God's people

I wish all of our mothers a happy Mother’s Day. I also want to wish all of our families a meaningful Christian Family Sunday. Family is a word that is being defined in a more open and fluid way these days. I am not speaking specifically here about marriage, though that obviously is part of that evolution. Here I am making reference to the way we define who is and who is not our kin. Let me share two recent examples. I presided at a number of funerals this month and in all cases the family gathering took place in a small room at either the funeral home or church before they would enter and sit at the front of the sanctuary. Twenty-five years ago those in that room would have all been “blood relations”, people whom could define their relationship to the deceased in a very direct and biological way. But today those in that room, referred to as family include friends, close neighbours, and may not include cousins or uncles and aunts whom the deceased and those who mourn did not know well. These inclusions or exclusions are not a function of a family rift, they reflect the reality of a life with organic ties to loved ones who have felt like, acted like, and thus become like, family.

The other example I would share has to do with blended families. Twenty-five years ago persons who had remarried would refer to their children from that first marriage as “mine” and children of their new partner from a previous relationship as “theirs”. That is no longer the case. Now when persons I know who have been married before and have children from those relationships refer to adult children they say, “Our children”, making no attempt to select who is the parent of a specific child.

I think this broadening or expanding of the definition of family is a good thing, as it removes the sting of those who feel they do not conform to our strict interpretation of “family”. I also believe it is consistent with the way Jesus spoke about family. You will recall the famous passage attributed to Jesus, “who is my mother, who are my brothers?” Jesus referred to those as his family who had no biological connection to him. In the early church the reference to becoming part of the family of God was by way of adoption through baptism. In the public Sacrament new members of the Body of Christ were in a real sense made members of Jesus’ adopted family.

The scripture text given to us this day by the Common Lectionary makes reference to the Old Testament story told by the prophet Hosea about how God was so angry with the people for their complicity with and practice of idolatry. 

The people who were living outside of the covenant relationship with their Creator felt disconnected, separate, apart from God. As is often the case when we love things and power and our own success we feel lost. In a real sense this faith community felt like they were “no people”. But the prophet hears God’s voice speaking to him, it is the voice of God and the message is loud and clear. "Once you were no people but now you are God’s people." I like the translation Cotton Patch Gospel author Clarence Jordan gives us: "The former nobodies are now God’s somebodies; the outcasts are now included in the family."

Australian writer Nathan Hobby has a most interesting take on 1 Peter 2:1-10. He points to the loneliness in our present culture. We have empowered people to believe in themselves, not a small feat. I am so, so, thankful we live in a time and place were women, persons of colour, the physically and mentally challenged, persons living with a mental illness, refugees, the poor, the ill, all feel included, that they are not separate or less than. But within this expanding definition of family, of who “we” are there is a profound loneliness. As Hobby says it is like we have given people a renewed sense of their worth but failed to focus on how we might live into a living community, a place where we belong.

Every age has its challenges, its benefits and its drawbacks. Ours is a time of unparalleled opportunity but also a place of profound isolation. Neither the blessing of empowerment, nor the affliction of aloneness, was a challenge confronted by the early church two centuries ago. But Peter’s words still speak to our different situation, “Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people”. For me, this verse speaks powerfully about what church means.  It is a word of comfort to us in this isolated society. “Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people”. So many people in our city don’t belong. They are not a people. Or what belonging they have is tenuous, unsatisfying. It’s the surface tribalism of supporting the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Blue Jays. Of course supporting the Boston Red Sox is a much deeper and more meaningful sense of belonging…

At its best, church gives people the sense of belonging they need. But it’s difficult. Churches struggle to be a community because so often people come from all over the city and don’t live close enough to see each other outside Sunday. Often we’re disappointed that we didn’t connect to anyone and that no one seemed to care very much that we were there or not there. And yet the irony is not lost on me, when I ask people who feel frustrated that no one spoke to them I ask if they spoke to any newcomers. The answer is often “no” and strangely the contradiction of that response does not seem to register on us. I feel our culture has given all of us a sense that we are very unique and interesting but not the skills to show the interest we crave from others to others.

When 1 Peter uses the expression “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” you need to know these images come from Exodus 19:6 which was addressed to the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness. In Israel’s case they felt God had set free a nation of slaves and brought them together as a people to be a light for the world. The Israelites were meant to show the rest of the world what it was to live as God’s people, as a foretaste of the hope of the whole world one day joining them. As Hobby points out they were chosen not for their own sake, but to bless the rest of the world. In the new covenant brought about in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, membership was thrown open to the whole world, to people who were not a people.  The “holy nation” Peter talks about is the opposite of inward looking nationalism. The good news of the church is that there is a new humanity – the church – where different races and different classes, people who were once enemies, are now brothers and sisters, are now worshipping together and eating around the same table. Our new first loyalty is no longer to our country, our kin or our race. Our new loyalty is to Christ who gathers us to love each other, worship God and bless the world.

Hobby suggests three ways the church can “lean in” to be a community, work at being “God’s people”. Before I share these with you to know it is not by accident that Hobby comes from an Anabaptist church background, that we worships in a house church, where the quality of the community is as important to the church as the qualifications of the Minister, the look of the sanctuary or the excellence of the liturgy.

1. Servant leadership: We recall Jesus’ words in Luke 22:25, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves.” In paying an Ordained Minister, “we are not purchasing a commodity of ministry but are freeing a sister/brother from the need to work additionally to support her/his family in order that s/he might be free to give her/himself to the work of ministry”. If you want to know why I abhor all of the titles, the gown, the collar, the deference given to the Minister, how s/he is put on a pedestal it is not because I shrink from the work, it is rather because I believe that to be a community, a real community, we must be people who serve, people who have a hunger to know each other, to work side by side to build the kingdom here and now. To be “God’s people” is not to be two classes of people but to be one people, one community.

2. Multi-voiced Churches: The early churches we read about in the letters of Paul were multi-voiced churches – “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1 Cor. 14:26) You may notice that I try to make reference to many different expressions of Christian faith in my sermons, in the studies I lead and when you and I are discussing theology. I never say, “this is what I believe, you must believe it too.” I know that within the United Church family of faith there is quite a range of belief, worship expression and practice. If you are a person who finds one part of that family expression meaningful I will do my best to expose you to best of that expression so that you have access to others who share your insights, so that others like me, can grow from your different voice. I am not threatened by believers who think, pray and live out their Christian faith in a different expression than me, and I hope you feel likewise. We live into being “God’s people” when we express our differences openly and honestly and I am very interested to know your beliefs and practices as much as you are interested in mine.

3. Discernment: Matthew 18:19-20 “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I don’t hear these words as a command and deliver relationship with God. That certainly has not been my experience of God. But I do believe we are given this process of church, to work out what the Scriptures call us to do in particular situation. When we gather in groups of two or more in Jesus’ good name God is here with us. I believe this. And in God’s presence we can discern, we can listen to one another, and we can hear God’s voice in our collective dialogue about God’s presence and intent.

My friends there are times in our lives, times in our church’s life, when we feel disconnected from God, when we feel we are “no people”. But I have good news for you, we are “God’s people”, all of us, you, me, the person next to you, the person whom you will meet at coffee hour, the person whom you will sit next to at the Muffin Club, on the Executive Board meeting, at the Gala, when we are serving at the Sunday Supper, when you are at Jazz Vespers, when you are teaching Sunday School, when we serve on a Funeral Reception team, when you volunteer at the church office. We are all God’s people. And when we come together, to serve one another, to speak to one another and to listen to one another, we hear the voice of our God, we feel the love of our God and we live out the community that is our God. And all God’s people said, AMEN!