God Wants Us to be Family

We have some very important things in common. We are family, however diverse we may be. We are family. I think that it is a major opportunity for us at least to think about what it means to be family. Reverend John Stephens is a bona fide Episcopal priest, but he belongs to a Black Baptist congregation. I can’t explain that to you, but he preached at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church the Sunday following Easter. As a Baptist, he let us know that this was not the Sunday following Easter, but a part of the Easter season. From Easter until Pentecost is all part of the time that we should celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I brought with me the little leaflet that has been made available to us — which asks, “Do you care about the people who find organized religion, irrelevant, ineffectual, repressive?” — because that is the theme for the Center. What do we do about the people who are on the outside looking in? Are they to be considered an enigma because they don’t look like we look, or think like we think, or act like we act, or respond like we respond?

Let me give you a little story. I started out preaching in a little southeastern Kansas town called Pittsburg. I would drive down there from Kansas City, where I was in seminary, and I would then drive back. I would spend weekends in Pittsburg and the rest of the week in seminary. One cold snowy night, I drove down to Pittsburg, and somewhere between Kansas City and Ft. Stock, Kansas, I had a flat tire. I was all alone in a little 1946 Ford. I got out and got ready to change the tire. I didn’t have a jack handle so I tried to flag down a couple of cars to see if I could just borrow a handle for the jack. Two or three cars passed by fairly quickly. One car stopped. A couple of black fellows got out, and they said, “You are all dressed up. Where are you going? You a preacher?” I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I am. My problem is I don’t have a jack handle. You have a jack in your car?” They said, “Yes, we do.” And then they said, “You don’t need to be changing the tire. You are all dressed up, and you are a Reverend Somebody so we will just change the tire for you.” So I stood there watching these two men change my tire for me. They put my spare back in the trunk, and then they said, “If you ever come to Ft. Stock, stop by the Green Door and ask for Tommy.” I thought about that because one of the cars that passed me by had on its back a license plate that said “Clergy”.

We live in a world of differences. We live in a world of divisions. Right now, the big news is whether or not Texas is going to be considered a legal state by a group of people who call themselves the Republic of Texas. Right now, in Denver there is a trial going on involving somebody who is alleged to have bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. That hasn’t been proven yet, but if indeed Tim McVeigh did that, imagine how angry you must be against a government to take one hundred and six people’s lives?

This is a time when there is a great deal of division. Those of us who are African Americans rejoiced in some civil rights gains in the sixties and seventies, and people like some of the folks in this room helped us to get some of those gains. We are watching them being taken away as we have seen affirmative action questioned seriously, and rather than fix it, we have just chosen to throw out the baby with the bath water. We see differences everywhere. It is interesting that we sang a song tonight in Spanish because here in Texas there is a major problem of the suppression of Spanish-speaking people, of Hispanic people. Differences are a part of our time.

One may assume that gives us good reason for being pessimistic, but the good news is that, in the midst of all the signs of divisions, there are some signs of uniting. Did you ever stop to realize what good a crisis is? Oklahoma City was a major tragedy, but it brought people together in that city in ways that most “business as usual” would not have. Right close to Houston, a twelve-year-old girl disappeared. Tragically, we discovered she was murdered. But during the weeks that the people in Friendswood were concerned about that child (those of you who are not from Houston won’t know this), we saw a miracle of the chemistry that tied a whole community together. Whether people knew each other or not, and whether people liked each other or not, they were galvanized around the concern for the return of little Laura Smithers.

Crisis sometimes brings us together. That is the good news because I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is really not an organized institution. I believe at its best it is a family. In fact, to ask Bill to come over to an Episcopal Church and stand here and talk to you when I don’t know how to find stuff in the prayer book or how to sing the songs you sing indicates that there are signs of family even in the midst of the disunity and the division that we face in our world right now. That is why I was so impressed with these eight principles that are in this little pamphlet. I hope that you will take the time to look at this pamphlet. “We are Christians who proclaim Jesus Christ as our gate to the realm of God; who recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the gateway to God’s realm; who understand our sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of God’s feast for all peoples; who invite all sorts and conditions of people to join in our worship and in our common life as full partners, including (but not limited to) believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, homosexuals and heterosexuals, females and males, the despairing and the hopeful, those of all races and cultures, and those of all classes and abilities, without imposing on them the necessity of becoming like us.” There are three more.

What this says is that we are not an institution. We are family. God created this universe. Whatever you believe about Genesis, it shows an image of God making a couple. His first commandment was not, “Thou should have no other God before me.” His first commandment was, “Multiply and replenish the earth.” Make a baby, build families, create societies. It all started with the family, and we created disunity. We are the ones who have fragmented that family. I am convinced that every once in a while God has to show us through our concern about the tragedies of our time — whether it is an explosion, or a flood, or a murder — that it is possible for us to find worth and dignity everywhere.

Last month, many of us looked back over half a century. Many of us in this room were not here at that time. Some of us were at work at that time — April 15, 1947 — when a Black first baseman walked out to the plate in Brooklyn, New York, and began to move the people of color into major league baseball. I was around at that time. I was a freshman in college. I remember that most of us assumed, “This guy is not going to make it. He will get called a nigger a couple of times, and they will throw a couple of beer bottles at him, and he is going to jump up into the stands.” The miracle was that, although Jackie Robinson was a very combative person and a very competitive player, he remained gentle to the very end. Think of being in a place where you might not have expected that of a hard-hitting, hard-nosed baseball player. We saw some dignity. April 13, Sunday, we saw something we would never have dreamed of: a twenty-one-year old kid who got into the Masters and who was playing at the Augusta National Golf Club, a place where no black had played six years ago. Here was Tiger Woods in a place where the founder of the Augusta National Masters tournament had said, “As long as I am alive, all golf players will be white, and all caddies will be black”. We watched. The whole nation was fascinated as this youngster broke the color line without any consciousness of breaking the color line. He doesn’t call himself African American. He is Asian American. He is Asian African American. I’m not sure what Tiger Woods is, but the interesting thing is that he won that tournament breaking every possible record, and right now he holds the respect of people, black and white everywhere. For a time, it means that it is possible to find dignity and worth everywhere.

If we can find dignity and worth in the secular world, if it is possible for major corporations to do diversify initiatives, if it is possible for us to recognize the right of minority and women owned businesses to have a part in national economic development — why can’t the church go that way? We ought to be able to do that. If there is anybody who ought to represent the very best, it ought to be the church.

Jim Adams, I think it certainly is true that we have some problems in organized religion, but after all, Jesus had some problems. Sometimes you ought to look at the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth chapters of Matthew. In the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus talks of the judgment. He talks about the awful day when the world is going to be coming to an end. That is one of the three grimmest chapters in the New Testament. Then in the twenty-fifth chapter, he tells us to get ready, to be prepared. He offers a couple of parables. He talks about the virgins and says that there were some who were not especially ready. He says, “Get ready.” He ends in that twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew with a kind of court room scene. He pictures himself as the judge: Jesus, son of man, in his glory surrounded by angels with all the nations of the world being brought before him. The judge divides these nations, the unrighteous to his left like goats, the righteous to his right like sheep. He says to those who are to his right, those who are righteous like sheep: “You are blessed, because when I was hungry and naked and thirsty and sick and in prison you ministered to me.” And the righteous said, “Master, when did we ever see you in all of those predicaments?” His answer was not, “Because you went to church, because you were Episcopal rather than Catholic, because you were Methodist rather than Presbyterian.” He said, “If you have done this to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.” Likewise, he said to those who were to his left, “You are proud goats. Because you did not do it to the least of these my little ones, then you haven’t done it to me.”

What is the main function of the Church of Jesus Christ? It is not to exclude people who are not of my denomination. It is not to shut out people who don’t share my thoughts. That is not the reason for the church. If God started the world with family, and Jesus started the church with family, then we are supposed to consider everybody brothers and sisters. So whatever your color, whatever your gender, whatever your nationality, whatever your economic status, whatever your social predicament — you belong to the family. That is an important thing to note. Jesus gave us a rule to live by. In John, chapter thirteen, he says, “I give you a new commandment.” What is that new commandment? It has nothing to do with being a part of an institutional church. It has nothing to do with tithing. It has nothing to do with prayer. It has nothing to do with most of the stuff we heard Sunday morning. He says, “My new commandment is that we love one another as I love you.” That’s the key to being a part of the church of Jesus Christ, that you love one another. That means that those of you who come from local churches cannot be satisfied going to those churches and doing whatever ritual you go through at your worship hour. It means you have to be concerned about who is around that church — who is hungry, who doesn’t have a job, who is in jail, who dropped out of school, whose family is broken up. Where are the problems? Where are the hurts? If you understand what the church is all about, then your response will be that we have to be about the business of ministering to those people, because that is where Jesus is.

It is interesting that this is the Easter season, seventeen days from what the Episcopal Church calls the day of Pentecost. Thank you for telling us. The Baptists don’t have things like that. When you stop to think about the day of Pentecost, you understand that God is saying, “I do not have any gender hangups.” There have been some rabble rousers who thought women should be in the clergy. By the twentieth century, we had worked two thousand years shutting women out of the clergy because we didn’t think God had a right to call women. I was so glad when I learned about the Episcopal bishop in Boston: a black woman and divorced. Pentecost is a day when we begin to understand what is meant in Genesis. The writer of Genesis tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female. When you get some picture of what God is, God is a communal being. If you think of God as an individual, you don’t really know the whole complexity of God. God is communal. Evidently he has not only a Father-Son-Holy Ghost picture about himself, which is the prototype of a family, he also has a male-female thing about him. God sent a son to work out family redemption on Calvary. And the son made a promise while he was here, before he went to Calvary: “I am going to send to you a comforter, and that comforter shall be with you always.” He describes the coming of the Holy Ghost. On Sunday, May eighteenth, when you talk about Pentecost, think seriously about what that means, what happened on that day. On that day, God came down — not God the Father, not God the Son — but God the Holy Ghost. God is a corporate being who represents family. That means that you have mommy, daddy, and child in the trinity. How terrible a thing is that to say?

Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus. He said, “You can’t see the kingdom of God except you be born again.” Nicodemus said, “How in the world can I be born again?” And he said, “You have to be born of water and the spirit.” The spirit gives birth. That is what Jesus was saying. Jesus told the disciples, “You have seen me now resurrected. I have spent some forty days with you. But don’t you go out and try to tell anybody anything yet.” How long after Jesus does the Holy Ghost come — this strange mysterious third person in the trinity? Wait until the Holy Ghost comes. Go into a room and be in prayer. Wait. That’s what the followers of Jesus did. They went into a room and waited. Then like the wind, the third person of the trinity descended on the little nest of praying people. And in the hatching process, something happened to them. All of a sudden they began to speak with other tongues, and they began to shout, and they began to witness. They were born again, born of the spirit.

What I am saying is that God is family, and he wants us to be family. God expects us to embrace, to accept everybody. God judges us on the basis of whether we can accept and embrace everybody.

The last word I will say here goes to a St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church rector, Helen Havens. Helen right now is one of the major leaders in this city. People everywhere, not just in this parish, look to her. Helen, I was told today by a senior vice president of Texas Commerce Bank, that Texas Commerce Bank has to lend three billion dollars by the year two thousand. They are looking for community groups that will be a part of that and help revitalize the inner city. I said, “Wheeler is in the inner city.” I don’t believe this is happening because the banks are generous. They are under a mandate to do what is called “community reinvestment”. They have to do this because it is being mandated by the Federal Reserve. The best people to do this are God’s people. Banks are very much afraid to go to the average mom and pop and trust them to do anything in their neighborhoods, but they will gladly come to a St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church or to the church where you are.

Part of our job is to worship on sundays. Part of our job is to have Bible study. Part of our job is to provide a Christian education for children. And part of our job is to reach out into the neighborhoods — where there are people who are not a part of our congregation, who don’t share our doctrine, who may not even like our church. They are among “the least” — the hungry, and the naked, and the sick, and the imprisoned. If we minister to them, we have ministered to Jesus Christ, and he is truly our brother.

 

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