All In The Family

On August 6, we commissioned our Youth Mission Team for a week of service at the Cherokee Mission in partnership with the Cherokee United Methodist Church in the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  Our texts for the day included Luke 8:19-21 and Ephesians 2, selected verses.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

 

In an hour and a half or so, a group of young people will climb into the vans and drive 521 miles south to the little town of Cherokee, North Carolina, where we’ll engage in our mission service and learning trip for this year. For some folks, this is “old hat” – heck, a few of these travelers have been halfway around the world with me at one point or another. But for at least four of us, this is the first Mission Trip with the Crafton Heights church. I would suspect that for most of the group, this is the first visit to a Native American Community. I would suspect that there are some nervous questions popping up in some young minds:

  • What will we be doing?
  • What are these people like?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I don’t know?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I DO know?
  • What will there be to eat?

With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit about a time when my mind was filled with questions like that. In January of 2013, I was privileged to take part in a trip to the newest country in the world – South Sudan. Three of us from the USA and three from Malawi were going there to talk about the possibility of our churches becoming partners in ministry and mission. Not only had I never been to South Sudan before, I never knew anyone who had. When I arrived, we went to our guest house and I was told that the next morning I’d be preaching at a local church that would worship using Arabic as well as the language of the Nuer people.

Some of you might be surprised to hear this, but I get really, really nervous when I have to preach to people I don’t know. I wonder what I could possibly say that would make any sense to them. I don’t know their lives, their problems, their dreams… and, in this case, I didn’t know their language. Well, my friend Madut agreed to translate for me, and I told them a story. Listen:

My grandfather lived in a tiny town in Western New York. He had two sisters. Aunt Marian and her husband, Uncle Wilson, lived in a small house in town with their children. Would you believe me if I told you that they had 21 children? Two of them died in infancy, but nineteen survived. 21 people in one small house! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met a few of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them at all.

Jesus’ True Family, Anne C Brink, contemporary. Used by permission of the artist. http://www.annecbrink.com/index.html

When Aunt Marian died, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered. In fact, the obituary listed all of her descendants, and then in the place where the community is usually invited to “calling hours”, it said, “blood relatives only”. The Funeral Home was not big enough for her family and her friends. I got to town and I ate breakfast in the local diner, and I mentioned that I was a relative of Aunt Marian’s, in town for the funeral. At another table, a man got a look of surprise on his face and said, “You’re in her family? Really? Me too!” As I wandered through that little town all day, every time I turned around, I found myself bumping into relatives that I never knew I had.

Of course, that’s been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. I show up in town, and find my way to a restaurant or a church, and every single day I run into people who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas… We are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

The Apostle Paul lived for a while in the little town of Ephesus. While he was there, he started a church. Things didn’t always go well for that church, and in fact by the time he got around to writing them several years after he’d moved away, they were bickering and feuding amongst themselves. He had to remind them that they were all one family because of what Jesus Christ has done. They hadn’t come from the same place, of course; they didn’t speak the same languages or know the same stories – but everybody at the church in Ephesus was being built into the same family as the people in Rome, or Jerusalem, or anywhere else that God was working in the world.

My grandfather had another sister: my great-Aunt Mae. She and her husband, Uncle Glenn lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. When my parents dragged me into her presence as a child, she never seemed particularly happy to see me. However, once I was grown, if I came through town town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry so much the time, and I felt like there was nothing I could do that would make her happy..

Fortunately for me, my Aunt Mae lived to be an old woman, and as I matured, I came to see things a little differently. The more I got to know her, the more I understood that she wasn’t really mad at me or any of the other people around her. If she was angry, she was mad at the world, frustrated with God, or disappointed in herself… because she never had any children. Here her sister had 21 kids, for crying out loud, all crammed into that tiny house – and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

This learning leads me to my second point: just as I did not understand the pain that my Aunt Mae may have had, there are many, many people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. We’re going to travel to Cherokee, North Carolina. What do those folks worry about? What are they afraid of? What makes them really, really happy? If we’re being honest, we have to say that most of us have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. So we’ll drive down there and hang out with them for a while.

Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to someone in my family who is aching or who is rejoicing and ask our Father to bring the thing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do but to show up and care.

So here is what happened next: as my Aunt Mae got close to the end of her life, she made me promise that I would preach her funeral. By that time I had learned that I never said “no” to Aunt Mae! When she died, every one of Aunt Marian’s surviving children showed up at the church. I can still picture them, all in the back left section of the church. At one point, I invited the congregation to share a word of testimony about the ways that Mae’s life had affected them.

One by one, Aunt Marian’s children stood up and said things like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the work of the farm: the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them. And she loved them. And they loved her. It was my deep and abiding privilege to be able to hear them tell stories about the way that our Aunt Mae showed them love.

So this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return: It seems to me that what my family has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other.

When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” When we come face to face with the Lord, it doesn’t seem as though there will be a test on doctrine, or church history, or political correctness. I think he’ll ask us, “Do you love me? Do you know I love you? And Have you followed me in my love for the rest of the family?”

Whether you are going on a mission trip to a new place with people you don’t know or not, know this, beloved:

Your family is bigger than you can ever imagine it being. We are limited by time and space and experience, but we can and will transcend those limits, sooner or later. You don’t know everyone in your family, and you won’t immediately recognize them. That beautiful blonde girl? That gay couple? That refugee who has crept through mud and muck? That kid who smells bad, or the guy who doesn’t look like you? Who are you to say that they’re not family? Just because you don’t recognize them? And when you do recognize them, you might not like them that much. That’s ok.

The different members of your family have been hurt in ways that you can’t see, and they have experienced pain that you don’t know about, and they hope for things of which you cannot conceive. Their experience may lead them to treat you in ways that rub you the wrong way. That’s ok. It is their hurt, their pain, their hope. You can’t take it away from them, or get them past it. And Jesus does not expect you to do any of that.

What Jesus does seem to expect, however, is that you treat them with love. To do your best to remind them of the fact that we are in the same family, and to share kindness and grace as best you can. When you are out and about with your family, remember to ask them to put up with you when you are falling short, and to extend to them that same courtesy when you can tell that it’s not their best day.

A long time ago, we had a program here at the church called “Kids Klub.” As scores of young people came in and out of this building for crafts and music and recreation, we had only one rule: “I am a child of God – please treat me that way.”[1]

Whether you’re heading to North Carolina this afternoon, Malawi later this month, or just going to stop by Giant Eagle on the way home, it’s good advice. Remember who you are. And remember who you’ll be meeting. Treat each other like you know that. Thanks be to God for people who remember that we are, in fact, children of God. Amen.

[1] I learned this rule from Dale Milligan and the Logos program. For more information as to how that program currently operates, check out https://www.genonministries.org/pages/logos-all-about-logos

The Church on the Move: Antioch

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 4, we considered the little town of Antioch in Pisidia, and the controversy that took place when the Gentiles were included.  You can read about it in Acts 13 (note that there are TWO Antiochs in this chapter).  

The women behind the registration table were staring at me as if I had come from outer space. Finally, the one in the middle regained her composure and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t catch your name. You would be…”

I simply pointed to the little nametag in front of her, and to my name on the list of those who had RSVP’d, and said “Him. That’s me. Rev. David Carver.”

She smiled, looked at the list again, at me, at the list, and finally, she slid the nametag toward me and said, “Of course, you’re Rev. Carver. The Secretary and other guests are down the hallway in the room on the left.”

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

Some weeks before, I had received an embossed envelope from the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. The then-Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, was going to have a series of meetings with inner-city pastors in an attempt to rally their support behind President Bush’s initiative called “No Child Left Behind.” The ornate invitation indicated that Secretary Paige was eager to meet with me and others of my station.

The meeting was scheduled for one of the downtown hotels, and there were all sorts of signs welcoming both Secretary Paige and the urban pastors. Finding the registration was easy. The four women behind the table, presumably volunteers from one of the congregations, were all African-American. And, as I said, they were all rather surprised to see me.

GeorgeWashingtonCarverWhen I went down the hall and into the conference room, I realized why they were so shocked. There were probably fifty people in the room, and forty-nine of them were men of color. Clearly, when the White House sent out the invitations, and they saw my name, they assumed that I was from the George Washington Carver branch of the family tree. And if you look in phone books, particularly in the southern part of our country, you’ll find that many of the Carvers are named Roosevelt, or Tyrone, or Otis – names that carry a certain ethnic implication. When lunch was served, Pastor Woodworth and myself were the only Caucasians in the room – a circumstance that was handled gracefully by everyone involved, even though it was clear that we were not the target demographic.

“What are you doing here?”

“Who let them in?”

We have all experienced that at some point or another, I suppose. Who is included in “we” and “us”, and what are we going to do about “them”?

The Covenant with Abram, by Michael Winters.  Used by permission of the artist.  For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Count the Stars, by Michael Winters. Used by permission of the artist. For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. Jesus saw himself as the unfolding of all that God had been doing since the beginning of the world. God had made the world to be beautiful and perfect, but sin interrupted that and brokenness and division seemed to reign. God steps in, all the way back in Genesis, and promises to straighten what has been twisted, and we read of how God, in Abram, called a people to himself. He does this, he says, so that all the people of the world might be blessed (Gen 12:3). These people who are called, whom we come to know as the Jews, are then shaped by a series of behaviors and practices as they continue to point to the promise of God’s blessing for all. And finally, two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “I am that blessing. I am that to which you have been pointing.”

Many of the people who had been longing for the fulfillment of the promise believed him. As we discussed last week, those first followers of Jesus became apostles, who were sent out to proclaim the good news of this promise and its fulfillment to those who had been waiting for it and to those who did not even know that a promise like that existed!

However, they soon discovered that some of those folks who were living lives that were shaped by certain behaviors and practices were more committed to the behaviors and practices than they were to the promise itself! For many people, “being faithful” was less a matter of holding to the promise, looking to God, and wanting to participate in what God was doing than it was a matter of what you wore, what you ate, and who you spent time with.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

The book of Acts is full of situations where someone shows up to a group of those who believed themselves to be called by God and said, “Hey! I have great news! I’m here to tell you how God has kept his promise!”, and the reply is, essentially, “Not wearing that you’re not! Not with those people, you’re not.”

Acts 13 is a description of how some people refused to hear the apostles’ message because it was far too inclusive for their tastes, even when the Old Testament is full of reminders that the promise is intended for all of creation and the call is to care for all people. And by the end of the chapter, which is our reading for this morning, we are confronted with a reality in which the Holy Spirit is alive and active and moving; a community through which joy and hope and love are flowing. It’s just that those things are not present in the community that for so long had been a steward of the promises of God.

In fact, the community of those who had been called by God was so hostile to the messengers that God’s Spirit had sent that they persecute the apostles, who wind up leaving town and shaking its dust from their feet.

I want to make sure that we point out that the people who persecuted the first Apostles were not bad people. The folks who filled the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia were decent, honest, God-fearing people.

They were people who for generations had been committed to preserving what was. They wanted to sustain the truth. They hoped to point to the promise.

And these good, loyal, stalwart people are suddenly confronted with a group of apostles who are more excited about dreaming of what could be than they were about conserving what was; they were more eager to share the truth than they were to sustain or steward it; and they said that they were called to carry the promise, not merely point to it.

Do you see the difficulty? The people who had lived in Pisidia for years were like a group of folks who owned a car that they kept in nice condition, and every now and then, if you cleaned yourself up right and asked nicely, they’d take you out for a little spin. But the Apostles came barging in talking about good news and grace in Jesus Christ were like the outspoken neighbors who didn’t just have the car, they tossed you the keys and invited you to go give it a whirl yourself, whenever you needed to.

And when those Apostles started talking to the Gentiles about the way that God’s blessing was available to them, well, that was too much. If we let them in, then how in the world are we going to keep control of where this is heading?

Yes, the folks in Antioch saw what was happening, and they acted fast. If they were going to preserve their habits, customs, and way of life, then these new folks were going to have to leave. They were pushing the boundaries a little – no, a lot – too far.

Last week, we spent time with the church in Jerusalem, and we saw that it was a church of survivors and witnesses – those who had lived through the ministry years with Jesus, and followed him, and been taught by him. In the days after the resurrection, that church became empowered and somehow changed from a group of tired, timid, deniers and betrayers into a force of bold, energetic, zealous missionaries.

EarlyChurchThat boldness got them into trouble, and some of their number were killed by the authorities, and the church then scattered. Some of those apostles wound up in a town called Antioch in Syria, an important city in the Roman Empire. The congregation in Antioch became a hub of early Christianity, and in fact was the church that really became known as the sending church – men and women like Paul and Barnabas and Priscilla and Aquila were empowered for ministry by that congregation. And some of those men and women found themselves in places like Antioch in Pisidia (just for point of reference, the difference between Syrian Antioch and Pisidian Antioch is like the difference between Washington, DC and Washington, PA – that is to say, a huge difference!). And it was in little, out-of-the-way places like Pisidian Antioch that the rubber met the road for the first Apostles. They had been emboldened, and they were sent, and then they told of what they knew. And the world was changed by the promise they carried – and shared.

It seems that there are several implications for the church in the 21st century. Chief among these, I’d suggest, is that we cannot be more in love with the way that we do things now than we are with Jesus.

We can’t love our music more than we love the One about whom and to whom we sing. We can’t love our clothing more than we love the One for whom we get dressed up. We can’t love our building more than we love the One to whom it is dedicated.

More than that, I cannot love my whiteness, my maleness, or my ideas about what it means to be a person who inhabits race and gender more than I love the One who created me in some degree of whiteness and maleness. I cannot be more committed to my wealth or my American-ness than I am to the One to whom I must render an account of how I used that wealth and citizenship in His service. Do you see? HE must come first, and my ideas and practices and habits and theories about Him, about me, about you, and about “them” must come afterward, and in the light of, HIM.

I understand – I really do – the conflict that filled the synagogue that day. Because while things aren’t perfect, I’m at least used to them. And I don’t like change. And I am a little afraid of if we do things differently, then we will lose meaning. But the promise itself is always more important than the things that we do that point to the promise.

Another implication for us is that we have got to remember that no one of us has a lock on the truth. We know our story, and we may know it well. But we only know our story – and we have got to learn the other’s. The way that God’s goodness and grace have come to me may not have much in common with the ways that they have come to you, and neither your experience nor mine may be of great use in helping that person over there to see God’s goodness and grace. Because, thankfully, God is God, and I am not. God has, and is, the truth. I can only point to it from my little corner of the balcony.

And if we remember to love Jesus more than we love our ideas about Jesus, and if we remember that we only know some of what there is to know, then we can be free to look for the fruit that is growing where the Spirit of God is present. Where is there joy? Where is there love? Where is there kindness, or truth, or justice, or hope? When we see those things, can we go to where they are and celebrate?

When we leave this worship today, can we commit to pointing to the promise in all of the ways that we know how – and trust that the promise is greater than our ability to understand or explain it?

“What are you doing here?” I got an invitation from the guest of honor. So did you. That’s all that matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.