Background: When I was in New Orleans a few months ago at a meet-and-greet-the-speaker reception one of the guests turned out to be an All Saints parishioner who happened to be in New Orleans. (Small world!)
Anyway, in the our conversation over wine-and-cheese he mentioned that he still remembered a sermon I preached about (in his words) "how nobody gets the family they expected -- even Joseph."
Since I tell people that anybody who remembers a sermon past coffee hour gets extra credit, I was pretty impressed that he remembered this one. So I went and looked it up and decided it was worth "re-running" on this Advent Four Monday.
So Happy Advent -- Merry Almost Christmas -- and let's hear it for Holy Family Values!
HOLY FAMILY VALUES
We’re running out of Advent. The season that began a few short weeks ago with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the lighting of the first candle on the Advent wreath is drawing to a close. The Christmas cards are sent – mostly; the packages are wrapped – well, some of them, anyway! And this morning -- as we see around us the beginnings of the halls decked with boughs of holly -- we light that fourth and final Advent candle that lights our way to that stable in Bethlehem and Little Lord Jesus Asleep on the Hay.
When my boys were little, lighting those Advent candles on the dining room table was a really big deal. I'd like to think it was because they had grasped the significance of the holiness of this Advent season as a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of our Lord. However, I'm sure it was because if the Advent Wreath was there, the tree and presents couldn't be far behind! And it was a tradition that “stuck” in our family long after they had outgrown many others.
I’m remembering this morning a particular evening in Advent. The boys would have been about twelve and fifteen. It was after I had come out and their father and I had separated and while we were working away at what my therapist called “reconfiguring the family on the other side of the marriage.” We were at the dinner table together with the Advent wreath in the middle and -- that particular night -- my younger son, Brian, was on about something he couldn’t live without and his father and I were ruining his life by not getting it for him. I think it was a dirt bike.
He didn’t want to hear reasoned explanations that dirt bikes were not in the budget for newly ordained parish priests. “So how long do we have to wait until there’s some money in this family?” he asked. “What about those big jobs at those fancy churches? Why don’t you go be in charge of one of those?” And I must have run out of patience at that point for I remember saying, “You have be ordained longer than I have been to get those jobs, Brian – and besides, they usually go to the straight, white men.”
“Well, so much for that idea!” he said. And then, unable to resist one last parting shot added “I just hope you know I always expected my mom to be straight!” And his father, without missing a beat, piped in, “So did I!” And we all laughed … and Brian did NOT get the dirt bike.
Another thing Brian did not get was the family he expected – but that didn’t mean we quit being family to each other. And that’s because the values that made us family to each other transcended even the expectations we had for each other.
And the icon of what that family looks like for me is my mental picture of the year both of my sons and their father joined my partner Louise in the pew here at All Saints Church on Christmas morning – after a Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding the night before! I looked out at them from the chancel with deep gratitude for the family we had become.
We may not be a family James Dobson focuses on but that doesn’t make us any less family. And it doesn’t make the values that bind us together any less holy.
Joseph didn’t get the family he expected, either – and today’s Gospel according to Matthew tells us that his first reaction to the “unexpected” was to dismiss his pregnant fiancé … an act which would fallen firmly within the bounds of the traditional family values of his day – and would have made Mary and her child outcasts. Instead, Joseph did as the angel commanded and took Mary as his wife and named the child Jesus – and the rest is Holy Family History.
The Christ Child made the Holy Family holy – what made them a family were the values that bound them together as an icon of God’s love for the whole human family. Those values have nothing to do with either the gender or the genetics of those who make up a family and everything to do with the inclusive love of the God whose deepest desire is for this human race – created in God’s image – to become the human family it was meant to be.
Sadly, one of the things that has far too often gotten in the way of proclaiming that love to all people is the very thing that was created in order to proclaim that love to all people – and that thing would be The Church.
A case in point this morning is this story from the blog of a young Florida man who writes, “I was kicked out of the church when I was 16 for coming out. The pastor and youth minister both called me the devil and said I wasn’t welcome and my parents and family all used religion as a weapon against me … saying I was going to hell.” Not surprisingly he ended up with what he describes as “… a negative view of religion in general and Christians in particular. I found them to be disingenuous, non-thinking sheep at best and hate-filled, bigoted extremists at worst. That is, he says ... until I met Bishop Robinson.”
Describing his experience of Bishop Robinson when he spoke recently to a forum in Ft. Lauderdale, the young man goes on to say: “ … my views on religious people have shifted dramatically. Sure there are still the hate-filled bigots who use religion as a weapon. But that doesn’t represent them all. There are people like Bishop Robinson who simply want to use the lessons of God to make true change in the world. Honestly, he forced this jaded gay man to try and accept religious folks, or at least not write them off completely. If he can do that, I have every confidence that he can open the eyes of the world …”
This young man didn’t get the family he expected OR the church he expected – and rejected by both he rejected them in return. Yet Gene Robinson’s witness changed that – or at least “budged” it. And if he can do that, I too have every confidence that he can open the eyes of the world.
Yes, the schism du jour presents challenges to both the Episcopal Church and our wider Anglican family. It is rare to pick up a paper or open your email and not find yet-another plot development in what I’ve come to think of as the real-life reality-show: “As the Anglican World Turns.” And yet they are also times of great opportunity. We are surrounded by people who didn’t get the family they expected or the church they expected … and who have not yet heard about a church where Holy Family Values have nothing to do with gender or genetics and everything to do with grace and the good news of God’s inclusive love available to all.
Maybe it’s my own lived experience of reconfiguring a family on the other side of a marriage that gives me the hope we can also reconfigure a church on the other side of a schism.
Or maybe it’s because, as we prepare to welcome again the Prince of Peace into this war torn world, we prepare to glimpse again in that baby in the manger the hope of all humanity for relationships restored, creation fulfilled and God’s love so alive and so real we can reach out and touch it – love described in these words from John Shelby Spong’s “Christpower:”
Here in this life we glimpse
almighty life-giving force
of this universe
in startling completeness
in a single person.
Men and women tasted the power that was in him
and they were made whole by it.
They entered a new freedom,
a new being.
They knew resurrection and what it means to live
in the Eternal Now.
So they became agents of that power,
sharing those gifts from generation to generation,
creating and re-creating,
making all things new.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel – make us agents of the power to live in the Eternal Now and give us grace to live your Holy Family Values all the days of our lives. And may the God of hope fill us -- those we love, serve and challenge -- with all joy and peace in believing, these last days of Advent and always. Amen.