This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 21, 2021 at Kerr Presbyterian Church by Rev. KJ Norris as part of our Lenten Series on Ephesians.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I love church basements. I do.
If you’ve spent a lot of time in church basements, you know that many can be kind of creepy. Most have unfinished cement floors, painted in industrial grey. Many have old furnacies which firely loudly and bathrooms which have an undeniably churchy smell.
But for me, ever since I was a child, the church basement was a place of wonder.
When I was young, kids of all ages would gather in one room—the biggest and the littlist all together—we would cram in on these little wooden benches and my feet wouldn’t touch the ground but would swing back and forth until one of the big kids would remind me to sit still.
And we would sing songs and hear magical stories about this person named Jesus.
Here at Kerr the church basement is also a place of wonder.
It’s the place where we celebrate one another. Where we celebrate each other’s cooking and favorite store-bought donuts. We’ve held adoption parties and baby showers. We crammed a whole high school football team in for dinner before the season started and give away prizes for guessing pumkin weights.
The basement is the place where we eat together and share our stories—our joys and sorrows. Really share them. Not just lift them up, but tell the whole story of our lives to one who truly listens. A friend who smiles when we smile and cries when we cry.
I love church santuaries, too. Especially here. I love our stained glass blue windows and our wooden pulpit made by a church member long ago.
But the upstairs of the church can be a different kind of place. Sometimes we feel like we have to put on airs when we come into the santuary. You know what I mean?
At many churches we are told to wear our “Sunday best,” we feel a need to get dressed up—many churches around the country still expect us to wear a suit and tie on Sunday or perhaps a Sunday hat. We are expected to sit at the right moment and stand in accord. There is a kind of formality that has unspoken rules, but you’d know if you broke one.
Sometimes in the church santuary we run from the risks of really being known, we would rather put on the air of respectability, acting as if we know better.
We had a visitor one time come into Kerr’s basement for a Saturday night event, and I invited him to come back in the morning for church. He told me that he certainly couldn’t walk into the sanctuary for God might smite him! He feared the judgement that awaited in the church sanctuary.
Paul today gives a call to us regular attenders of church to think about our churches. Not just our church basements but our sanctuaries, too.
He starts, “put away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (25). Yeah, we might think. That’s the santuary kind of thing to do. We speak truth up here. Some people need to come and get a healthy dose of truth.
We have this notion that speaking truth means putting people in their place. Telling them what is right, or more importantly, telling them what is wrong.
Now, I know no one in here does this, but church people generally are known for listening to sermons a certain way. As we listen to the sermon we think about how we wish someone else was here in the service—they really need to hear this message, we think. Or we glance at the person up three rows from us to see if they are a asleep because this is the message that person needs. Sure, occasionally, we might think that we have something to learn, too, but often we look at others, not at ourselves.
In our culture, Paul’s phrase, “speaking the truth to our neighbors” has become understood to mean chastising our neighbors. Correcting them on facebook. Judging them for their thoughts and experiences.
But as Paul goes on, we find that this is a different kind of truthtelling than a kind which brings judgement. He goes on, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear (29). And even moreover, “be kind to one another, tenderheated, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (32).
The kind of truthtelling we are to do is a kind of truthtelling which builds up. Which shares grace. Which is kind. And full of forgiveness. It’s the kind of truthtelling which perhaps we associate more with the church basement than with the sanctuary.
Frederick Buechner describes a scene from a church basement this way. He says (Belief, 189).
The church basement for many—especially for those who have found their way to the basement through addiction of some sort—is often a place of special truthtelling. For twelve-step groups the principle of rigourous honesty is foundational. We cannot move forward with our lives if we do not tell the truth about our past, about our present, about our hopes and fears of the future.
And for many the church basement is the place where we first find full acceptance. Acceptance for who we are in all the wonderfully diverse ways God has created us to be. Acceptance of our personhood. And forgiveness. True forgiveness for the things of the past. Where we learn to forgive ourselves. Where we find words of grace, useful for building up. Many find a kind of honest truthtelling in the church basement.
So, how about upstairs? Are we in this Lenten season, we who have spent the last 4 weeks reading the book of Ephesians, learning about the deep love and grace of God which calls us to life and total transformation. Which gives us a new family and community. Which reminds us that we are inheriters of God’s great riches, are we willing to be like those in the basement? Are we willing to extend grace and love?
Are we willing to do as Paul calls us in chapter 5 verses 1-2? Are we willing to be “imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:1-2)?
Are we willing to living in such away where yes, we are angry—where we are angry at the injustices of the world. Angry that a person would feel so judged by his church for his sexual sin that he would go into massage parlors and kill people so that they would no longer be a temptation for him. Angry that Asian-Americans are being targeted soley because of the way they look. Are we willing to be angry and yet in our anger not sin, but instead look for ways to love beyond the ways in which the world teaches us to love. To love fully across all boundaries the world would give us.
Are we willing to work, not so that we would accumulate wealth but so that we would be able to give to those who have less as Paul suggests in verse 28? Are we willing to put away our bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and be kind to one another? Are we willing to suspend judgement from others and, yes, even from ourselves so that we might be able to form real and lasting relationships rooted in truth and love and in the one who created us all?
In this season of Lent, we are invited to look deeply at the great love of God and to look into ourselves, asking how we might be imitators of that love.
May it be that our church sanctuaries look more and more like our church basements. Amen.
Buechner, F. Telling Secrets: A Memoir (1991). In Verhey and Harvard. Belief: Ephesians, A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Westminster John Knox Press.