August 14, 2016
In the name of God: our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.
Beloved, what I have to say today is very much shaped by the fact that families have been on my mind a good bit lately. Families, and memories, and stories, stories which are of course memories turned into narratives, into performances, the evocation, and the reciting of memories.
We were not here last week because the first Sunday in August is always the date of the Wall Family Reunion, which takes place in the very small town of Morven, North Carolina, a town so small it is a mere crossroads about half-way between Charlotte and Myrtle Beach.
This year, our daughters Sarah and Frances were here for the Reunion. And by the way, this is Frances’ birthday. She is 38 today. I’m happy for her to have her own special day, but I am mystified as to how I came to have a 38 year old daughter. And that she has an older sister who is 41.
They are wonderful people, and I am glad to know them, but those numbers keep getting larger and larger. And the mystery deepens.
Anyway, so Sarah and Frances came down and brought our grandchildren with them, so we could all go to the reunion together. The Wall family is a fairly large family – my father was the youngest of 10 children and my grandfather Wall also had a number of brothers and sisters who have descendants who come to this Reunion.
And I like to say that we Walls love each other for 2 hours once a year. So we drove down to Morven last Sunday for the reunion, which started about 12:30, and we had a good crowd, but by 2:30, almost everyone was gone. We love each other for 2 hours once a year.
And of course, what we did during those two hours was break bread together, to eat the good food that people had brought, and to catch up with each other, to tell stories, to share memories.
Sometimes, those memories took tangible form. There were of course old photographs to pass around, images of people without whom none of us would have been there, but who are now long dead. Or photographs of earlier versions of ourselves, photographs, say, of Terry and me when my daughters were the ages that our grandchildren are today, and not the grown-up young women they have turned out to be.
One of my cousins who was there happened to be the cousin who had inherited from her mother a set of the family’s china. She brought that set of china with her to give away, and so we came home with a china bowl that my grandmother and grandfather Wall received as a wedding gift when they got married, in 1875, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.
Families, and stories, stories that convey memories, and tangible things, things that that you can touch that embody memories, things that in some small yet often powerful way make the past present to us, and remind us that we today shape a future that we will not see, but that we might be seen in, if we are lucky.
These are things that give family members a sense of identity as members of that family, and as individuals who are part of that family.
Beloved, the language – and the experience — of family, and of memories, and of stories, and of tangible things are very familiar to us in the Church.
After all, we read from a collection of books every Sunday, which is really a big collection of stories. We call it the Bible, but as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us today, it is really a collection of stories, about characters we meet with names like Moses and Joshua, and Rahab, and Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, and places and events like the crossing of the Red Sea, and the fall of Jericho, and the conquest of Jerusalem under David and the building of its temple under Solomon.
Memories – memories that become stories, and tangible objects too. Today we will take bread, and break it, and take the cup of wine and bless it, and then share the bread and the cup of wine among ourselves. And while we do so, we will recite a story about Jesus, who on the night before he was betrayed, took bread and the cup and blessed them and broke the bread and shared it among his friends.
We will do this together, because as we will be reminded in the story we tell, Jesus said do this for the remembrance of me. Do this to remember me, do this to reassemble me, do this to enable us to imagine ourselves as we are in Christ, as we are as the Church.
Memory, story, of Jesus’ past, reenacted today, reminds us who we are and enables us to be who we are – the Body of Christ, all members of one body, his body, which we are, today.
This action unites us with Jesus in his relationship with his followers, whom we are, today, and with all those who have come together over the centuries between then and now, unites us with what the author of Hebrews calls “a great cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before, and also with all who will come after us, all united in one Body, in the act of telling the story, of remembering the story, and of reenacting the story.
So we in the Church are a kind of family, different in that we chose to be here, unlike with our biological families, which sort of happened unplanned, to us, as we happened to them. But similar in that we can be with each other in this community and in this place more of ourselves as we ordinarily are rather than the roles we play when we are in our professional and community lives as people who work together or share neighborhoods together.
Needless to say, therefore, with all these warm associations about family, and the Church, the Gospel reading for today came as a bit of a shock to me.
Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father, mother against daughter
and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
OK so Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the source of family discord, intergenerational discord, and he’s happy about it, positively excited about it. “I came not to bring peace but a sword, I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” “Bring it on,” he says, in the language of our day.
OK, well, so much for family values. So much for the idea of the person at the heart of Christian story and at the heart of Christian practice being gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
I’ll be honest – I’ve ducked preaching about this story about Jesus before, in this place. There are ways out of having to take it seriously.
Here’s an example. We have talked already about memories. Memories are our inner records of past events and experiences. And memories – scientists of the mind tells us – memories are creations of the moment and of the audience and of the rememberer as much as, if not more so, than they are transcriptions of fact. Do not expect stories you tell about the past to be factual – you may remember the old Lerner and Lowe song I remember it well about the couple who compare notes about the day they met, and as the song plays out they realize that they each remember central event in their lives very differently:
Honore: We met at nine
Marnita: We met at eight
Honore: I was on time
Marnita: No, you were late
Honore: Ah, yes, I remember it well
We dined with friends
Marnita: We dined alone
Honore: A tenor sang
Marnita: A baritone
Honore: Ah, yes, I remember it well
That dazzling April moon!
Marnita: There was none that night
And the month was June
Honore: That’s right. That’s right.
Marnita: It warms my heart to know that you
remember still the way you do
As memories get formed into stories, they get shaped by the goal of the teller – his understanding of the point he or she wants to make – and by the audience – who tend to hear what they want to hearwhat they want to hear.
We know that the stories about Jesus in the Bible started out as memories, handed down from one generation of the early Church to the next. These were not literate, learned people, these early followers of Jesus. They were ordinary folks, telling stories, recounting their memories to one another.
And we know that the early Christian community was controversial, was divisive in Jewish circles with its claims that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah, was divisive in Gentile circles with its insistence on worshipping the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Moses and of David, and of Jesus, rather than being polytheistic or than being willing to worship the Roman rulers who claimed to be gods.
So one thing that people say about this story about Jesus and the sword and about fire and about bringing intergenerational conflict is that – whatever Jesus originally said or didn’t say – if you are facing division or conflict with members of your own family or with neighbors or with rulers, then its helpful and supportive to believe that this isn’t surprising at all, that Jesus anticipated it from the beginning, and that Jesus is with you in this conflict, even turning this conflict into something that leads us closer to God’s Kingdom.
My guess is that people in the larger Christian community who take positions on things like evolution, or issues of race, sex, or gender that set themselves apart from the larger world love this text. Love this text because it reinforces the value of their being different, separate, AS CHRISTIANS, as their definition of what it means to be Christian leads them to believe.
And we, in this congregation, aren’t there. I think I’m safe in saying that — So we can skip over all this talk about conflict, and the value of division and move on. And that might make you happy, and if it does, then I can quit, and we can move on in the service. But I suspect that for at least some of you, that’s not enough.
So I want to work on this text a little bit more.
And I want to do that by putting it next to the much more optimistic text from Hebrews I’ve already quoted from, where the writer celebrates the company we keep in this community of faith, the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us, and callus upon us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Beloved, this laying aside of weight and sin, sometimes its hard. So the Collect for the day gives us language so that we may pray for “grace to receive thankfully the fruits of Christ’s redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”
Beloved, we shape our memories when we make them into stories, we mold them into narratives that we hope will do work for us in understanding our world, and the experiences we have, and the lives we live, and teaching others what we think is good and right and appropriate, and to move them to see things from our point of view.
Here’s a memory – about 40 minutes ago – can you think back 40 minutes? – 40 minutes ago our Crucifer Josh Martin led our procession from the Concourse into this space, carrying the cross. And his act of carrying the cross into this space was a sign that we were beginning the service – that and the fact that Allen struck up the tune to our first hymn, our processional hymn – and so everyone stopped praying or chatting with your neighbor and stood up, and watched, and sang, and and so we began our service.
So, lets say you got to choose the processional hymn, and you wanted to choose a hymn that was familiar, but also a hymn that professed your understanding of what it meant that we were doing when we did this procession with the cross at the front.
Two choices that might do both those things for you are hymns 562 and 473. If you chose Hymn 562, we would sing the very familiar words, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.” If you chose Hymn 473, we would all sing, “Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim.”
So, two entirely different scenarios, two different stories, but the same action, the same Josh, the same cross, the same space, the same community. We’ve sung them both in this place.
Personally, I would never choose to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” again. I’m a big “Lift High the Cross man,” still looking for the grace to receive as joyfully and thankfully as I should the fruits of Christ’s redeeming work — but I do not have the power to prevent Onward Christian Soldiers from being chosen, and I certainly don’t have the power to get it removed from the Hymnal.
What I do know is that Onward Christian Soldiers has been thought by people who have gone before us to be appropriate, truthful, theologically sound, rousing, inspirational, just the hymn we need to sing. And today’s gospel reading fits right in with it. The Christian journey is difficult, narrow, costly, as Jesus promises it will be, for we are in a battle against the forces of evil and darkness, temptations are everywhere, and only the few and the strong will persevere. But for those of us who choose to define life this way, or who find life to be this way, then Jesus is there with us.
The world of Onward Christian Soldiers is a very different world from the world of Lift High the Cross. The point I want to make is that in the Bible stories like this one sit side by side with stories like the Epistle for today, or all the affirmative and celebratory stories. There is death and cast iron in our stories as well as joy and celebration. They are all resources for us as we seek to live out our Christian lives
I choose Lift High the Cross, because I can choose. Because it is truer to the Gospel as I read it. But having stories like the Gospel reading and the Epistle side by side in the Bible, and in our liturgical lives together as they are today, enables us to recognize how situational stories are, even biblical stories, and how situational our lives are, and how situational our understandings, and how we can choose, and how – by having stories as different as these are side by side, we can examine the implications of our choices.
The point is that – while we need our stories, while we need to find the stories that work for us and stick to them – we need to remember that our stories themselves are limited, and that we choose them, and that if we find that our stories are not working for us in supporting us in getting to a goal we care deeply about, we can change our stories.
To bring all this back to my family, my father, as I said earlier, was the youngest of 10 children, and so it fell his lot, as it so often did in large families like his, for the youngest child to be asked by the others to stay behind, to put his life on hold, to look after the aging parent. And so he did. He did not marry until after his mother died, which meant he was 40 when he married, and 41 when I was born.
After my father died, I went through some of his papers and learned that after his mother died, he felt that his older siblings owed him something for the sacrifices he had made for them, and for their mother. Owed him more of a piece of their inheritance than his mother’s will provided for. He was sufficiently upset by this that he seriously considered taking legal action against his older siblings.
But he never did. And I knew nothing of this. The father I knew valued his family so highly that he would never miss one of these reunions, and made sure that I didn’t either, and we still don’t, hence our being there last Sunday rather than here.
The sense I make of this is that my father found the story that worked for him, and it was a story of reconciliation with his family rather than pursuit of financial reward for his service to the family. He chose which story formed him, and which version of the family’s story he would embrace and affirm, and live in terms of. He knew he could choose, and revise, and live with the story that enabled him to live according to his sense of what was important and what was not. Beloved, the danger of a limited repertoire of stories in a world like ours is that we can become trapped by our stories, prisoner of a few stories rather than made free by a variety of possibilities or options or
All of this is another way of saying what Paul says when he argues that there is nothing in heaven or earth, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Even in the conflict between stories, even in our struggle to reconcile them, to make coherent sense of them, Christ is present. Beloved, to share the bread, we break the bread. Beloved, as Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem, forget your desire for a perfect offering, for there is a crack in everything. But that’s where the light gets in. And it is the light that transfigures you and me. That makes meaning of our lives. In community, in this place, in relationship to the table where we break the bread and share the cup. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in, the light that transfigures you and me.