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Family Values

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Trinity Sunday (May 27, 2018)
Romans 8:12-17 – “Family Values”

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.

Three years ago today on the liturgical calendar was also Trinity Sunday. I started off my sermon giving the listeners that day a choice: would you rather hear a sound exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity… or would you rather hear a story about the time I almost got a tattoo?

For some reason I cannot begin to fathom, you chose to hear a story about the tattoo. So I told you about a very moving lecture I heard on the Trinity in my first semester of seminary and how I was so inspired that a friend of mine drew up a sketch of a Celtic, trinitarian knot. Spoiler alert: I ended up not getting the tattoo because I’m pretty indecisive about a commitment that long-term. But good news: two weeks ago, while digging through some boxes in my garage, I came found that sketch. Gianina put the sketch on the cover of your bulletin, so happy Trinity Sunday!

I’m still passionate about the doctrine of the Trinity. But since I imagine no one wants to hear a sermon about that in the middle of Memorial Day weekend, I’ll move on to something else. But before I do, I’ll say that what value I see in this ancient teaching is that it’s a rich symbol for describing how God is fundamentally a relational God, that God is within God’s own, inner life a community of love. The love between Creator, Christ, and Spirit is a love so dynamic, so powerful, so abundant that it can’t help but spill over into the rest of creation.

The 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart put it beautifully when he wrote:

In the heart of the Trinity the Father laughs
and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs
and gives birth to us.

The Trinity, like any other concept in faith, like any symbol, can be used to bring us together or pull us apart.

Take what the Apostle Paul does with this family language in his letter to the church at Rome. Did you catch the family “stuff” in the reading? Brothers and sisters. Sons and daughters. Heirs. Children. “Abba, Father.” That family talk is strong here.

It’s strong in church life, too. We say things like “children of God” a lot in worship. In conversation we say things like, “That’s my church family” or “We’re like a family here.” But because we say those words so often, I think their meaning gets lost or diluted sometimes.

What does it mean to be a child of God? What does it mean to be the family of God?

A story by Fred Craddock points us to the heart of it. This is Craddock speaking:

Nettie [Craddock’s spouse] and I had returned from Oklahoma to one of our favorite vacation spots, The Great Smoky Mountains. We were at dinner in a restaurant out from Gatlinburg near the small community of Cosby. We were in a rather new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn. It was very attractive and had an excellent view of the mountains.

Early in the meal an elderly man approached our table and said, “Good evening,” I said, “Good evening.”

He said, “Are you on vacation?”

I said, “Yes,” but under my breath I was saying, It’s really none of your business.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re from Oklahoma.”

“What do you do in Oklahoma?”

Under my breath but almost audible, I was saying, Leave us alone. We’re on vacation, and we don’t know who you are. I said, “I am a Christian minister.”

He said, “What church?”

I said, “The Christian Church.”

He paused a moment and said, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church,” and he pulled out a chair and sat down.

I said, “Yes, have a seat.” I tried to make it seem like I sincerely meant it, but I didn’t. Who is this person?

He said, “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married, and the whole community knew it. I was what was called [remember, this is a long time ago when people talked like this] an illegitimate child. In those days that was a shame, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on her, of course, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses, at to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate my lunch alone.

“In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face and a heavy beard and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, [an illegitimate child]. So I would go just in time for the sermon, and it was over I would move out because I was afraid someone would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in a church?’

“One Sunday some people queued up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. It was that minister. I cut eyes around and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing, He was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of…’ and he paused there. And I knew it was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. He said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go claim your inheritance.’ I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

I was so moved [Craddock writes] by the story I had to ask him, “What’s your name?”

He said, “Ben Hooper.”

I recalled, though vaguely, my own father talking when I was just a child about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor [an illegitimate child], Ben Hooper.

Being a child of God is fundamentally about belonging. It’s about knowing deep in your bones that you belong to God. You belong to God. We belong to God and are therefore loved and cherished beyond measure. Paul wrote, “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.” You’re not slaves, you’re children, he says.

Being a child of God is about inherent dignity and worth. No matter what others say about us or what other claims the systems of this world make on us, nothing can change that fundamental fact that we are created in God’s image and are therefore valuable and worthy of respect. Paul also wrote, “With this Spirit, we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. In other words, we are deserving of all the inheritance of God’s other children—as it says in on diplomas, “All the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereof.”

Rights and privileges, yes. We should relish in that this morning, that we are God’s children. But the responsibilities part applies, as well.

We are God’s children, but not just us, not only us. We are God’s children among other children. And acting like it is part of what it means to be the family of God. As Paul wrote, “So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness.” That’s what distinguishes God’s family from other families.

When I hear the word “family,” in some contexts, I kind of squirm a little, because talk of family can be cheap. Think about it… in movies, even the mafia talks about family a lot. That’s the word used to describe an organized crime unit in some circles. Or think of all those characters in TV dramas who claimed to do everything for the sake of their families, but who were actually pretty selfish—everybody from Walter White on Breaking Bad to JR Ewing on Dallas. Those guys were jerks!

And it seems like ten or so year ago that a lot of politicians spoke a lot about “family values.” That used to make my skin crawl because generally what they meant by that was family units that resembled what they thought was or ought to be the norm, families with a father, a mother, and 2.5 children, and the father was usually in charge!

More commonly, when people talk about family, even a church family, one subtext is, “I like these people and we’re a tight-knit group.”

And that can sometimes mean there’s no room for outsiders. We live in a culture in which tribalism is manifesting itself in some pretty insidious ways. In so many spheres of our lives, we group ourselves into like-minded or look-alike clans, where it’s clear who the insiders are. And if there are insiders, there are usually outsiders.

What the Apostle Paul was trying to do in this letter to his congregation in Rome was unite Jews and Gentiles. There were genuine, substantial disagreements among them of what it meant to be the church, of course. There were disputes about the degree to which a believer should observe the Law of Moses and whether or not they be circumcised. Jewish members came from a monotheistic culture; Gentile members from a polytheistic, imperial culture. And there were other differences.

And yet, and yet… Paul reminded them, “You are one family in Christ. Some of you were born into it, others were adopted into it, but you’re still all God’s children, full-fledged heirs with Christ.”

The family of God is different… or at least it should be.

One story that’s broken my heart and made me sick to my stomach this week is the story of the 1475 children who crossed the border who our government “lost” over the last couple of years, some of them into human trafficking. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that. How do you lose kids? Imagine if we, as a society, treated all children like our own children? Or better yet, if we treated all children as God’s children?

That’s a big-picture example. So on a more day-to-day level, how does walking around with the filter “this person is a child of God” change how we look at people? Try saying it, even through clenched teeth, “That beloved child of God…” How does it change how we treat a person?

By the way, this can include the person we’re looking at in the mirror, too.

I’ll close with a brief story. I spent last week at an amazing preaching conference in Washington, D.C. It was absolutely incredible. It even included a procession to the White House (more on that later). But one line stands out to me this morning from the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, a preacher in the Atlanta area. She preached on Micah 6:8, that verse we love here at St. Mark’s, and began by listing many of the injustices of our time and how they impact the lives of specific people. Urging us to act, pounding on the pulpit she said this, and I’ll leave you with the quote,

It comes down to the this: are you my brother or sister or not?” [2]

Am I your sibling or not?

So much depends on that answer.

May it be so…

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (2001), edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward.

[2] The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, on May 22, 2018 during the Festival of Homiletics at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Featured image: Rublev, Andreĭ, Saint, d. ca. 1430. Holy Trinity, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.