16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I am, as many of you may know, an alien. For those who didn’t know, well now you know. Of course, I’m not admitting that I’m from outer space; I would never admit to being from outer space. What I mean is that I am originally from somewhere else; like a lot of you are. As I like to say when people find out I was raised in southern California: “You’ve got to be from somewhere.”
That’s actually one of the many things I like about this town: almost everyone is an alien from somewhere else, just like me. Being a pastor can sometimes be a bit alienating (pun intended). I really came to realize that in my former call. Del Norte was a fine place to live, but I would have always been an outsider there. Had I lived the rest of my life there, I would still have been from somewhere else. They weren’t mean about it and they certainly didn’t treat me differently on purpose, but almost everyone else was from there.
One of the great things about Bayfield, for me at least, is that most folks here are aliens just like me. Now, if you are from Bayfield, you might have a different attitude about it; you might feel a bit invaded by all of us aliens. I mean, I hope not; I hope we make your lives better; I hope the rich cultures of places like California and Texas enrich your existence. And hopefully, on a more spiritual level, we might be a good reminder to you that we were all aliens once; at least when it comes to our relationship with God. Without the grace of God in Jesus, who has torn down the wall dividing us from God and one another, we would still be far off. I would hope that we here would remind one another that here everyone is welcome; that here, we embrace and live out God’s new reality; that although we may all be from somewhere, our new reality is that we are all now citizens of heaven; and together, we are formed into the very dwelling place of God.
We continue today in our brief series into the first part of the Book of Ephesians. As I mentioned last week, I feel this book is important for us to look at right now for a couple of reasons: first, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians seems to just be instructions to a church just trying to be the church. There is no false teachings to be corrected, there is no schism to be healed. Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, this church is not in crisis. It is a church a lot like ours: trying to be the church that Jesus intends for us to be.
Which leads to the other reason why this letter is so important for us right now: what Paul meant by the word “church” is not entirely the same thing that we might mean. In fact, if we were we to talk to Paul about the church in Bayfield (or, “churches” really) it would probably make him very confused. We might talk of the Catholic church, or the Baptist church, or the Foursquare church, or the several Churches of Christ; we could give detailed directions for how to get to each one, and Paul would stare at us dumbfounded.
The church that Paul wrote to in Ephesus was not a place it was a people. The church Paul wrote to was not yet an institution, it was not yet even an organized religion, really; it was simply a movement. It was the Good News of a Risen Savior, taking hold of hearts and lives and changing the world, one heart and life at a time. Before it became buildings and budgets, the church was what Jesus left it to be: people simply called to seek and serve Jesus. This is the church we strive to be. This is the church our world needs us to be.
So to help us better understand what it means to be this church, today Paul points out the elephant in the Ephesian’s room, as it were. It was an elephant that showed up in a lot of the rooms the early church met in. Although it does not seem to be an elephant that was causing many problems in Ephesus, it often did elsewhere. That elephant was, of course, the friction that came with being a church of cultural differences. As you know, church was born out of the Jewish faith, through Jewish people, and at first, with Jewish practices. And you also know, it very quickly did not stay that way. The message of hope, proclaimed of a Risen Savior, very quickly also took hold in the lives of non-Jewish people. By the Holy Spirit, the message of Salvation quickly moved throughout the known world. So the early church quickly had to figure out how all of these diverse, alien people fit together in what God was doing in the world. Well it turns out, what God was doing, was what God had always been doing.
Last week, I had a word of the day. That word was “lavish”. Last week “lavish” described the love and mercy of God that Paul talked about in the opening verses of Ephesians. We see that same lavish love echoed here: notice that the peace Paul talks about has nothing to do with anything we’ve done. We didn’t reconcile ourselves to God. We didn’t even reconcile ourselves to one another. All of that is God’s lavish gift, given in Jesus.
Which brings me to today’s word of the day—a word that the Apostle Paul would have been very familiar with: “shalom.” You may know the word “shalom,” it’s a Hebrew word. If you’ve ever visited the Holy Land or met someone who spoke Hebrew, “shalom” is (on one level) how they say “howdy.” One could say that “shalom” means “peace,” but it means so much more. The Old Testament describes God as Shalom, so in a sense, it’s a name of God. “Shalom,” in its fuller sense, means peace; but it also means harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. I think “shalom” is the Hebrew word Paul has in mind when he writes to us about peace. It is that same gift of healing and wholeness that God has had in mind for creation since the beginning. The shalom we find in Jesus is the restoration of what God has had in mind all along.
I mentioned during “God Sightings,” wearing my shirt to a meeting the other day. What I didn’t mention was what the meeting was about. Over the past few months, I’ve been meeting with people from all over La Plata County who want to reduce problem behaviors, especially among young people. These meetings include health care workers, social workers, non-prophets, teachers, librarians, and even just concerned citizens; all coming together to work towards making our communities healthier. What I don’t see much at these meetings are other church people. I’m working on it; I’ve made some invitations, but getting pastors to meetings like these is like herding cats.
I know why. The problem is it seems like just another meeting, and pastors have a lot of meetings. The problem is, when you go to one of these meetings, no one seems to be led to Jesus or joining the church. The problem is, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be the Church our Savior calls us to be. If the church is a building where a few of us gather once a week, then working to make the community healthier is not our job; if the church is a place, then our job is to maintain the place. But if the Church is people, living in the reality of the shalom we share between God and one another, then bringing that shalom into this world is central in what we are called to do.
Don’t get me wrong: I love this place. I love the 120 year-old heritage that we celebrate this year. Did you know I keep a model of this church in my front yard? They were looking for it on the 4th of July and I guess no one knew that it had gotten moved to my house a couple of years ago. It’s getting a little run-down, so we need to give it a little love before Heritage Days, but I love having it there; I love it because I love this building and what it represents. But let’s be clear: this building is not the dwelling place of God, you are. You who were once far off, aliens and strangers, now carry the very shalom of God with you, wherever you go. May the Spirit of God work in us to bring that same peace, healing, and wholeness as we seek to be the Church our Savior calls us to be.