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  • Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed

What Makes a Family?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

They come here because they are living proof that the saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle” just isn’t true. Photo by Bruno Nascimento @ Unsplash.com.

Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16

[1 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads. 6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.] 7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. 11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.]


This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


***


The first time I really felt like I was a part of the Auburn family, I was at a gas station in Tennessee. I was wearing an Auburn t-shirt and the man at the next pump looked over, nodded and said, “War Eagle” - I noticed the Auburn sticker on his car and I replied, “War Eagle.” If you’ve ever been traveling outside of Alabama and had something like this happen to you then you know the feeling. Those Auburn logos were a signal - a marker, that we belonged to the same family.

Now not long after that we moved to Tuscaloosa and I had another experience wearing that same t-shirt that went quite differently. I was standing in the aisle at Home Depot when a man in an Alabama hat saw my orange and blue, walked over, and said, “Roll Tide.”

 

I wasn’t sure how to reply to that one so I just grabbed what I needed and got out of there. Clearly, this time around, the markers each of us wore were not serving to unite us. And instead, this man’s “Roll Tide” felt more like a threat than a greeting.

 

There are a lot of ways we use markers as signs that unite us - this past week I bet many of us wore red, white, and blue as a tribute to our country: one nation, under God, indivisible. Our patriotic colors are a sign of unity. Walk across campus you’ll see lots of orange and blue but you’ll also see other markers: sorority and fraternity letters, athletes wearing the markers of their sport, around town you’ll see bumper stickers and yard signs that are political markers, even religious groups have their markers: a cross, a yarmulke, a hijab.

 

These markers unite us with other members of the families to which we belong. They are signals meant to show us the ways in which we are connected to each another. Markers can be useful and comforting and serve a greater good - until we become so fixated on them that the markers meant to unite us actually begin to tear us apart.


This is what happened in Galatia. At the time Paul is writing his letter, the church in Galatia is in deep debate over whether or not new Christians are really Christians if they do not take on certain markers. Or, another way of putting it, they are trying to decide what makes family, family. As more and more Gentiles are joining Christ’s church, some people believe that they should have to follow the Mosaic laws: the practice of circumcision, a kosher diet, observing sabbath (to name a few.)  The old guard is basically standing before the new recruits saying, “You’re not really a member of this family unless you’re willing to take on these markers…”

But Paul doesn’t see it this way. And in fact, he sees these markers as stumbling blocks to unity within the family because he knows family isn’t made family simply by wearing the same things or eating the same foods. And so, he tells the old guard and the new recruits, “You really want to be a part of Christ’s family? Then stop fighting over the law and be there for each other - that’s what Jesus wants from his family.”

My office sits across the hall from the office where clients of Presbyterian Community Ministry come to seek assistance. And week in and week out I observe how this ministry helps others bear their burdens. The women and men who come here are often wearing markers they have not chosen: markers of poverty, unemployment, abuse, shame. They come here because they are living proof that the saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle” just isn’t true. They have been given more than they can handle, and they need someone to help them bear their burdens.

 

And so that’s what Presbyterian Community Ministry does. At its heart, the mission of this ministry is to look past all the markers the world has placed upon these individuals. When we can do this, we are reminded that they are family. They are a part of God’s family, and we are here to help them - not because we are better than them, but because they are our siblings in Christ.

And you know a funny thing happens when we set aside those external markers and answer God’s call. Being willing to see someone not as any of the external markers they may wear but as a child of God, worthy of love, helps us to see how similar we really are. It reminds us that at our core, no matter what our walk of life, our basic needs are all the same. Food, water, shelter, dignity, and love.

When this country was founded over two hundred years ago, it was by people who desired a new set of markers for their lives - among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believed in this country, and while not all of our founding fathers considered themselves practicing Christians, they all believed in a higher power whose authority was greater than any governmental authority. And throughout American history, representatives at all levels of government have all had to reckon with how their markers of personal faith influence their relationship with the law.


Lately, the most acute example of this reckoning has been in the stories we are hearing about a crisis that has been playing out for years at the southern border of our country. Political and national markers abound: are you for or against? Should they be let in or sent out? It seems there is no room for common ground or unity in this situation, you’ve got to pick a side. The markers are dividing us.


But say we peel away all the layers of law and policy: at the heart of this matter, there are suffering human beings. As people of faith, say we peel away all our personal layers of external markers: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative: at our core, we are followers of Jesus. And when followers of Jesus encounter suffering human beings, our call is to help bear their burdens through our actions, prayers, and witness - whatever shape that may take.


“You who have received the Spirit should restore others in a spirit of gentleness” Paul urges the Galatians. As you’re serving your suffering neighbor, don’t be arrogant or discriminating. He reminds them that “all must carry their own loads”, acknowledging that part of what makes us human is that we all have burdens to bear, but part of what makes us God’s family is bearing those burdens together.


The markers we bear in this world: education, politics, privilege are set aside when we are among family. There is a certain humility that comes from being around the people that have watched you grow. Your family remembers when you used to have nightmares about spiders in your bed. Your family remembers your celebrity crushes and somewhere tucked away in a drawer, your family has pictures of that ill-fated perm or the stuffed animal you carried around for years. Families might be fraught with dysfunction, families might be broken beyond repair, but our experiences of family shape our identity in ways we can never escape - no matter what other kinds of markers we may acquire.


And because we Christians are family, connected at a deeper level than any other organization we will ever affiliate with, we owe it to God and one another to honor that relationship above all else.


Just as Paul challenged the church in Galatia, he challenges us today, to not let earthly markers keep us from being in loving relationship with one another and with the God who has redeemed us in Jesus. Do not let the differences of the world keep you from being family. Bear with one another, love one another. Or, as one of my favorite sayings goes, “You are a child of God. And so is everyone else.”

Jesus just wasn’t concerned with external markers. He never preached a sermon on the importance of diet: he did urge his followers to share their food with the hungry. He never preached a sermon on what to wear: he did tell his followers to give their extra cloaks to those who had none. Jesus never said circumcision was required for membership in Christ’s body, but over and over again he urged the people of God to welcome and love one another - just as he welcomed and loved all he encountered.


It was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” As Americans who consider ourselves to be Christians - or a better way of looking at it, as Christians who consider ourselves to be Americans, may we always remember that the greatest marker any of us will ever wear is the one given to us in our baptism, when we are marked as Christ’s own forever.


As we negotiate a world of earthy divisions, may we always seek to fulfill the law of Christ by reflecting his love in our words, actions, and witness - bearing the burdens of any who may have need with gentleness and humility.


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