“Come in, come in and sit down, you are a part of the family. We are lost and we are found, and we are a part of the family.” That’s the chorus of Jim Manley’s hymn that many folks think is the unofficial theme song of the United Church of Canada. Mary Ellen loves this hymn and every church should have a Mary Ellen. There are other favourites, I’m sure, probably as many as there are congregations, but this is one that hits home with lots of people with its recurring motif of “we are a part of the family.”
The “family” image isn’t exclusive to the United Church, of course. Our “church family” is a popular way to describe any congregation or community of faith. We’ve probably heard it used in other places, too, anywhere that people work or play together in a close enough way to form a relationship: work, school, clubs, communities. The key is the relationship part, isn’t it?
Yes, says Jesus, yes it is.
And we have some struggle with that. It wasn’t that long ago that the structure of a “conventional” family was as set in stone as it was in Jesus day: father and mother, 2.5 children, dog or cat and a reliable automobile. What society had established as the structure was the only structure and the emphasis was on the positions and how we perceived them rather than the relationships between. You knew your place in the hierarchy and who you were expected to be. Lots of these “conventional” families were happy and healthy, but when you looked beyond the required structure and the expectations, there was lots of dysfunction, too.
Our understanding of family structures has been changing for some time now. I’m going to say evolving and growing, because I believe that, but many still struggle to hold to the familiar system they know. I think what makes the difference is respect for the relationship of individuals and awareness of the importance of everyone’s uniqueness in developing community.
In the church family, too.
Jesus is all about relationships and about how we engage each other with respect and openness. When Jesus talks about loving and caring, it’s not something you do to someone, but with someone. Good stewardship is not about benevolent control over, but care with. Peace and harmony isn’t about everyone being the same, but about respecting differences and engaging the richness of those differences. This, of course, is the kind of church family we’d like to have. But are we there yet?
We’re accustomed to hearing stories about Jesus that show us how important it is to love and care, about peace and unity. But in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we also hear Jesus saying that he comes to bring division, to pit father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, essentially to divide a household. Jesus challenges the “conventional” family of his day, saying that place and status need to be broken down when they aren’t working. And they aren’t working in the synagogue, either. Family is important, but family is about being in relationship.
“Unity in diversity” is a key theme in many churches, especially the United Church, and it could be a family motto. But it has to be more than words. To truly mean it, it must be the real family: one where people are able to love and respect difference as well as similarity, to learn from each other, to fight and then forgive, and to embrace and to recognize the time to part. Yes, relationships change and sometimes have to end, but they can do so with respect and integrity. New beginnings require an ending, new directions a change in the path.