Reverend Doctor William Willimon, in the first sermon he preached at his first call, compared a first sermon to a first date. “I want to do well, put my best foot forward, not say anything too dumb that might render impossible a future relationship, impress you…”, he told his congregation at Trinity.[i] I love that his first church, too, was called Trinity.
Yes, I can agree with that, I too want to do well, put my best foot forward, not say anything too dumb that might render impossible a future relationship. The first sermon is a big deal. Of course, this is not really the first sermon I preach here, after all, there was the candidating sermon and weekend. Although, looking back, that felt more like speed dating – like spending a few hours together to see if think we would like to get to know each other better and if we see a potential in a future. And I did. And you did. And the Spirit led us to becoming more serious with each other. I am grateful for each step of the journey that brought us closer together.
And so, this week we begin our journey together and amid unpacking boxes (I am glad to say I have finally located my coffee cups but we are still using plastic forks) I found myself pondering just what this first sermon would look like and sound like. What shape would it take? I found that this week, I want to do something a little different from how I normally preach – not that you would know yet, but still...
I want to take a lesson from St. Paul’s and read a letter – a letter to you – a letter to this church, to Trinity Reformed Church United Church of Christ in Collegeville, Pennsylvania – and the church that I now lovingly refer to as my congregation (Although, we all we know you are not mine but, if anything, I am yours – here to serve you as your pastor – and we all are part of the one body of Christ and members of Christ’s one church).
So maybe I should begin this letter in very Pauline fashion:
Suzanne, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be a pastor by the will of God.
To the Church of God that is in Trinity UCC in Collegeville.
Grace to you and peace from our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to the Spirit of God that led me here and I give thanks to God for you – my siblings in Christ – and my new church family and church home.
My new church family and church home.
During the Search & Call process and especially during the last weeks, home and family have been on my mind a lot. My spouse and I spent many hours packing up our belongings and getting ready to leave the place that had been our home for about 12 years and to move over two hours away from those whom we call family, our son Julien and our granddaughters Jade and Rosalyn, and make our way to a new place to call home and a new place of belonging.
While we were packing we found many old pictures and mementos and at times we stopped and reminisced about them for a while. They reminded us of time spent with our families and they reminded us of the many places we had called home during our lives. They also reminded us of what we may leave behind and of what we had to look forward to. I want you to know that, to me, the move felt like a ‘coming home to’ rather than a ‘leaving home’. This was a feeling that had been with me since the first time I came to visit you and your church. This was to be my home. Home -- being home is a big deal. ECLA pastor Sharon Blezard points toward the popularity of home and suggests “there seems to be a significant portion of nostalgia and longing for home, something deep and almost primal in our nature. We long for a home where we can be loved and accepted, where we feel safe and secure”.[ii] I do so here.
While my spouse and I were heading toward a new home, Jesus in our gospel reading is going back to the home he has known. The people he has known. His family. However, when they try to see him, Jesus turns around and asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” while in the next breath already answering his own question, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is going home yet, as the text tells us, his family are “outside” while he is “inside”, and rather than welcoming them in with open arms he seems to tell them that those who are already with him are his true family. For his first hearers this would have been shocking. Family in Jewish life was extremely important and valued. The many genealogies in the Bible bear witness to its significance – not the least of which is the Genealogy of Jesus recounted in Matthew and connecting him to Abraham, the father of a multitude – whom we share with other religions.[iii] There are pages upon pages in the Bible detailing just how people are related to each other and what was done to keep bloodlines alive. Religion, economics, landownership, and more were tied to family life and lines and home was the land owned and inhabited by multiple generations of one’s family. Family loyalty, respect, and obedience were important characteristics of Jewish family life. And yet, family has now been radically redefined by Jesus.
In our reading today, Jesus offers a definition of family that subjects kinship not to matters of biology or human loyalty but to loyalty, respect, and obedience to God’s will. Just as home is not about buildings and possessions or other perceived securities, family is no longer about blood relations. Home is wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name; where two or more are gathered in love. It is less about the WHERE and WHO but about the HOW and WHAT. HOW and with which values we live our lives and WHAT is it that is at the center of our lives. Jesus tells us that by the grace of God, everyone is at home and everybody has a family here among the faithful. Only the desire to do God’s will is what binds us and makes us family.
It is that desire, beloved community, that has led me here; the desire to do God’s will and to do so alongside you - by walking with you as we all discern, share, and live out God’s will for our lives, the life of the church, and even all of creation. While my spouse, my son and my granddaughters will always be my family and next of kin, both home and family are now also found for me here at Trinity, with you, my beloved congregation and family. And although I am here as your pastor and called to lead you on our journey together, each one of you is equally important and equally gifted. The gifts may vary but all of us are equipped in one way or another. I can’t wait to find out what all your gifts are and how they are used or can be used in building up the kin-dom of God!
Loving and following God binds us together more deeply than any ties of human kinship. And all we are called to do, my dear sisters and brothers, is to lay down anything that prevents us from making our home in Christ. And so maybe the Gospel this week is a good reminder of the joy and difficulties that come with learning to love a new person into a church family and in noticing the absence of another. It may also be a good reminder of the grace of God that strengthens us and guides us through that process. But above all it is a reminder of the grace of God that brought us together and knits us together into a family.
We are called to share together in the privilege and blessing of loving each other and of caring for one another beyond the circle of immediate family life. We are called to be transformed to love without limits, the way Jesus loved. The Table is where we make our transition, where what we believe about God and God’s will of loving one another becomes our outward being. The table is where we grow closer as a family and where we can find that which binds us together – our identity as family, as children of God and siblings in Christ.
In a few moments we will have our first time together at this table – may it transform us and shape us and bind us together as a family as we begin our journey together. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.[iv]
[iii] see Genesis 17:5
[iv] 2 Corinthians 13:13