I recently discovered one of the most beautiful metaphors for the church I have ever heard. Of course, there have been some wonderful metaphors throughout the centuries, many of which come right from Scripture itself: the church as a body, the church as a mosaic, the church as a flock of sheep, and the church as branches connected to the vine. Each of these images captures a piece of the beauty of what it means to be the church, a collection of people called together by God, but, of course, none of them paint the whole picture.
What if I told you the church is like a hazelnut? What kind of reaction does that create in you? Perhaps you aren’t a fan of hazelnut flavor, or maybe you are allergic to nuts, so this image makes you bristle a little bit. When I shared in our weekly pastors’ group that I was looking at the imagery of a hazelnut, one of the pastors informed me that every week, the hazelnut coffee creamer at his church is the one flavor of creamer no one will touch. So, maybe the image of the church as a hazelnut is not for everyone, but I will tell you why it is an image that has captivated me. In order to do that, we’ll need to look back to the 14th century and to an inspirational woman: Julian of Norwich.
Julian of Norwich was born in 1343, and she was a mystic who devoted herself to separatist living, prayer, and meditation. She lived through devastating times, including the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and her own near-death experience. At the age of 30, she was so ill she believed she was going to die, and during that time she received visions of the Lord. When she recovered from her illness, she wrote down these visions, and the book she wrote is thought to be the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman.
In this book called Showings, Julian of Norwich describes many of her visions, and the one that I can’t stop thinking about this week is her vision of a hazelnut. I’d like to share it with you. She wrote:
And in this he showed me a little thing
the quantity of a hazelnut,
lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed.
And it was as round as any ball.
I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding,
and thought, ‘What may this be?’
And it was answered generally thus,
”It is all that is made.”
I marveled how it might last,
for I thought it might
suddenly have fallen to nothing
And I was answered in my understanding:
It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.
And so have all things their beginning
by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it.
The second that God loves it.
And the third, that God keeps it.
How beautiful is that?
Do you ever look around at our little church and then at all of the struggles in this world and wonder, “How on earth can we possibly make a difference?” Or maybe you wonder how our little church can possibly keep going in the face of the adversity in the time in which we live? In the most desperate time of Julian of Norwich’s life, she caught a glimpse of a hazelnut, and she realized three things about it: God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it. That says everything, doesn’t it?
Today, we are continuing our sermon series on the Mysteries of the Faith, and we are drawing close to 1 Peter 2 and to Julian’s vision of a hazelnut to help us cozy up with the mystery that God would call together imperfect people to be his body. As we do so, I want us to remember that just like the hazelnut, God made the church, God loves the church, and God keeps the church.
God made the church. 1 Peter 2:4-5 says, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” When it comes to the church, God does the building. Jesus, the living stone, is the one upon whom the church is built, but when we come to God, God builds us into a spiritual house that offers praise to God. Maybe this seems like too simple a thing to say–that God made the church–but it really is the foundation of everything.
Have you ever read the P.D. Eastman children’s book “Are You My Mother?” In this story, the mother bird flies away to go in search of food for her little egg to eat once it’s hatched. While the mother is away, the baby bird hatches and is concerned because the mother is nowhere to be found. This tiny bird goes from place to place in search of the mother bird, eventually asking a large construction vehicle named Snort, “Are you my mother?” The vehicle scoops up the baby bird and places it back in the nest, and the bird is reunited with the mother.
While it is a lighthearted story about a confused bird, “Are You My Mother?” asks the question we all want to know in our deepest selves: “Who do I belong to?” Who made us? Who takes care of us? Who can we ask when we don’t know which way to turn? For the church, this answer is God. God made us. Through the Holy Spirit God called the first disciples to be the church, to plant churches, and to worship together as a body. In fact, in the Greek, the word church is ekklesia, a word that means “the called out ones.” We exist as a church because God made us into this body. When we don’t know where to turn, what to do next, or what our life as a body needs to look like, we need to return to the source–to the one who made us.
God made us, and God loves us. Verses 9-10 say, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Do you hear that? “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” And we are God’s people because God chose to be our God. When the rest of the world was busy telling us we weren’t smart enough, or strong enough, or athletic enough, or good looking enough, God said, “I love these people right here. Just as they are.”
1 Peter was written to people called the “exiles of the Dispersion.” These were people who were persecuted for their faith and were scattered across Asia Minor. The people who would have heard this letter read aloud were people who were going through a lot. They probably didn’t feel particularly strong as they went through their trials and struggles. I imagine they felt weak, like they weren’t up to the challenge, and even on their most difficult days, like God had abandoned them. The author of 1 Peter reminds them that God called them together as the church. God made them. And God loves them. God sees their suffering, and God cares about them.
Perhaps this seems like an overly simple message. “Jesus Loves Me” is one of the very first songs about faith many people ever learn. But, I believe we can’t hear this good news too much. First, the good news that we are loved by God gets down to our very core, to that place where we may have had others tell us we aren’t loveable, and it re-writes those messages we tell ourselves. It is important that we sit with that good news until it sinks into our deepest self. We need to sit with it until we can believe it.
I’ve heard it said that churches talk too much about love and not enough about sin and repentance, but I believe most of us know the bad news really well. We know we mess up. We know we don’t live the kinds of lives God wants us to live. What we struggle with is believing that God could love us, even in our mess. In Romans 2, Paul writes this, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Have you ever had someone show you so much kindness that you felt unworthy? How did you want to respond? I would guess you wanted to do whatever you could to pay it back. You wanted to respond with gratitude. That’s how I imagine God’s love and kindness. God’s love doesn’t cause us to stay comfortable. God’s love helps us get real with ourselves, which means confessing our sins and receiving God’s abundant grace and mercy.
Julian of Norwich saw a hazelnut in a vision, and she realized God made it and God loves it. She also realized that God keeps it. God sustains it and allows it to continue to grow and thrive. God made the church, too, and God loves the church. And God will not leave the church alone to its own devices. God keeps the church. 1 Peter 2:2 says this: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” In other words, keep being fed. Keep being nourished. Keep returning to God again and again for encouragement and strength and growth.
Every year around this time, I find the start of trees growing in my yard. I unearth acorns and buckeyes, and I see the beginning of their roots. Squirrels planted them in my yard in the fall, and the nuts that weren’t eaten begin to grow. They grow because they are connected to what nourishes them. They’re planted in the soil, and they receive water and nutrients. When they are connected to what makes life possible, they grow–even in places where I would rather they didn’t.
God keeps the church, sustains it, and nourishes us. Are we seeking after that nourishment? Do we connect ourselves to what will feed us? There are so many ways to do this, and we will get to celebrate one of them together in just a few moments when we gather around the Lord’s table. This morning, as we prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper, let’s ask God to nourish both our bodies and our spirits. As we eat in a very literal way, let us ask God to open us up to feast in a spiritual way, too. May God open our eyes to these beautiful truths: that God made the church, God loves the church, and God keeps the church–and God made, loves, and keeps each and every one of us too. May God help us to see ourselves in that little hazelnut in the palm of Julian of Norwich, and in so doing see the marvelousness of God’s love and care for us.