The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 9, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Welcome back on this Welcome Back Sunday – after the lean months of summer church attendance, now with the promise of a BBQ we’ve got more of you here at last. Today we come together, after time away and time spent on summer things, to reconnect with one another. Today we welcome people who haven’t been here before, to come and see what this community is like. Today we celebrate the family that is St. Michael’s.
I use that word family intentionally. For some of you, it might feel right, a lovely word to use to describe how you feel about your church community. For others, it might make you squirm, a word linked to an unhappy part of your life, or maybe just a word that smacks of insincerity. I get that. But give it a try. This is what the body of Christ could be – Family with a capital F, the family of God.
A few weeks ago our family with a small f was part of a brand new Family Camp. Some of you know that for several years Jim and I were leaders of a Family Camp in California, but this year we felt it was time to start something new here with people in and around New York. We found others interested in trying it out, and together 30-some of us gathered at Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut to live an experiment in family. We were all ages, from 4 months to 70-something, the babies regularly passed around to people other than their parents. In worship every day we told stories from scripture about family: the beginnings of God’s family with Abraham and Sarah; Ruth and Naomi choosing each other as family; the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau; Jesus calling together his motley assortment of disciples. And we began to feel like family with a capital F – and we were clear that we didn’t want that family to end with us on our last day together, but to grow beyond us, something we could bring back to the rest of our lives.
Now over the course of six days we didn’t get to the more challenging parts of being family, of course. The toddlers let their feelings be known, but the rest of us mostly stayed on our best behavior. And we all chose to be there together, unlike family that just happens, like it or not. Given more time, I’m sure we would have found ways to get on each others’ nerves. Because real family is like that – it’s not just made up of likeminded simpatico people, but a whole mix of temperaments and agendas. And family with a capital F is even more so. God’s family includes everyone.
The letter of James is getting at that in today’s reading, reminding the community of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Clearly James’ community isn’t really living that love out very well. You can hear the indignation in his voice as he writes to this church: Are you seriously treating rich people and poor people differently in your church? Do you think this is a Christian way to be? How dare you treat someone badly because they aren’t wealthy and powerful? How dare you let those worldly distinctions into your community? It’s pretty clear what James is saying: everyone is equally a part of the church, everyone is part of the family.
And in the gospel, it’s Jesus himself who learns he needs to widen his definition of family. The Syrophoenician woman, a Canaanite, a non-Jew Gentile, asks him for healing, but he insults her and turns away. She persists, saying to him, you’re here for me too, you know. You’re not just here for your people – you’re here for everybody. And Jesus realizes that she’s right, and changes his tone. Of course we wonder, does Jesus really need to be told this? Is this a turning point in his mission, Messiah not just to the Jews but to all people? Or is Mark using this story to teach the early church that the church includes everyone? We don’t really know. But again, the message is clear: all are welcome, all lay claim to God’s love through Jesus.
All of this seems to be hard for us to live out, however. Churches can sometimes be something like what James describes – places where we talk to the people who are like us and walk past the people who aren’t. It can sometimes feel to newcomers like there’s an outside and an inside: the disciples are gathered together at the table, and there’s not room for anyone else – the message that Jesus’ disciples sometimes gave to people like the Syrophoenician woman. Church can also be something like an airport, where lots of different people congregate for a while and then disperse without ever making real community. But that’s not the family that God intends – that’s not the body of Christ, intimately involved and dependent upon one another. The family God intends is one where everyone belongs; where everyone is needed; where everyone is part of the whole.
This year at St. Michael’s we have the chance to try out what that real family could be like. In this place, we care for each other. We come from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of histories, yet we make community together. We have to be intentional about how we do it, of course. We’re careful about our policies and trainings for children’s safety – but really our call is for all of us raise our children together. We use iVolunteer and lots of announcements to get everyone involved in the potluck – but really we all bring something to the table to feed one another. Certain people are designated clergy or lay ministers who listen and care for others – but really we all are called to live out loving ministry with one another. We do this because we’re family here.
Later this fall we’ll invite everyone into conversations about what God is calling us to become here at St Michael’s. We will ask and answer a few questions about what this place is for, and how the Spirit is at work. We will get a sense, I think, of what St. Michael’s particular call is, our particular part to play in the larger family of God. But even more important in my mind is that we will talk to one another – not just about the weather or the schools or the latest outrage in Washington, but about our souls and spirits and where God is in our lives. We will hear each other in different ways, people who don’t know each other yet and people who thought they did, learning about one another. And my hope is that in doing so, we will draw closer as family, learn to live even more as family, warts and all.
Here’s a chance to be God’s family, for a little while each time we gather together here at church. And here’s a chance to practice being that family in the rest of our lives too. Here we can remind ourselves to widen our circle, to reach out beyond ourselves to others around us – and then to take that gift and offer it to people in our workplaces, in our schools, in all our interactions each day. God’s embrace is wide enough to take in every possible kind of person. Our job is to show the inclusive, redeeming, empowering love of God in Christ, to live that out right here in this community, and beyond. The world needs family with a capital F. May we always widen our circle, and be family with all God’s children.