Our Savior’s church family preparing to celebrate Palm Sunday last year. If you’re local, kick of this year’s Holy Week services by joining us this coming Sunday at 10:15.
A mentor of mine in Alabama used to say that Christ created this whole church thing for thirteen people and a maybe camel or two, and now we’re trying to do it with three hundred in an auditorium. The point is, this church thing began as familial, and we’re trying to make it operate like a business, and sometimes the results are hilarious.
Case in point: these actual church bulletin bloopers.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
The associate minister unveiled the church’s new stewardship campaign slogan last Sunday: “I upped my pledge — up yours.”
The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility.
Potluck supper this Sunday at 5PM, prayer and medication to follow.
And finally, the pastor will preach his farewell sermon this Sunday, after which the choir will sing: “Break Forth Into Joy.”
Way back in February, when we gathered for our retreat to think about our values and our future, we voted on five different values to capture our congregation. I’ve covered four of them here in Lent and on the Fifth Sunday, I’ve come to the last one: family.
This sermon will be participatory. When I say “the church is a” you say “family.” Let’s try it.
The church is a… [family!]
And in the Gospel reading, we find ourselves at a family dinner table way back when this church thing really was more like thirteen folks and some camels. They’re at a family table — the table of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. But it’s not just any normal family dinner. Lazarus has been raised from the dead not long before that, and the religious authorities are looking for a chance to kill Jesus. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are hiding their fugitive teacher at this intimate dinner.
From very early on, the church is a…
It’s a pretty smelly story. There’s the scent of the food rising from the meal. There’s possibly even the scent of Lazarus, just risen from the grave not long before. And there’s the perfume.
It’s not just any perfume, either. This is expensive perfume, and there’s a lot of it. So much, in fact, that it prompts Judas to yelp in protest, seeing all that expensive stuff poured out on the ground. Jesus shuts him up quickly and calls him back into the moment: “you won’t always have me with you.”
It’s that time of year: Jesus’ time is growing short again. The cross is coming fully into view.
And where is he, a harbored fugitive? Jesus is where he wants to be: with his family. Not his biological family, but his chosen family.
Those who must live a vulnerable existence — that is, black folks, queer folks, and other oppressed groups — have called each other by familial terms for quite a long time now: brother, sister, mother, father, or just simply “family” (or its modern iteration, “fam”). Whether they’ve been rejected my their own families or not, for some reason, trying times make humans recognize that familial bonds can go far beyond mere biological ties.
Christians, beginning very early on, did the same thing. Way back when this whole church thing began, Christians lived a risky existence. They lived under threat from the government and religious authorities. Some were thrown out of their biological families for converting to Christianity from whatever religious identity their families followed. Thus, they called each other by family names: brother, sister, mother, father. You can see evidence of it in Paul’s letters, when he writes about his family in Christ: sisters. Brothers. Siblings.
From the very beginning, the church is a… [family!]
A few chapters later in John, when Jesus is dying on the cross, he will tell his mother that one of his disciples is now her son, and that she is now his mother.
But here, Jesus is at the table with his brothers and sisters, where he loves to be. And Mary gets up from the table and finds this perfume. You know when you make a large purchase or find something valuable, and you save it for a special occasion, even when you don’t know exactly when that special occasion might arrive? I think it was like that.
The next part of the story is intimate, as she anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume and wipes them with her hair. It’s a family moment. There’s so much perfume — a whole pound — that it fills up the whole room, eclipsing every other scent in this already smell-rich story.
Mind you, this isn’t the kind of age where people bathed super regularly. Jesus will smell of this perfume for days: when he arrives in Jerusalem to waving palm branches. When he sits at the family table again for his Last Supper with them. When he’s on trial before Pilate. When he’s on the cross. And maybe, just maybe, when he meets another Mary, Mary Magdalene, in the garden outside the tomb.
I imagine, years later, Martha or Mary or Lazarus walking through the Bethany marketplace and suddenly, that scent hits their nostrils, and they remember everything. They remember Jesus. They remember how he gave them more family than they could’ve ever had by biology alone.
Because, beloved, the church is a… [family!]
Some weeks ago, I talked about these family stories in the Bible, and how we pass them down from generation to generation. How we may not like everything we hear, just like in any family, and how we may hear different stories from different family members. Beloved, we’re getting ready to tell our best family story again. We do it every single year around this time. Because the church is a… [family!]
So lean in. Listen. Experience the stories as they wash over you, day by day of next week. These aren’t just stories we tell — they’re stories we experience, together, as a family. We wave the palms. We lay down our coats. We eat bread, and we drink wine, and we feel water. We touch the wood of the cross. And we watch the new fire of resurrection burn and tell all the best stories from our faith at Easter Vigil.
We do this because the church is a… [family!]
As humans, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. If humans, especially young humans, don’t get it in the form of something constructive, they just might get it in another less savory form. If you watch the news, you’ve seen violent incidents happen, over and over. Whether it’s gang violence or white supremacy or religious fundamentalism, make no mistake: it’s about identity. It’s about finding a family, with family stories, that gives us a family to belong to, a common identity. Don’t miss this, and don’t take it for granted: we have that here.
The church is a… [family!]
I’ve been with you now for well over three years. That’s three years of Christmases, three years of Easters, three years of births and deaths and baptisms and funerals. I’ve watched you care for one another and love one another as dearly as anyone loves their own families. I’ve seen you welcome new people into this family and love them as if they’ve been here for years. Never miss this: this is an uncommon gift. You have a people to call on and depend on in any crisis life throws your way, people of all ages who will love you and pray for you and treat you like family, because the church is a… [family!]
We get to do this: to be here, in a group of humans that, just like any family, ranges in age from the littlest to the oldest, each beloved, each with the same common identity and story, complete with a family table to gather around.
So experience the family story with us next week.
And feel it in your bones and know that it is true and know that it is something to be treasured and nurtured: the church is a… [family!]
So, sure: though this church thing was originally created for thirteen people and a camel or two, we haven’t come that far, not really, not in a small church like this. And though our bloopers may be funny, let’s not forget in the business of things that the church is a [family]: quirky, goofy, funny, supportive, and most of all, here for one another.