June 17, 2012
William G. Carter
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to Jesus and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Happy birthday, church! We will be offering that greeting many times this year. In coming weeks, we will welcome some alumni. A few will preach, a few will simply be here. After a spring season full of special events, we continue on to the big birthday party, scheduled for World Communion, October 7. Plan on a big party with one hundred candles on the cake!
So this summer, I thought I would devote some sermons to reflect on the ways things have changed. We are not the same people we were one hundred years ago. Oh, I know – some of you look the same. A few of you may even think the same. But this same old church is not the same.
Back in college philosophy class, the professor introduced us to Heroclitus. Ever hear of him? He lived in the city of Ephesus, some five hundred year before Jesus. Little is known about Heroclitus, outside of the wise sayings that his students passed along. You can summarize his wisdom in two ways.
First of all, there is a wisdom and an order to the universe. He gave it the name “Logos,” which we often translate as “word.” As in the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” Six hundred years before those words appeared in the New Testament, the philosopher Heraclitus declared there is a Logos at the center of all things.
The second piece of wisdom is that everything changes. The one constant in the universe is change. It was Heroclitus who first announced, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” The river keeps moving along. As Heroclitus put it, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “Nothing endures but change.”
So that’s what I am thinking about. A hundred years later, this is not the same church, for this is not the same world.
Today we consider the family. The family. Take that as a snapshot of your household, or a glimpse of the church and its household.
Twenty-two years ago, when I was doing my homework and trying to decide if I wanted to come to this community, I spoke with my friend Bob London. Bob said, “I’ve never seen a church like the Clarks Summit church. In every pew, there is a Mom and a Dad and a couple of kids.” I asked if there were any divorces, and Bob replied, “A few but not very many. Everybody comes to church.”
To my astonishment, he was right. Did you see the picture on the front of the worship bulletin? See if you can find it. Mom and Dad, Buffy and Sissy, and Junior in his baseball cap, with Bowser the dog. OK, look up and down your pew – let’s see a show of hands. How many of you came to church today with an gathering like that?
While we are doing the survey, how many of you came today by yourself? How many of you have somebody in your roof who does not go to church on any regular basis? How many of you have children of any age who do not attend a church? Twenty-two years ago, you may have been in the minority. The family connection to most American churches has changed. Church has become optional in a lot of families, and there is no sign that this is going to change any time soon.
In this congregation, there was a season when we resembled the picture on the bulletin cover. It ended around 1999. To be truthful, it probably ended some time before that. We used to go through the membership rolls and identify young adults who went off to college and never came back. They stayed on the official lists. Sometimes the parents made contributions on their behalf just to keep them on the list. They weren’t going anywhere, so we would keep them on the list here.
They would call from Philadelphia and Boston and ask if I would preside over their weddings. It would be a stretch to get them back for a little bit of premarital counseling, and if they could come, they often squeezed in some conversations with florists, caterers, and photographers. The minister was one more appointment to tick on the to-do list. And I would ask, “So where are you going to worship in Philadelphia or Boston?” They would smile, and the bride would say, “Oh Reverend, we wish there was a church like this one! We can’t find one.” I would ask where they had looked and they quickly changed the subject.
People don’t go to church like they once did. Have you noticed that? And if they do, they often don’t stay with it. In the statistics available to me, the percentage of church-goers in our zip code is about twenty-two percent. We can grumble about that, or wish to turn back the clock, but that is the reality.
Some of the change is because the family unit has changed. I grew up in a family where there were no alternatives on Sunday morning. Two parents and four children went to church. Nobody was allowed to skip. When I spend some time with my Dad this afternoon, I will remind him of how he croaked out the words to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” To keep us quiet, he would pull out a roll of wintergreen Lifesavers and pass it down the pew. The calmest child was selected to put the offering envelope in the plate. And we talked about the sermon over Sunday dinner.
Does any family do this anymore? I hope so, but I don’t know. The assumption was that the family would worship together. The family would train the children to pray. The family would teach the hymns by singing them. The family would put the church at the center of its life.
This still happens. I see it, and I applaud it. But it often happens differently. The times have changed.
Janet Fishburn taught Church History at Drew University Theological School. She did extensive research on the shape of American families, particularly as it related to church attendance and the Christian faith. One of the things she realized that the notion of a “family pew” was often a blip or an exception, not always the reality.
Up until the Second World War, many wives worked. It was the prosperity of the 1950’s and the twenty years following that allowed many Moms to stay home. The standard that the popular culture drew upon was the Victorian era, the 1890’s, when the wealthiest women stayed home and wore dresses with lace. Along came June Cleaver, Wilma Flintstone, and Edith Bunker, and the middle class got to do that for a while, too. But then prices went up and many women went back to work. Those who didn’t work were very fortunate.
The reality these days is that a lot of parents work, if they have the jobs. The mortgages are higher, the finances are tighter, and the family is generally under a lot more stress. In a town like this, where is the affordable housing? Are there any starter homes? Can a young family make ends meet on one income? I suppose it depends on the income.
When Sunday morning comes, and people are tired from working all week, it’s tempting to stay home and get some rest. I understand that. When it comes to paying attention to God, when it comes to putting God first in our lives, the world is usually pushes us in the opposite direction. That is the human condition, after all. We resist the love of God and the work that it sets before us. Sometimes it runs counter to the expectations of our own families.
That was the situation for Jesus. In the story we heard from the Gospel of Mark, he is busy proclaiming the power of God. He is hip-deep in doing God’s work – spending time with the sick, speaking hope to the hopeless, forgiving the unforgiveable. His family hears about it, and they are concerned. A little bit of love and compassion is fine, but he is going overboard.
What’s more, they hear that Jesus is taking on all kinds of ugliness. If somebody is talking out of their mind, Jesus talks back. If they are stuck in destructive behavior, he intervenes. If they are poisoned by illness, he reaches across the invisible divide, risks infection, and makes them well. Clearly he is pushing himself beyond all safety. And the word spreads that he is out of his mind, that he has slipped over the edge. Jesus is obsessive about doing God’s work. It makes his own family nervous. They come to take him away.
Reminds me of the old man who lived in the alley behind my first church. Walter was a member of that church, but he didn’t show up much. Christmas and Easter, maybe. That was it. His grandson moved in with him and he had mixed feelings about the kid. Apparently the grandson had gotten involved in his girlfriend’s church. Now he interrupted supper to offer a prayer. He spent his spare time reading his Bible and telling his grandfather what he read. He gave a lot of money to his church, and loved going to prayer meetings and Bible studies.
I was taking something out to the garage one night, when Grandfather Walter met me at the back fence. “I believe in religion, and all that,” he said, “but Michael is going off the deep end. Reverend, can you talk some sense into him?”
I smiled at Walter and said, “Absolutely not,” and went back inside.
Jesus’ own family tried to get him to stop. They wanted to restrain him from taking God so seriously. They stood outside the house and called to him. “Come on, Honey. Enough of that healing and teaching and making a difference in the world. It’s time to come back to your senses.”
The people in the crowd said, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside. They are calling for you. They want you to cool it. They want you to tone it down. They want you to take a nominal, part-time, optional, soft-edged view of God.”
You heard what he said: “Who are my mother and brothers?” Then pointing to those gathered around him, he said, “Here they are! Right here, around me. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
It was a shocking thing for him to say. It was shocking enough that the church remembered his words and kept them in a book. The Gospel is not about kinship. It’s about God. It’s about doing the work of God, and not merely giving it lip service. It is about committing yourself like Jesus to loving the unlovable, to forgiving the unforgiveable, to healing the impossible. It’s all about proclaiming the gracious rule of God over all of life.
That comes first, and blessed are those who live the love of God. You are the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Sometimes his brothers and sisters are actually related to one another. They show God’s love in the ways that they lay down their lives for the benefit of their relatives. Parents make sacrifices for their kids, and they are to be honored for this. Stop today and offer a word of thanks for every gift and grace.
And sometimes kids make sacrifices for their parents, too. They interrupt their schedules to spend time with the people they love. They dedicate themselves to be sure that Mom and Dad are always cared for. This is the shape of love in this world, that father and mother are honored and taken seriously, just as God commands.
And sometimes we discover the family of God is a lot bigger than we ever thought. We welcome a precious new child through baptism today, introducing him to the many aunts and uncles who pledge to tell him about Jesus and call forth his own abilities to love and serve our God.
And we send off some servants today, as well. Our youth and their advisors will repair homes in the Adirondacks, showing the love of God and not merely talking about it.
Perhaps this is what God had in mind for all of us, anyway. Not merely to stay entangled with our relatives, but to serve a much larger family than the one we were born into.
Who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? They are the ones who live the love of God. They are the ones that Jesus loves, the ones he loves to death. Your name is on his family tree.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.