Rev. Joe Connolly
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as the sisters and brothers of Jesus.” — Acts 1:14.
I want to start with an obvious question: what is family? Notice, I did not ask ‘who are your blood relatives?’ I asked ‘what is family?’ (Slight pause.)
A couple of weeks ago Bonnie and I drove to Connecticut— five hours each way— to go to a memorial service. The service and the reception after it lasted at best three hours. Was this service for a blood relative? No. Not even close.
Was this person a significant part of our lives? Yes. Therefore, no matter what blood lines might say, was she family? Yes she was— family however you want to put that— family, extended family, whatever. As a common saying goes these days— especially when it comes to relationships— it’s complicated. (Slight pause.)
I have on occasion mentioned my late cousin Roseanna Genevieve McCool. Rose, as I just indicated, was true family, a blood relative— a cousin. Rose was the daughter of my paternal grandfather’s sister.
Roses’s mother died young and for many years Rose and her father lived in an apartment in the same house where my paternal grandfather and his wife lived. It was, in fact, a house my grandparents owned. Rose and her father rented the upstairs apartment.
When I was very young both Rose’s father and my grandfather’s wife died. One consequence of that was, instead of being simply a cousin, Rose became much more of a grandmother figure in my family life, in the structure of my family, for me.
Was Rose a grandmother, my grandmother? No. Was she a grandmother figure? Yes. So, even within the context of blood relations, things can be… complicated. (Slight pause.)
One more family story: Bonnie and I have a niece, Heather, who lives in Dallas. In early July she and her five year old son, Henry, will be visiting her Dad, Bonnie’s brother Jack, in Deer Isle, Maine. Since we have not seen Heather and Henry in two years and Maine is a lot closer than Dallas, Bonnie and I will be traveling to Maine to join in on the visit. (Slight pause.)
Except everything I just said about how Heather and Henry are related to us is wrong. Well, it is, in one sense, not wrong. But it is certainly… inaccurate.
How so? Heather is the daughter of Jack’s first wife, Susan. But she is not Jack’s daughter. They, we, are not related by blood. Even though Heather is not related to Jack, after Susan and Jack got a divorce, Jack had custody of Heather.
Heather calls Jack “Dad.” And she addresses her biological father not with any term of endearment like Dad. Heather addresses her biological father by his first name. (Slight pause.)
So, what is family— really? It is complicated, is it not? (Slight pause.) And even though it is complicated, we experience it, we live with the reality of it, we know the complexity of it, do we not? As I said— family— it’s… complicated. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Luke/Acts in the section commonly referred to as Acts: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as the sisters and brothers of Jesus.” (Slight pause.)
Over time it has become evident to me people are often not comfortable with what Scripture really says, its reality, its complexity. Scripture… it’s complicated.
I think in part because of that complexity we tend to make up things about Scripture. And the things we make up often simplify what Scripture actually says.
For instance— as I have said many times— there are two Nativity stories, stories of the birth of Jesus, in the four Gospels— one in Luke with angels and shepherds and one in Matthew with a star and Magi. These are two stories written at two different times, by at least two different authors, addressed to two different audiences.
These stories exist not to report on the birth of Jesus but to make theological points about the Messiah. And what do we do with them? We mesh them together as if they were one. We simplify their complexity. After all, how many Christmas pageants have you seen with these stories told as if they were one?
But they are not in any way unified. Clearly one of many theological points Luke tries to make is the birth of the Messiah should be announced, proclaimed to the poor, the outcast.
Clearly one of many theological points Matthew tries to make is to tie the story of the Messiah to Jewish heritage, the Exodus. And in simplifying these two stories, in meshing them together, we miss the theological points. We flatten out the theological points they make. We make it theologically bland. We also make the stories culturally acceptable while blithely ignoring their theological thrust.
And, as I am sure you know, there are only two nativity stories in the four Gospels. Hence, two Gospels totally ignore the birth of the Messiah.
Why would two Gospels dismiss the nativity of the Messiah so completely, especially when our culture makes those stories so central? I would suggest those two Gospels discount the birth stories for two reasons.
First, those two Gospels have their own theological points to make and can make those points without considering the birth of the Messiah. Second, the nativity stories we do have are not at all about the actual birth of the Messiah, except from the theological perspective.
Indeed, the nativity stories are there to make specific theological points. But those points have nothing to do with angels or shepherds or stars or Magi. Like I said— it’s complicated. (Slight pause.)
So, did you notice in the story from Acts Jesus has sisters and brothers? And that’s not just one sister and one brother. That’s sisters and brothers— plural. And have you noticed our culture pretty much obliterates that little detail? Indeed, from other passages in Scripture it’s clear the Apostle James is plainly and unambiguously labeled a brother, meaning a blood relative, of Jesus.
So, Jesus had sisters and brothers. Or at least that’s what it says. To reiterate, from what I’ve heard I am fairly certain— folk religion, populist religion, popular culture, is in large denial about Jesus having had any brothers, any sisters. (Slight pause.)
Now, here’s yet a different question: ‘given what I said earlier, are these people labeled as sisters and brothers actually sisters and brothers? Or are they some kind of extended family? (Slight pause.)
Not long after I came to Norwich to be the pastor at this church a parishioner asked me why I was so passionate about Scripture. This is the answer I gave. As I read what Scripture has to say, the people are real for me, alive for me. The situations are real, alive for me.
The way I see it, the people and the situations we find in Scripture are complicated. Therefore, the people and the situations seem real to me.
And then, there is the theology. What are these people, real people, these situations, real situations, trying to tell me, trying to tell us about the reality of God. (Slight pause.) I would suggest the reality of God— theological reality or any other kind of reality— the reality of God is just like our own every day reality, just like all reality. It’s complicated. (Slight pause.)
Or is it? My own perception is we make the reality of God more complicated than it actually is. How? We overlay the reality of God with cultural trappings, imposed culturally acceptable falsehoods, which have little or nothing to do with God’s truth. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to the question: ‘what is family— really?’ Family— family is who you share your life with, who you share your love with.
And what is God’s truth? God’s truth is we are all part of God’s family. And that is not complicated. As I have said here many times over, God loves us and wants to covenant with us. That’s God’s truth.
So, God’s truth is we are all children of God. We are all a part of the family of God. And that, my friends, is as complicated or as simple as you make it out to be. So, is the love of God, as that loves is reflected in each of us, complicated? Your call. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The great American composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote this lyric: ‘Anyone can whistle, / That’s what they say— / Easy. / Anyone can whistle / Any old day— Easy. / It’s all so simple: / Relax, let go, let fly. / So someone tell me why / Can’t I? / I can dance a tango, / I can read Greek— / Easy. / I can slay a dragon / Any old week— Easy. / What’s hard is simple. / What’s natural comes hard. / Maybe you could show me / How to let go, / Lower my guard, / Learn to be… free. / Maybe if you whistle, / Whistle for me.’ Sometimes, especially when it comes to covenant love, we need to Relax, let go, let fly.”
BENEDICTION: God promises to empower our witness. The Holy Spirit is present to us. Jesus, the Christ, lives among us. Let us go from this worship to continue our worship with work and witness. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts, minds and spirits centered on God, this day and forevermore. Amen.