Sermon preached June 10, 2012 at Chester Park United Methodist Church, Duluth. At the end of the month First United Methodist Church, Duluth and Chester Park UMC will be merging. This sermon was preached at Chester Park. Later at First I did not preach as we celebrated the ministry of Carol Donahue, our long-time organist and music director.
Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-15; Mark 3:31-35
The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was president. It was the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis. The United Nations had declared 1979 “The International Year of the Child.”
In 1979 I turned 20, completed my second year and UMD and began my third. I was a stock clerk and checker at Loop Super Valu near 45th Ave. E. and Superior Street. That summer I began dating a young woman named Julie. We will have been married thirty years this summer.
In 1979 the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, who were in last place in their division in April went on to represent the National League in the World Series. They went behind three games to one in the best of seven series with the Baltimore Orioles, but came back to win the series. At the heart of that baseball team was Willie Stargell, whose career with the Pirates began in 1962. The team called him “Pops” – he was nearing forty. Stargell played brilliantly that year. He was the Most Valuable Player of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series – the oldest player ever to be the World Series MVP at age 39, and was also the National League MVP. He is the only player ever to win all three MVP awards in a single season.
Stargell did more than play brilliantly; he helped his team become a team – a family of sorts. A teammate said of Stargel, "If he asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge, we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That's how much respect we have for the man." And Stargell used a popular song of the day, to help his team bond – “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
We are family. We are family. We have history together, you and me. I grew up in the Lester Park neighborhood of Duluth, in a yard adjacent to Marlys and Bill Wolden and their daughters, and even at 52 it feels a little funny to call them Marlys and Bill. They moved before Cindy entered middle school. Kyle Harriss went to school with my sister and played in our back yard. My mom was confirmed here at Chester Park Evangelical United Brethren Church. She and my dad were married here in 1956. I worked at Loop Foods with one of your members and babysat the nephews of another member. We are connected, you and me. We are family, and I look forward to building on these already existent connections.
Let us press more deeply. A crowd had gathered around Jesus and his family was concerned about his well-being (Mark 3:21). When his mother and brothers arrived the crowd said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” Apparently there were no seating perks for Jesus’ family, no backstage passes. Jesus’s response is frankly kind of cold. “Who are my mother and my brothers!” Then he looks at the crowd gathered. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
Now my mom is planning on being here next Sunday and were I to say something like this, I think her feelings would be hurt. What is Jesus up to here? In part, Jesus may be challenging certain Roman conceptions where families defined one’s place in society. Who your father was could determine a lot of your fortune in life. Social structures have a profound impact on our self-perceptions. If society defines me a certain way, perhaps that is all of who I am. Social stereotypes can become internalized and that can be a problem. If we are part of the family of God, wow! You need not be defined by who your father is, or how functional your family may have been. You are part of the family of God. Maybe that is part of what Jesus is up to.
And maybe part of what he is up to saying that when we follow him, when we follow Jesus, it is not just an individual matter. As a good family provides loving care and encouragement, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. As a good family laughs and weeps with us, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. As a good family challenges us to stretch and grow, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. We need each other for support and encouragement and challenge. It is in community that we are asked to live out our commitments to love. Jesus commandment to his followers is to love. As followers of Jesus we are to be known by the love we have for one another.
Those who claim that they are spiritual but not religious make a good point. Sometimes our religious institutions don’t live up to their spiritual claims. We need to work on that. What they often miss, though, is that spirituality, or at least the spirituality of Jesus, is meant to be lived out in community. It is here that we put our spiritual ideas into practice, and if our spirituality cannot work with other real, living human beings with faults and foibles, we need to ask how deep a spirituality we really have.
As Chester Park United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church join together at the end of this month, we are creating a new family. I am reminded of the language of our wedding liturgy – “the marriage of Chester Park UMC and First UMC unites their families and creates a new one.” Yes, except that in Jesus, in so many ways, we are already family. It will be up to us to build on our already existing family relations, family ties.
I think we will do that best as together in our new family we remember that Christian community as family is a family with a purpose. What does the Lord your God require of you? Only that you fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) H. Richard Niebuhr, a well-respected theologian from the middle of the last century in his book The Purpose of the Church and It’s Ministry wrote that the purpose of the church, “a community of memory and hope” (25) is the increase among persons “of the love of God and neighbor” (31). The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church says that the purpose of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
We are family, and as family people with a purpose. Our purpose is to love God and neighbor, and to increase love of God and neighbor in our lives, in our church, and in the world. We do that by making disciples of Jesus Christ who live out their discipleship in the world. Our purpose is a heart-purpose and a soul-purpose. As Chester Park and First come together, there may be, no, there will be some bumps along the way. We will navigate the turbulent waters of our merger best as we remember that we are coming together so that we can increase the love of God and neighbor in our lives and in our world. That is our heart-purpose, our soul-purpose.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember who we are - followers of Jesus Christ who calls us together.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember whose we are – God’s people, the family of God in Jesus Christ, a community of memory and hope.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember why we are – to increase love of God and neighbor, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We are family already. We are becoming a new family together. Maybe words from our wedding blessing would be a good way to end this sermon, even as we begin life together. May we serve God and our neighbor in all that we do. May we so bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends. We are family. Thanks be to God. Amen.