St. Paul in his letter to the Gentiles in Ephesus writes: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . In his flesh he has . . . broken down the dividing wall between us . . . He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.
I used to love to play tag when I was a kid. We had endless variations of the game freeze tag, team tag, you re it tag, cootie tag (if you played with the girls), and in an age that was far less litigious – tackle tag. But my favorite was whenever you played a tag game that included home base. I have never, ever, been petite and so it was great when there was someplace during the game where you could take a break, catch your breath and survey the playing field. Don t you remember? The hood of blue car parked in the middle of the street, the pole for the basketball hoop, the jungle gym, or the big oak tree in the middle of the field. Wherever you played, home base was always the one spot where you were safe. You were still in the game but at least for a while you were out of the fray.
Sometimes, when the playing field was really large, we would try to extend home base. Linking hands with one person touching the tree, you could daisy chain home base out into the game. As a result, people didn t have to run as far or dodge as much to find safety. All they had to do was reach for an outstretched hand and they were safe. Then they could pass themselves from one person to another until they reached base. And once they got there they too became a link in the chain. I can see it now the long line of smiling children all hand in hand reaching out into the game calling to the others Over here, over here, run over here and tag home!
That to me is the perfect metaphor for one of the church s two great tasks in the world. As Paul says we are meant to be home base, a place where everyone can find rest, a place to take a break from the game while still being in it, a place where outstretched hands are always reaching out trying to bring you home. More and more in the media you read reports that the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant, unimportant, impotent in today s diverse and modern world. We have been called a dying institution. And while I think the reports of the church s death are greatly exaggerated I do think there is some truth in our culture s critique. I think we are becoming increasingly irrelevant because we have forgotten why we are here. We have forgotten or been distracted from our calling to be the one place in the world where anyone: the broken as well as the whole, the sinner beside the saint, the rich and the poor, the suffering and the well, can find an outstretched hand and a little safety. We have forgotten that we are supposed to be a place where because of Jesus Christ no one is an alien in the household of God. We have forgotten that when we call the church a sanctuary it means much more than just a name for the space where we worship.
Consider what a reporter saw about a month after Hurricane Katrina, when he visited the Convention Center that had served as a shelter for thousands of the poorest of the poor stranded in New Orleans. We all remember those terrible images of violence, of backed up toilets, lack of drinking water in the sweltering heat in what became an overcrowded cesspool of humanity. In the midst of all the debris, the reporter noticed a surprising sight. There were a number of small circles of chairs here and there throughout the stadium. He found out that they were from African American churches who knew it was the best way to emotionally defend themselves against the chaos. They gathered together so they could pray for those they d lost. They huddled together so they could remember who they were namely: children of God, richly blessed even in the midst of a moment that could only be described as hell . . . and they created their own sanctuary . . . a place of safety and Godly presence in the middle of chaos.1 They understood what it means to be the church.
However, creating a home base, a refuge where all can come and find a home, is only the first task of the church. First we invite them in, but then we must send them out again. Like my favorite game of tag, the church is only as effective as we are willing to link hands together and extend ourselves out into the world. That is the work of the church to reach out taking the love of Christ with us. Like the disciples who gathered around Jesus as he fed the 5,000, we are to fill our own baskets and take them out to the hungry, the hurting, the poor and the oppressed. Christ fed the hungry throngs, we must do the same or home base means nothing.
It s really quite simple isn t it you bring them in and then you send them out. First you find your place in the body of Christ and then you set out to do Christ s work in the world. These young people we are baptizing today are being made into the newest links in the daisy chain. If we raise them well then sooner rather then later they too will go to work in Jesus name. What I find so frustrating about the current state of church politics is that people are starving, literally and spiritually, while we fight about who can and can t carry a basket. As a result we have lost our focus as an institution and now we spend way too much threatening to pull apart, threatening to pick up our baskets and go home! And I do not think that is what our Lord would want.
Bringing them in and sending them out these are the jobs bequeathed to the church by our Lord. It s just that simple and it s just that difficult. But the time is short, the day grows late and the people are hungry let s get to work. Amen.
1 The Rev. Peter Wiley