Proper 11B, July 22 2012
Rev. Kate Ekrem
"For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” That’s from our letter to the Ephesians this morning. And our Gospel says Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
I used to tell a story about the Good Shepherd to Sunday school children using felt, I still have the felt pieces in my office. There is felt green pasture and felt still water and also a felt sheepfold, brown strips of felt. Part of the story is to set them up like a fence or wall around the sheep, and to show that the sheepfold has an inside, and an outside, and a DOOR, and then you show how the door can be opened.
The church has walls. But Jesus has broken down a wallin today’s reading. The writer of Ephesians is talking exactly about who is inside the sheepfold and who is outside. He’s reminding church members that they were once outside the church, the recipients of this letter are Gentile Christians, those who converted from other religious and who were welcomed into the church by the Jewish Christians who founded it. So he’s saying to them, you used to be outsiders, but you were welcomed into this church.
Do you feel like an insider or an outsider in your own church community, or in your town or workplace? I think sometimes we all feel a little like outsiders, a little like we’re on the fringe or nobody knows us that well.! My last parish went through a period of growth, and during that time I remember a newer member said to me that they thought our parish wasn’t all that friendly. I asked him why and he said, I’ve only been here a month and the person sitting next to me today didn’t greet me during the Passing of the Peace. I realized the person he had been sitting next to was a first-time visitor, even newer than them! He laughed and said he’d be sure to greet the newcomer next week, since now he was an old-timer!
“Remember that at one time you were aliens from the commonwealth of Christ” the scripture reminds us this morning. We were all outsiders once. This reading says, Jesus came to make one new humanity instead of two. One new humanity. That’s close to the heart of the Gospel. Reconciliation and unity between all people. Breaking down the dividing walls between us.
I’m excited because it seems like more than ever in the life of our church since I became a priest, there is a renewed emphasis on our call to be the reconciling love of God in the world. In part it’s because so many of the mainline denominations had their once every three or four year convention this year, and all came out of that with a determination to leave behind the debates of the past and focus again on our core faith. Some are even calling it Mainline Summer – a little bit of a play on Arab Spring, I think, which is a bit over the top, no one is actually getting free from murderous dictators, but I think people try to get at the idea that something new is happening, a mood is coalescing that we’re ever so slowly changing direction, or maybe better to say doing some course correction. Do you know this year Episcopal Church been in decline for 50 years. 50 years of membership numbers going down. So people are gathering around the idea that we’re done with the way things have been, with our self-conscious apologetic stances on things, we’re going to try something new. One clergyperson I know declared, I’m not going to take it anymore, I’m tired of watching my words so I don’t offend anyone, I’m going to start mentioning Jesus in church!
The most important thing at GC was not that we passed rites for same-sex blessings. It is important that we did it, it’s been coming for some time now. But that’s the old conversation, about who’s in and who’s out of the sheepfold. Somehow it always seems to be the only thing the media cares about, I guess anything even tangentially related to sex sells papers, but it wasn’t where the energy was.
If anything important happened at GC, which is debatable, (besides our youth representative Sarah giving a really great speech!) it was that a resolution to re-structure our national church was passed. The next time GC meets, it may not have the House of Bishops and House of Deputies as it has for the last 200 years, we may not have the same kind of Presiding Bishop role that we do now, we’re going to get lean and mean (but without the mean part, of course).
What does this mean for our parish? Most of these ideas have bubbled up from parishes like ours. It’s not that we don’t care about who is in and who is out of the sheepfold, but we’re a little beyond needing to discuss it to death, Jesus loves everybody, can we just take it as read and move on. We care about boys in Honduras who can’t afford socks or blue jeans, we care about children starving to death right here in Boston served by the GrowClinic, we care about people in Lawrence having a roof over their heads, we care about the sick and homebound of our community feeling cared for and being healed, we care about our children growing up with lasting values and meaning and love in their lives, we care about coming together in God’s presence each week to remind ourselves who we are. We care about Jesus. And we care about these things because we believe they are what Jesus cared for.
So perhaps this mainline summer means maybe we also can get lean and mean, think about what’s our equivalent of too many bishops and too many delegates, we can stop talking about what’s not worth arguing about, and focus in on what Jesus is asking us to do. Perhaps it means we also can keep looking for ways to open the sheepfold door, maybe think about what we look like to those outside our walls, and see ourselves through their eyes for a moment.
Because bringing people together from diverse walks of life and viewpoints, and together doing God’s work and sing God’s praise, is a big part of what we’re about. And every time we do that just a little bit, every time we welcome someone into this sheepfold who is not like us, what a witness that is to a world divided by race, by ethnicity, by religion, by nationality, and so many other things.
But before we start patting ourselves on the back, like maybe those Gentile Christians in Ephesus were, we should remember that we aren’t really the ones doing it, we’re not pulling down the dividing wall. Jesus is. And only Jesus can. Because what we have in common – our love and care for each other, our interest in mission and what’s going on around the world – all comes out of our relationship with Jesus. That’s where the unity is. To be a Christian is to be about Christ. Following Jesus defines who we are and what we do. And when we do that, the dividing walls do come tumbling down because those human differences just aren’t important anymore.*
We were all outsiders once. Our relationship with God is not a right, it’s a gift. We are included in the saving work of God only by the grace of Jesus. ** There is the inside of the sheepfold, and the outside, and there’s a door. Which is open to us and to everyone else. Jesus has torn down the dividing walls. Knowing that truth, and living by it, is such a gift we can give to ourselves and to the world. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are 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.”
** “We Are Aliens” by William H. Lamar. IV in Christian Century
*William Willamon, “Christ the Cornerstone”