"If a house is divided"-Sermon for Proper 5, Mark 3:20-35
Words truly cannot describe how much I have looked forward to THIS Sunday, in particular, over the past many weeks and really months. Though it is not a major Feast Day in the life of the Church, it is not Easter or Christmas or Pentecost or St. Julian’s Feast Day or the like...in fact it is the second Sunday of what some call in the Church Ordinary Time. And, though we gather today in masks…and we are spread apart in this space a little more than we were before the pandemic began…and some based on genuine health concerns or access to vaccines will continue to be with us mainly online…still…still today is not some ordinary occasion. For, after about 15 months spent mostly apart…physically distanced from those who make up our family of faith…today for the first time since we were all rent asunder by this devastating disease…today we begin to return to something that very closely resembles what our worship life looked like before the pandemic. Today, we return to our regular pattern of worship on Sunday mornings…two services of Holy Communion…inside our church building…with no limitations on who can join us and when you can join us…no complicated online reservations required…and we are open to guests who are warmly welcome to visit…those seeking to experience the life transforming love of God…that we have already come to know in this goodly fellowship that we call St. Julian’s.
Now, I say this knowing that things could change again…and your leadership will not hesitate to make changes as the disease dictates…even if it feels like we are moving backwards…to keep all of our loved ones safe. But still today…to me…it does not feel like some ordinary time…some ordinary day…it feels something more akin to Easter than the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. As I have mentioned before, as Jack and Jonathan and I, once again, created these semi-circular rows…filling our church again with seats…I was moved to the point of tears. For, as I looked at our church full of chairs, I saw not only furniture…but I dared to imagine them full of people…full of us…our family of faith gathered in flesh and bone…connecting, laughing, crying, struggling…belonging to each other…God’s love incarnate in our physical bodies…zero degrees of separation…the rainbow colored people of God on the move…accomplishing life giving tasks together for the benefit of those who need us most…falling more and more in love with God in Christ through the heart satisfying experience of worshiping and praying together in one another’s presence.
After suffering through so much that has frayed us, painfully stretched us, and sought to pull us a part, we are really just at the beginning of knitting back together the fabric of a gathered community…woven together by God’s love…that binds us together as one. And, though we are just at the beginning, I still want to name how wonderful and hopeful it is to have arrived at this day…how tremendous it is to be able to begin to reclaim our embodied faith…you with me…me with you…and all of us with each other…as, over time, more and more of us begin take delight in making eye contact…sharing physical signs of affection that fill us with spiritual energy…see the signs of aging in each other’s faces, which points not to just getting old, but to what we have experienced…signs of overcoming and wisdom gained…see our children who have grown like weeds in the time spent apart…for their growth in our midst are signs of new life…future adventures to be enjoyed…the possibility of a new start in each new day. These are the gifts of being together an embodied family…a family committed to holding one another up in our hearts and even with our hands when sorrow strikes…a family who celebrates in each other’s presence when we triumph and accomplish much good individually and together.
And, today, toward the end of our Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of family. And a simple reading of the text might suggest that Jesus is actually diminishing the value of family…even disowning his own family…for Mark writes, “A crowd was sitting around Jesus; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” But, I don’t believe Jesus’ intention with these words was to disown his own family or minimize the importance of family in general. For instance, the gospels make it quite clear that Jesus and his mother, Mary, where tight…together all the way to the end…to the cross and empty tomb. Instead, I think Jesus was extending the definition of who and what family is. I believe Jesus is saying to all those gathered around him…please don’t think my understanding of family extends only to those whose blood flows in my own veins…I do love them…but I also love all of you…you are my family too…for there is something even stronger than blood and genes that binds us together…and that is God’s love that deeply connects our life and good efforts together into unbreakable bonds. And it is for this reason, that I, Miles, rightfully call us…the people of St. Julian’s…a family of faith…and you hear me say it all the time…because I believe it in my core. For I believe God’s love has called us together, along with more and more people who will still join our family of faith in the future, and rooted us in one another…and I believe those bonds of affection are both unbreakable and are what we most need to live a fully alive, meaning-making, purpose driven sort of life. I need you, my St. Julian’s family, to be entirely who God made me to be…and you need me too…and we all need each other.
And, all of these familial musing are to say that I believe, today, as we just begin to reconstitute the patterns of embodied worship that stand at the very center of who we are as the people of God, today seems a good day to claim and recommit to our place in this family. For some that might, indeed, look like a return to a regular pattern of in-person Sunday worship…and for some, who for very good reasons will continue to worship with us primarily online till COVID is further contained or everyone in your household, including children, are able to receive a vaccine, it may look like continuing to show up virtually even as Zoom fatigue becomes more acute or just making a commitment today to, indeed, return when the time is right for you and your loved ones…for that time will rightfully be different for all of us.
But whatever it might look like for you to claim your place in our family, I believe Jesus’ words today are instructive for all of us. In particular, when he says, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” This pandemic and, in the very midst of it, the deep political divisions that have rent even families apart…the racial and class reckoning…the violent civil unrest…the snow-pocalypse have done so much to divide our various houses. And, focusing on this house, this family of faith, I know not everyone has agreed with the pace of our re-opening work…for some we have moved too fast…for others too slow. I know not everyone has agreed with our public advocacy work and public statements during the elections and before governmental leaders around race and vaccines and guns and the homeless...for some we been too willing to take a stand…for others we have not been bold enough. I know not everyone has felt we have communicated perfectly while so distanced from each other…some hoping for less in their inbox…and some feeling like we have not stayed connected enough. I want you to know as your leader that I carry around those disagreements and, more so, the important decisions made around each choice with me every day…and that I have sought through it all to be led first by my profound and unbreakable love for each of you, my family of faith, and, always, by wrapping each step, each decision, each word written or spoken in “get on your knees” kind of prayer. I would be less than honest if I did not say that at times the emotional and spiritual weight has felt overwhelming…and I know you share that experience with me. Further, I know that tension around all I have mentioned has existed between members of this family as our disagreements get publicly debated and aired through social media and otherwise.
But, here’s the thing. I don’t actually think disagreement, even over weighty and life-impacting matters, is essentially problematic. For I believe respectful disagreement that looks like listening for understanding…leads to growth and insight and better decision making…even when agreement is not always reached. We can pray together, take communion together, serve those in need together, learn together while respectfully disagreeing on a whole host of issues. In fact, I think this makes us a more rich, complex, interesting, diverse, inclusive, and capable family than if we did agree on all matters of importance that order our common life…from COVID to political persuasions to everything in between.
This is the genius of the Episcopal Church. We don’t share a book of doctrine that tells us exactly how and what to believe in all manner of things and how to act and make decisions in every conceivable difficult situation. Instead, we have a Book of Common Prayer. And, our choice to pray together is what binds us together into a family of faith…not our intellectual agreement on all matters governing life. And so, the invitation to reaffirm our place in this family of faith today…is a commitment to keep praying together…to keep worshiping together…to keep learning and serving together…to dare to believe that the collective wisdom to live a life of meaning, which is always directed by God’s love that sits in the center of this family, is in the room with us…shaping us more and more into the lovers and life-givers that God made each of us to uniquely be. That commitment, to keep praying together, is what unifies this house…and it shall stand…for the glue that is God’s love will not allow us to fall apart.
So, a final thought now about trust. I believe it is the establishment of trust that makes family possible…a unified house possible. And trust is established when I believe you really, really love me and are never going to let me go…and I speak not just of me…Miles…but a relationship between any two people seeking to be in a family…forged not by blood and genes but that stronger force which is God’s love. And that trust rooted in a belief that we really love each other and are never going to let go of each other is nurtured and grown, in many small moments over much time, as we practice our embodied faith together…when we show up, whether in person or online…when we are actually in each other’s presence…when we carry each other’s sorrows and celebrate each other’s accomplishments….when we know and care about what is happening in each other’s lives.
And, I want you to know that I love this family and everyone in it…and I am never going to let us go. This is the point of church. This is the life we are seeking to cultivate together. This is worth recommitting to again today…a commitment to pray together, to be together that nurtures trust and unifies this family of faith…and it shall stand…for the glue that is God’s love will not allow us to fall apart. Amen.