Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

About 12 or 13 years ago, when my kids were on the cusp of elementary and middle school, my neighbor Diane was headed to Africa for a medical mission trip. One of the kids on the block was particularly fascinated by Africa, so she rallied the other kids to think of ways that they might be part of this trip, as well. Diane was gathering supplies to take on the trip, simple medical supplies that weren’t so readily available in the places where she was headed, and it caught the kids’ imagination. They could raise some money to help contribute supplies. With ages ranging from 5 to 13, they decided to sell lemonade, walk dogs and wash cars in order to raise funds. Now some of the kids were too small to wash cars, and some of the kids were afraid of dogs, but that didn’t matter; there was something for everyone. Anybody could sell lemonade or wave at cars and explain the purpose of the sale. Even the youngest ones could go home and scrounge up cups when the cup supply was low.

After two months, Diane’s departure date was fast approaching so the kids set a time to deliver their earnings. Diane had no idea the kids were doing this, by the way. On a sunny, late summer afternoon when she was bringing her dogs home from a walk, the kids surrounded her on her sidewalk and said, “Diane, we have something to tell you, but we think you need to sit down.” She invited them all in (along with the parents who didn’t want to miss out) and dutifully sat in a chair while they made their presentation. “We know you’re going to Africa in a few days,” they said as they handed her a cookie tin full of cash, “and we wanted to be part of it.” Diane’s jaw dropped as she looked at the $537 in bills and coins contained in that tin, and in that moment, the kids knew for sure that they were part of something bigger than themselves. They knew that what their mutual endeavor represented something far larger than who they were as individuals. And they knew that somehow this act was a symbol of hope in a world where the chasm between those who live with privilege and those who don’t is pretty wide. They understood that it was a gift to be part of something beyond themselves.

For the last couple weeks, we have been reading the book of Ephesians, and today we come to the second half of our sermon series. Our reading today is about something that is bigger than each one of us; today’s reading is about the church.

Now Ephesians is a little book in the New Testament, one that’s easy to overlook if you’re flipping through the pages. It is a beautiful letter from Paul or one of his followers to the early church in Ephesus. He spends the first half of the book talking about what God has done for us in Christ, and now he talks about what it means to live as a Christian. That’s really significant, you know, because sometimes we think that it’s about us and what we do, that the starting and ending point of our lives as Christians is morality. But that is, of course, not the case. It’s about what God has done for us in Christ and how we respond. Ephesians 2:8-10 says it this way:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Even before the world began, God chose us and set us apart to live in another way – a way marked by forgiveness, reconciliation and liberation. This new way of living was ushered in by Jesus, who died to save us and set us free. This is God’s doing, and it’s by God’s grace. All of God’s children have been invited to be part of it.

Through the Spirit and at the foot of the cross, God has been creating faith and forming a community to nurture and strengthen that faith. Through the church, God is helping us to live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a Christian. You see, we really are called to another way of life – one that reflects what we see in Christ.

Paul shows us that being a follower of Jesus is not something we take lightly. “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” he says. This is what that life looks like: Be humble and gentle. Patient. Forgive each other. Don’t judge or keep score. Do everything you can to maintain peace. This is a really hard way of life, one that is contrary to so many of the impulses and messages that we receive; we can’t do it alone. So God created the church, a community in which we get schooled in living as a follower of Jesus, a community in which we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. This is a gift.

As we all know, it’s not easy to live together. We are not the same. We have different perspectives and priorities. Different experiences. Different ages and personalities. We are of different races and genders. Different socioeconomic situations. It doesn’t take long before we feel disheartened and think it would be a lot easier if we could just do our own thing. But unity is a core part of what it means to be the church. There’s one body, one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We don’t all have to be the same. In fact, we shouldn’t be the same because we are individuals. And so I need to remember that Jesus lives in you, just as Jesus lives in me. Jesus lives in the person down the row and at the back of the room. It’s our task to learn how to live together – even more than that, to love each other, even when it’s hard to do that. It’s crucial that we learn how to do that so we can be a sign of hope for the world. That is our calling – to reflect Jesus to a world that spurned him, to a world that doesn’t know him. And so God gave us the gift of the church and the gift of leaders to help equip us all for ministry in the world.

The last few weeks, our reflection on Scripture has included heavy conversations about race and gun violence, distrust in our communities, and disregard for human life. So much sadness and loss fill the headlines and our news feeds these days. It’s so close it’s personal, and it’s overwhelming. We have a profound need to learn to live together in our communities and in our world.

I don’t have to tell you that we are deep into campaign season right now as we come off from one political party’s convention and are heading into another. Among the messages that fight for our allegiances these days are fear for our safety, fear of the “other”, and casting blame. Our tendency might be to respond defensively or to withdraw. Counter to that, Paul calls us to live a different way: With humility and gentleness. Patience. Forgiveness. Bearing with one another in love. Making every effort to be at peace with one another. That doesn’t mean disregarding or dismissing what we hear, but listening deeply and thinking carefully. Looking for signs of God’s grace. Naming it, and calling for it. Listening to the disenfranchised. Then speaking the truth in love. We are called to do that.

And we’re called to unity – unity in the church and unity in the world. Not uniformity, but an ethic that carries God’s intention for the world forward. One that honors the well-being and reconciliation of all people. God uses people like us to make sure his children are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, and protected.

Today we are gathered together in friendship hall; it’s not our usual place for worship, but it’s an important place to spend time together. This is the place where we come to look each other in the eye and talk to each other. We gather around tables to care for each other and to build each other up.

What if in our conversations today and in the days and weeks ahead, we decided to practice speaking the truth in love? What if we were vulnerable enough that we could say to each other, “I need help. I can’t do this alone?” What if we trusted each other enough to remind each other to be patient and loving; respectful and thoughtful? To see past our own blind spots? It sounds like “congenial conversations about contentious issues,” doesn’t it? This community is a good place to practice.

And we get fed here, too. With bread and wine – food for the journey to sustain and nourish us. We have a long way to go. There are paths as yet untrodden, turns in the road beyond which we cannot see. We’d better put on sturdy shoes for this journey. This is something bigger than each one of us. And just as the kids on my block discovered, it’s a gift to be part of it. Let’s be there to help each other, and ask God’s guidance so that we might grow in unity and maturity and build each other up in love, so that we might be reflections of God’s love for the world. Amen.