Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on June 21, 2009.
Mark 3: 31-34.
We will need to remember that we did not create ourselves, that we owe what we are to the communities that formed us.
—Robert Bellah in The Good Society
There is a story that I often share with couples as they come to talk about getting married. It is a true story that happened to an older pastor, now deceased, and his wife when they were newlyweds and attending seminary. He was leaving for class one day and she said, “Would you like for me to make some beans for dinner?” He thought that sounded really good, so he said, “Yes.”
All day long, he thought about green beans. His mother made the world’s best green beans. At his home, they always included a little bacon fat and some brown sugar and were cooked all day. All he could think about was what it was going to be like when he got home and had those green beans for dinner.
When he got home, he came in through the kitchen. There were a few pots on the stove, and he started lifting up lids and found no green beans. His wife came into the kitchen to greet him, and he said, “I thought you said we were going to have green beans.”
She said, “I didn’t say we were going to have green beans.”
“Yes you did. This morning when I left you said, ‘Would you like beans for dinner.’”
She said, “At my house when we said beans, we meant navy beans. There are navy beans in that pot right there.”
He said, “Well, at my house when we said beans, we meant green beans.”
They discovered that you could say beans and be talking about two entirely different things. One of the joys of marriage is discovering what each other means when you say certain things.
I use that to say the word family does not have the same image or connotation for each person. We often use it and don’t seem to think very far about what it might mean for someone else. Not every adult is married so the word family does not always mean couple. In a couple, not everyone always has children either because of some reason beyond control or by choice. If you say family, it does not necessarily mean children.
Sometimes in a home, there are multiple generations and we celebrate Mother’s Day but there is not always a mother. Sometimes we celebrate Father’s Day and there is not always a father. Not only does the shape change but the experience changes, too. In some homes, the image of family is support. The image is encouragement. The image is that undergirding that we all count on.
In some families, the image is suffocation. Move back, you are just getting too close. In some families, everybody lives in the same neighborhood, the same hometown. In other families, we think of people who have moved far away, sometimes by choice, trying to get as far away as they can. Sometimes family means longing, and sometimes family means running away. We would all want family to be a good thing, but we recognize that in everybody’s experience, family doesn’t always mean the same thing.
Let’s think for a minute about family in the world in which Jesus walked in the flesh so that we can all be thinking about the same thing.
Family, in the time of Jesus of Nazareth in Palestine, was the first line of loyalty. Most people did live near their extended families. A village might be a couple of extended families of multiple generations, third cousins once removed, and all those things that we cannot keep up with. A family typically stayed pretty close and family was always loyal to one another.
Families were often in the same business together. Many of you are in business together as families, but if we were to take a percentage, that would be a much lower percentage today than it was at the time of Jesus.
If you think about Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee and he sees James and John and their father, and the three of them have a fishing business. He comes across Peter and Andrew, two brothers in business together. We think about Joseph being a carpenter and Jesus being a carpenter before he begins his public ministry. It was part of being family.
This sets the scene for us. While Jesus is in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee which today would be a good hour’s car or bus ride from Nazareth, he has left home and is no longer a carpenter. He is now an itinerate rabbi, going around and teaching people about God. The family has come outside and he is in the midst of being attacked by a number of people. With a casual reading, it seems as if Jesus turns his back on his family. They say, “Your mother and your brothers are outside.” Notice they do not say, “Your father.” Jesus looks around and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers.” He looks at the people who were gathered there who have become his disciples and followers and says, “These are my mother and my brothers, anyone who does the will of God.”
It is easy to think he is rejecting his family, but he is not. If you were to begin in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark and read through, he has already been accused of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus did not reject the Sabbath. He expanded the understanding of people about what the Sabbath meant. Surely, God’s mercy and grace is done on the Sabbath like any other day. They would have withheld that from someone because it was the Sabbath and you couldn’t do that.
He has already been accused of not keeping the ritual of cleanliness in the Mid-East. He did not perform all the ritual washings before eating. He does not reject them; he just merely says, “So what if your hands are clean? If your heart is dirty, it doesn’t matter.” He has expanded what it means to understand being clean. Here, he is not rejecting family, but is expanding the answer. He is expanding the answer to say, Look, family is broader than the people who live under my roof. Family is broader than blood. Family includes all the people who worship, serve, and love God together. This is my family.
In the New Testament, it is no time at all until we are beginning to see the importance of relationships. On the night that he is betrayed and he is talking to his disciples, he says, I used to be the master and you were my students. Now you are my friends, my family.
When Paul writes his letters, almost every time he is writing to certain people. At the end he says, All these people who were here with me send greetings. Be sure to greet . . . . There is that list of names that nobody wants to read aloud in church because they are so hard. There are always names and connections. There are many things that are essential to being a church. Obviously, we would not be here at all if it were not for Christ. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. You have to have Christ or it is not a church. I believe you need some sort of witness in mission, a way of going into the world to let others know about Christ. What is it if it is just a little in-group that everybody stays with together?
If we truly believe in Christ, it has to include prayer because we want to talk to Christ. We want to know how Christ would lead us. If you are including on your short list the things that are absolutely essential for church, be sure to include relationships because there is no church without the relationships of common believers and believers who share together, people who lift each other up, people who pray for one another and encourage each other. Not one single person among us has everything that we need to be the Christian that God has called us to be. But when you start putting us together, I find that what I lack is made up by somebody else. What you lack is made up by someone else. We all come together and find that God gives us the resources to be who he has called us to be.
In this year that we are celebrating that will run from May to May, during each month (except July), we have one Sunday in which we celebrate some aspect of our 175th year. This church has now begun the 175th year of serving Christ in this community. Today, we celebrate the relationships that make us this particular church. The relationships are so vital because, for one thing, they connect us to our history.
Do you realize there are multiple families in this church that can trace family participation all the way to the back to the beginning, 175 years ago? There are more families who can trace participation at least back into the 1800’s. This is a long line of faithful people. Then there are the people who, five years ago, had not moved to Rome yet, had not come to this church yet, who are now such a vital part of it. The relationships connect us to our history.
You have heard of the six degrees of separation and how close we all are. It is amazing to me to listen to some of our older members talk and realize how close we are to the distant past with people in this congregation who knew, remembered, and participated as children. But it is not just about the past. It is also about being connected today through Sunday school classes, mission groups, and others. We look around and count on each other for these things that we lack in our own lives.
And, it is about the future. We look around now and there is no way of telling who is not here yet. We can’t tell who is not here yet, but there are people who are not here yet. We need to think about the people who need what this church offers and the people that we need to be all that God wants us to be as a congregation.
If we were to take a snapshot today of the people who are a part of this congregation, the snapshot of people today is not the end. There are yet more. It is not the length of the history of this church, but it is the quality. When we think about the things that many of us enjoy most, on the short list we would have worship. I think we have the finest music program that enhances our worship. I just can’t imagine where you could go to find better, and I think many of us appreciate it.
Some of the greatest Bible teachers I have ever known are a part of this church. It is a congregation where you can serve regardless of gender. There are no restrictions placed upon what you can or cannot do based upon whether you were born male or female.
If I go some place and talk about this church, like you, one of the first things I talk about is that this congregation is the hands of Christ in the world, people who feed, people who minister, people who go out and pray, people who include those who have so little in this world. I think about what it is that is present here. It is not just that there have been 175 years but there are others that surely we would want to share this with. Others, that if we would reach out to them would also encourage and increase the things that we already do well to make us even better.
My word today is let’s celebrate. Let’s celebrate how we got here. Some of you were born into the church. Some of you married into the church. Many of you were invited. Everyone was welcomed at some point. For whatever reason you came, you found that there was not just an expectation but there was a welcoming, a place for you. Let’s replicate that for the generations to come. Let’s reach out and find out what other great gifts there are that reside in the hearts and souls of the people who can come and give us a foundation for the next 175 years, if Christ does not come before then.
This is a wonderful church family. Let us pledge together to always look around, always include, never exclude, always reaching, always inviting, always striving to be the congregation that God has called us to be and celebrate the people on the journey with us, the people who serve Christ with us, because they have made us who we are.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.