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Family Reunion

(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?

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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!

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When the Spirit Moves

At the young age of ten, George Lowden and his friend, Alan French, crafted their first guitar out of fishing line hooked over bent nails attached to a sound box. Alan’s father was a boat maker so he provided technical help when asked and the boys found building supplies lying around his workshop. At age eighteen George crafted his first electric guitar with a dream of becoming Ireland’s version of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Five years later, when considering his life’s vocation, George felt led by God to become a luthier—maker of stringed instruments such as violins and guitars.

What had been a hobby was to become his life’s work. In an interview with Irish musicians, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Lowden explained that God not only led him to pursue this unusual vocation. God also equipped him for each challenge that arose. It was in prayer that his questions were answered. Through prayer he was directed and redirected at each crossroads of the business. For 47 years, George Lowden has designed and produced high-end guitars for some of the most noteworthy musicians. In 2019 Ed Sheeran asked if George would enter into a joint venture with him to produce sonorous guitars at a lowered price so that new musicians could afford an esteemed Lowden instrument. (The price tag for one of those cheaper models begins at about $850!) George’s career path continues to be Spirit-driven in ways that no longer surprise him. He expects the Spirit to move. God has become the central craftsman in the workshop, guiding George as he provides a means for making beautiful music to so many musicians.

Since Easter we have been spending time in texts that trace the growth of the Church. The passage from Acts 8 could easily be developed into a movie! One part sci-fi, another part drama, a miracle occurs because two men follow the leading of the Spirit and their lives overlap. Philip, one of the disciples, is directed by an angel to go to a certain place that is on a deserted road. In our movie that translates into a dark alley in a deserted part of town. Anyone with a lick of sense would know not to go there. But Philip is so attuned to the Spirit that he immediately gets up and RUNS into danger! His commitment to lead others to Christ takes him to places and people that no friend would direct him to go. When the Spirit moves, he trusts that God will protect him.

Many years ago I decided that I wanted to add an element of urban ministry to my sabbatical experience. So I volunteered to lead a spiritual study group at Liz’ House, a shelter for women and their children. It was on Division Street in Grand Rapids in the early ‘90s when a number of human services could be contracted out of car windows around that area at night. Garrett was concerned for my safety—and I was, too. But I knew God was calling me to this teaching task by the enthusiastic response to my offer. Each week a group of the residents met with me, some caring for their small children during class, and we talked about life issues: hope, despair, love, injustice, evil, grace, and God. I couldn’t advertise it as a Bible Study since Liz’ House received government funding but each woman brought her Bible to class on that first day. So I invited them to examine different texts that we were able to connect to our own experience. One of the class members was a young white woman had gotten pregnant by her black boyfriend. This led to her parents disowning her. She lived in the group setting, waiting to deliver her baby and line up a means to live independently. Another young woman who joined the class suffered from epilepsy. She had mild seizures at a couple of my classes and I was deeply moved to see how the other women knew to get her in a safe position. She would surface out of her spells to see concerned and supportive faces around her even though her own family had abandoned her. The challenging task that God gave me to lead a class in a homeless shelter became a blessing of inestimable value to me. I should have known that my safety would never be an issue: these women watched out for me! When the Spirit moves, we can trust that God will watch over us.

As Philip is running toward the intersection in the forsaken area, the screen cuts away to another scene. A man is bouncing along in a chariot, reading aloud. Apparently immune to motion sickness, he is immersed in his book. We learn right away (and repeatedly!) that he is a Eunuch. He would have been castrated at an early age so that he could become a trusted staff member on the Queen’s court. He was important in his own hometown and must have been a God-fearer because he had made a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. His relationship with Judaism would have been complicated since he was a Gentile. He would not have been able to get any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. He was also viewed as being ritually unclean because of his castration. No one with bodily imperfections or mutilation was allowed into the Temple at all! In spite of his limited access to the Temple, he still chose to journey a long distance from Africa to worship God in Jerusalem.

But the story doesn’t dwell on his shortcomings in the eyes of faithful Jews. It only presents his positive attributes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the text presents the Ethiopian as someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable…”

As we look in on this African scholar, a figure comes into view, running with determination and catching up to the chariot. He is able to overhear the passenger reading from the prophet, Isaiah. Neither man seems particularly surprised to encounter the other in such unlikely circumstances. The eunuch invites the jogger into the chariot and Philip invites dialogue.

The Eunuch is reading about the suffering servant so he asks Philip if Isaiah is speaking about himself or someone else. Perhaps the emasculated man who faced discrimination at every turn related to the description of a sheep that is shorn. The essence of this foreign believer’s question is, “Can this only be about Isaiah and his situation or is it about me too?” He easily related to the injustice described by the prophet 600 years earlier. According to Jews, the right-hand man to Queen Candace was the wrong nationality, race, and sexuality. The Book of Isaiah promises freedom from marginalization in the worshiping body of believers. This would have been of encouragement to the Eunuch. Philip doesn’t challenge who he is or condone his life’s work. He does what the Spirit leads him to do. He interprets scripture for this foreign convert so that he might be welcomed into the Body of Believers. Philip is so caught up in the presence of the Spirit in their conversation that he agrees to baptize the man when he asks. In a lake that seemingly appears out of nowhere, the royal servant is dunked three times: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. No sooner is he admitted into full life in the Spirit and Philip is mysteriously drawn away from the Eunuch. The disappearing act doesn’t stop the newly baptized man from praising God and telling anyone who will listen about his new family in faith. The screen shifts to the town of Azotus where Philip physically materializes like some bodily reconstruction in Galaxy Quest. The disciple keeps teaching in all the small towns. He must have felt a hint of moisture in his robe that reminded him that his baptism of the regal eunuch was real!

Julian of Norwich lived in the time of the Black Death when half of the residents in her English town died of the bubonic plague. She herself came so near to death that her mother called in the priest to offer last rites. While she was absent from this world God gave her 15 visions or showings that revealed intimate knowledge of the triune God. She surfaced from her coma and her condition miraculously began to stabilize. The next day she had one more vision, a sixteenth showing in which the Spirit assured her that her previous visions were real. This final showing was separated out from the previous fifteen because God knew she might well doubt their authenticity once she recovered. She detailed those sixteen revelations in her writings and they have inspired believers for more than 600 years.

In this remarkable story of evangelism in the Early Church, we must note that there are three main actors in this story: Philip, the eunuch and the Holy Spirit. Thomas Long writes, “…as the gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, and forgotten.” We are reminded in this story from the Early Church that God’s love is boundless. God’s attention is focused on a single sparrow as well as a royal servant who faithfully serves his Queen.

Years ago, when my father was dying, my neighbor, sent me a message saying that God had drawn her attention to me during a time of prayer. She offered to be present to me in whatever way would be helpful. I let her know that I was deeply moved to know that I was in God’s sights. Intellectually we believe that God knows and loves us. But to truly experience that God is aware of our struggles and sends people to us is breathtaking. I thanked her for getting vulnerable and letting me know of God’s nudging. We walked together and she ministered to me in my grieving. We were joined on our walk by a third companion: the Holy Spirit.

A common theme in Luke’s writing is the joy that comes when something that has been lost is found. Even though Philip miraculously disappears after the baptism, the Ethiopian man changes. The power of the apostle’s Biblical interpretation and the arrival of the Spirit at his baptism stay with the African man. The eunuch is made whole through this encounter. Philip is further convicted in his faith from this unlikely encounter and emboldened to preach the good news of a crucified and risen Lord. What Christ’s death inaugurates is the age of the Spirit. Miracles abound as healing breaks out in contagious glory. Long writes, “When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration, and hope.”

These are signs of the movement of the Spirit. Watch for them! Be assured that, wherever you are led, no matter how unlikely the tasks set before you or how seemingly dangerous the path ahead, God goes with you. You are never alone.

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Ron

I always knew Dallas DJ, Ron Chapman, as Uncle Ralph. He was my dad’s younger brother. So, if I ricochet between the two names, you’ll understand.

I remember my dad telling me that he had preached a sermon featuring his brother as the centerpiece. In fact, he stated that Uncle Ralph was a model for understanding God. I know, right? That verges on heresy!

So what prompted a sermon that exulted his kid brother in such a way? Ron and his lovely wife, Nance, invited my parents, Jim and Katie Chapman, to join him for a cruise. This is not the sort of cruise most of us take–where thousands of people are crammed into small cabins sharing tainted, recirculated air. While most of us would welcome that sort of vacation but Ron had a different excursion in mind! He chartered a ship that came with a staff, including a private chef. He also invited his sister and her husband, Florence and Fred Littauer. The six of them were the sole passengers. With a crew ready to meet their every need, they headed out into aqua waters where they had days to connect with each other. Since all three siblings were public speakers, I can only imagine the volume and constancy of their conversation!

So how does this turn Uncle Ralph into a model example for God? Ron had a gift for creating significant moments. He knew who he was inviting into any particular experience. He knew their gifts and shaped the experience to more than satisfy their needs and desires. He was a gracious host and expected nothing in return. My dad stated that, if his brother invited him to join in on an adventure, he would drop everything, pack a bag, and run to meet him. He could completely trust that his little brother, Ralphie, would know what suited him best and have a great experience in store. My dad preached that this gives us an understanding of our God. The One who created us is trustworthy. God knows us intimately and directs our lives so that our needs are more than met. God grants us the deepest desires of our hearts. When we encounter God, we are imprinted with memories that transform us. In this way, dad appreciated the way his brother reflected an image of the divine. That’s a pretty high compliment to give the brother who slept on the bunk beneath you!

As they disembarked from the ship, my dad stood before his brother and said he was unable to adequately express his gratitude for such a tremendous gift. He described his brother’s response to his words of thanks. As my father fawned all over him, Ralph simply smiled modestly and said,

IT’S SOMETHING I CAN DO.

No fanfare. No egotistical posturing. No consideration of what my dad owed him because of his extravagance. Simply joy that he could provide for his siblings this fantastic time of respite from the daily grind.

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

One brother for another, the younger treating the older to a memorable vacation. 

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

These are the brothers who shared a bunk bed in the same room as their dad. He was older than most dads so he got the twin bed. His wife, my grandmother, shared a daybed with her daughter. Every morning it was folded away to make a little more space in their tiny communal area. Running a general store for their town, they lived in three small rooms behind that store. One was the bedroom that became the men’s quarters. One was a small communal space that had room only for a table with four chairs. (That’s right, there were five of them.) The daybed that my grandmother and aunt slept on served as a couch during daylight hours. The third room was a small bathroom that had a sink and toilet. No bathtub or shower. Water was heated for a bath each Saturday. Four of the family members vacated the living space so that one of them could bathe. One after another was given privacy to clean up for the week.

Ralphie was the youngest of three. His two older siblings followed the rules and excelled at school. Ralph had different gifts. From an early age he was aware of his family’s meager circumstances. Of course, most families were living with financial limitation because of the depression. But the living conditions of the Chapmans of Haverhill, Massachusetts seemed a bit more austere than they did for many. My father was four years ahead of Ron and Florence was eight years older. So Ron continually felt that he lagged behind them. He was aware of the mountain he needed to climb to measure up to their sizable accomplishments. With a steely resolve, Ralph’s mantra was born:

I’LL SHOW ‘EM!”

It’s evident to me that Ron Chapman’s genius as a DJ and his caring nature was forged in that store. The family lived their private life in the public eye. The only place that had ample room to seat five around a table was in the store. So, as they sat down to eat their dinner, they knew it was entirely possible that Mrs. Miller would stop by to purchase laundry soap during their dinner hour. When she did, she would interact with the whole family as they ate their baked beans and spam supper. Then one of them would step away from the table to ring her up. From a young age the three Chapman siblings were taught to ask, “May I help you? Is there something I can help you find?”

In spite of their meager finances, it was a home where there was plenty of laughter with enough love to go around. They claimed joy amidst poverty. And the youngest child developed a tenacity to persevere, to see it through, and to help folks out.

All of these attributes prepared Ron for a very public life. He lit up a room. He was the life of the party without seeking attention. He was driven to prove that the youngest would not just succeed but thrive! In fact, he once jumped out of an airplane to show that he could SOAR! Neither of his accomplished siblings dared to undertake such a feat!

Just as his parents continually welcomed people into their home, Ron invited his listeners to greet each new day with him. There was always room for more at Ron’s “morning show” party. For a city of Dallas moms, time spent with Ron while getting the kids off to school wasn’t tedious. It became FUN! He called out the best in people. He affirmed their gifts. He prepared them for each day with weather and traffic reports. Ron relayed the news of the world to his people. Even as he covered stories from across the globe, he knew what mattered most: the places we call home. He never took for granted that he was invited into so many people’s lives. As they sat at table drinking their coffee or fought traffic while driving to work, Ron was a trusted companion for the journey.

I remember my father smiling as he said to me in the last stage of cancer, “I can’t imagine the world without Jim Chapman.” I was privileged to spend the weekend in Dallas with family members, remembering the impressive life of my uncle. We agreed that we can’t imagine the world without Ron Chapman, even though we’ve been living that reality for several days. His larger-than-life personality is noticeably absent. I suspect many of us remember moments when he did something kind for us. We still marvel at a generous gesture. So I give God thanks for a man who could say with a shrug, after treating someone to an extraordinary moment, “It’s something I can do.”

Ron was modest in thinking ahead to his death. He suggested that those who cared for him could remember him by going to their favorite bar and raising a glass to him. So I raise a glass to remember Ron, a man who magnificently combined humility with generosity, who laced the ho-hum morning news with an element of humor.

I toast a man who cherished the intimacy of his own family while keeping good company with thousands of listeners who welcomed him into the privacy of their homes.

I offer a toast to celebrate Ron Chapman who exceeded his childhood resolve because

HE SHOWED ‘EM, DIDN’T HE?!

We are impressed! But, more significantly, we are blessed.

Rest in glorious peace, Uncle Ralph.

Cheers!