20 Apr 2008
“You are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own …” (1 Pt 2:9)
In the name …
We are God’s people, so says the New Testament to us today. We are chosen, priestly and holy. The whole bunch of us; the whole kit-n-kaboodle of us. And by us I mean people of faith. Today’s Lesson holds that wonderful line: “Once you were ‘no people,’ but now you are God’s people.” (1 Pt. 2:10) To imagine what this promise means we need first to envision an isolated people, and we don’t have to think back 2000 years to do so. We can begin by thinking back just two generations. 50 years ago this month, for example, the Quabbin Reservoir was formed when the state evacuated and flooded four small towns in the Swift River Valley. Some of the families that were forced to move had been there since the American Revolution. When they interviewed those people and as some of the old-timers reminisced, they talked about seldom if ever having to leave that valley. They were self-sufficient. They worked farms and dairies and in small industries throughout the year. They didn’t take far-off vacations; they couldn’t. They were isolated from much of the rest of the world. This may be quite similar to the situation of the people Peter was addressing in this morning’s Epistle. They may have been physically separated and isolated.
That same thing still happens today, but doesn’t always require distance to do so. Wednesday evening I had to go into downtown Holyoke. Some of the poor down there are a world away from us, and we from them. Surveys are showing that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever wider in America. The separation among us is increasing and the Middle Class is shrinking. Massachusetts ranks fourth among the 50 states in this separation. Our richest 20% have an average income of about $170,000, while the bottom 20% earns only $20,000. I thought the differences would even be worse when you hear about men like John Paulson who runs a hedge fund and whose salary last year, for just one year, was $3.7 billion! I thought the government was crazy when they promised us all a tax refund to jump-start the economy because they have no money to give, but that was nothing compared to what they’re doing much more quietly right now for the wealthy. They’ve passed huge tax breaks for the construction industry because of the mortgage crisis, but other powerful industries weren’t going to let the opportunity pass them by without getting some-thing. So onto the bill to help the building industry, our politicians have also tacked on support for car manufacturers, airlines, tire companies and Wall Street banks. That’s taking the tax dollars we just got back and giving them to rich and well-connected industries, and the separation grows wider. The reasons may be different than they were 50 or even 2000 years ago, but the result is exactly the same: separation, isolation.
And isolation can be born of more mundane causes also. When everybody else seems to find their nook, and you’re left searching, when everybody else is watching American Idol, and you’re wondering why, you can feel isolated and alone even in a crowd. So for however the isolation is born, if it’s an elderly person’s health that won’t let them out of the house, a job you’re locked into but can’t stand going to, a student who has a tough time making friends, a marriage that isn’t working, a family that is falling apart, a neighbourhood where nobody knows the name of the person two houses away, all of these are symptoms that the Bible condenses under that one evocative phrase: “Once you were ‘no people.’” Whatever defines that isolation, there is a definite, concrete sense of no community, of not belonging anywhere, of being all excluded, of being just plain lonely.
There’s a profound difference between alone and loneliness. Alone can be peaceful and refreshing, but lonely is depressing and destructive. This past Wednesday marked the 1st anniversary of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in which one lonely, deranged and evil man murdered 32 classmates and teachers. Almost every time you hear about some murderous psychopath loneliness is part of the story. And for those who are not sick enough to take it out on others, researches have found that lonely people die sooner than others. Loneliness is destructive in so many ways. And there are so many forces pushing people into separation and loneliness in our world, like we just talked about. But into this black hole of separation by economics or loneliness by circumstance, comes Christ and church. “Once you were ‘no people,’” it is said to us, “but now you are God’s people.” Church becomes the visible sign of the invisible presence of Christ. The antidote for the world’s power to separate is the church’s grace to bring us into communion with each other through Christ. We here, physically sitting together in this building, are a sign of God’s people. Church and Christ have the ability to let us come together, differences and all. I remember hearing on the radio one Sunday a black preacher from Hartford saying that he was more closely united with any white person of faith than he was with another black person who was not a person of faith. And the same works in the other direction too. Church and Christ have the glorious ability to beat-back the evil of isolation and loneliness so that we can see that we are united as God’s people. This is one reason why church has to be community, why Christ and Christians have to be community, why we have to be here rather than just praying alone at home.
The more a church does as community the more spiritually alive she is. The more we reach out like care packages to soldiers in Iraq, sick children at St. Jude’s Hospital, the Survival Center in Turners Falls, or even something as simple as using less gasoline or electricity or recycling more as we face the reality that this Tuesday’s Earth Day has been trying to teach us for 38 years that we only have one small planet to share and it only has limited resources, whatever we do as community we do as the people of God, and whatever we do as community begins and is enlivened by what we are doing right now as the community at worship. May all who suffer the loneliness of being “no people” come to find community in Christ and church through us, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo