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Siblings in the Spirit

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Oct 27

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-9

Several years ago, I had the privilege of officiating at a wedding of a few dear friends of mine, Jason and Kim.  The ceremony was held in a lovely state park in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before we came to their wedding vows, I shared a few especially choice words that they used for each other which underscored their warmth and affection for another, and their especially fun loving natures.   It was a list of nicknames the couple used on a daily basis. Check it out.

Honeypie.

Angel Butt.

Shuga-pants.

Chumpy.

Sucka. 

These are but a few of the precious nicknames that Jason and Kim have for each other, and they flow off their lips with ease and delight. Their mostly original nicknames were not only hilarious, and the envy of every couple I knew, but they represented a deep and lasting playfulness and love that Kim and Jason share. When the reception began, everyone was invited to reach into a bowl at the center of the tables and grab a handful of matchbooks to take with them.   The black matchbooks had, in simple white lettering, a different nickname printed on each of them. I still have one at home that reads “Sucka”! 

 I was reminded of Chumpy and Shugapants this week when I was reading our passage for today from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. He starts and finishes with a language of endearment that we may take for granted.  He says, “You yourselves know, brothers and sisters.”  And later “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Here we find him writing to that first church at Thessalonica, trying to offer encouragement as they persevere in their new community, in their new ways of life together under Roman imperial rule.  Paul has just come through a rough stretch in Philippi.  He’s been jailed and beaten.  Rumors about his leadership are making their rounds. This is probably why Paul seems a bit defensive at first, He feels the need to explain himself, that he is not about heresy, immorality, deception, trickery, but that his motives are pure.  The itinerant Paul was an outsider to every community, even to those early Christian churches he was helping to found and shape. When in the second half of our passage he reminds himself and his readers of his faith-filled and Christ-centered relationship with them, notice how his language shifts, and his tone softens.  Here he writes: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

I find this intimate language of commitment and community incredibly powerful, in part because Paul uses these tender and gentle words not merely to address his loved ones, or his fiancé, or his BFF’s – his best friends forever – but he speaks them to an entire community of people, some of whom he surely would not have known. Think about it.  Where in our lives do we get so beyond our self-defenses when addressing people outside our inner circles of family and friends?  Where do we speak with such an intimate and even vulnerable language of love and care to our fellow human beings?  Any ideas?  I have one.  Why not right here?  In church?  Whether we realize it or not, just about every Sunday if not during the week, we too are invited to practice this language of relationship, and we have models for how to do it that go all the way back to Paul, and also to scriptures in the Hebrew Bible.   

William Sloane Coffin, former minister of Riverside Church in New York City, has said: “A church is a place where we try to think, speak, and act in God’s way, not in the way of a fear-filled world.  A church is home for love, a home for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity, to rest and be healed, to let go their defenses and be free – free from worries, free from tension, free to laugh, free to cry.” The ever political and prophetic Coffin would be the first to admit that this is not the only role of religious community, but it’s certainly one of our central tasks.   In our fear-filled world, we offer one another a community and a practice in speaking and hearing a language that is amazingly intimate and tender hearted.  We use it each week in worship, often in our greetings and prayers.  Some of us may be so used to it that we take it for granted, and chalk it up to church speak, but it is so much more than that.  Sisters and brothers, peace be with you!  Beloved, may God bless you!  Children of God, you are forgiven, loved and free. 

Before I go further, let me acknowledge that for some in our midst, especially those who may be affectionate-challenged, this way we sometimes talk in church may make us uncomfortable. Don’t call me your sister when I don’t know you and you don’t know me, and definitely don’t call me beloved!  Indeed, we should use these terms with care and discretion.  When we don’t, we can sound disingenuous, tactless or just plain silly.  I can’t help but remember a guy I used to work with at a bar in Middletown Ct.  His name was Dickie.  His favorite term of endearment which he used incessantly, God bless him, was “Dude-Bro”!  “What’s up, Dude-Bro?”  “Dude-Bro, is it an olive or a twist at table 6?” Dude-bro, no really, what’s up?   I never had the heart to tell Dickie that no one wants to be called “Dude-Bro” and that when people laughed when he said it they were laughing at him and not with him.  His response, inevitably, would have been “What do you mean, Dude-Bro?”   

Whether its Jason and Kim and their adorable nicknames, or the way that Paul talks to that First Church of Thessalonica, or the way that we baptize Auggie and Emmet, as beloved Children of God, or the way that we just welcome eight new brothers and sisters, all siblings in spirit, even when we say you are no longer strangers but citizens in the household of God, these are all expressions of ongoing relationship that require love, commitment, vulnerability, intimate and truth-telling connection. 

In our Christian context, there’s another more theological dimension of these terms of endearment, especially words like brother and sister.  When the disciples asked Jesus – Teach us how to pray! He told them to try it like this  Our Father,…   Our father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name!  Or as the religious scholar Meriam Therese Winter has re-imagined it “Our Mother, who is within us we celebrate your many names.  Your wisdom come.  Your will be done unfolding from the depths within us.”  I’ll save the rest of that beautiful new translation for another sermon on the Lord’s Prayer.  For this sermon, the point is the word “our”.  When Jesus says Our, his suggestion is that we are all children of God, and that we are all his brothers and sisters.  Or as some in the transgendered community have come to remind us, all siblings in the spirit.   

On Martin Luther King Jr Day back in 2011, the then-newly elected Governor Robert Bentley gave a highly controversial inaugural address in the very church where King once pastored!  The heart of the controversy was how he used this language of brother and sister.  He said the following:  "If you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."  He went on to say that “if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters.” This is not only bad politics.  It’s also bad theology!  As the Methodist Bishop of Alabama and former Dean of Duke Chapel, Will Willimon said in response, “Christians don’t regard others as our brothers and sisters because they are members of our church, they affirm our creed, or because they are nice people. We relate to others as Jesus has related to us – making us brothers and sisters, not by virtue of who we are but on the basis of who he is.”  I wouldn’t have known that my fellow citizens of Alabama are my brothers and sisters if Jesus Christ had not known me.”  Do we get that? We are called to treat each other and even call each brothers and sisters because that’s how Jesus treated us and taught us to treat each other.  The language of blood siblings, the language of siblings in Christ does remind us of our heritage, our faith, but it should also remind us and invite us to practice this commitment of love and responsibility with our brothers and sisters of every faith and of no faith. I sometimes call my friend Yusufi from the Mosque and he sometimes calls me “my brother from another mother.”  I actually said as much when I was invited to speak at his mosque.  We are all brothers and sisters and siblings, which is not to say we can’t have our own families of faith. 

What Paul invites us to take seriously and not take for granted is how we language our relationships with God, with ourselves and with one another.  Our baptism and joining service today are further invitations.  I’d like to close with a fun poem written by Kaylin Haught that invites even further imagination about what God may be calling us!  Its called God Says Yes To Me.

God says yes to me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if she said it was okay to be short.

and she said sure it is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey she calls me that sometimes

you can do just exactly what you want to do

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don't paragraph my letters

Sweetcakes God said, who knows where she picked that up

what I'm telling you is Yes Yes Yes

Imagine having that kind of relationship with God!  Not the kind where God says Yes to everything we ask, though that would be nice, especially in the moments when we are feeling shutdown and disempowered. Beyond that, imagine being on not only a first name basis but a nickname basis with God.  What do you think she would call you?  What would you like the Spirit to call you, at least some of the time?  How do you want to be known, if not with unconditional love, and tenderhearted care?   At our baptism, and when we join in a community faith, we are each called Beloved! We are reminded, in the word of Isaiah, that God calls us “Beloved and precious and many splendored in God’s sight!” And so we are invited to follow suit, to call each other, not just our blood sibling, but our siblings in the Spirit, cherished brother, honored sister, beautiful creature made in the image of God!   What an antidote to the polarizing name-calling we see and sometimes participate in when we read the headlines, when we consider or leaders in Washington, when we are watching the World Series wanting to curse those brothers from other mothers that are the Cardinals, or last night those umpires.  All the more reason I need to return to this place for the reminder that, even and especially those are at times difficult, even Dickie Dude-Bro from that bar in Ct, is at some level my brother, beloved and precious in God’s sight.  And Auggie and Emmet are my brothers in Christ!  And Carrie and Sarah, Ami and Tim, Rob, Moana, Lisa and John and Anne are all my brothers and sisters, my new siblings in Spirit!  

Here in this church, in this covenantal community, is where we learn and practice this counter-cultural language of love. Like Paul, we are promising to share not only the Gospel of God but also our very selves with one another.  We do so because our shared faith reminds us that we are already dear to each other, and we are dear to God.  Brothers and sisters, siblings in Christ and beyond, dear hearts everyone, thanks be to God for offering us a language of intimate commitment, community and love.  Amen.

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