Sermon – August 18, 2019 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost


A Family Affair

I wonder if I told you the story about the woman who thought she was a princess.  I don’t remember her name, it was something like Cosmina, and she was convinced that she was a direct descendant and heir to the throne of Romania.  She lived in a studio apartment from which she would take the bus to the church I served on my internship in Washington, D.C.   I remember she always had silver ornaments in her hair.  She was particularly fond of the Queen Maria. Maria was the eldest daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia.Her father was the second-eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Her mother was the only surviving daughter of Alexander II of Russia and Maria Alexandrovna of Hesse.  Mariamarried Ferdinand of Romania, the German-raised nephew of the King Carol I of Romania (and a distant cousin of the rulers of Prussia) and became Queen Marie of Romania.  Fascinating, pretty spectacular woman for a royal.  So, if Cosmina did discover she was of that family, here royal blood would be blue indeed.

So desperate was she to confirm this heritage that it is essentially all she did, gathering evidence, writing letters.   Though she spent all of her time seeking recognition of her claims through intricate genealogical searches, she died disappointed because she died without this confirmation.  She never found a place where she felt she belonged.

Genealogy, the search for our heritage, the uncovering of our family histories, is a growth industry these days, in part, I think because of the power of Internet search engines and the vast amount of information that is available out there.  It may also be in part, too, because we are a restless people.  The average American moves once every five years.  Forty million will move just this summer.   No wonder we seek the stability and reassurance of our heritage, the constancy of our history.  For, if we don’t know where we are going, at least we know where we have been.

We are fascinated and formed by our heritage.  When I have premarital conversations with folks getting married at St. Matthew, we always talk about the couples’ families of origin, the gifts and curses passed on to them, reminding them that we are products of our families and that we can choose the gifts that we will bear and the challenges we will leave aside. There is something called a genogram where you can actually track patterns in your heritage.  . . Often they reveal patterns of concern like alcoholism, physical or mental illness, but they also often reveal the gifts our heritage . . . a proclivity to art, or mathematics, a lovely voice, patterns of good communications or conflict resolution, or a particular vocational skill.   We are the children of our heritage and we bear into our lives the imprint of the past.

That thinking breaks no new ground here.  Part of our fundamental understanding of who we are as Christian people is that we are ‘heirs’ of God’s promises through Christ.  That we are children of God, family, bound together by God’s word and promise.  These characters in our Hebrews lesson reveal to us our treasure, our legacy.  And there is our heritage.  That’s what we find when we peek into our genealogy . . . faith in the promises of God which lead us to be a blessing.   Faith

Today in our reading from Hebrews continues to life up our faith forebears who demonstrated with their lives that faith that was earlier described as  “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction or substance of things unseen.’  The faith that is ours in our heritage as God’s people is a faith that does not require a daily empirical confirmation, a daily statistical analysis of the blessings of God that are ours, now in Christ.  It is a faith that is organic to who we are as God’s people, its confirmation is hope.

Pastor and former professor, David Lose says this,  “I believe the Bible not because it tells me of things I have seen and know for myself, but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of my finite and mortal existence and therefore has the capacity to redeem you and me in this life and world that we share.”  He goes on to quote poet W.H. Auden, “nothing can save us that is possible.  We who must die demand a miracle.’

To understand this faith that demands a miracle which is God’s work, to understand a faith that lives in this other reality, which is God’s reality, we have to give consideration to the notion that God does these things for us to God’s own purposes and God’s own ends. . . . gives to us covenantal promises, sustains us in the failure of our part of this covenant, takes on our form finally in Christ that we might be eternally reconciled to him and made family, that we might be released for his purposes.

That covenantal relationship alone is beyond our understanding, beyond our capacity to initiate and beyond our capacity to sustain; yet there it is. .. . . the substance of our faith  . . .. confirmed by the death and resurrection of God’s own son.  As this is possible, then all true things are possible, and all true things are ours.

Someone noted that religions are centered on our attempts to gain something from God, through proper conduct, creeds or cultic actions . . . Christianity is centered on receiving what God has given us.

As we trace our heritage, it is of a people constantly misreading that distinction, and God ever intervening so that we might come to know it.    God persists because this arrangement, this gift, this heritage is ours for a purpose. . . . so that the whole world might know of his love, that the whole world might participate in the kingdom. . . . . . Jesus invites us to . . . rid ourselves of the lesser treasures, the distractions. . . the other lineages. I want to give you something that is ripe with life, and purpose and is bound to my eternal covenant.  Make ready to receive the kingdom by emptying your hands of all other distractions and posers that might make lesser promises.

To struggle to earn this gift, to acquire it on our own terms, to set the standards by which God would love us, is to retreat from the kingdom.  One of the gifts of the Reformation, of course, was to reclaim that definition of faith that returns all things to God, “We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.   Yet even now, I’ve read that almost 50 percent of Lutherans believe that God loves us because of our works, that we are saved by our piety or moral discipline.  That flies in the face of the fidelity of God to those with whom God made covenant. It forgets God’s persistent presence with the people as they struggled to be faithful, and it denies God’s final intervention and reconciliation in the cross of Jesus Christ.  And it denies our own family heritage.  We are the children of our heritage and we bear into our lives the imprint of the past and for us, thanks be to God, that imprint is the cross of Christ.

Let me speak for just a second about one expression of our heritage in the present.  At the churchwide assembly two weeks ago, the assembly declared the ELCA a sanctuary church. What they meant by that from what I can discern so far is that it is an effort to reclaim our historic care and advocacy for immigrants and refugees in the face of current mistreatment and marginalization of immigrants and refugees, the separation of families, the affront of these detention centers and the failure to address root causes to the problem.  That means action like accompanying children and families through the immigration bureaucracy, courts and services, public advocacy for just immigration laws, continuing to support refugees as they are resettled in the US through our partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, providing legal assistance to immigrants pursuing their legally-protected right to seek asylum, and ensuring that undocumented immigrants are aware of their rights under US law. Moreover, it means that the ELCA will continue to advocate for just and humane treatment of detained immigrants, such as calling for adequate housing at detainment centers and accompanying minors through immigration court as part of the ELCA’s AMMPARO program. That organization works with churches in originating countries to help solve problems that drive refugees from their homes. Congregations that have the resources to do so may provide food, shelter, and financial assistance to migrants in need. Finally, it also means that the ELCA will continue to speak out against xenophobia, racism, and fear-mongering against all people.  While other denominations have chosen to look away from these issues or even cheerlead them, it seems our church is publicly stating we will not pretend these policies and practices are not destructive and dehumanizing.  We will not look away.  Even though some media outlets have concluded that this is a call for the church to violate current law, I find no evidence of that.  It is true, however, that many individuals and some churches have chosen to provide refuge and protection for some people.  Our church has been an advocate for immigrants and has helped to welcome over 500,000 people since World War Two.  Those have included tens of thousands displaced and endangered by the Nazis, refugees of wars in Cuba, Hungary, the Balkans, Africa, Central American, Vietnam and Cambodia.  This church has sponsored refugees from Viet Nam, Bosnia and Serbia and supported the relocation and settlement of Syrian refugees.  We have been the leading denomination of these efforts and the current action, it seems to me, asserts that history and vision with greater intention in the face of the current brokenness of our immigration system.  That is our heritage and we should be proud of our church for taking this step.

All of us in our lives have felt homeless, unmoored.  Felt as though we did not belong, were at the outside looking in. But the work and word of God calls us from this drift to our true home.  We are the heirs, the children, and the gift is ours in faith.  Calls us to embraced our part in the lineage, to live our lives in the covenantal stream.  All these things our hearts seek are ours in faith. .  . . peace, freedom from fear, a purpose, a relationship with God and God’s people that is authentic and lasting, eternally bound to God’s original purpose.

Father God’s covenant with our forebears proclaimed God’s loving intention to lift up a faithful people whose lives and works and worship would bear into the world the blessing and favor of God, not just in ancient times, but for all time..  They received this covenant in faith and it has been passed to us now as our treasure. Brother Jesus sealed forever in a new covenant the forgiveness for our failure to keep this family covenant and the grace to receive this gift in thanksgiving.  This is our family history, this is our genealogy. We don’t have to make up a genealogy that would reveal us as princes or princess of some royal pedigree.  We are so much more as the family of God.  We are the children of our heritage and we bear into our lives the imprint of the past.   That imprint, finally, is the cross of Christ.  It is God’s reconciling, life giving gift to his family.  As we receive it in faith, we find our home, our  place of belonging, now and for evermore. Thanks be to God.