Rev Paul Escamilla | September 12, 2021

Midway through the pandemic our neighborhood association came up with yard signs with different messages of encouragement for putting in our yards. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, ONE DAY AT A TIME, WE CAN DO IT! DON’T GIVE UP! The sign Liz and I chose for our yard read, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

I feel sure we got that idea to choose that sign because we had already seen it somewhere else: namely, here. Over and over during this challenging year of life together you have been conveying that message to one another, to our neighborhood, to the world: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Livestreamed services. Faith story podcasts. Come and See worship. 12-step gatherings; a special needs classroom. Chili and peanut butter, socks and shoes collected in overflowing baskets for Christian Assistance Ministry. School Supplies for Cotton Academy. Wi-fi on the parking lot. Landscaping for Habitat. Gifts to United Methodist Committee on Relief for rescue and rebuilding projects around the world.

Online Prayer Gatherings and choir meetings. Hybrid Sunday school. A drive-through children’s parade. Godly Play stories. Singing with Mr. David. We Three Kings on the parking lot with Super Adults. A prayer walk on the sidewalk, one word following another. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Some of you climbed those stairs on one of the fifty-nine Sundays that fell between Easter Day 2020 and Pentecost 2021, and right at noon rang the tower bells, while others of you gathered outdoors to listen to peals that could be heard a mile away. Four bell tones carrying four strong and hopeful words: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  

Laurel Heights, you have found one way after another after another to gather people together even when we weren’t able to gather people together.

And then there is our prayer wall, a sacred space right here at the corner of Woodlawn and Belknap that has taken on a life of its own since it was installed a year and a half ago. Tie a ribbon, say a prayer. Another comes and adds a prayer, a ribbon. And another. Hundreds and hundreds over these 18 months. When the lattice fills, the ribbons are carefully trimmed and placed on the altar table in Scott Chapel. I wish to kneel where prayer has been valid. I know a corner where that would be true, where it has been true for me, and for so, so many.

Here’s a sorrow. Here’s a joy. A heartache. A hope. A cry for mercy. A shout of anger. Here’s a prayer for healing, another for reconciliation, another for strength. This ribbon, knotted tightly on the metal frame, expresses the intensity of a grief. Another beside it, with a knot just as firm, expresses the depth of someone’s gratitude.

Every conceivable emotion has been brought to that wall, offered in prayer, tied with a ribbon, connecting us to one another—the church family, the neighborhood, the stranger—in a spiritual circuitry impossible to fully comprehend. Emily Dickinson could have been looking out from an upstairs window across the street, watching all of this unfold over the last year and a half, prayer after prayer, ribbon by ribbon when she penned these words: I’ll tell you how the sun rose—a ribbon at a time . . .

The sun rose, hope dawned, connections were discovered, remembered, strengthened, a ribbon at a time; encouragement, comfort, courage, the whispered assurance that God would provide . . . YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

God has a YOU ARE NOT ALONE sign. It’s called the cross. We usually understand the cross as an event of vertical reconciliation—the saving work of Christ to bridge the gap between earth and heaven, between humanity and God; and so it is. And yet the writer of Ephesians gives the cross a horizontal meaning, one of lateral reconciliation: not bridging a gap between earth and heaven, but removing walls that divide one person from another, one group from another, erasing the lines between outsider and insider, us and them.

For the writer of Ephesians, God’s gift to us in the cross of Jesus Christ is for all barriers to be overcome, enabling us to belong to one another. Whenever and wherever belonging happens, the cross’s meaning is revealed and fulfilled. We generally think that belonging is something that happens to us. We are encircled, enfolded, claimed, embraced. We belong. But the word has a history that reveals a deeper meaning. “Belong” comes from an old German word, bilangen—meaning “to reach.” Those who belong reach. Those who belong gift others with belonging.

That’s been you, church. Over and over, in countless ways, in season and out, discovering your own belonging while reaching out to others with that same gift. You have shown patience and perseverance, flexibility and agility, initiative and creativity; trust and reliance. All of these possible because of the energies God has inspired within you, the cross of belonging belonging you, and others through you.

Your financial gifts are woven into all of this. Through this challenging season you have continued to support the life-giving, life-renewing mission and ministry at Laurel Heights with your steady and generous practices of giving, making possible the many innovations and improvisations by which we’ve held onto each other and welcomed others.

With every gift, every offering, every pledge, every special second-mile contribution—and there have been many of those, too—you have given the gift of belonging, touching more lives than any of us will ever know. Thank you, Laurel Heights, for your faithfulness. I am grateful.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Maybe we chose that sign for our yard because we had already seen it here, in you.