Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sermon from the 4th: Honoring One's Family

I have gotten behind again in publishing sermons on my blog.  This is a mixed thing; my other posts have more readers, but I also know the posting of these goes to our church website as well as to parishioners who weren't able to come on Sunday.  So here is my sermon from a couple weeks back.  Apologies to those who prefer other posts... been focusing more on poetry and stories lately (other blogs).

Exodus 20: 12
1 John 4: 20,21
Luke 14: 25- 26
Mark 3: 31-34

            Today’s readings in our scriptures appear to conflict with each other. The verse from Exodus is one of the ten commandments and tells us we are to honor our parents. This is followed by the passage from First John which tells us that if we don’t love our brothers and sisters we cannot love God and that in loving God, we love all of those around us as well. So far so good.  Pretty straight forward.  Loving God means loving our family. Honoring our parents is part of that love.
               But then we come to the third passage, from Luke.  This seems to be in direct conflict with our other passages. Let me read it to you again: “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” We see throughout the gospels that Jesus challenges what appear to be concrete and unquestioned laws of other parts of scripture. Is this another one of those times?
              There are many churches that hang their shingle on this very passage from Luke. When I was working on my dissertation I read a book entitled Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse (Mary Alice Chrnalogar. Grand Rapids, MI.:  Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.), in which the author Mary Alice Chrnalogar discussed churches, often mainstream, regular denominational churches that take on some cult-like personality traits.  They often use a “discipleship” model in which someone who has been part of the church for a set period of time “disciples” those who are newer to the church. This discipling in these particular congregations subtly puts the new member in a situation where every single decision in their life must be affirmed by their discipler, where every personal event must be confessed to their discipler and where they lose more and more autonomy, freedom, and even sense of self under the guise of being “guided in their spiritual journeys.”  Mary Alice Chrnalogar refers to this passage in Luke as she states, “What member of a controlling group doesn’t know this verse? Stressing this verse in the wrong way can drive psychological wedges between church members and their families. It can even lead members to feel disgust for those who love them.”
               These same churches also use the last scripture, from the book of Mark, that I read to you
today. I would like to read that one again as well. “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’
“‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’”
            The author of Twisted Scriptures continues “By using this verse, our group was powerfully driven to feel isolated from all outsiders who we believed weren’t as committed as we were. Those of us within the group truly felt as though we were brothers and sisters. I emotionally distanced myself from my blood relatives. They didn’t count as much.....Often these groups make their members paranoid by admonishing them not to allow their own families to challenge (anything) the group... teach(es).” Have any of you been involved with churches like this?
          We know that many scriptures of the Bible can be mis-used when taken out of the context of the rest of scripture. What is commonly called “proof-texting” or quoting scripture without its context or without the bigger message of the Bible can be very dangerous. So we must understand these four texts within their contexts and as they relate to each other and other passages in scripture. What is the message for us in these passages, not as separate sentences but as a group?
             The text in Luke about hating your mother, etc. is not a passage talking about how we are to treat our family. Rather it is a passage stressing that your primary commitment must be to God.  We are to follow God and God’s will for our lives, for our hearts, our souls, our material possessions over all other commitments, even that of family members. Our love for God is to be so primary that if we were to compare our love, the love we feel for the people we are closest to would look like nothing, might look like hatred or rejection, in comparison for our commitment and love of God. That is what this passage is stressing. In concrete terms, if you are forced into making a choice between following God’s will for your life or following what your family would have you do, there is no contest: you must follow God. Fortunately, for most of us, we will probably not have to come to a place where we have to choose between God and family. But even if you do, this passage is simply saying you are called to follow God above all others. This passage is NOT telling you to reject family for other people, even if those other people are church members. It is NOT telling you to follow the will of the church over the will of your family. This is strictly about your commitment to God and how strongly it is to prevail in your life.
        In trying to understand how we are to treat our family members, we have to keep looking beyond this passage because this passage isn’t about how we are to treat family members.
The fourth passage I picked for today is helpful here. In this passage Jesus expands on the understanding of family. He says, “Who are my mother and brothers? All who are doing God’s will are my mother and brothers.” It is interesting to note what he does not say here. He does not say, “Whoever is a member of my church is my mother and brothers.” He does NOT say, “Whoever believes in me is my mother and brothers.” He does NOT say, “Whoever believes in GOD is my mother and brothers.” He says, “All who are doing God’s will are my mother and brothers.”
         Another thing to point out: Jesus also does not say in this passage from Mark that his biological mother and brothers are not his mother and brothers. He does not exclude them.  Instead, he opens up his definition of family. Those doing God’s will are family. Those committed to love and caring and service are family.
       What does this mean for us practically? Who is our family? Who are the parents that we
are to honor? How are we to know who is doing God’s will and who is not? Personally, I don’t think I am qualified to judge absolutely if someone is following God’s will or not. And again, we have other scriptures to guide us in our behavior. Jesus says, “You have heard it said , ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you welcome only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:43-47)
     Who do you struggle to treat as family? A category of people that I personally have struggled in the past to accept lovingly as family is fundamentalist Christians. I know fundamentalists are my brothers and sisters. I know they are even my brothers and sisters in faith. But they truly have the ability to bring out my highest judgement, my deepest anger, and my crabbiest self. So thirteen years ago when an old high school friend called me to say she’d been “born again” and wanted to get together with me, instead of elation at the prospect of meeting with her, I honestly felt sick to my stomach. Our meeting went much as I expected. She proudly informed me that in HER church women were not even allowed to be ushers.  She told me that she would not visit her parents any longer because her father had been married before to someone who was not her mother and therefore he was a divorced man so she would not have anything to do with him. She shared with me that she was currently on a committee fighting to insist that public schools be forbidden to teach science, especially evolution, since it was anti-biblical. I said nothing in response to all of this, feeling somewhat paralyzed by it all: not wanting to “start a conflict” if she didn’t really want to know my opinion, and feeling increasingly that not only were we as different as could be but that in fact we worshiped different gods. But I also found myself unable to block out other things that she was telling me about her faith journey. She was volunteering in a soup kitchen. She was reading the Bible with a group of women. She was taking the time to talk to the homeless on the street and give them both food and her time and attention. After she left those facts stayed with me at a much deeper level than our theological disagreements. She was doing God’s will, she was my Christian sister, she was another child of God, even if I had failed to treat her as such in my silence, in my fear, in my disagreement with her personal theology.
         We are not to be the judge of who is following God’s will and who is not. Instead, we are to extend our understanding of family to include all of God’s people: ALL PEOPLE. Even people of other faiths, even atheists, even fundamentalists. Even...whatever group or individual you personally struggle to accept. Family is not to be limited or defined by blood or marriage
relationships. It is not to be limited or defined even by church boundaries. This can be hard. It can be challenging to look at those around us as brothers and sisters whom we are called to love, serve and care for. And yet we have models of people who have been more than able to love someone who has come into their life though they are not a blood relation, though they are not united by marriage. How many of you have had the experience of inviting someone to become part of your family who is not related to you by blood or marriage?
          The best example I can think of of someone really expanding their family beyond blood and marriage walls is the example of a parent who adopts a child. That parent anticipates that child and loves that child every bit as much as a parent who gives birth to a child.
         As one parent of three: two by birth, one by adoption, told me: “Our adoption journey was a 9-month journey of faith, much like my pregnancies with the boys. Maggie's coming into our family has been just as much of a miracle as the births of the boys, if not more so for me. There were so many days that we worried and stressed and cried about whether we would be able to afford it or whether it was really going to happen or whether or not she was ok or when she was going to come home. But all of our prayers were answered and she is worth all that we went through and much more. She is certainly the baby that was meant to be with us.”
        When we baptize babies, children, and adults into our church, or even when we simply welcome them as members, we promise in a very formal, concrete way to care for and raise these members as family. It is in a sense an adoption by the church of these new members. This is a place for us to practice and take seriously Jesus’ call to expand our understanding of family. Treating each other as family is as simple as saying “hello” and is as deep as inviting someone to stay with you who is down and out, inviting someone to share a holiday with you, asking if they are okay, and sharing your own self - your worries, your hopes, your joys as well.
           The church is a safe place to practice being family. Here we learn to honor all in this room as our mother and father. Here we learn to love and serve each other. Through baptism we practice adoption of one another as children, as brothers and sisters. Here we practice. So that then we may enter the world in that same spirit of love, same openness to seeing God’s family everywhere around us.
           The bottom line is that we honor our family by honoring each other, respecting each other, listening to each other, serving each other.  We honor our family by growing in love towards all God throws our way. That call again that is so very simply, and not so very easy. But worth everything we have.