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We Are Family (?)

This sermon on Matthew 12:46-50 was given by Carrie Fry-Miller at the Church of the Brethren Young Adult Conference, May 30, 2010.

My family has always been very important to me. When I was a kid, I remember each week we would have family fun nights - we’d get to eat ice cream and play games together - I especially remember sitting in the living room, using the hearth of the fireplace for our stage as we played charades. I also remember we sang together a whole lot. My favorite thing, though, was that every summer, all five of us would squeeze into the station wagon with dad’s guitar and we’d go on a two-week trip - sometimes to the dunes, sometimes to national parks - always camping. We’d just spend some good quality time together. I didn’t always get along with my big brother. And sometimes my big sister really annoyed me. But, I still loved these trips. I still loved being with my family.

Now, I see my brother and sister-in-law fairly often, I go home probably more than I should, and I always look forward to Christmas time and the one week during the summer when my sister will come home from Arizona and we are all together again. Family is just really important to me. I need those close, familiar relationships in my life.

There is something very special about these relationships. I can trust my family. I know that I am loved by my family. My family knows who I am, what’s important to me, and I trust my family enough to be completely vulnerable.

Now as a student at Bethany, I have found another community. We hang out a lot and I’ve played Guitar Hero more than I imagined that I ever would in my entire life. We support each other and play together. Even so, I’ve gotten homesick this year - not necessarily homesick for North Manchester, or even my parents. What I have been homesick for is close relationships - I’ve been homesick for those people in my life who have known me for longer than a school year. Although I do appreciate the relationships I have built at Bethany, close relationships don’t just form in a year. A deep trust doesn’t just happen. I miss, and also need, those familiar relationships in which I can completely trust and be vulnerable.

But, in the scripture, I hear Jesus dismissing the uniqueness and necessity of these relationships. To me, it sounds like he is undermining these important relationships. “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And pointing to the disciples, he said, ‘here are my mother and my brothers!’”

Instead of honoring the unique family relationships in his life, he is including everyone in his family, seemingly dismissing the people who have been closest to him. But I don’t get it. Why would you dismiss these close relationships? How could you dismiss these people who have been very important in your journey?

In seemingly dismissing these relationships, Jesus is challenging us to build relationships of trust within the whole church. “For whoever does the will of my Mother in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is telling us to be family with the whole church. I feel closeness and trust with my family, but I don’t know if it’s possible to feel that in the church.

When I was little, I used to love going to Annual Conference. I loved going on field trips every day to fun places, I loved making new friends…but I especially loved Annual Conference because everyone was so nice to each other. It felt good to be in a space where everyone opened the door for everyone else, it felt good to be in a space where everyone smiled at each other and insisted that others go before them in the line. To a kid who wasn’t involved in anything but the field trips, it seemed that the Church of the Brethren was really being the community that Jesus calls us to become.

This niceness is still the same. Think about the last 18 hours of your life. How many smiles and hugs have you received? How many people here have been nice to you? How many people here have you had a nice conversation with? We’ve gone through the ritual of getting to know each other - at least each other’s name, congregation, and hometown. We’ve played the Brethren name game, but are these the kind of conversations Jesus is challenging us to have?

We all get along. And we all are nice to each other… perhaps a little too nice. I have a friend who calls this pathological niceness. We can smile and hold the door for each other…but can we be real with each other? Can we be vulnerable to each other? In other words, is this Church of the Brethren community the kind of community Jesus was talking about?

I don’t think so. Actually, I know that it’s not. Jesus wants us to be a family. I feel safe with my family. I am loved unconditionally and supported by my family. I trust my family. I can be vulnerable with my family. I don’t trust the church enough to be truly vulnerable.

In high school, I was called to the ministry and licensed when I was a senior. I loved it. I fell in love with the church. As I began to grow into my understanding of my call to ministry, I also began to grow into who I understood myself to be.

I felt called, and still feel that calling to be a leader in the church, but I want to be a leader with integrity. This led me to come out as a lesbian five years after I was licensed. Although unanimously affirming my gifts for ministry, as God has given them to me, the ministry commission revoked my license to the ministry.

I made myself vulnerable to the church that I loved. I trusted the church to hold my story as sacred. I thought my denomination, the place I call home, was a safe place for me. I was wrong. I was hurt. The Church of the Brethren, the same church that encouraged me to explore who God is continually creating me to be, the same church that I loved so much, caused me, and continues to cause me a lot of pain.

In the scripture today, Jesus tells us that his family is the church, that our family is the church - but can I really be family with them? The church is supposed to be a family, and family means wholeness, but I cannot be whole in the Church of the Brethren without fear of rejection. Is this really the idea of family Jesus had in mind?

The church is a broken family in desperate need of reconciliation. But is that really possible? I cannot reconcile with the church by saying that it’s ok that I’ve been rejected. I cannot apologize for being myself in a place where I’m supposed to be whole.

Is it even possible to be whole, to be safe, to feel unconditional love in a community that continues to hurt me and others that I would call my brothers and sisters?

I’m still searching for that answer. Even so, I still find myself at church conferences. I remember one speaker at Annual Conference two years ago. This was the celebration of 300th anniversary of the Church of the Brethren. The speaker was part of the Brethren Church. She was praising our denominations- expressing the joy she felt because there was so much unity in the room. From her sermon during that worship service, one might walk away feeling as if we have accomplished building the community that Jesus names in the scripture. I however, did not feel the unity she was talking about. I felt estranged, angry, and rejected. I felt anything but this “unity.”

Yes, people at Annual Conference still smile at me. People are still nice to me. I am still nice to them. But behind all of this pathological niceness is a sense of pain and mistrust. We can smile, but we cannot share our lives with one another. We can talk about who went to college or seminary with whom, who was in the same BVS unit, and who’s all related, but we can’t talk about anything that could make us vulnerable. There is something terribly wrong with the church today.

I think one of the reasons is because we, as a Church of the Brethren want to maintain a cordial atmosphere. We want to keep everything calm. But let me tell you, during Annual Conference business last year, I felt anything but calm. We were discussing the query about the language concerning same-sex covenantal relationships. I was not calm. I felt so much tension in the room. Many hurtful words were said. Bibles were being waved in anger. I did not feel cordial during that discussion.

My point here is not to persuade the church to accept me…although I would be lying if I told you that I don’t strongly feel that the church needs to change in its treatment of the marginalized. Nor is my point that conversations regarding the church’s response to gays and lesbians are the only conversations that cause tension and pain in the church. But, my point is that we have got to stop pretending that nothing is wrong. We have got to stop pretending that we’re really a community.

I wonder if it is possible for us, as young adults to create a true community. I wonder if we can be vulnerable to each other. I wonder if we can feel safe being raw and exposed to one another. I wonder if we can trust each other that much. Is it possible to talk about our pain openly with one another? Is it possible to give up on our pathological niceness and really engage in conversation with one another? It’s okay to say that you’re upset, it’s okay to be angry.

Many people in the church are upset. Many are angry. I am one of them. What do we do about this? One of the wisest and most loving women I will ever know, Louie Baldwin Reiman, once told me that she thought the church just needed to vomit. I think her point was that we just need to get everything out - our frustration, our pain, our anger. We need to get all the messy stuff out on the table. Everything we hold in because of this pathological niceness - we just need to get it out. We just need to vomit. It is only after we get everything out that we can start seeing each other as real people, then we can start to really hear each other and begin to build up this community.

But to express my pain, my frustration, my anger, and to share my story means that I have to expose myself. I have to be willing to take a risk. What if I am the only one made vulnerable? What if people take advantage of my nakedness? What if I get hurt?

The way I see it is that there’s no choice. We’ve got to try to be this close community Jesus calls us to be. Our church is being torn apart. Our church is dying. My prediction is that in ten years the Church of the Brethren as we know it now will not exist. A split is possible. Maybe a split needs to happen. Some families cannot make it work. Some families split up and find other people to be family with. Maybe this is what the church needs in order to become full of life again.

Or perhaps we will learn how to really be a community, caring for and loving each other deeply. I still wonder, however, if it is even possible for the Church of the Brethren to build this kind of community. We’ve got to be willing to take risks. Can I trust you with the deepest, most vulnerable parts of myself? Can I trust you to hold me and not hurt me? Can I expose my vulnerability? Can you trust me with the deepest, most vulnerable parts of yourself? Can you trust me to hold you and not hurt you? Can you expose your vulnerability? Can we, once again, be a family of wholeness? Can we become the church Jesus challenges us to be?

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