SERMON ~ 05/21/2023 ~ “It’s Complicated”

05/21/2023 ~ Seventh Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

It’s Complicated

“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as the sisters and brothers of Jesus.” — Acts 1:14.

I want to start with an obvious question: who is family? Please notice, I did not ask ‘who are your blood relatives?’ I asked ‘who is family?’ (Slight pause.)

In my family structure I had a cousin whose name was Roseanna Genevieve McCool, a name that sounds as Irish as mine. Rose was true family, a blood relative— a cousin, the daughter of my paternal grandfather’s sister.

When I was very young my grandfather’s wife died. One of the consequence was instead of being simply a cousin, Rose— already close to the family as a blood relative but on top of that she had introduced my Mother and Father to each other— Rose became much more of a grandmother figure in my family life, in the structure of my family.

Was Rose my grandmother? No. Was she a grandmother figure? Yes. So even within the context of blood relations, things can be… complicated. (Slight pause.)

One more family story: Bonnie and I have a niece whose name is Heather. She lives in Dallas. But she grew up on Deer Isle and as we all gather at the family property near Stonington in July Heather and her family will be back in Maine, something they do only sporadically.

Except what I just said about Heather being related to us is wrong. Well it is, in one sense, not wrong. But it is certainly… less than accurate.

How so? Bonnie’s brother is Jack. Heather is the daughter of Jack’s first wife from another marriage. So she not Jack’s biological daughter. Hence, we are not related by blood. Even though Heather is not related, after Jack got divorced from that first wife, Jack had custody of Heather.

Indeed, Heather calls Jack “Dad.” She addresses her biological father not with an intimate term like Dad but by his first name. (Slight pause.)

So, who is family— really? It is complicated, is it not? (Slight pause.) And even though it is complicated, we experience it, live with the reality of it, know the complexity of it, do we not? As I said— family— it is… complicated. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Luke/Acts in the section commonly referred to as Acts: “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as the sisters and brothers of Jesus.” (Slight pause.)

Over time it has become evident to me people are often not comfortable with what Scripture really says, with its reality, with its complexity. Scripture… it’s complicated.

I think in part because of that complexity we tend to make up things about Scripture. And the things we make up often try to simplify what Scripture actually says.

For instance— and as I have said here before— there are two Nativity stories, two stories of the birth of Jesus, in the four Gospels. The story in Luke has angels and shepherds and the one in Matthew has a star and Magi. These were written at two different times, by at least two different authors, addressed to two different audiences.

These stories do not exist to report the birth of Jesus but to make theological points about the advent of the Messiah. And what do we do with them? We speak of them as if they were just about the birth of a child and mesh them together as if they were one. How many Christmas pageants tell these stories as if they were one? We simplify the complexity.

And they are not meant to be unified. To illustrate that lack of cohesiveness, clearly one of many theological points Luke tries to make is the advent of the Messiah should be announced, proclaimed to the poor, the outcast. Clearly one of many points Matthew tries to make is to tie the story of the Messiah to Jewish heritage, especially the Exodus.

In simplifying these two stories, in meshing them together, we ignore and flatten out the theological points, make it bland, domesticate it, make the stories culturally acceptable while blithely ignoring their theological intent and emphasis. Also as I am sure you know, there are only two nativity stories in the four Gospels. Hence, two of the Gospels totally ignore the birth story.

Why would two Gospels dismiss the nativity of the Messiah so completely, especially when our own culture seems to make those stories so central? I would suggest those two Gospels discount the birth stories for two reasons.

First, those two Gospels have their own theological points to make and make those points without even considering a birth story. Second and as I already indicated, the nativity stories we do have are not at all about an actual birth, except from the theological perspective, except to make specific theological points. The truth— it’s complicated. (Slight pause.)

So, did you notice in the story from Acts Jesus has brothers and sisters. And not just one sister and one brother— sisters and brothers— plural? And have you noticed our culture pretty much obliterates that little detail? Indeed, from other passages in Scripture it is clear the Apostle James is plainly, unambiguously a brother, meaning a blood relative, of Jesus.

So… Jesus had sisters and brothers or at least that’s what it says. But from what I’ve heard I am fairly certain that populist religion, folk religion, popular culture is largely in denial about Jesus having had any brothers, any sisters. (Slight pause.)

Now, here’s yet a different question: ‘given what I said earlier, are these people who are labeled as sisters and brothers actually sisters and brothers? Or are they some kind of extended family? Again, who is family? (Slight pause.)

Occasionally someone asks me why I am so passionate about Scripture. This is the answer I give. As I read what Scripture has to say, for me the people are real, alive. The situations are real, alive.

Also the way I see it, the people and the situations we find in Scripture are like real life— complicated. Because of that, the people and the situations seem real to me.

And yes, the theology fascinates me because it leads me to ask what are these real people, these real situations, trying to tell me, trying to tell us? And yes, the theology both recognizes the reality of God and is wrapped in complicated stories. (Slight pause.)

I would suggest the theological reality of God is just like our own every day reality, just like all reality. Have I said this already? Real life— it’s complicated. (Slight pause.)

Here’s the paradox wrapped all around of this. My perception is we make the reality of God much more complicated than it actually is. How do we do that? We overlay the reality of God with our cultural trappings, impose culturally acceptable falsehoods, which have little or nothing to do with God’s truth. (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to the question: ‘who is family— really?’ Here’s my definition. Family: the ones with whom we share our life, share our love, share our reality, share the complexity of our real lives.

And what is God’s truth? God’s truth is we are all part of God’s family. And it’s that statement, that we are all a part of God’s family that is not complicated. As I have said here before, God loves us and wants to covenant with us. God’s truth it’s that simple.

God’s truth is we are all children of God, all a part of the family of God. And that, my friends, can be as complicated or as simple as we make it out to be. So, is the love of God, as that love is reflected in each of us, complicated? Your call. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The late, great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote this lyric: ‘Anyone can whistle, / That’s what they say— / Easy. / Anyone can whistle / Any old day— Easy. / It’s all so simple: / Relax, let go, let fly. / So someone tell me why / Can’t I? / I can dance a tango, / I can read Greek— / Easy. / I can slay a dragon / Any old week— Easy. / What’s hard is simple. / What’s natural comes hard. / Maybe you could show me / How to let go, / Lower my guard, / Learn to be… free. / Maybe if you whistle, / Whistle for me.’— Stephen Sondheim. Sometimes, especially when it comes to covenant love, we need to relax, let go, let fly.”

BENEDICTION: God promises to empower our witness. The Holy Spirit is present to us. Jesus, the Christ, lives among us. Let us go from this worship to continue our worship with work and witness. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts, minds and spirits centered on God, this day and forevermore. Amen.

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