May 28, 2017, Keeping the Family Together – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000025
Yesterday I had the honor of officiating a memorial service at a community center on the reservation. It was a service for a woman I never met, but I wish I had known her. She was 99 years old – next October, if she had lived just a few months longer, her life would have spanned a whole century. And so, it wasn’t surprising that a lot of people had stories to share about her – 99 years is a whole lot of history. Esther’s love and strength were tangibly present in that room. And also her joy, because she had given them strict instructions them not to be sad at her funeral. She wanted them to celebrate her life together. “No black,” she told them before she died – she didn’t want anybody showing up for her memorial in mourning clothes.
But the most striking thing was that almost everyone who came up to share their stories, said the same thing – that Esther was the one who had kept the family together. And clearly, she did an amazing job of keeping the family together because that big community room was packed. I’m not very good at estimating the numbers of a crowd, but I would guess there were at least 100 or 150 people there, and they had come from all over: north, south, east and west. One family had come from Hawaii, another from Canada, another from Washington D.C., and another from Florida – all over the place. But they all gathered together for Esther’s memorial.
And one after another they stood up to share how Esther had helped to maintain the bonds of their family in the face of all the usual enemies, all the forces that can and do break families apart, forces we have experienced in our own families. She was mother, and sister, and grandmother, and aunt and Godmother, weaving all those ties of family in strong bonds of love and good humor and creativity and boundless energy. You could tell Esther had been a force to be reckoned with! And yesterday, as her ashes rested in a small basket woven of sweetgrass, the testimony to her love and indomitable spirit was all around her in that big, strong, loving family. I am sure Esther was delighted.
I have been thinking a lot about family – more than usual, even – in the last few weeks because of getting to go to North Carolina and spend time with my kids and grandkids down south. Most years I only get to see them for this one annual visit, and it always seems like an awfully long time in between visits. But it is a great comfort to me to know they have each other, that they care about one another and enjoy spending time together, that they maintain that bond of love that belongs to them as members of a family, even if they have to do it long distance; the love Carroll and I had for each other when we decided to become a family, and that we shared with them when they were born, and that I pray will continue to grow and stay strong long after I’m gone.
Today’s reading in John is one that William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, called “perhaps the most sacred passage in the four gospels”, because in chapter 17 of John’s gospel we get to hear the very words of Jesus as he prayed for his Church, for us – not just the twelve disciples or the men and women he knew personally in his life in Palestine, but all those who would form the great family of the Church that he was establishing: those first children, his apostles, and also the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the great-great-grandchildren, all the way down to us, you and me.
John lets us hear the actual words of Jesus as he talks to his Father, in the hour before he gives himself into the hands of the men who would make false accusations against him, and condemn him to death. He knew what was going to happen; he knew that those were his last few hours with his family. And he did just what we might do; he shared one last meal with them, and he spoke to them all the words he most wanted them to remember. He told them, “Just remember one thing: love each other.” And then, at the very last, he prayed for them. And John, who was there, remembered his prayer and wrote it down so that we can hear the prayer that our Lord made to the Father on our behalf.
What would your prayers be, if this very hour was the moment you had to say goodbye to the people you love and care for, the people in whose lives you are the most deeply invested? What would you ask God, if you knew that this was your last day on earth with your family, and you were to pour out your hearts on their behalf right now?
Jesus prays just the same kinds of things that we would pray. He prays that God would protect us, “I don’t ask that you take them out of the world,” he prayed, “but I ask that you keep them from the evil one.” He prays to the Father that we would have joy. But the recurring theme in Jesus’ prayer, like in the stories Esther’s family told at her memorial service yesterday, is the prayer that the Father would keep the family together; that he would maintain the ties of love between us all. And what would any of us want for our children and grandchildren more than that they love and care for one another when we are gone?
The prayer is just 26 verses long, and in those 26 verses Jesus asks the Father to make us one four times – that God would make us one with each other in the same way as the Father and the Son were one. Jesus’ overwhelming desire for his family is that we would share the unbreakable bond of love that he shared with his Father. Because, as we listen in to his conversation with the Father, Jesus says something that is almost unthinkable: that the Father loves us with the same love he has for the Son. Think what that means for you, that God the Father loves you just like he loves his perfect and holy Son, Jesus. In the power of that divine love, Jesus asked the Father to keep his family safe, and full of joy, but most of all, together.
And yet, we might be tempted to doubt that God really listened to Jesus’ prayer this time, when we look around at this big, unruly family we call the Church and see what a mess we seem to have made of things. Even in our little bitty town of Norwood, we have six separate congregations – and how many thousands of denominations have we divided ourselves into throughout the world. So much of the time we act like we’re orphans left to fend for ourselves and make our own way in the world instead of beloved children who belong together, and who are safe in the care and protection of a loving Father. How often has the family of God built walls between each other, breaking the church into fragments, according to politics or theology or race or social class or just tradition?
But the most important thing to remember in reading this chapter of John is that what we are reading is Jesus talking to the Father. It’s not just his instructions for us, or his hopes for us, it is his prayer, which means it is as perfect as a prayer can possibly be. Because we know what happens when Jesus prays. When Jesus prays for a leper to be cleansed or a blind man to receive his sight, the disease is gone and the blind man sees. When Jesus says grace over a few loaves of bread, suddenly there is a feast for thousands. When Jesus calls a dead man out of the grave, he comes walking out. And so, knowing what happens when Jesus prays to the Father, can we doubt that what he prayed is reality? The truth is that we are one family, one with everyone who follows Jesus in every time and place – not one eventually when we get to heaven someday, but today, right now, because that’s what Jesus was praying for – that we would be one in our day-to-day life in the world.
And so Paul means what he says in his letter to the Galatians, when he says that all the things that used to divide us, all the things that still divide the people who belong to the world – they don’t divide us any more. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul wrote, “have put on Christ, so that now there are no more divisions between us: no more slave and free, no more male and female.” People were divided sharply along those lines in Paul’s time – but those divisions had no meaning or power in the Church because as adopted children of God, they were all one family.
There are so many divisions that Paul could have added if he lived in our time: no more black and white, no more gay and straight, no more rich and poor, no more Democrat and Republican, no more blue collar and white collar, no more Catholic and Episcopalian and Methodist and Baptist, no more divisions – for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
That’s not to say that we cease to be different, because diversity is one of the most wonderful things about the Church – and I believe it is one of the things that distinguishes the Church most clearly from cults that sometimes look like the church. God created each one of us unique, and that means our differences are good and valuable in the family. Being one isn’t supposed to mean making everybody the same; it means that our differences no longer divide us; they no longer serve as markers to exclude one another, or as criteria for passing judgment on one another. Our differences just give us a greater opportunity for showing love to one another. It’s pretty easy to love someone who looks and thinks and talks just like you do. Everyone can do that. But the witness of God’s family is when we look and think and talk in completely different ways, when we have different backgrounds and different ways of doing things, and yet, we still love one another. “That’s when the world knows that you are my disciples,” Jesus tells us. When his love breaks down all the barriers the world tries to maintain between us, then the family resemblance really begins to show.
There’s more to this prayer, of course, than just the prayer of one who is pleading for the Father to keep the family together, to keep them safe, to give them joy, to make their lives fruitful. Some people call it a prayer of consecration to establish these men – and us who follow them – in the mission of the Church. But at heart, where we live in this world, this is the prayer of the one who loves us, who was determined not to leave us orphans in this world, but to break down the barriers that separated us so that we could be his family forever.