22 July 2012

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost - "A Family of Faith"

Preaching Text:

Ephesians 2:11-22 11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

It's been a great week to be a member of the ELCA, particularly if you're at all familiar with social media like Twitter and Facebook. The nine kids we blessed last Sunday are now coming home from New Orleans, where they've been, frankly, a disrupting, overwhelming presence all week. Kristin's going to take this time next week to tell you more about their experience. I'm going to take this time together to set up what she'll be talking about next week. I think. :-)

The theme for this gathering is "Citizens with the Saints," which you'll recognize from the Ephesians reading for today. I'm sure that's not a coincidence. It works for New Orleans, not just as an homage to the football team, but to the long religious history of the city and its people. Besides, if we listen closely to Ephesians, we see that the writer is beginning to re-define what it means to be a saint.

The point the writer is making is obvious: the Gentiles in Ephesus who were once cut off from the family of God have been adopted, brought in, made members of the household with all its rights and responsibilities. Quite an argument being made here. A new reality was beginning to reveal itself in the church of that day. The outcasts have been brought into the fold. The aliens have been made part of the family.

One of the reasons I love the week of the ELCA National Youth Gathering is you get to see the wide variety of people who make up our church. You see people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tall, blunt, tattooed recovering alcoholic who might be leading one of the most interesting urban worship centers in our church. You see Mark Hanson, our Presiding Bishop, who Paul might describe as "a Lutheran among Lutherans," trying out his new Twitter account with 38,000 kids watching his every move. Kids from Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, which still boast the densest Lutherans in the country, meet Lutherans from California, Florida, Mississippi, New York, Washington and places unknown. Lutherans who look, speak and act exactly like any kid you'd see on the street in Story City, and Lutherans who would stand out as much here as any of us would if we visited them where they live. This year, the ever-growing presence of social media means you can watch it happen instead of waiting to hear about it when our kids get home. It shows us, again, what a big family we really are.

But you knew that already, didn't you. You'd just forgotten it because, let's face it, it's easy to let our vision stay small in one parish in one town in the center of the central U.S. Besides that, we've got enough to deal with in our own family of faith here, don't we? That's the problem with families, isn't it? From the outside, from the wide perspective, it's easy to see how we all belong to each other. We're tall, or short; blondes or redheads. We can sing, or dance, or play sports. When we get together for those big family events, like weddings or baptisms or anniversaries, graduations, funerals, we all laugh and check in with each other and do our best to get along well. But get inside our families, to where the secrets lie, and do you know what? We've got an awful lot of stuff to deal with - every last one of us. Maybe Dad's got a temper that needs work, or Mom is taking out her job frustrations on her kids. It could be kids getting bad grades, or a grandparent falling under the power of Alzheimer's. Whatever it is, it's hard to see those things when we're getting together for big family stuff. Coming together with widespread family is usually a cause for celebration: in those moments, being together overwhelms the struggles and sins that dog us when we're back home.

 How would you define a "good" family? Healthy marriage? Good kids? Lots of laughter and love? I think those things are important, but I would argue that they're byproducts of something much more important: loving faithfulness. In the case of our real-life families, I would argue that the trust and peace that comes with knowing you are loved and will be loved no matter what makes everything else possible. I would also argue that the one thing all families have in common is this: we all try to love each other as best as we can, and we all find a lot of ways to fall short.

What happened in New Orleans this week was a big family get-together. But here at St. Petri, we live at home. We are a family of faith. We know the ways we've fallen short of being a good family. We know we've tried, and failed, and tried again. We are a family of faith. Some of us have been here for generations. Some of us are, as Ephesians says, adopted into this family and now members of the household. We are a family of faith. That means we're in the thick of things. We know what's in the closets (for the most part). And, I believe, we are called to the same loving faithfulness with each other as we are in our biological and sociological families at home. We are called to love and be loved no matter what. We are a family of faith.

What got me thinking along these lines was something Professor Sally Brown of Princeton University wrote about this reading from Ephesians: "The new household of God is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sundays -- a weekly "time out" in which we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we scrupulously avoid the rest of the time. The church is the daring practice of a new politics -- a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ's cross. We trust this power, letting it undermine every wall, until we are "built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (verse 22)."

Most of our families are bound together by blood: we are parents and children and brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents because we share the same bloodline. Folks, this family of faith is also bound together by blood, but it isn't our blood that does it. "But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Jesus has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity..."

Jesus himself is our peace and the bond that makes us a family of faith. Not our constitution or our building. Not the organ or the praise band. Not the pastor and not the Council president. Not VBS, or quilters, or the choir, or confirmation. We aren't a family of faith because we've got people with tattoos sitting next to people who don't, although that's a good sign. We aren't a family of faith because we've welcomed new members and put their gifts to good use, although that's a good sign, too. We are a family of faith because Jesus has made us a family of faith.

If you've been following the news from New Orleans this week, you know that the gathering going on in the LutherDome has been a pretty fantastic celebration of our family. But now all those kids are heading back home, coming back to their families of faith. They're coming home to the local family God has planted where they live, the family that is one in Christ and gathered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God's abundant grace and love. They are the saints come marching in, and we are the citizens welcoming them home. Thanks be to God that we have this family of faith - and help us, good and gracious Lord, to love one another in our family as you have loved us. Amen.

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