Star Trek references – our outgoing Presiding Bishop is kind of a geek! – Bishop Katharine laid out how these words might guide our church into a more vital, engaged, hopeful future. She concluded her sermon by returning the theme: Follow Jesus into the neighborhood. Travel lightly. All around me people were standing up, applauding her, her words, her vision, her years of faithful leadership; and I was clapping too, but I was also saying to myself, She forgot the Together! The “together” in “Follow Jesus together” – she left it out. She wasn’t the only one. Somebody had buttons made up for Convention, a set of three – Follow Jesus. Into the neighborhood. Travel lightly. Again: No “together.”

Maybe it sounds nitpicky, but I think the “together” is really, really important. It’s there because Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs, not alone. The Biblical warrant for the buddy system. And I know in my own life of faith, the “together” part matters a lot. As the pastor here, and as a paid staff member, my relationship with this church is somewhat different than all of yours’; but it’s not entirely different. You are my primary faith community, y’all, and I rely on you. Worshiping with you regularly, joining our voices in song and prayer; studying Scripture together and sharing conversations, casual or deep; encouraging and sometimes challenging each other as we seek the best ways to live out our faith in the world – I am a better Christian and a better human being because of this community of faith. Because I belong to you. You support me, you hold me up, you hold me accountable. I hope that the same is true for many of you.

The word “religion” has a somewhat murky etymology but the strongest theory I’ve heard is that it comes from a word for binding a bunch of sticks together into a bundle. Think about how easy it is to break one stick. Then think about how hard it is to break a bundle of sticks, all bound together. That’s us – ideally: just a bunch of sticks for God, fragile on our own, strong together.

Today we are celebrating a baptism, welcoming Lorne into the household of God. Baptism is one of the great sacraments of the church, those outward and spiritual signs by which we mark and acknowledge inward and spiritual graces. Lorne already belongs to God; he is already part of this fellowship of faith; but in baptism we name and welcome him as a fellow member of Christ’s Body, the Church, an inheritor – and builder – with all of us, of God’s kingdom.  And by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the things we say here today become true, or more true, or differently true – that Lorne belongs to Christ; that Lorne belongs to us; that we all belong to God; and that with God’s help, we will pray, repent, proclaim, serve, and advocate God’s Kingdom towards its fulness.

I don’t think  Lorne’s parents did this on purpose; but our Epistle today, our Scriptural lesson from the letters of the early Church, is one of the best possible readings for baptism – and for talking about Christian “together” – ness. The letter to the Ephesians may have been written by the apostle Paul, near the end of his life, or by a disciple of Paul in the late first century, writing after Paul’s death, and influenced by Paul’s thought. It’s fair to say that it’s a Pauline letter, either way.

Baptism, unity, and the “together”-ness of the church, are core themes of this letter. Last week the lectionary gave us some of the introduction. At our “Between Church” worship, we reflected on that text together, using the Message, a modern-language Bible paraphrase: “Long before God laid down the earth’s foundations, God had us in mind, and had settled on us as the focus of divine love, to be made whole and holy by God’s love…. It’s in Christ that you, having heard the truth and believed it, found yourselves signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit.” Wonderful, exuberant language about God’s desire to make us one with God and each other.

And today’s Ephesians text contains one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, one of the ones I carry in my head and heart as a source of comfort and inspiration: “So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

The author is addressing a particular situation here: the urgent issue of divisions and conflicts between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The two groups had different backgrounds and cultures, and different ideas of what a faithful life looks like. The author of the letter to the Ephesians says,Your differences must not divide you, when God in Christ has made you one; honor one another and work this out.

But these are words that speak beyond their original context. We separate ourselves so often, so easily, from God, and from the communities that support and challenge us. In the words of the old hymn, “Come, thou Fount,” we are all “prone to wander, Lord, prone to leave the God we love.” These verses in Ephesians speak to those who are far off and those who are near – I might feel go from feeling far off to feeling near – to God, to human fellowship – within the space of a few hours. I often feel myself a stranger, uncertain of my connectedness or my belonging; I often make myself a stranger, separating myself the better to live out the double-edged virtues of individuality, competence and self-reliance. I’m hoping this isn’t just me – that some of you are thinking, Hey, me too!, and not just, Man, she really needs help!

This verse from Ephesians speaks insistently to that part of me that feels like a stranger, that even, at some level, likes being a stranger. So then you are no longer a stranger. You belong. You belong to God, and you belong to a community. Belonging brings inconveniences and obligations, no question about it. Bearing one another’s burdens sounds great as long as you’re the one with the burden to unload. Community sounds great until real differences emerge and the going gets tough. But belonging brings so many blessings, too. And it is the gift and challenge of the baptized life. Episcopal ethicist and scholar William Stringfellow writes, “There is no unilateral, private, insulated, lonely, or eccentric Christian life. There is only the Christian as the member of the whole body; the vocation for every single Christian is inherently [embedded in the life of the church]; baptism signifies the public commitment of a person to humanity.” [An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, p.61]

This text from Ephesians offers us three different metaphors for the togetherness we share, the togetherness into which we welcome baby Lorne today. First, we are citizens. Fellow citizens with the saints, the holy ones. This metaphor invites us to consider our Christian togetherness through the lens of civic engagement. What do we do as citizens?

[Show symbols: newspaper, ballot, tax form]

Citizens have rights and privileges – it was a big deal to be a citizen in the first-century Roman Empire, as it is for immigrants to the U.S. today. Citizens also have obligations, whether we fulfill them or not – to contribute towards the needs of the whole, to pay attention to what’s going on in, to participate in envisioning and working for the common good. Citizenship involves participation in the big, shared, contentious, ongoing conversation about what the Body needs, as a whole, and how to best use our resources, so that the goods of our common life are available to all. So that’s one aspect of our Christian togetherness: thinking of ourselves as citizens of God’s commonwealth, called to participate in building a better society.

The second metaphor offered by this text is that of bricks of a building.  “In Christ the whole structure is joined together…” Call up in your mind an image of a bricklayer building a wall – mortar, brick, mortar, brick, lining them up, pressing them together. Many small parts becoming a new thing together.

[Show Lego bricks] 

This image of togetherness is an image of subsuming my self, my separateness, into something greater, something new. For this text, for this vision, we are all just bricks in the wall – and that’s a good thing!

This image reminds me of a story our junior warden Rob shared as part of our giving campaign, a couple of years ago, about working on an Appalachian Service Project site and trying to finish the roof on a house before the week ended. They were so close – then the last day, it rained. Rob told us that was a powerful moment of realizing that it wasn’t about his team. Their accomplishment, their satisfaction. The next team would finish that roof. The important thing was being part of that larger mission. So that’s another aspect of our Christian togetherness: allowing ourselves to be small pieces of something bigger.

The third metaphor for Christian togetherness offered by this text is that we are members of a household. In Greek, the word is oikos – and yes, you’ve been hearing me use it lately, though I had no idea it was coming along in this Ephesians text. I’ve been trying it on as an alternative to the “church family” language we often use to describe our common life. Family, for us twenty-first century Americans, evokes the nuclear family unit – a parent or two, a kid or two – living in a home by themselves.

[Show toy house, put people figures in it]

The first-century household, or oikos, was a lot bigger and more complex. You’d have many generations living together, and possibly several branches of the family. [Start putting other critters in/around house]

You’d have servants and shirttail relations and close friends and apprentices and all sorts of folks, living an ordered and interdependent life together, day by day.

That word, oikos, household or home, is all through this text, much more so in Greek than in English – six times within these four verses. I tried to translate verses 19 through 22 so you can hear it: Therefore you are no longer strangers and guests, people who stay in a household but don’t belong; but you are citizens together with the holy ones and members of the household of God, a home built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the capstone, in whom the entire home, being connected together, is growing into a holy temple to God. In whom you also are being-together-home-builded (that’s what my Greek literal translation says!) into a home-place, a household, of the spirit of God.

Early Christianity was sometimes in tension with family and household relationships. Sometimes a whole household would join the new faith together, but sometimes they wouldn’t; and then, becoming a Christian could mean splitting from your family, and taking on your Christian community as your new family. That’s still true, if less dramatically – there are people in this congregation for whom their faith is tied up with family identity, something they share with their loved ones. And there are people here for whom their faith is a source of separation and strain from those they love.

The point of this image of church as oikos, church as household, church as home – is this: whether you come to church with your family or not, your church is another family, another household. This is Christian together-ness visioned as intimacy and complementarity. Living closely, sharing life’s ordinary moments and extraordinary occasions, with a motley crew of people of all sorts, some more like you and some less, some closely related and some less, some beloved and some less, but all living that shared, ordered life as a household, an oikos.

Citizen of a commonwealth; brick in the temple wall; member of the household of God – these are all my hopes and prayers for Lorne, as we name, bless, and welcome him today. These are my hopes for each of us, and all of us, that we may indeed find in God’s church, here or elsewhere, a commonwealth worthy of our engagement; a temple to which we can gladly lend our strength; and a place to call home.