No Longer Strangers – The Great Ingathering

Steve Lindsley
(Ephesians 1: 3-14, Isaiah 43: 1-4)

There is a song by the Zac Brown Band that I wonder if you’ve heard before.  Now it is not your stereotypical country song – there’s nothing about losing your wife, losing your truck, that sort of thing.  It’s called “Family Table,” and that’s all the song’s about.  Well, sort of.  It describes this table – an old piece of wood, four legs, coffee stains and scratches.  There is nothing innately special about the table.  What makes it special is what happens around it – as the song’s chorus describes:

So won’t you come on in?
Supper’s almost done
Go ahead and call your friends
‘Cause we got room for everyone
Let’s make some memories, ’round this 9 foot pine
Pull up a chair and stay a while, at the family table

So the table’s a place where the family gathers when mealtime rolls around.  But it’s even more than that. As “Family Table” goes on we learn that the table is “the cornerstone that held us all up, through the best of times, and when times got tough.”  So regardless of what life dishes out – the good, the bad, the ugly – it’s the people in your life, the people who frequent that table, that make all the difference.  The table is a symbol for something more than itself: “This family table’s bound together,” the lyric goes, “by a love that never dies.”

Maybe you and yours have a cherished family table of your own – strategically placed in your kitchen, or your dining room, or the back porch.  Maybe it’s made out of wood or metal or glass or plastic, or some combination of all those.  Whatever it is, no matter how wonderful the actual table is, or how wonderful the things are that get put on it, what really matters is the people who gather around it.  Family, friends, guests, strangers perhaps.  By design, tables have you facing in, so you are fully present with each other in that moment, in that space – fully present with the people who matter most to you.  Conversation ensues.  Stories.  Laughter.  Sharing.  Those things are what make the family table – and what make family – all that it is for us. 

This focus on family is at the heart of our two scriptures today – in particular, these eleven verses that kick off the letter to the Ephesians.  I was telling you earlier that we begin today a four-week sermon series based on the book of Ephesians.  It’s a different kind of letter from most of the others in the New Testament – different in writing style and vocabulary, enough of a difference that most scholars wonder if it was Paul himself who wrote it, or someone working closely with Paul. 

Whoever it was, the message of Ephesians is clear: this group of Jesus-followers, what would later be called “the church,” is a group of people bound together in Christ, whose intent and purpose is to continue drawing others into the mix, reaching out and welcoming both Jew and Gentile, always expanding, always growing.  That’s what the church does, right?  We reach out.  We embrace everyone.  We welcome all.

But before we can do any of that reaching out and welcoming all, we have to get our own house in order.  Because the body of Christ has a beginning, a point of origin, a foundation upon which all other things are built. Listen to the verses I read earlier, this time from The Message translation:

Long before God laid down earth’s foundations, God had us in mind, settled on us as the focus of God’s love, to be made whole and holy by that love. Long ago God decided to adopt us into God’s family through Jesus Christ.  It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it, found yourselves signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit.[1]

The language of these opening verses, scholars have surmised, comes from an ancient hymn, words that flow with rhyme and reason and purpose.  And one verse in particular acts as the fulcrum around which everything else revolves: God decided to adopt us into God’s family...  The language of adoption is intentional here; the Greek word means “placing in the condition of a son.”  Or a daughter.  The point being: it may not be blood relative, but it might as well be.  That’s how close this adoptive family of ours is.  One commentator calls what’s described in these verses as “the great ingathering.”  The coming together and gathering around as body of Christ.  Almost as if there’s a family table there.

I really love this adoption imagery here – because it speaks to not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with each other.  Think about it.  If God has adopted us as sons and daughters, that makes us sisters and brothers.  We actually use that terminology a lot; it probably loses a little of its luster because of it.  But we’re doing more than describing a relationship.  We’re making a profound theological statement.  Because this is not a relationship we get to choose, or one that requires our consent or approval.  It is a relationship that is chosen for us.

You and I, we are siblings.  Just think about that for a minute.  Think about what it means to be siblings in the context of the church.

I have a brother some of you may have met; he’s three years younger than me.  I’ve known him for almost all of my life, certainly all of my life that I can remember.  I love my brother, always have; but it’s that weird kind of sibling love that doesn’t always make sense on paper.  You know what I mean, right?  Back when my brother and I were kids I would do the thing that all big brothers do to little brothers: I would pick on him, harass him, I would make his life miserable.  Blood was spilled on occasion.  And yet the only time I ever was sent to the principal’s office, was the time I got into a fight with a kid on the school bus because he was calling my little brother names.  This same brother I had probably picked on the night before – maybe even that morning.  Now does any of that make sense?  Of course not!  But that’s sibling love, right?  We fight with each other.  We defend each other. 

Our scripture today tells us that we in the church are more than fellow worshippers, more than friends and acquaintances, more than sojourners in the faith.  We are siblings.  And it is indeed a beautiful thing, being bound to each other as siblings in Christ; to have this ready-made family we are part of, not for anything we’ve done but what God has done and is doing. 

But can we be honest here?  Can we have a little family meeting?  It is not always easy being siblings in Jesus Christ.  We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything.  We disagree with each other.  We disappoint each other.  We get frustrated.  And even when we love each other, we don’t always know how to receive that love; because sometimes we’re not ready for it, or are embarrassed by it.  It’s complicated, this whole sibling thing.

I want to share a story with you, and because it’s a story about one of our fellow Trinity siblings, I want to let you know that I got permission from our brother to share it, as this isn’t something I typically do, telling stories on you and about you.  Many of you know Chip Carpenter, our brother, who’s been a Trinity member for a few years now.  If you know Chip you probably know that he’s has had a pretty rough ride the past year or so, an ongoing battle with cancer and related issues that has him in and out of the hospital.  Some number of months ago a group of Trinity people came together and made a commitment to be part of what they affectionately call “Chip’s family.”  Working together, they check in on Chip throughout the week, making sure he has what he needs and always knows that Trinity is with him every step of the way.

Now naming a supportive group a “family” is pretty cool.  But what’s truly amazing is when you see it becoming more than just a name.

Back in June, a number of those family members descended on Chip’s hospital room on a particular day, because that day happened to be Chip’s birthday, and they wanted to help him celebrate it.  So they went all-out – they showed up in great birthday fanfare, complete with hats and kazoos, I am told, for a wonderful birthday hospital celebration.

And it would’ve been that, were it not for the fact that Chip does not like birthday celebrations.  I mean, really does not like them.  All the fanfare and fuss, and then you go throwing hats and kazoos in the mix…. It had the exact opposite effect the partygoers intended, and Chip openly voiced his displeasure.

To which one of them responded, in all sincerity and love, Chip, we’re sorry you don’t like birthday celebrations.  But you don’t get to choose your family.  You don’t get to choose your family.

And unwanted birthday celebrations notwithstanding, Chip knew this what the writer of Ephesians was getting at.  Just a few weeks before, one of those Trinity members was sitting at his hospital bedside when a doctor walked in, clipboard in hand, all geared up for a medical conversation of some sort.  And as he looked across the bed and saw this other person he did not recognize, he asked, And who is this?  And without hesitation, Chip turned and looked that Trinity member in the eye and said, My family.

We are at our best as the church of Jesus Christ when we view each other and treat each other and live among each other as the adopted siblings we are.  Before we plan for programs and ministries, before we reach out to the community and the visitor in our midst.  We are at our best as the church when we see each other as siblings.  More than handshakes and hugs and high-fives at coffee hour; more than friendly conversation for five minutes in the church hallway.  But siblings, and all that that entails.  This great ingathering. 

And like they said, we don’t get to choose our family.  It chooses us – or, more to the point, God does the choosing.  From the prophet Isaiah:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and I love you,

I have called you by name, you are mine.  For the past two weeks, I was serving the larger church, leading music for the Massanetta Middle School Conference.  Our theme was based on this verse; so in true southern fashion the conference was called “Y’all Are Mine.”  All of us, all y’all, we belong to God and we belong to each other.  We pass through the waters – God is with us.  We swim in the rivers – they don’t overwhelm.  We walk through fire and the flames don’t consume.  Because it’s not just God who is going through all that with us.

You do not need me to tell you there is a whole lot going on in our world these days.  You do not need me to tell you there’s a lot going on in our church these days.  We are not meant to walk this road alone. 

So hear me when I say this, my fellow siblings: keep caring for one another as the siblings you know you are.  Keep supporting one another even when you disagree, keep loving each other even when you fight.  Keep being part of this great ingathering around our family table.  For it is here where we are reminded all over again of who we are and whose we are:  Sisters and brothers.  Children of the Living God.  Family.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Selected verses from The Message translation of Ephesians 1: 3-14.