Sermon notes: Expanding the family

Christ_preaching_before_a_crowd._Woodcut._Wellcome_V0034716_wikiSERMON NOTES, PROPER 5, YEAR B (June 7, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd)

Most of us, from time to time in our childhoods, tried to persuade our parents to let us have or do something because all the other kids had or did it.

Many parents respond to this with, “If all the other kids decided to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?” My father would make me name all of said other kids, who usually turned out to number a minority in the class, and who were not infrequently the same group in any recital of this sort. Then he’d point out how many other children also had mean daddies, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Some parents give in to this form of pressure, whether because of weariness or because they actually believe that it is important to be like all the other kids. One of the more surprising examples of a parent who caves – and I am sure that, in this case, it’s due to weariness with whiny children – is Yahweh, in the reading from 1 Samuel in today’s lectionary.

The Israelites were traditionally ruled by judges, like Deborah and Samson. They decided thorny matters for their people. The nations around Israel, however, had kings, and they wielded more power. The people decided that they wanted a king, too.

God had the prophet Samuel tell them all the things they’ll hate about having a king: “He’s going to take your sons for soldiers and farmers and workmen, and your daughters to be cooks and perfumers and other things we won’t mention. He’s going to grab the best of everything you have – your fields, your vineyards, your orchards, your crops, your slaves – and divvy them up for himself and his pals. He’ll grab everything he wants, and you won’t have any say in the matter. You’re going to hate it.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel, and said “No! We want to be like all the other kids!” And God sighed, and the people ended up with one tall and handsome but incompetent king, one very handsome and extremely cunning king who was also a fine musician, and one who wasn’t able to hold the kingdom together, so that it fell apart even before various empires started running roughshod over its fragments.

The kings were supposed to protect the people from the other kings and kingdoms, and they didn’t do that. And the people did hate it.

Most of us, at some point in our young adulthoods, asserted our independence from our parents. It’s a necessary part of growing up.

We see Jesus doing that in today’s reading from Mark. When his mother and siblings heard what people were saying – “He’s out of his mind!” – they braved the crowds and went to fetch him home.

I have no doubt that this was because of genuine concern for Jesus. He was challenging authority, in a time and place where challenging authority was not remotely a good idea. He was getting the Temple authorities worked up over his words and deeds; he was getting the better of them in their impromptu debates.

They’d say, “He has an unclean spirit,” which translates to, “He’s nuts,” and he’d respond in a fashion that proved emphatically that he was perfectly sane. He was drawing unwelcome attention to himself, and in first-century Palestine that was not a safe practice.

So Mary and her other children went to bring home the wayward one, and talk some sense into him. And he refused.

This is a big change. In the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about the wedding at Cana. They ran out of wine, and Mary turned to Jesus and said, “They’re out of wine.“ Jesus told her, “That’s not my problem; it’s not my time.” She ignored him and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” So Jesus had them fill up the water jars, and he turned the water into excellent wine.

Now it is his time, his time to stand up and follow the path set out for him.

His words – “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” – are sometimes interpreted as a rejection of his family, and, even, sometimes, as a suggestion that others’ family members who don’t go along with a particular version of God’s will should be cut off. (That’s not a typically Anglican response, I am happy to note.)

Jesus is clearly not rejecting his family, however. We later see Jesus speaking tenderly to his mother as her worst nightmare comes true; we know that Jesus’s brother James became the head of the fledgling Church in Jerusalem.

Instead, we see Jesus resolutely pushing aside the protection his birth family attempts to give him. We see him stepping out, eventually to be hailed as the Messiah, even though he knows what happens to those who disturb the status quo in Roman-occupied Palestine.

In that time and place, the extended family was the foundation of society. Everything was calculated by kinship – for an extreme example of that, see the priestly caste – with cousins most often marrying cousins. And if you weren’t family, you weren’t anything, at least as far as most people were concerned.

In this moment, we see Jesus opening a door to wider considerations of what constitute family. In the same way, the new Church will open the faith to “the nations” – the Gentiles – as well as to Jews. In the same way, the Church will overcome tribalism and nationality, and welcome all to the Body of Christ.

It’s a courageous act and a meaningful act on Jesus’s part. It is one of the first of many such that we will see from him along these lines, from speaking to Samaritans to healing the slave of a Roman centurion. Jesus is giving notice that the Kingdom of God is open to all.

The ancient Israelites made a mistake when they decided it would be better to be ruled by human kings than by judges. But Jesus was right in his choice to go forward on the path that his Father set out for him.

When he did, he opened the door so that we who believe in Jesus have become his brothers and sisters. And that is a priceless gift.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Sermon notes: The next morning

SERMON NOTES, CHRISTMAS DAY (10 a.m. December 25, 2011, St. Peter’s/St. Louis)

“But Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

It is the morning after the most momentous night in human history, an event bearing layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus did not enter the world in the way foretold in scripture, “in power and great glory.” He was born a helpless baby in the poorest setting imaginable, to humble parents, a member of a subject people living far from the centers of worldly power.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t go into detail about the events of the previous 24 hours, but we can imagine them. Mary, a teenager, was newly married to her husband, Joseph. She was pregnant, and near her time. In spite of that, they undertook a difficult, dangerous journey on the orders of an oppressive government.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but failed to find a place to stay. They had no relatives there to take them in; there was no space to be bought or begged in the town’s guest houses. Instead, they found cover in a shelter for cattle, with a roof and walls to provide some protection, and the heat of the animals around them for warmth.

Perhaps it was the rigors of the journey that brought on Mary’s labor. Luke doesn’t tell us about that. He doesn’t tell us whether Joseph delivered the baby himself, or if – as seems much more likely – women were found in the neighborhood to help with the delivery, to encourage the young mother, to ease the child into the world.

Someone wiped Mary’s face with a moist cloth and brushed her hair from her face; someone held her hand as she struggled through childbirth. Someone cut the umbilicus; someone washed mother and infant when the birth was complete. Someone emptied out a feeding trough to serve as an impromptu cradle. Someone found bands of cloth to swaddle the baby, to ease his adjustment to the cold and colors of this new world outside the womb.

Someone placed him in his mother’s arms, and helped to make both of them comfortable as he nursed for the first time. Someone who had experience imparted womanly wisdom and helpful hints about the best ways to do things, the sort of information that a new mother doesn’t fully appreciate until she is finally looking on the long-imagined face of her child.

The Evangelist is more concerned with the announcement of the birth, and with those who heard that announcement. The hearers weren’t King Herod’s courtiers, let alone members of the Imperial court in Rome. They weren’t scholars or members of the priestly class. They weren’t merchants with connections on the Silk Road. They weren’t even respectable. They were shepherds.

Shepherds occupied a spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were poor workingmen, not renowned for their honesty or for a robust work ethic. They were itinerant, wandering with the flocks they kept, usually for other owners.

And yet it was to shepherds that the angelic messenger appeared; it was to shepherds that the angelic host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was shepherds, members of a despised class, who beat a path to the stable to see the baby, who told Mary and Joseph the things that they had seen and heard that unforgettable night. “And Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

But the night, with all its excitement, has passed. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have returned to their work and their flocks. The women are back at their daily routines. Now, in the calm light of day, the little family is adjusting to its new dynamic, its new form, its new life, with a beloved child who will – as we know – grow in strength, learning, and holiness in the years to come.

Last night we celebrated Christ’s birth here, the message of the angels, the witness of the shepherds. It’s a big night, the most festive in the Church year. We observed it with a traditional Christmas pageant, with carols and other special music; there were platoons of acolytes, and crowded pews.

This morning’s service is an altogether quieter affair. The population in the chancel and sanctuary has plummeted from the full ranks of last night – clergy, lectors, choirs, acolytes – to the handful you see before you now. Right now, many of us still have a portion of our brains revolving around questions of preparing Christmas dinner, gift-giving, and of the coming celebrations with our families and friends

With the pageantry over, in the calm light of day, we can take a few moments to consider what all this means: that the Savior of the world should come to us in such humility; that he came for all people, even – or especially – the lowest among us; that God’s love abounds for us, in spite of all our faults. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller