This is the message I preached on Sunday, August 26 at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
“Be the Church: Being a United and Uniting People”
This Sunday we continue our series from the book of Ephesians exploring what it means to “Be the Church”, looking at what values can be a compass guiding us on the path God has for us as a church in the midst of change and transition. These values also challenge us not to simply look to serve ourselves but open our eyes all around us, to see those in need in our communities.Today we start with Ephesians 3, beginning in verse 6 I will be using the New Living translation. Feel free to read along in your own Bible in the translation of your choice, read along on the screen with the translation I am using, or just close your eyes and listen, imagining yourself within the story. However you best experience it, let’s read God’s Word together.
Ephesians 3:6-11 , New Living Translation — “6 And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus 7 By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News.
“8 Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, he graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ. 9 I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.
“10 God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Let us pray.
Still-speaking God, whose word is heard not just on the lips of those whose face and skin look like mine, nor just in languages I recognize, but who speaks to and with all people, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we can hear and see what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture, Amen.
Before I share what stands out to me from Ephesians 3, I wonder what values of Be-ing the Church you hear in this passage?
In our reading today, Paul speaks about people who had been divided in the past by culture and religion, who now have been brought together through faith in Christ as one people. He talks about how in that group God will reveal God’s self to those looking for God not despite but precisely because of and through the differences they share. This is why Paul tells us “God’s purpose in all this” — this tearing down of walls that divide people and drawing all in, side by side, as equals, on the level ground at the foot of the cross, “was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all”. You see, it takes a rich variety of all kinds of people speaking and acting with love and faith in God for the rich variety of wisdom God wants to share to be fully known. Each person reflects a part of who God is and what God is saying in a unique way due to who they are and where their life has taken them.
In the United Church of Christ we call this value being “One in Covenant, a United and Uniting People” and look to Jesus’ words in John 17:21 as its basis. On the night before his betrayal and death, Jesus prays to his God and our God, his Father and our Father. Imagining the many different people throughout all the world, throughout all history, whom Jesus is about to go to the cross to save, Jesus says “ I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
Jesus’ prayer is that, through us discovering and growing into a relationship with God like Jesus has, One where like Jesus we and others can know we are God’s children, whom God loves, and in whom God takes delight, we all, and people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, might learn to lay aside our differences and know each other as one family, one community, not simply by ignoring our differences, but by looking for what lessons from God those differences can teach us and unique gifts they can bring. We call this relationship with God a “covenant” because, like marriage, it is one built on promises on which we depend. I just was blessed do do a wedding a few weeks ago and I saw two people who’d grown to love each other promise to stand by each other in wealth and in poverty, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live. This exchanging of promises in front of others is what makes a marriage a covenant. Our relationship with God is a covenant too, because God promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to fill us with the Holy Spirit, to guide us, and to go and prepare a place for us, among many many other precious promises. And we promise too throughout our faith journey, most especially at our baptisms , our renewing of baptism when we join the church, and each time we take communion, to trust in God, to try to follow in Christ’s steps, and to love others as God has loved us and gave himself for us in Christ.
Jesus prays that this covenant relationship, this relationship of promise, will lead us to work to be at one with others, tearing down walls that divide people by prejudice, by hatred, by fear and mistrust.
What are some walls in our society that can divide people based on differences?
I recently heard an amazing story of someone who went the extra mile in devoting himself to this work of being a united and uniting person, living out this value of being the church in an amazing way. Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, spent the last 25-30 years breaking down walls, getting out of his bubble, and intentionally befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. The friendships he has built on this journey have led over 200 Klansmen to realize their hatred of men like Daryl, based on the color of their skin, was wrong, and to give up their Klan robes.
Davis tells the story of the first interchange which led him down this journey: “I was playing music — it was my first time playing in this particular bar called the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy you all’s music.” I thanked him, shook his hand and he says, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was kind of surprised that he did not know the origin of that kind of music and I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.” That’s what that rockabilly, rock ‘n roll style came from.” He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that.” So I’m thinking this guy has never heard Fats Domino or Little Richard and then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?”
“Well, now I’m getting curious. I’m trying to figure out, now how is it that in my 25 years on the face of this earth that I have sat down, literally, with thousands of white people, had a beverage, a meal, a conversation or anybody else, and this guy is 15 to 20 years older than me and he’s never sat down with a black guy before and had a drink. I said, “How is that? Why?” At first, he didn’t answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, “Tell him, tell him, tell him,” and he finally said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn’t joking. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?
“But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it.”
Though maybe less dramatic, the story of our denomination is one of tearing down walls. In the 1950’s when the United Church of Christ formed, it was through several different denominations joining as one, each saying that their particular favorite doctrines, unique ways of doing worship, and long histories were not as important as loving God, treating each other with respect, and working together to both share the message of God’s love and break down walls of division in the world around them. They trusted God to work out the details if they committed to joining Jesus in saying “God, make us one, as Christ and you are One”. Even now, because of this, alot of our United Church of churches, including our church here in Pittsboro, include people who grew up in a variety of church backgrounds, and often blend those in their worship.
What was more amazing was how here, in our Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, that unity stood against what prevailed in the culture all around us. Because of how much work the Congregationalist-Christians who joined the United Church of Christ had already done first fighting slavery, then helping start historically black schools as well as churches in the black community, many of the churches in this area were historically black. So joining as one denomination meant black church
leaders and white church leaders regularly sitting down together in the same room, eating from the same table, as well as worshipping and preaching at each other’s churches. When that happened it was still illegal in some places here in the south for them to eat at the same restaurant or drink water from the same fountain, and people faced threats from racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan when they sat together across color lines like they did.
Being a united and uniting people means as a church we have to be ones committed to welcoming people across the aisle who are different from us in all kinds of ways — for their culture, their political affiliation, their nation of upbringing, their income or education level, what their family looks like, you name it. Ultimately each kind of person we meet, no matter how different, is like a bottle with a message in it like we might find swept up in a wave on the seashore: each person has a unique message from God for us, if we will just accept them as they are, embracing their unique gifts & journey, and listening to their story. Living out Christ’s prayer means working to be a place where all are not just welcome but valued, is key to being a united and uniting church. It also is helping spread that attitude around us into our communities.
Let us pray.
Make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world…
until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.