Sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2012
This sermon is intended to complement last Sunday’s sermon: “All Dressed up with Nowhere to Go.” One describes where the Church is, the other casts a vision of where the Church can go.
Earlier this week, I came across a letter from a father about his son. It went something like this:
“Dearest cousin, I had hoped to write you with happier news of my family. Unfortunately, our son is in a bad way. This is shocking to me and his mother, as he had been such a wonderful child. He graduated from the best schools and then entered the military. After a distinguished record in the armed services, he had gotten out and seemed to have a promising career ahead of him in the government. But then something went terribly wrong. He has joined some strange and foreign eastern religious sect. Now he doesn’t want to have anything to do with us because we are people of ‘the world.’ We had thought that our son would marry a nice girl through all the family connections we had for him. But now, he claims that these funny religious people are his true family and that if he marries, if he marries!, then it will have to be a girl from these new friends of his. Needless to say, his mother and I are devastated. We simply do not know what to do.”
This letter, as surprising as it may be, is very old. It’s not about somebody running off to join the Hare Krishnas or the Moonies. It’s not about a young man experimenting with Buddhism or Sufism. This letter is from the early days of the Church. This letter is from a Roman senator whose son has just become a Christian.
This letter does a better job that I could ever do of summing up Jesus’ message in our gospel passage this morning. Jesus essentially tells off his mother and brothers. They are nobody to him. In Mark’s brief recap of this event, Jesus seems to care very little for his blood family. His true family, the family that actually makes a difference in his life, are those who do the will of God.
Perhaps we should call today “Christian Family Values Sunday.” We have to be careful to label them so, because Christian family values are very, very different from our generic idea of “American family values.” In American family values, the family comes first. It is of utmost importance, the absolute priority in life. Anything and everything else takes a backseat to family life. One of the greatest praises one can say at somebody’s fuenral is, “Well, he was a real family man.” Or, “she loved her family dearly.”
The problem with American family values is that they are so nice. Even if you hate grandma’s Christmas fruit cake, you grin, bear, and eat the fruit cake. Even if you couldn’t stand yet another tedious family reunion, you dutifully go with your potato salad, and then try to duck out just as soon as is socially respectable. In American family values, one must be committed to your family, because that’s the nice thing to do.
You will hear me say this over and over again: Christianity is not about being nice. The young man referred to in the letter I read was not very nice. He hurt his parents deeply when he ran off to be baptized and worship the Lord Jesus. And Jesus himself was not nice, telling off his mother and his brothers. Christianity is not about being nice. Our life of worship and prayer isn’t like eating grandma’s fruit cake because it’s the nice thing to do. A life of prayer and of worship and of following Jesus requires honesty, sometimes in its most brutal forms.
So allow me to be honest for a few minutes, and maybe not all that nice, and describe what the Church of God, what the brothers and sisters of our Lord, should look like.
First and foremost, the Church is not about us. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury summed it up well, “The Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” [Let me say that again,] “The Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The Church is not only a place to meet on Sunday mornings, to swap a story with a friend, and to guzzle coffee from styrofoam cups – the Church is a body of people with a mission. And our mission is to make Christ known. We are to make Christ known to whoever we encounter. Family and friends, of course, but also to strangers, and yes, even to the hollowed out meth addicts that panhandle under I-45.
And as we are making Christ known, we come to know Christ better. And this is probably the hardest part of all, because we don’t know everything. As a church and as individuals, we have to engage in disciplined spiritual practices in order to know Christ better. We need to be constantly molded into God’s image. Or, as Jesus says, those who do the will of God. None of us do God’s will all the time, and learning to do the will of God does not come in a flash or in a bolt from the blue, but through a life of constant and repeated practice. Even I – yes even the priest, with all my funny church clothes and framed certificates on my wall – have to work on my relationship with God. I have to pray every day. I have to read the Bible every day. I have to reach out of my comfort zone and meet with the poor. These things are not easy, in fact, I fail to do them often.
But grace abounds. Grace abounds right here, in this very building. And this is the final, brutally honest part about being the church. We need to be here. We need to worship. We need to hear God’s word together. We need to run together every Sunday for asylum, to remind each other that we’re not crazy for saying that God lived among us, died on a cross, and rose again. As Christians, as brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus, we need the Church – we need one another. Coming together to worship on Sunday mornings is not a nice thing to do; it is the thing that we have to do.
Because in the end, our blood relationships will fall apart. At some point, you probably won’t be able to take another bite of grandma’s fruit cake. Eventually, you’ll snap, and you will quietly say that you won’t attend next year’s family reunion. The family blood isn’t strong enough to heal resentment.
In the Church, we recognize up front that we are not going to agree on everything. Yet it’s different, because we too are bound by blood, but a different blood; the very blood of Christ that we drink every Sunday morning. This blood is stronger than the blood shared between a mother and her son, between a father and his daughter. The wine that is shared around this table is more than just a “nice” symbol of our unity. This wine is the very thing that binds of us together. Even if we cannot stand one another, even if she’s a liberal and he’s a conservative, even he’s rich and she’s poor, even if old Mr. So and So has said some really nasty things – we are bound by blood of Christ. In the Church, we love one another so much, that are free to be different and to dislike one another.
In many respects, my sermon last week was a description of where the Church is right now. Today I am offering you a vision of where the Church on a whole, and Holy Comforter in particular, can go. This is and will become be a Christian community that understands the problems of north Houston, and can address those issues in holy and Christ-centered ways. This is and will become a Church dedicated to forming ourselves into better disciples and doing the will of God. This is and will become a Church that puts away its superficial differences and gets to the heart of the matter – that we are bound by the blood of Christ. This is and will become a Church that God cures of chronic niceness, and is rather a Church that is honest and truthful and gracious – a Church that practices Christian family values.
Christianity is a grand adventure, an adventure fraught with adversity and seasoned with grace. But we are not alone. Millions have gone before, we trust that millions will come after, and right now, we have our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus. Holy Comforter is and will become the Church.