Sermon: Choral Mattins - 21 February 2016

Julie Gittoes
Sunday 21st February 2016
Choral Mattins
Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Romans 11: 13-24
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"Do you have a family?"

It's perhaps one of the most obvious and seemingly innocuous questions we ask in the midst of our ordinary social interactions.

"Do you have family?"

It's a question that can be made more or less generous - even more or less intrusive - with the omission or inclusion of that one word: a.

A family: it conjures up an image perhaps of a family unit.  Today life is far more complex than the stereotype of parents plus 2.4 children. But if we live alone; if we aren't parents; how do we answer?

Speaking of family, with the "a": perhaps it gives us permission to talk about parents, siblings, granddads, cousins and honorary aunts or uncles, even perhaps our godparents. It becomes more intergenerational; it sounds more diverse.

Even then, it doesn't account for the number of people with whom we share our lives.

Today's readings take us several steps further: we are drawn into a narrative of blessing, covenant and fruitfulness; it's a vision which extends the notion of family beyond biological kinship. God's wider purpose is for the whole world.

But how would Abram and Sarai answer? Do we see this geriatric man and his barren wife as pitiable, vulnerable or channels of grace and hope?  Their story is rich an complex and you can follow it in full in the pages of Genesis. God called Abram to leave his father's house aged 75 - he promises to bless him with a great name, a great household and a great name.

With Sarai his wife, they travel in famine, plenty, hospitality and enmity: perhaps childlessness in the face of promise becomes an intolerable burden; impatiently they take matters into their own hands, and Abram has a child Ishmael  with Sarai's maid Hagar.

Now some 20 years, the language of multitude, offspring, nations is repeated. The promise of blessing is renewed. Names change and hope is renewed. Isaac will be more. Their family isn't singular - 'a family' - it is rich, complex and fraught; a family of nations and faiths.

Such covenanted relationships operated across three dimensions: rooted in the faithful call of God, Abraham and Sarah respond in trust for the sake of a blessing that transcends time. It's a blessing that unfolds in the mystery of the incarnation, in who Jesus is.

These notions of family, calling and promise are precisely the things that Paul is grappling with as he writes to the Christian community in Rome. Elsewhere he has declared his credentials as a one who was circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews; righteous, zealous and blameless.

But now, he is rejoicing in his ministry to the Gentile community: his notion of a family of God - of people of faith - has been radically expanded.  In Jesus Christ, he sees God's action in reconciling the whole world.   He agonised over this - spiritually, theologically - because this hope comes seems to be related to the rejection of the good news of Christ by his own people.

In struggling to make sense of this he uses  language he uses of stumbling and failure, even of branches been thrown away reveals the depth of his own turmoil.  And yet and yet, he sees some continuity of God's purposes: it is the same faithfulness, the same hope and ultimately the same family.

In God's plan, the people of Israel and the Gentile community are interdependent: the holiness of the first fruits sanctify the whole, the health of the cherished roots strengthens the branches. He extends a gardening metaphor in a way which stretches horticultural viability - not only are wild branches grafted in, but those which have been cut off can be re-grafted.

Such is the hope of this family of nations - the multitude of those loved and called by God - that it is cosmic in scope. If the rejection of Jesus by Jews brings reconciliation to the world; then their acceptance of God's ways will bring even more life.

We can never boast says Paul in an 'exclusive' or 'special' relationship with God that forecloses on the divine promise of redemption to all.  There is one tree.  For all of us our faith rests on the faithfulness of God. Our hope is a hope for the whole world.

We are called to seek and serve that wider purpose - in the power of the Spirit.

The Gospel reframed questions about family: regardless of tradition or status; our parentage or parenting. Our family includes the holy first fruits of brothers and sisters across denominations and faith traditions; it includes the rootedness of our family in Syria, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq. How does citizenship of heaven, through the cross of Christ, shape our earthly responsibilities?

How might this notion of a holy family - a multitude of nations, peoples living in covenantal relationships - shape our own engagement with the EU Referendum? It is Bishop Nick Baines puts it an act of faith. As Europe faces crises: reform of institutions, renewal of vision, challenges to financial systems, thousands of refugees, upheaval on our boards, what dare we say about the place of 'union'?  As the debate unfolds, we are being asked to consider what are the basic principles of our life together; to discern a bigger vision how earthly realms manifest the virtues and hopes of a heavenly kingdom.