Jesus says “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
How does this relate to us, and why does it matter?
Please join me in prayer…
Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message. May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of the Family of God. Amen.
I lived in the Tidewater area of Virginia about 20 years ago. Many of my co-workers, friends and neighbors were part of military families, mostly Navy. One September, a friend who served on board the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Enterprise invited me to be his guest for the ship’s “Friends and Family Day Cruise”. Now, how could I refuse such an invitation to see the Enterprise? I accepted!
This was an event where the ship’s officers and crew could invite those close to them to come on board for a short cruise that included tours, a picnic, and some presentations and demonstrations. Towards the end of that afternoon we ran into a co-worker of mine: a wonderful and godly black woman named Veronica. She told us her husband was an officer on the ship.
While there, we really wanted to check out the ship’s control tower, that big “Island” on one side of the flight deck where the bridge is. But, one of the rules was that only officers and their families were allowed up there. Veronica assured us that going up would be no problem…
Wondering how she could do this (since we clearly weren’t family), Sean and I timidly followed her up the ladders. Almost immediately, we were confronted by two very stern guards, holding their rifles at the ready. They said, “Sorry Ma’m, only officers and their families are allowed above Deck O-3.”
We were VERY intimidated – except for Veronica, who promptly announced in a loud and firm voice. “I am Mrs. Veronica Carpenter. My husband is Lieutenant Commander Carpenter, do you know who he is?” They saluted and said “Yes Ma’am!” And then she said “These two men here are my family. We’re going up. Any questions?”
Both men promptly said “No Ma’am!” saluted and stepped aside, setting the butt ends of their rifles back down on the ground. So, on up we went – one small, slender, very confident and dynamic black woman leading two very nervous white guys, one of whom had red hair.
On our way up, we stopped on the bridge to watch as the ship passed through the strait. Veronica pointed out her husband, who was standing right behind the Commander’s shoulder. She whispered to us that he was the second highest ranked officer on the ship. No wonder those two enlisted men were so respectful and accommodating!
We continued on our way up to the top. I think the control tower had ten levels, so when we stood on the top, we were around a hundred feet above the flight deck. We stayed there a while, watching the people and planes far below; enjoying the view as the ship returned to Hampton Roads.
As I followed Veronica up and then back down those ladders, I reflected on a sermon once given by Dr. E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The late Dr. Hill was a well known Evangelist and Author. He was a powerful voice on a wide range of issues, including social and economic justice, Christian unity, and racial equality. He is perhaps best known for a mission he established in South Central LA, The Lord’s Kitchen, which provided an average of more than 2000 meals a day to the needy for many years. He worked closely with many well known Christian leaders, including men like Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham.
Now admittedly, an Evangelical Preacher like Dr. Hill is not the type of minister we see much of here in New England. And, I’m certainly not going to try and emulate his style, nor even repeat his words from that sermon. But, what is important is that the concept he shared, which was so central to his own faith, is no different than what we believe here at ARK.
And that concept is that we are all part of the same family: Young, Old, Male, Female, Transgender, Black, White, Democrat, Republican, Gay, Straight, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get to choose who is part of your family, they just are. You love them just as they are, because they are your family, no matter how quirky they may be, and not because they meet some sort of test for membership.
(…Although, my son has taken to telling us “You’re fired from the family!” whenever he doesn’t get his way. We reply that we’re going to love him anyway, whether he likes it or not; that he can’t decide who is part of the family, and that sometimes being part of the family means you really do have to pick up your toys or eat Broccoli.)
The Body of Christ is exactly this. We are linked together in many ways, and made one through our unity in Christ, who is the firstborn among all the children of God. We are part of that unity that is God’s family by virtue of the Holy Spirit.
And so, Jesus says right here in Matthew that we are part of his family; we are his brothers AND sisters AND mother. We are, through Jesus, part of the Family of God.
And so Dr. Hill envisioned Jesus as being at the head of the procession, just like Veronica was for us that day – saying “Come on, let’s go!” And, whenever there is any roadblock, anything that could stop us in our journey, he steps up and says “No, wait – they’re part of my family, they’re coming with me! Any questions?” (There never are…)
It doesn’t matter what color our hair is, nor our skin, nor where we were born, nor whom we love, nor what school we went to, nor what kind of car we drive. We are all family. We didn’t choose each other. We are Family because God chose us. We’re stuck with each other and are called to love each other, as any family is – even though we know all too well each other’s flaws, and though we certainly know what buttons to push to get a reaction. No matter how unsavory our family members are, they are still family.
The challenge then is not who should be part of our family – that choice is not ours. Nor is the challenge to decide if we are to love them – because the Bible says love all, no exceptions. The challenge is how to love them, because they’re going to be climbing up that same ladder we’re on no matter what we do, Jesus made it so.
Now, let me take a moment to emphasize something important, and which I’ve preached upon before; and that is that some of our “family” are so toxic and even dangerous to us that we cannot – and should not – be in contact with them. That does not mean we can’t love them; it means that they don’t know how to love us, and may never learn – and they may not even want to learn.
So, the answer for how we are to love such people is to love them from a distance, looking to our faith to help us learn how to get past their flaws and the pain they’ve caused, so that we can see them as Christ does. So, if someone ever says that we must restore a broken relationship with them because it is in some way God’s will – then it is time to call on the Veronicas of this world: because our family members, those who really do know how to return our love, will defend us and protect us – just like our Brother Jesus will do, and as we are called to do for others.
But enough of the Evangelism and Pastoral Counseling: we here, all of us, are family. We take care of each other, because we know that’s how you treat those you love, just like how God treats us.
So, as the Presidential campaign season and rhetoric ramp up, and our erstwhile representatives continue doing the work we elected them to do (we hope), I ask that we remember that those who are expressing strong opinions one way or the other are, in fact, family – whether we want them to be or not. I certainly have more than a few family members and close friends with whom I avoid talking about politics and social justice – as I’m sure is true of all of us here. But, when I do muster the courage to do so, I often find, if I listen carefully, and if I talk less than I listen, that we have much more in common than not.
One day a very angry and offended young woman in a class with me in Seminary told me “But Allen, how can you listen to anything they say on [that issue]? You are encouraging them in their sin!”
She was speaking out of her pain. She was the target of a great deal of injustice because she was one of “those people” that “they” did not like. And, I understand and agree – such folks are toxic to her, as I’d described earlier. It would not be right for anyone to demand that she deal with them or forgive them. But, that does not mean that I cannot listen to them, to develop an understanding of why they say or do what they do, building a rapport with them so that I come to understand what lies behind what they say, and so that they come to understand (I hope) what I am saying, and why, even though they will probably continue to disagree. It’s not agreement we need on a particular position (especially not an agreement on our terms), but rather an understanding of why others’ positions make sense to them. Loving isn’t a game where we win others to our side, but rather the task of walking together to make the Unity of Christ a tangible reality in all of our lives.
More often than not, bitter resistance arises mainly because people do not feel they are being heard. This may be why Jesus spent so much time among the poor and disenfranchised – he was listening to those of our family who are not heard. He was neither condemning nor endorsing their sins. He did not judge. He listened, and offered compassion and healing in many different ways.
So, in closing, I ask that whenever we get into an argument-with or are hurt-by one of our fellow members of the family of God – let’s step back for a moment and listen. Let’s take some time to understand what they are really saying – and why – instead of quickly reacting to our guess at the possible motivation behind what they say or do. In other words, I ask that we affirm that they are part of our family by listening to what they have to say, by loving them, by respecting them, and by inviting them to climb the ladder along with us, or just walking with them for a time on their own journey.
We don’t pick who our family is, but we are caretakers of the love that God has placed in us for them, and so we are responsible to God for how, or if, we share that love with our fellow members of the family of God.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, September 27, 2015
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)