Gathered for the Neighborhood (A Sermon on Ephesians 3:1-10 & 14-21)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on February 14, 2021. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the Alternative or Traditional service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE.

This is the reason that I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles. For surely, you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation. As I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations, this mystery was not made known to humankind as it has now been revealed by his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit. That is the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel, I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace, that was given me by the working of God’s power.

Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles, the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. So that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. For this reason, I bow my knees before the father, from whom every family in heaven and on Earth takes its name. I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth, and to know the love of Christ, that surpasses knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever, amen.

Ephesians 3:1-10, 14-21

Well, Amen! Will you pray with me? God, whose love is beyond that which we could ever ask or imagine, may your power be at work with us and dwell within us that indeed this love and peace, which passes all understanding may be the air that we breathe. It’s in Christ’s name that we gather. Amen.

The first movie I went to see as a kid was none other than one of the Disney princess stories, The Little Mermaid. Lost there under the sea with an octopus witch and a father with a big trident and a silly little crab, she longed to be part of the world above the waters, to find a Prince named Eric who would kiss her and everything would be transformed and changed. Well, I, as little Sara, left that theater weeping, uncontrollably weeping, because (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the film yet, it was a long time ago so I’m not going to spare you here)…spoiler alert! At the end, she leaves her family and her world under the sea to go be part of this world where humans walk on land and dance. My family thought it was kind of funny. Like, “Why are you so distressed? This is a fairy tale.” And I was like, “Don’t you understand? She had to leave her whole family and she’s never going to get to see them again!” That was little Sara. Kind of par for the course.

And yet, there was a truth of something in my own story for growing up, watching those Disney films, I, in so many ways, wanted some prince to come along and bring me to another land. Another place. Like Jane Eyre in the book that many of you know, I spent my childhood behind curtains, reading books, dreaming of worlds that were different than the world that I occupied, longing for another life. Now, many of you know me as a very extroverted person, but all I did my entire childhood was read and read and I got to dream of lands and landscapes that looked different than my own. It may be no surprise then that my favorite series as a young girl was Nancy Drew. I loved the Nancy Drew stories. Not only was there the excitement of unfolding a new mystery, but on the book covers Nancy always had a new outfit that looked really cool.

But additionally, in the stories Nancy was the hero. And every once in a while, a very lovely, attractive young man named Ned would come along to support her in her journey. And I held within my story, this inner tension: On one point, wanting to weep for the stories, which told us that little girls had to leave behind their worlds in order to find love and freedom. On the other hand, desiring to be a spy and the hero of my own life. Yet I didn’t know how to carve out my own path and write my own story, longing for love and freedom and all of the things for which so many of us long for, but not sure what would be the plot line of my own life.

Fast forward to Sara in high school. A popular song at the time is the Dave Matthews Band song “Crash Into Me.” I heard it on the radio as I was in line to do my deposit (because we didn’t have mobile deposits then). And I heard the lines to the song once more because it was played again and again on the top 40 radio, the line: “In a boy’s dream.” I sat there, my 16 year old self, in my newly acquired $1,200, 1987 Toyota Camry, pulled out my own deposit ticket and began furiously writing “Girl’s Dream Too!” a song that was indeed not played on the top 40 radio hits, but it meant something to me. I didn’t just want to be the plot line of someone else’s story! I didn’t just want to be rescued, but I wanted to know that my story mattered too. And this—these fits and spurts of my own growing up and coming of age is so much my own story. 

I kissed frogs hoping they would turn into princes, liked guys that all my girlfriends thought—”What is wrong with her? He’s terrible!”

And the reason for this in so many ways was because at the center of my being was a terror that maybe I was unlovable. That maybe the story that my bones wanted to write was a story that was too far off what it should’ve been. And my fear and my shame and my longing made me look for other people’s stories. Thinking that maybe if just maybe I could be a better princess, then maybe one day a prince would come along who would see me. Maybe I could be Sleeping Beauty and Prince Phillip would find me all those years in the woods. But it kept not unfoldiong that way. And I kept crying at the end of the stories, being mad at the tales that told me of things that I didn’t actually want.

Until one day I woke up in a new way from my own sort of trance and desire for love and belonging. This happened because of God’s work in my life. I almost got engaged to a man that would have been a devastating, destructive relationship. It was in that moment when I realized that I was writing a story that wasn’t mine and was one that was actually harmful to me that I realized that maybe there were some parts of my own story that needed deeper healing than I realized. That began a journey for me, deeper in, deeper into my own story, deeper into asking what it meant that I had long claimed that I believed God was love and believe that Jesus came to save everybody. I just wasn’t so sure Jesus meant me.

That healing work, which of course began long before that shown in that young woman who cried at the end of The Little Mermaid, was the work that God continued and continues to this day and will continue until I’m quite sure that I die. It is the work that God wants to do in each of our lives. God has formed us all wonderfully in God’s image. And, as we have been talking about this January and February, our community who is gathered by Christ. And yet, sometimes in that gathering, as we gather by the Spirit, we gather at the table, we gather around the Word…but we leave parts of ourselves and our stories outside of the narrative of this big story of love and grace. We, of course, profess with our lips that Jesus has come to save us. And yet the truth is that we live our lives tightfisted, clenching onto lies that we’ve believed about our stories and who we are and who God thinks of us.

I believe each of us have parts of that truth, that fear, in our own stories—things that we learned that weren’t of God, but maybe we came to believe because of our parents who are doing the best that they could. But they’re human. Stories where we were told: “Little girls don’t do that.” “Little boys don’t do this.” “Oh, how could you possibly…” “Can’t you be more like your brother?” “Come on, get your stuff together!” And we live our lives and our stories, not according to the narrative of grace, but according to our lack (or perceived lack). Through all of this, I believe that God, by God’s Spirit and God’s deep love, continues to call to each of us. Not that God has every single plot line along our journey so set that we can’t possibly move or choose…It’s not that.

It’s that God has an overarching story and a through line for each of our tales. That each of our lives are supposed to make manifest the truth of God’s goodness and love. That is our invitation. That is the freedom to which we are invited to pick up each of our pens –not to write anyone else’s story, but the story of grace that God is wishing to write in our own lives. Of course, God doesn’t make us live stories of grace. God’s love is not that which constricts us or demands. God’s love and God’s story for us is something that God’s Spirit invites us to choose again and again. Even though we lose the plot line sometimes, even though we insert other people’s dreams and other people’s longings and other people’s stories. And in so many ways, the story of the Bible is just this kind of once upon a time. The story of a people who God has fashioned and loved, brought into freedom, meant to walk with God and one another in the garden at peace with all of creation.

And yet, as we know the story if you’ve read it at all, you know that the people lose the plot line. They forget that their story has always been meant for them to walk in this way of life, they forget that the story wasn’t for warring between brothers. The story was supposed to be of peace and of goodness and of abundance of a land overflowing with milk and honey. And yet there are monsters in the land and we get afraid and we lose the plot line. The reality is that this is true of us as individuals, of us as a church, of us as a larger community, as the story of Christianity, we sometimes lose the plot line.

As we wrap up this series about what it means to be the gathered community, we began by talking about how we are gathered by Christ. And we end by saying, we are gathered for the neighborhood. This not only is the truth of Congregationalism and our call to be the church, but it is fundamentally the call to be Christian. As we have affirmed that we know in Scripture, the greatest commandments that Jesus issued is to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are gathered by Christ; we are gathered for the neighborhood. If we do not live gathered by Christ, loving God, then we are not Christian. But also if we live gathered by Christ, but we lose the plot line and we forget that we are gathered for the neighborhood, we have forgotten that these things always go together, because the story and the through line of God’s work is always love. It’s always Shalom. It’s always healing.

Sometimes though in our turn to God and being gathered by Christ, we forget that we are supposed to be gathered for the neighborhood. Inside of psychology, there are many writings about how sometimes Christianity in different spiritual faith traditions are that which we employ as terror management or another term, spiritual bypassing. This is where, as each of us is looking for and longing for that solidarity, knowing our stories count, knowing we are seen, knowing that we are going to be rescued and loved which we are in Christ, that instead of letting that permeate and really saturate so that that is the truth of our stories where we know that we are a people who are fully baptized in love. We are seen by Christ, but then sometimes we keep parts back. It’s totally normal, super human. We get afraid. We think grace can’t possibly go that far. And so we hold parts of ourselves off from God’s vision so we think because as we know, God actually still says, but leave those parts over here. And when we do that, we lose the through line.

We engage in faith in a way that allows us to manage our terror about our shame instead of allowing the light to heal us. We engage with our faith such that we don’t have to deal with the hard things, because we’re sure that they will kill us. And yet Jesus continues to knock at the door, asking us to be reborn and rebaptized more fully. This is why as we look at the story of Christianity, we realize it is not just one story. Although there is one story to which the church has been called, the reality of the church in history has been much more complex. There have always been people of deep faith who have sought to bring Jesus’ healing and goodness, and gospel news to the entire world. And yet there are others who have employed that gospel for personal power. There were crusades that were genocidal.

While that is not of Jesus, it is what that people who’ve claimed the name Jesus have lived. They lost the plot line. Congregationalism — if any of you have been a part of Christian’s class — you’ve been sitting in this story for awhile. The story of our own tradition is also multiple and many. In many ways, it has been the story of a people who said no. “We’re going to listen to the Spirit. We believe in freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers and the King doesn’t get to tell us who God is.” These people sojourn to a new land. And yet we know part of that story, it also resulted in moments like the Salem Witch Trials, where there was fear and a desire for outward appearances to be of a particular kind, a control of women and women’s bodies. They lost the plot line.

We know from the story in our own community, that there has been beauty in so many places. I think about my own experience of witnessing each of you show up to care for Daniel and Dawn in the midst of Dawn’s diagnosis of stage four pancreas cancer. Many of you also bear the scars of human relationship, where there’s been transition and pastoral leadership that has been painful and left wounds. We lose the plot line. We forget that this community is always gathered by Christ and gathered for the neighborhood, gathered to be about the spirit and the table and the word, all of these things of life. And yet the call of Christ remains to each of us as individuals, as a church, as a community, as Christians ourselves, to be a people indeed who live God’s story of love, who embody the good news one to another.

And so here in Ephesians, Paul is writing to the church to tell them, don’t forget the plot line. Remember what it is to which Christ has called you. Don’t get stuck in stories that aren’t your own. Remember the good news to which you were called. Remember the love that grounds you. Remember why I kneel before Abba God, from whom every family in heaven and on Earth takes its name. Remember the work that God is doing, the riches and glory. “And I pray that you will remember indeed,” he says to them. “Remember so that you might know that Christ dwells in your hearts and you might live that way, grounded in love so that you can grasp the breadth, and length, and height and depth of Christ’s love. That you can experience this, which passes all understanding and be filled to the fullness of God, whose power is at work within us.” If only, if only we will remember the story and remember that it is good news for us.

It is good news as Jeff and I got to preach together on that Easter Sunday in 2019, when Dawn had just died. It is a story to pick up our pens and to write God’s stories through our lives, through this community, to be a people who are not just the gathered community for no reason, but a gathered community who are gathered by Christ and gathered for the neighborhood. Might we indeed not lose this plot line. May we remind each other that this is our story, that this is our song. As I shared this summer, a quote from Martin Luther from his 1520 piece on Freedom of the Christian, he writes, “We conclude therefore that the Christian lives not in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor. Otherwise they are not Christian.” We live in Christ and in our neighbor. That dual call to love is what makes us Christian. It changes our story, allows us to write narratives that are filled with freedom and love and grace. But here’s the thing friends. We get to choose. Our life is one choice after another.

“We conclude therefore that the Christian lives not in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor. Otherwise they are not Christian.” – Luther

What will we write? What will be the legacy and the narrative? Will we remember the plot line? Will we remember who we are: our name and our colors and our foods and the things that make us, us, living in the beauty and the wonder of grace? As one of our denominational affiliations has as their saying, “God is still speaking…” God is not done with us yet. And as we are in the precipice of our 75th anniversary, the question before us is, what story will we write in this next chapter? What story will we join God as God is in the business of writing a story, as we pray every week that God’s kingdom would come here on Earth as it is in heaven? 

So today my first question for each of us is: what story are you living? Are there parts of your story, if you pause and are silent, where you would acknowledge you live as if they are beyond the pale of grace? And how then might grace invite you to quit writing anyone else’s story, but instead to let God write a story of redemption and healing in your life?

In my own story, God has been doing a long healing work, of helping me to believe more than I ever have that God’s love is for me, that I don’t have to pretend to be someone else or hide behind curtains waiting for someone to save me because I already am saved by grace. And that grace allows me to write stories of love. I still mess up. I still lose the plot line, but it keeps calling me home and inviting me with courage to pick up my own pen, to face my own terror, because I know I’m held by the God whose story is all love. 

So what about you? What story does God desire to write in and through you? And what about us? What is the story God wants to write and will write through us? May we remember this plot line. May healing come for the parts of our own story as a community where there are scars.

And may we, in that way live a story of grace, of a people who remind each other of the plot line, that the through line of everything is this God whose story is always actually one thing… and that story is love. 

So God, whose power is now at work in us, can do measurably more than we ask or imagine. To God be glory, in and through this church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, world without end. Amen.

Let us be the church and let us be gathered for the neighborhood.

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