Family of God
Holy Covenant UMC
May 1, 2011
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
When I was a junior in college I studied in Sevilla, Spain. One of the goals was for this to be a total immersion experience: learn the language, eat the food, spend time with the locals. I didn’t want to be a tourist on a trip, but instead do all I could to really experience the culture and become a part of it. Well, as a part of it as a 20 year old blonde girl from Texas could be. Despite my best efforts, I still stuck out like a sore thumb.
A central part of my time abroad was living with a Spanish family. The parents, Maria and Jose, their two children, Jennifer and Alejandro, and their dog, Pepe. I also had an American roommate. The six of us spent many months together living in a small flat. It’s a curious thing to temporarily join a family for a period of time. To enter into unfamiliar rhythms, customs, and dynamics. Maria fixed us three meals a day, so there wasn’t any choice about what I was eating or when. In fact, I was so nervous because I didn’t eat red meat and pork is a staple in the Spanish diet. I practiced on the plane all the way across the Atlantic how to say: I don’t eat red meat in Spanish. I confidently proclaimed this to Maria my first night there, thinking I had gotten through and we were on the same page. The next night I politely ate the jamon, ham, she served for dinner and tried again.
Because the biggest hurdle for me was the language. I had taken Spanish in High School and college, and grown up in West Texas surrounded by the sounds of Spanish. But I was by no means fluent, and when I arrived could not comfortably understand nor carry on a conversation around the dinner table. I already felt like an outsider in the family but it made it harder that I couldn’t get to know them through language in the ways I wanted. It was a struggle day in and day out just to communicate with the very people I was spending most of my time around.
About two months in I had a dream that I still vividly remember, 8 years later. I was sitting in my bedroom studying and all of a sudden overheard the family out in the living room speaking pitch perfect English. I tore out of my bedroom and confronted them, angry and also so, so relieved that they could understand me and I could understand them. I couldn’t believe they had been keeping this from me the whole time, when I had been struggling to communicate. Well, I woke up, and turns out they still knew less English than I knew Spanish.
I continued to learn and practice and we became closer by the end of my time. My Spanish improved and I felt more and more a part of the family. But I never felt completely comfortable and by the end of my time I was ready to come home, to see my own family.
Our new worship theme, in May and June, is entitled: Family of God. We’ll be moving through this letter to the Ephesians, written by Paul or an apostle of Paul, to an early church community figuring out what it meant to be family with one another as they discerned how best to follow Christ as a community. 2,000 years later, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to be “family”.
For family is quite loaded: For some of us, this word evokes warm feelings of home, comfort, and being taken care of. Of our favorite meals cooked by our grandmother that we can’t seem to replicate on our own. Close relationships with siblings, who know us better than just about anyone. Family means our children, nieces, and nephews, who bring us boundless delight and love.
For others, our family of origin is a painful place, conjuring up feelings of abandonment, abuse, neglect. Being misunderstood around that dinner table, even though everyone is actually speaking English. We want our family to look a certain way right now, but struggle with infertility or finding a partner. Divorce, betrayal, death have shattered our expectations.
For most of us, it’s probably somewhere in between. Family is complicated, at the same time bringing us comfort and tension, love and rejection, laughter and annoyance. After all, we don’t choose what family we’re brought up in.
But we do talk about having chosen families. Most people here aren’t native Chicagoans and you speak fondly about your “family in Chicago”. No matter your relationship with your family of origin, these are the people you share meals with, cry with, celebrate with, for better or for worse, right here in the city. We have our family from grad school or the gym or music classes; Many of you talk about your work family, asking: please pray for my work family…a colleague’s sister has been diagnosed with cancer and she’s having a hard time. We find ourselves as part of communities of love and care.
And, of course, we have our church family at Holy Covenant. As Christians, part of a faith community, what does it mean for us to be family? This is the same question addressed in our text. The epistle begins with familial language, right from the outset: To God our Father.
Some of us shudder when we hear “Father” language for God. It’s problematic for many reasons. This address has been used by some in the church for centuries to claim that God is male, and thus that men are more created in the image of God than women and superior. The theologian Mary Daly famously said: If God is male, then male is God.
Calling God “father” is also problematic because many of us have complicated, even painful relationships with our own earthly fathers, who weren’t unconditionally loving or present. So when we image God as father, we imagine a God who is distant, punishing, even absent.
This is why we say Mother as part of the Lord’s prayer here at Holy Covenant—to acknowledge the parental imagery for God while trying to mitigate the painful realities, both personal and systemic, of calling God father. Knowing, of course, that God is beyond gender, and that this phrasing is imperfect. Every word or image humans use to name God is always going to be inadequate.
But with that said, Jesus does use this language for God and it’s profoundly significant for our faith. Jesus doesn’t use the formal word for father, but instead uses the familiar Hebrew address of “Abba”. This is like Jesus calling God “daddy”. Nobody before Jesus used such intimate, personal language for God. And Jesus doesn’t reserve this language for himself—he invites us, indeed, commands us, to pray to God in this same, intimate language—through Christ we receive deep intimacy with God, as that of a parent who loves us unconditionally and knows us intimately.
As Christians, we’re family in part because God is our loving, holy, and intimate parent. And unlike many of our earthly relationships, God in fact chooses us…each one of us individually, to be God’s beloved children. The opening of Ephesians tells us that God chose us in Christ before even the foundations of the world. We are God’s chosen family!
As such, we are also brothers and sisters with Christ. We participate in his life—his acts of justice, mercy, and love. He experiences our pain and suffering alongside us, and in our dying we are raised with Christ. That good news we proclaimed last week at Easter, of resurrection, is still ours! Forever. And by extension, we are brothers and sisters with one another—living lives of love, taking on one another’s pain, and dying and rising together.
This is what it means to be a family as Christians—we are chosen by God, our loving parent, and united with Christ and each other.
What a beautiful reality! But of course, we know from hard earned experience that living together as family isn’t always easy. As a church family, we’re in the midst of a pastoral transition, moving closer to the day when I leave and Pastor Matthew begins.
Change is both exciting and hard, especially in families.
It’s exciting to embark on something new—Matthew will bring new ideas, visions, and gifts to this community. He’ll have an impact on lives that none of us can even imagine right now.
Change can also be sad, as we prepare to say goodbye to one another. It can be scary, because we don’t know exactly what the future will look like and that brings anxiety.
Some of us are worried that with a new pastor, you might not always be speaking the same language. It’s going to take a period of months for you and Matthew to get to know one another—it won’t be easy and familiar and comfortable from the very beginning. It wasn’t with us, either…it took some time to get to know each other. There will be periods early on when you feel like an outsider; more likely when he feels like an outsider. You might want to be fed a certain way, at a certain time, and you’re not sure if that’s going to remain the same. We’re heading into the unknown.
What makes us family isn’t who our pastoral leader is. Sure, it has an effect on the dynamics and the particulars of relationships.
As members of the Christian family, our identity isn’t wrapped up in the person of our pastor. Our identity is wrapped up in our participation in the baptism and resurrection of Christ. This is the good news to the Ephesians, and it’s the good news to us this morning.
Because unlike our families of origin, or even the families we choose as adults, in our Christian family God has already placed us together around the same table, as brothers and sisters. God has chosen us, and chosen us to be together in Christ, before the very foundations of the world. In God’s family, love always grows.
Matthew is already our brother. All we have to do is set another place at our family table. Expand the circle to include Matt, Emily, and Libby.
What will never change, is that God invites us, again and again, to gather around this family table. And the truth is, we already speak different languages. Though English is our common language here at Holy Covenant, we don’t always understand what’s happening. Some of us feel like outsiders, wishing we could better be heard and known. We call God different names, have different beliefs about baptism, marriage, forgiveness. We vote democrat, republican, independent, or not at all.
But somehow, around this table, we always come together. And that won’t change.
Whether we’re eating whole wheat, sourdough, or unleavened bread, we will continue to be fed. As an imperfect family, we practice together for the day when God welcomes us all home.
Brothers and sisters, as God’s family, let us come to this table:
come to the table, and practice for the day when all of us will dine at the heavenly banquet. eat together, and practice for the day when no earthly parents are abusive. drink together, and practice for that day when every single child will know unconditional love. feast with one another and practice for that day when we know and believe that we are forgiven. Ultimately, we come to the table, and practice for the day when each one of us will be raised with Christ.
I have a feeling, that on that heavenly day when we all dine together, Jesus will look up and say from across the table: Please pass the ham. Maria and I will have a good laugh. And we’ll all understand each other.
In the meantime, let us come here and feast as those who are loved intimately by the God who chooses us and made one with another by Jesus who invites us to his family table.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God! Amen.