(A sermon I preached in Thetford, England in June of 2018 while on sabbatical. I was graciously invited to lead worship at the Cloverfield Church in Thetford, England. There was a sense of “homecoming” to that journey!)
Good morning! Thank you for welcoming me into your worship service today. It is a privilege to step into any pulpit and I deeply appreciate the trust Rev. Helen has shown by inviting me to offer a message to you today. I am from Michigan where I have pastored a congregation for 22 years. I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ, a sister denomination to your reformed roots. I am on sabbatical this summer and enjoying a trip around Europe, the first two weeks with my husband and daughter and now with three of my sisters.
I received a Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Grant that is funding my adventures. The theme to the grant is Nourishing Roots and I am on the move first in Europe and then in various parts of the United States to learn more about my ancestors.
A couple of things bring us to England. First, I did a DNA test that confirmed what my siblings and I already knew: we belong here! 92% of our genetic make-up comes from your British shores! That was even a little higher than we had thought. So we’re looking into graveyards and at street signs that bear the names of Tharp, Chapman, Seymour, Readyhough, Camp, and Webster.
After England we will scoot up to Scotland where we will visit the MacDougall castle in Oban to get a feel for the clan and land from which our paternal grandmother’s side of the family immigrated. The other fact that brings us to you, here in Thetford, is that my family lived in Barton Mills for three years when my father was stationed at Lakenheath Air Base in the early 60’s. Number three sister, who is here today, was born among you—named Elisabeth, in fact, to honor one of your own! Given this authentic claim to English roots, we were a bit miffed when we weren’t invited to the Royal Wedding! We would have moved up our trip to be part of the festivities. But it looks like George and Amahl got in ahead us.
So let’s talk about the royal wedding just for a moment! My husband and I watched it on TV several hours after the fact. Do you know what I liked about it? Well, the fashion show was, of course, mesmerizing. The celebrity appearances were interesting. The horse-drawn carriage ride along quaint streets lined with cheering citizens was endearing. But that’s not what really moved me. I was grateful that the world was given a glimpse of what it looks like to be a Christian! The worship service was reverent but also had humor—a critical mix for a healthy faith! There was beautiful music that has inspired the human spirit for generations. We heard authentic preaching of the Word by a priest who probed a deep understanding of the meaning of love. Congregants prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The couple spoke vows that positioned God at the center of their relationship. I was touched that millions of people got a peak into our experience as Christians. I prayed that those who have been turned off to the Church or never even been exposed to it— which is increasing numbers of people—would meet Jesus in that service and be drawn into our communion in some fashion.
When we trace our roots, we find ourselves meeting up with folks at family reunions. The dynamics of each clan is somewhat different. Idiosyncrasies of the family are on display in greater measure when everyone meets together with shared genetic material. Some of us look forward to our family gatherings—others, not so much! I have a friend who carries the same needlework project with her to each holiday celebration with her extended family. This gives her the excuse to focus on something other than the bickering that tends to dominate her reunions. When she returns home she sticks the needlework in her closet until the next gathering. What I loved about the royal wedding is that folks all across the globe were invited into our reunion as Christians which takes the name of “worship.” The service was rich and beautiful and inviting.
In the setting of family, God allows us to experience the fullness of life. This happens with wonderfully easy moments and those that are challenging. Good family reunions are the ones where people share their gifts readily with each other, take an interest in each other and listen well. But nobody is perfect, right? Some of the most interesting stories we have come from interesting characters who share our DNA. We all have at least one crazy aunt or drunken cousin, right? Do any of you have an interesting relative that you can count on to bring some excitement to the reunion?
In our congregation we did a winter retreat with a theme modeled after the TV show, Family Feud. We polled our congregation beforehand about their family reunions. When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun hearing about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! The source of tension at some reunions, acccording to some who returned our surveys, were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the reunion. Sharing blood ties is not always easy but it is the most influential of all our relationships, for better or worse!
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells a story about family, about our family! I could recite some of the genealogical lists that we find scattered throughout this book: Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob and Esau, who begat Joseph and brothers and so on and so forth.
Boring, right!? No one wants to be the liturgist when that’s the Biblical passage because the names are hard to pronounce and mean very little to us. But our text from Hebrews traces our lineage way back and names the common denominator that marks every reunion of God’s people: FAITH. One look at the list and we know that the family crest for every guest at this ancestral parade could be, “Nobody’s perfect!” Abel tops off the guest list and his pure sacrifice to God infuriates his brother who then kills him. I wonder how many times that story was told around family campfires?! We have Abraham who introduced his beautiful wife, Sarah, as his sister to safeguard his own security. The two of them gave up on God’s promise of offspring when they found themselves blowing out close to 100 candles on their birthday cakes. We read the name of Jacob who was known as a schemer. It is only fitting that he would meet his match in a conman of a father-in-law. So these folks, who are in the distant reaches of our spiritual ancestry, are very human. I find that reassuring, don’t you? God loves them and uses them in the grand drama of human salvation because of the one attribute they possessed that mattered: FAITH.
Faith is hard to come by. Let me clarify that: faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is not going to win you entrance into elite affairs in our societies today. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year in the States. Fewer than 20% of Americans regularly attend church services. All mainline denominations report a loss in numbers over the past 30 years. Those reporting no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) has risen from 6% in 1992 to 22% in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is 35%. From statistics I could pull up on my hand-held encyclopedia, the percentage of the British population who claimed no religion rose from 14% in 2001 to nearly 25% in 2011. Interestingly, Norwich, just south of here and home of the revered Julian, claims the highest proportion of folks who claim no religious beliefs: 42.5%. Poor Julian must be turning in her grave. So, whatever the figures, it’s clear to all of us who gather at this reunion called worship each week, that the vast majority of our neighbors wish NOT to join us.
So I wonder what it is that draws you here? This is counter cultural so why do you get out of bed, put on presentable clothes and make your way to worship and other church functions during the week?
I brought my baggage with me today. We all do that when we go to a family reunion, right? We stuff a suitcase with every conceivable outfit we might need and a bag of toiletries besides. This isn’t even all the baggage I could’ve brought! I’ve lived out of this small suitcase for about three weeks now so it’s best that I not open it. Sometimes our baggage doesn’t smell so fresh. What’s awesome about being part of a Christian congregation is that we are welcomed—even when we are a stranger and even when we bring in the baggage of our past. It is by FAITH that we meet together. We have witnessed unimaginable transformation in our lives and those of others who have invited Christ to be our Guide. It is our faith that allows us to be hopeful in the face of tragedy.
We’ve had a spate of suicides recently of public figures—we grieve the death of Anthony Bourdain who seemed at the top of his game. Suicide rates in America have increased by 28% since the year 2000. Remember the high percentage of millennials who have rejected religion? Well, suicide is the number three cause of death for youth in the US. We are experiencing an epidemic of despair with those who have abandoned the gifts of the Christian faith. Symbols for the Church historically have been an anchor, a solid rock, a boat in a storm, a fortress offering protection from enemies. Each week we gather in some sort of a sanctuary. I think we go against the grain of our cultures because we have seen Christ take every form of brokenness and offer healing. Even amidst our hardship, we’ve found joy for the simple gifts of each day. The line-up of ancestors in the Hebrews 11 list isn’t perfect but they clung to their faith so as to navigate the choppy waters of their lives.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that these giants in the faith died before seeing God’s promises fulfilled completely. They could see the hoped-for changes from a distance and that was enough.
So four wild and crazy sisters come swerving into your town in a rented Peugeot, trying desperately to stay on the right—I mean, the left—side of the street. We’re searching out our roots but we’re reminded in your holy presence this morning that those roots are found wherever two or three gather in the name of Jesus. Our reading today tells us that we will never be able to find our identity simply in geography or race or on one particular family tree. The family reunion where we will always feel welcomed is not the one where we leave our baggage behind. No, it’s the one where we meet under the sign of the cross, showing off our scars and sharing the faith that has brought us healing. Let’s be sure to share that good news with a world that may not know their way to the reunion!