There is a custom at a little church in the Midwest that goes like this. Whenever a person is about to be baptized, the minister calls out to the congregation, “Who stands with this child?” and the extended family or close friends rise from their seats and offer an outward and visible testimony of their inward commitment. They stand, hearts brimming and knees shaking, even though they know sometimes their love might seem compromised or limited or unreciprocated. They rise to pledge that they’ll do the best they can. These are the folks in the child’s life who know that growing up has never been easy, the people who know that being a parent is hard work in the best of circumstances.
And this custom of folks popping up here and there in the pews at a baptism makes the church feel cozy and warm and like a family, but I want to warn us from easy sentimentality, from striving to build a church in which it would be simple to guess who might stand for whom. The community of faith is more than a family. The measure of our vibrancy is not when we gather amiable people to stand with their neighbors… rather the church is created when enemies break bread together, when one broken-hearted outcast stands up for another, when a queen kneels before a poor, unwed mother or a recovering addict, and calls her sister.
That is the society that we are trying to create here and beyond, at home and at work and at play. The community of saints is both more welcoming and more challenging than most of our biological families. Our litmus test is not blood, but the spirit, and when we are at our best, the spirit of God is breathing through us wherever we go.
A child named Matthew was presented for baptism at an Episcopal church a few years back, and I imagine a group of folks stood to support him and his family as they gathered around the font. But that same Matthew, child of God, was beaten and left for dead as a young man, tied to a fence post like yesterday’s garbage, because his way of being challenged some people’s idea of family values. He loved “the wrong person,” another man, and that made some of his neighbors mad. So one dark night, two very scared and confused young people, also God’s children, acted out of their own brokenness, and their fear turned murderous.
It would not have surprised me if Matthew’s parents had settled into their own murderous rage, mirroring the worst of their son’s killers, looking for vengeance, an eye for an eye. But his parents did something extraordinary. They asked for their son’s killers to be forgiven. They stepped beyond the narrow circle of family of blood into the family of the spirit, and saw another son staring back at them through the eyes of their enemy.
Our true brothers and sisters are as likely to be our so-called enemies as our friends. Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right and merciful, because that is what the human family looks like and feels like and hurts like. Jesus is describing us. We belong to each other. Any walls we build between us, of race and class and gender, of sexuality and nationality and ethnicity, of political party and religious tribe, are walls of fear. Each of us has been a wanderer and a stranger, and our call is to make the world feel more like home for all.
Who will you stand with today?