This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at the church where I grew up and was baptized, Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. My childhood pastor, the Rev. Dr. L. Wilbur Kersey, is still active in ministry there, and he offered a generous welcome as well as some remarks that reminded my of why I loved being Baptist. He encouraged the congregation to be open-minded about women’s leadership in ministry and pointed out that although some would say Southern Baptists do not ordain women, there are thriving Baptist churches in Virginia led by women. In Baptist belief, there are no absolutes! (This may be why I was such a good Congregational UCC person, too.)
When I was a new pastor, serving my first church in Portland, Maine, I was amazed to find how many of the passages I preached reminded me of my hometown and my first church family. I was 40, and had lived away from Portsmouth for 25 years, but memories of the sidewalks of Olde Towne and the faces of Court Street Baptist still demanded my attention. And quite a few of the sermons I preached in that church began a little something like this:
“When I was a little Baptist girl growing up in Virginia…”
Sometimes I elaborated; I was a little Southern Baptist girl, or a little girl in Portsmouth, Virginia. I used that opening so many times in the first year that I worried it would grow tiresome, so I stopped it and looked for other ways to say things. Then one day, a dear lady said, as she shook my hand after a service, “Why don’t you ever tell us those stories anymore, about when you were a little girl in Virginia? I loved those.”
Across time and distance, those stories preached. And here I am, a grown woman, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, standing in a place that child never imagined standing, and that’s the way I’m going to start today.
When I was a little Southern Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I learned that Jesus loved me, and I learned it right here. I learned it sitting on a little chair in Sunday School. I learned it from Margaret Harrison and Charlotte Munday and Mary Trimble (who greeted me at the door this morning!).
It’s a comforting truth I have carried through my life, no matter where I lived or where I worshiped, when I was a stay-at-home mom or a commuting seminarian or a small church pastor. It’s an encouraging truth I have remembered through joys and sorrows and surprises and disappointments, in all kinds of health and every kind of weather, through changes in circumstances and revelations of self-understanding.
I’ve carried that truth and trusted it because I learned it at the knees of dear spiritual mothers, as I learned so many things from the spiritual parents who helped raise me in this church. So many people who gave their time and their good efforts to the children and youth of this church in the ‘60s and ‘70s left their marks on me and many others, through words spoken and smiles given and stories heard. Just like family events and stories, those interactions formed the children of this church.
Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to call our families part of our church. I know one of the joys for me in ministry has been worshipping with my children, who loved hearing those “little girl in Virginia” stories, especially when they included my impression of my father’s famously slow drawl – but those are stories in case I ever go visit at Monumental, where the other side of my family were members. You see, I never grew up associating *my* family with *church* family, because under our roof we represented two denominations that lived well together, and we claimed ancestors who founded Trinity Church down the street, and had a whole bunch of Episcopalians for cousins and friends, too. I knew there were a lot of flavors of Christians, and I understood us all to be part of one larger family.
But sometimes it goes back the other way, and our faith is a thing that gets in the way of having our earthly family relationships. We believe something differently – and the disagreement about the details or the practices or the lack of agreement in general – comes between us and the people who, in the world’s terms, should be closest to us. This may surprise us, but it really shouldn’t, not if we have paid attention to the story we heard this morning about Jesus and his family.
In the first three chapters of Mark, Jesus builds quite a reputation for himself. He is on the move from town to town, healing people, casting out demons and declaring the Kingdom of God is *at* hand. To the less spiritual eye it looks more like things are getting *out* of hand. Wherever he stops, so many people gather that they have to crowd around the houses where he is eating, peering in at the windows, hoping someone will move so they can slip through the door and get close enough to talk with him or touch him.
My favorite story in these first chapters come in Mark 2:1-12, which reminds me of a long ago Vacation Bible School lesson, where we built the house and made a paper stretcher on strings for the man whose friends literally took off the roof to get him into the middle of the house where Jesus was eating dinner. They let him down through the ceiling. Just imagine. And not only does Jesus heal him, he does it by declaring the man’s sins are forgiven. Then, “Take up your mat and walk,” he says. And the man does.
It’s wonderful and shocking, and it’s attention-getting.
The stories people spread about Jesus get the attention of the religious authorities, and they declare he must be a demon himself, since he has power over them. The word starts going around that he is crazy. In the lead-up to the passage we read this morning his family turns up, to try and take him home. Maybe they hoped to hush up the whole situation. We get embarrassed when people say our loved ones are crazy. We don’t know what his family thought Jesus would say or do, but I am guessing they expected him to come quietly and keep them safe from further humiliation.
Because most of us care what our families think about us. I know I spent most of my young life trying to figure out how to be the best kind of good girl I could be, with some success and a lot of failures. I felt the double pressure to be a good Christian girl and a gently-raised daughter of the Spong and Galliford family. I held dual citizenship, and I took both parts of it very seriously, hoping to please God and my parents and my grandmothers, too. It’s not just a Portsmouth phenomenon, is it?
I’m guessing we don’t read this particular part of the story to children much, or have them build this other crowded house in Vacation Bible School, or draw a picture of Jesus’ family standing outside waiting, because Jesus isn’t worried about what his family thinks of the ministry he is doing or even what they think about his state of mind or the way he lives his life. He does not respond when they call. Instead, he declares he has a new family.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35, CEB)
“Whoever does God’s will.” I fear this is a harder set of terms to define. Most of us can readily say who our mothers and brothers and sisters are, whether we love them or struggle to get along with them. We know who they are. They are defined by their relationship titles, not their actions.
But how do we know exactly who Jesus meant?
Christian history is full of disputes between groups – groups of Christians! – who disagree about what it means to do God’s will. They disagree on big things, like how to baptize, and smaller things, like which translation of the Bible to use, and in-between things like whether it’s okay to say Alleluia during the season of Lent. If you observe Lent, that is. I can tell you from personal experience as recent as the day before yesterday that these are not old arguments. I am the Director of an ecumenical ministry to clergywomen and, as part of that work, I oversee a Facebook group for 2500 clergy from many, many denominations. My rule for the group is pretty simple: it’s okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to be insulting about it. I think I came to that understanding as part of my dual citizenship training. It’s not enough to be tolerant of others and the way they interpret Jesus’ instructions to us. If we can listen respectfully instead of reacting and rejecting, we may learn not only something about why other people do things the way they do, but we might also gain a deeper understanding of why we do things the way we do.
I’ll tell you a secret.
Even though I’m a minister in a tradition where we baptize infants or adults, I like it best when the person who wants to be baptized is old enough to be asking for him or herself. I’m half-sad that we only sprinkle and half-relieved that I don’t bear the responsibility immersing people larger than I am. I’m always inclined to get as much water on the person being baptized as possible. I don’t think my new denomination is wrong; it’s just that I can see both sides.
The day I was baptized here remains lively in my memory. Forty years later, I recall that combination of exhilaration and anticipation and a little bit of fear of the unknown. I was 13, and being baptized had been on my mind for a long time as I waited for the moment that I felt ready. I remember the view that day, as I came down those stairs and could see the people I knew and loved in the congregation, a strange mixture of Court Street folk and a larger circle of family and friends you wouldn’t see here on other Sundays, gathered to mark our common understanding that baptism creates ties deeper than our social ties.
It’s nice to have our families with us in church, but Jesus is talking about a new kind of family, one that transcends blood ties.
I arrived at this church in 1961 as a newly adopted child. My mother, who had been a social worker, read up on how and when to tell your child about being adopted. The trend at the time was away from secrecy and toward telling children early. We had a copy of the book, “The Chosen Baby,” and I turned those pages over and over again even when nobody was reading the words to me.
I can’t remember not knowing I was adopted or ever feeling I was in the wrong family, other than the usual stresses and strains of growing up that might make anyone feel that way! It was a shock to me in high school when a classmate heard me talking about being adopted and got a strange look on her face. She asked me, genuinely concerned, “Do you always talk about it?”
It hadn’t crossed my mind that it might be something to keep secret.
We read in Ephesians that God intended to adopt us even before Creation occurred, and perhaps because of my own story, I do believe this. I believe that whatever the circumstances of our lives, God’s care for us began before the beginning.
We have a place in God’s family; it is God’s plan and God’s good will to make a place for us.
At the time this letter was written to the church at Ephesus, adoption had a common meaning different from the assumptions we might make about it. In 20th century America it became a means of rearranging the fates of children whose biological parents were unmarried, and to place them confidentially with unrelated families. In more recent years, we’ve reinvented adoption to incorporate more openness and communication, and we’ve widened our scope to include international adoptions.
But in the 1st century, people understood adoption differently. In the dominant Roman culture, adoption served a dual purpose. The Pater Familias stood at the top of the pyramid of power, the Father of the Family, able to define and redefine his family and who might be part of it. If a family lacked an heir, the Pater Familias would seek a child to elevate into the family. The child’s family could gain the advantage of having their child become part of another, while this served the needs of the richer or more important family by providing an heir.
This is the way the Ephesians would have heard the claim being made on their behalf. The Heavenly Pater Familias, the Divine Head of Household, wanted them to be part of the Ultimate Extended Family, with all the rights and privileges and inheritances of a natural Child of God.
What an immense assurance of God’s love for us! We are part of God’s family, not by birth, but because of God’s desire to bring us together in Christ.
Yet we still struggle to agree on who gets to be in that family, and we – and I am guilty of this myself – we make assumptions about who is “in” or “out” by the standard Jesus used in our passage from Mark.
“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
We live in a time of dispute and division, and we tend to think it’s never been worse than it is now, but I suspect that the human tendency to choose up sides and condemn the opposition is no worse now than it has ever been. We just have more ways and more venues for being cruel, bigger weapons and louder sound systems and faster means of communication. We live with the temptation to assure we are right by defining other people as wrong.
I learned a different way to live, and I learned it right here in Portsmouth, right here at Court Street. I learned it by the example of kindness and understanding shared in our Sunday School rooms and in the ministry of Dr. Kersey. Some of those lessons were obvious at the time, but others took years to become apparent.
It took a long time for my legal adoption to be final, about 18 months from the time I was placed with my parents. They went to court to affirm the legalities, but they wanted to do something more to mark my new status and the assurance that no one could come and take me away from them. They decided to have me christened. I was one-and-a-half, and I don’t remember, but there are pictures taken on a November day, those little black-and-white prints I strain to see with my middle-aged eyes now. I am wearing a matching coat and hat, and my parents are dressed up, and they are standing outside Monumental with me and with the Methodist minister, and in that picture you would also find a very young Mr. Kersey. And I give him all the credit for being there and being a pastor to my parents and to me, both then and when I came to him at age 13 and asked to be baptized, not quite understanding that some people would think it had already been done and others would say it never counted in the first place.
God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. (Ephesians 1:5-6, CEB)
I believe this. I believe it’s a more complex way of stating the much simpler idea I learned sitting in a little chair here in Sunday School. Jesus loves us. God loves us. I believe we are called to be the family Jesus described and the family Paul described, a new family in Christ that honors God’s grace.
Whoever does God’s will, said Jesus. I don’t feel qualified to say with certainty what God’s will is in each specific question about how we worship or baptize or share the Lord’s Supper, whether we say “debts” or “trespasses,” and who we welcome into our church families. I hope I’m getting it right when I draw on the lessons I learned here, in this downtown full of churches, in that little wooden chair, believing Jesus loves all of us, believing God calls all of us to be part of a new family in Christ. Amen.