Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Proper 11 July 18th, 2021

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. Ephesians 2:11-22

Many years ago, my husband Rob, was the young guy at NASA. Okay, so I’m not saying he’s old now. Just that there was a time, in his early years of work in the space industry when he remembers distinctly looking up to the more experienced folks, those men and women who were nearing retirement; Engineers who’d put together America’s space program, who came together to work on the Apollo missions. In Rob’s early years, they all worked together on the Space Shuttle.

At that time Rob and I were busy, raising three young children. We volunteered at the ballpark concession stand and Sunday School, we took turns different seasons— while one of us was coaching a softball or soccer team, the other was chasing our 1, then 2, then 3-year-old around.

We shared time caring for the kids at night too; he, while I led our church Youth group, and me, while Rob served on the church finance committee and vestry. Our days and nights were full, and especially weekends! Mondays were actually, a respite for Rob, as he could go back to work.

Rob was sharing the busy happenings of the family weekend with a coworker one Monday morning and this man, still a good friend, offered some sage wisdom. He said wisely, “You may not realize it Rob, but right now,        these are the good old days.”

There are some things our mentors tell us that we never forget, and this is one of them. This man wanted Rob to stop, think, and see that all he was experiencing, would one day be remembered as the good old days. He was right. We do remember those days as good old days. We also know how fortunate we are to be able to say that.  That does not mean we didn’t have hard days or difficult times—there were. We are grateful, though, that our human minds are good at retaining the best of our memories.

I find it to be pretty much true, and a gracious gift, when it is said that we humans, “we don’t remember days, we remember moments.”

I suppose the same is true of individuals or couples, as it is of groups. Here at St. Luke’s,

I hear a great deal about my old friend Tim Murphy, and the good old days when he was the rector here in the ‘90s. Coincidentally, that’s when Rob and I were in the thick of child raising— the good old days.

The Church universal is particularly good at looking back and seeing the past as days of yore, the halcyon days when times were kinder and problems simpler. And I’m sure there is some truth to the fact that times have gotten more complicated. Good memories are a gift, part of the joy of life!

But I want us to consider, too, just how much there is to gain from remembering the trials and the challenges we’ve faced and how we’ve overcome them.

You probably know our human minds are wired to learn best from our failures. Even more importantly, we should note, our human minds and spirits gain immense strength when we reflect upon the difficulties we’ve overcome. You know, the times we’ve had to drum up the courage to tackle a sticky problem or stand up on behalf of what we believe instead of taking the easy way out.

We grow closer to one another, and we gain strength of spirit for future endeavors, when we remember how we’ve faced our fears and struggles together in the past.

In step Holy Scripture. We are fortunate in our faith to have a body of scripture that doesn’t shy away from telling the good, the bad and the ugly struggles of a people learning to follow a loving God. Thank goodness we can look back at how our ancestors wrestled with problems, sparred over decisions, and grappled with divisions in their call to be God’s people and to begin the early Church. It makes us feel right at home.

There’s a theologian named Peter Enns I’ve been following who writes about the Bible’s thorny issues. He once was invited to leave his post at seminary because of his work. His goal is to get at the truth of our Christian past, in order to give the Church a future. “The Bible looks the way it does,” he’s written, “because like Jesus, when God shows up, it’s in the thick of things.” I could not agree more. God is not absent when things go awry… God is in the midst of our conflict. God’s spirit is always urging us to listen to different perspectives, to find a way toward peace.

We see this in the reading we heard today from Ephesians. In the first century, as the early Church spread, it attracted many more Gentiles than its Jewish founders could have imagined, and the conflicts between Jews and Gentiles were not small. There were Food Laws to be considered, Sabbath practice, and of course the big one, to be or not to be circumcised.

I’m sure there were those wishing for the good old days—when at least it seemed everyone believed and followed the same rules.

We hear about the Church’s struggles in all the letters of the New Testament. Paul, a strict Torah keeping Pharisee, writes feverishly, advising the newly founded churches in the ancient Mediterranean world that Gentiles didn’t have to follow Jewish law. The church in Jerusalem argued back mightily, as they could not imagine what that might mean— their people had been Torah followers from the days of Moses. What did it mean to follow the anointed one, Christ, the Son of God, if some followers did not have to follow Torah to be part of the movement?

Where would that lead?

By the time Ephesians is written, we can hear how the author of this epistle is frankly surprised by the new amazing situation in the church: The letter states plainly, the barriers between Jews and gentiles are torn down. Christ has removed the laws so crucial to identifying those chosen by God:

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off,” the letter says, (that is you, Gentiles) “have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one; both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” 

Ephesians is preaching unity—reconciliation, peace with God, peace between two groups with two very different ideas about what it means to love God. The author of Ephesians uses powerful words and metaphors to explain the paradox that Christ unifies all people, by breaking down, smashing barriers.

Christ knocks down the dividing wall.

Christ abolishes all the ordinances.

Christ expands the boundaries of the commonwealth.

Christ dies in order to put to death the hostility that runs between us.

I understand fully well that this letter was not written to us. It is a letter written for its time, within its own cultural setting. This does not mean we cannot learn from it.

As the Christian Church in the 21st century, we are invited into this space, to see the hard-fought reconciliation in Christ’s budding Church, to know the reconciliation already accomplished for us in Christ. The letter gives us nothing less than a vision of peace, a vision of wholeness, that puts people first.

My daughter Hayley is a first-born child—to the soles of her feet. By this I mean she is a card-carrying rule follower. It was not until Hayley went to college and she met a force of nature named Kathryn, her roommate, that Hayley envisioned a different way of living; that Hayley began to understand that people matter more than rules.

Kathryn read the poetry of Mary Oliver, she stayed out late, often,—way past time she should have been in bed— to care for a new friend, to offer a listening ear. She once brought an abandoned kitten into their dorm room to care for it–this was against the rules, of course. 

Kathryn kindly, oh so kindly helped break down some of the barriers Hayley had become so used to thinking were crucial to the way “things ought to be.”

Jesus did this for his followers—he worked on the Sabbath even. He nor I nor the letter to the Ephesians is saying rules don’t matter— Jesus’ life said people matter, peace matters, unity matters.

Kathryn and her wife are now the godmothers of our granddaughter Kate—and we know how fortunate we are. We all need reminding that peace can only truly happen when we forge our way of living together in unity— when people matter more than rules.

This is the vision of peace and wholeness in the letter to Ephesians. I suppose we could look at this cynically, doubting our human capacity for lasting peace. I suppose, too, it depends on how we see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

Are we Christians called to withdraw to our corners, to rely solely on God’s source of power beyond all things, or are we called to participate in the struggle for peace? I believe strongly for those of us charged with carrying on the work of Christ, as disciples of Christ, we called to the struggle, like our ancestors. The writer of Ephesians sees our work as a coming home to the source of love within all things. He sees our calling to be active participants in carrying one another home to be together in the hands of our magnificent Creator. It is beautiful theology. 

Ephesians calls us to imagine what this peace looks like and then to move on it:

“In Christ, the whole structure is joined together, to grow into a holy temple in the Lord. You are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God,”

A dwelling place for God. So be it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.