Sunday, May 8, 2011

Royal families: where two or three are gathered . . .

I preached this sermon at Bloor Street United in Toronto on May 8, 2011. Thanks to Rev. Martha ter Kuile for asking me to come to Bloor Street.

Text: Luke 24:13-35 (The Road to Emmaus)

Today is Mother's Day and the focus is on families. And so this morning I contrast the stories from two different royal families. The first is the one we just encountered in the reading from Luke: two followers of Jesus who discover in the act of breaking bread with a stranger that they are in the presence of their King, the risen Christ. The second is the House of Windsor, which has been much in the news lately with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th. By looking at these two families, we touch upon family politics today and also ask -- where might we find a royal sovereign in this broken world?

The Road to Emmaus story from Luke includes two family scenes. The first involves two friends -- or are they lovers? husband and wife? parent and child? The text does not make it clear. Whoever they are, they have been with Jesus in Jerusalem for Passover, and now are walking home to their village after a week of joy, terror and confusion. A stranger joins them as they walk, and he talks with them about the execution of the King of the Jews by the Romans, about Scripture, and about their deepest values. When they arrive at Emmaus, the two invite this stranger to eat dinner and spend the night. And as the stranger takes bread and blesses it, they become aware that he is no ordinary companion. He is Jesus, who is both God's Love incarnate, and also the Christ or King of Israel.

This story is only found in Luke. But whenever I hear it, I am reminded of another saying of Jesus. In Matthew 18, Jesus says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them."

The story reaches its high point around a family dinner table. It is a family in which the actions of walking together, talking about issues close to the heart, and sharing food result in a brief glimpse of the risen Christ and the Spirit of God.

The story doesn't end there, though. After their glimpse of Jesus, the two friends run back to Jerusalem to tell the 11 remaining disciples that the report of Mary Magdalene and other women is true. Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This scene in Jerusalem is also of a kind of family. The group that Jesus gathered around him in Galilee as he taught and healed formed an unconventional family. Cleopas and his friend are part of this larger family of faith, and their vision of the risen Christ in Emmaus inspires them to return to it.

Because of the presence of Jesus, this unconventional family of disciples can be called a royal family. His followers proclaim him as God's anointed, the successor to King David, Israel's Messiah, or the Christ.

But what happens to Jesus' royal title after his execution? The two friends from Emmaus are dejected. Surely his death means that Jesus is not the one to redeem Israel. He must not have been the King or Christ after all. But then they glimpse Jesus in the face of their companion at dinner and they realize that their king and their dreams of salvation live on. For that moment at least, they again become a royal family. And so the two return to Jerusalem filled with enthusiasm to tell the rest of their friends that though Jesus has been killed, Love lives on . . .

In contrast to this humble story of two poor people in which the Christ becomes visible in sharing food, we have the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th. I admit that I loved the pageantry and beauty of their wedding and I was impressed by the huge numbers who watched the wedding and the media interest in it. But I believe that the wedding revealed some problems. For one, it renewed a focus on royal succession. In the House of Windsor, as in most monarchies, securing royal succession through children is of central importance, with a legal preference for boys.

If Kate's first priority as wife of the future king is to give birth to boys -- just as it was for the many wives of King Henry VIII 500 years ago -- what effect does this have on discussions around reproduction, gender, race, religion, and the types of families we are supposed to live within?

The pleasure I felt in watching the Royal Wedding and the big splash it made led me to wonder just what we had witnessed. In some ways, the wedding seemed to me like a Disney production. Perhaps the wedding could best be viewed as parody: a parody of monarchy, a parody of the established Church, and a parody of marriage. The wedding was a royal affair, but the future King William, like his grandmother, the current Queen, will be a figurehead. The wedding was a high Anglican service with the glorious language of the 16th Century Book of Common Prayer, the 400-year old King James Bible, and beloved hymns like Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah and Love Divine All Love's Excelling. But despite being the state church, almost no one in England regularly attends Anglican services anymore. And finally, it was a wedding between two modern, university-educated, and attractive young people. But the first focus in their marriage may simply be upon attempts to give birth to a son.

In a secular and democratic age where monarchy has disappeared from many countries and the world's empires no longer rely on the support of popes and archbishops, the Royal Wedding might make some of us feel nostalgia for lost glories of Church and Empire.

But I am pleased that -- other than at TV spectaculars like the wedding in Westminster Abbey -- our churches are no longer bound hand and foot to empire. A United Church moderator will never have two billion people hear one of her sermons as was the sermon delivered by the Bishop of London on April 29th. But our marginalization, like that of Jesus and his followers in the 1st Century, gives us space in which to recapture the counter-cultural family values of the gospels.

The sayings of Jesus do not support traditional notions of family. In Mark 3, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come to see him. In reply, Jesus says this: '"Who are my mother and my brothers?" Looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."' In Matthew 8, Jesus tells one of his followers to neglect the burial of his father and to follow him instead. "Let the dead bury the dead," he says. In Luke 14, Jesus says, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple."

Jesus turns his back on traditional notions of family and asks his followers to do the same. He helps them to create a new type of family, a chosen group of fellow pilgrims on a spiritual journey. In this unconventional family, the members support one another, love each other, and resist religious and state authorities in the name of sacred values. It is a family made up of self-confessed sinners; people who are broken like you and me and who know they are broken; and people who are encouraged by the Spirit of God to face up to the pain in their lives and their mortality and so find a new and resurrected life beyond the realm of moralism or state authority.

On this path and in this royal family we receive the Spirit's help to be aware of each moment in all its beauty and danger. It is a life beyond tradition, beyond ego, and beyond the illusory search for security in a violent society. It is a life open to the grace of God's love: a life in and with the Christ.

So how is it that over the centuries, Christian family values have come to stand for traditional morality? Traditional images of the family are all around us, and church and political leaders are often the source of these images.

In the federal election campaign that ended on Monday -- where, as usual, more than 60% of the voters chose candidates from parties other than the Conservatives, but where the Conservatives won 55% of the seats anyway -- the word "family" was used constantly. The Liberals had a Family Pack of five policies to strengthen ordinary families. The NDP had a platform designed to, quote, "give your family a break." And the Conservatives also pledged to support families.

I fear that the talk of "ordinary Canadian families" in the election shunts to the side people like me who don't want to be ordinary, or who are single, or queer, or who have romantic or household arrangements that don't fit traditional models. I would prefer it if our leaders appealed to us as queer people, or extra-ordinary people, or people who care for all of humanity and the earth more than country instead of as people who identify ourselves as members of a, quote, "ordinary Canadian family."

In contrast, "church families" such as this one at Bloor Street are places where we don't have to pretend to be ordinary. They are places where we remind ourselves that we are held in God's grace regardless of our limitations or brokenness. Such places give us room in which to breathe unfettered by traditional definitions of citizenship or family.

But how can we be like the two friends from Emmaus and encounter the risen Christ in our homes or congregations? St Paul teaches us that Christ rises to new life within us simply through the ups and downs of life. In Galatians 2 he writes, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." And in Romans he writes, "all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

Paul is telling us that though Jesus may have been killed, he lives on as the Christ or King within us. This is another way of saying that the king can no longer be found on a throne in Jerusalem, or in Rome in or London. Instead, the Royal Sovereign lives inside the heart of all who receive a trusting faith amid the difficulties of life.

In a community of faith like this one, simply by remembering our baptism, we remind ourselves that we too are members of a royal family where God in Christ is present within, between and among us.

So on this Mother's Day, may we rest assured that all households of any shape or form are royal families in which sovereignty rests with the humble and the poor, and God's Spirit can be glimpsed living amongst us . . .

Where two or three are gathered in search of love, there God's Spirit in Christ Jesus also is.

Thanks be to God, Amen