June 11, 2018
“Families!” ~ Sermon for Sunday, June 10, 2018
Our New Testament reading this morning places us early in Jesus’ ministry.
After drawing large crowds in Galilee, Jesus retreated to the mountains where he appointed the twelve disciples to accompany him on his journey and to go out to proclaim the message and cast out demons.
Now, the gospel tells us, he is returning home and once again drawing large crowds.
Word goes out to his family that he has gone crazy and that they need to come get him.
Hear now a reading from the gospel of Mark 3:20-35.
Here ends the reading of God’s holy word. May God add to our hearing and understanding, God’s blessing. Amen.
Please pray with me.
God of judgment and mercy, when we hide ourselves in shame, you seek us out in love.
Grant us the fullness of your forgiveness, that as one people, united by your grace, we may stand with Christ against the powers of evil.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
What would we do without them?
I look to the Adam and Eve story that we heard in the Genesis reading this morning as the first evidence of family dysfunction.
God, the father of Adam and Eve asks that they obey one rule – do not eat from the tree of knowledge.
The serpent – a cousin, a neighbor – suggests that God’s rule is stupid and of course nothing will happen if you eat from the tree of knowledge…go ahead, try it.
Adam and Eve weaken in their resolve and give the apple a try.
The pair then tries to hide their experience from God.
However, like any good parent, God hears a confession in their excuse.
God is not pleased.
Adam and Eve will spend the rest of eternity trying to get back into God’s good graces.
How about Jesus?
The crazy brother with an anti-establishment message marching all over the townsquare calling the leaders names and promoting forgiveness, love and compassion.
His mother is called to come fetch him.
She enlists the support of his siblings.
No doubt they’ve heard his ranting in the past, perhaps at the dinner table.
They show up, presumably because they care about him, and he publicly dismisses them as unimportant.
Dr. Edwin Friedman, a distinguished Rabbi and family systems scholar describes the interconnectedness of family members and the systems that can sustain or destroy relationships.
He suggests that it is not the individual personalities that matter, but the position one holds in the family system that has an impact.
He provides this illustration:
Imagine a set of conduits connected in an asymmetrical pattern.
Let’s assume that one of the pipes becomes blocked, causing the pressure in the rest of the system to increase.
Eventually, if the added pressure cannot be redistributed, in order for the system to stay stable, one pipe or another will have to spring a leak.
But the pipe so chosen will not necessarily be the one that was structurally the weakest.
It will be rather that conduit whose position in the overall system caused it to pick up most of the pressure.
This, says Dr. Friedman, is exactly what can happen in a family when a death, a geographical move, a divorce, or a sudden cutoff results in added pressure on another member.
The process, he says, can appear to be automatic.
Families are truly the laboratory in which we learn to function in community.
It is in our family of origin that we develop the skills to adapt to the conditions around us.
We learn from our extended families how to cope with sadness, as well as how to celebrate joys.
We carry what we learn into our relationships with others outside the family.
Dr. Friedman says “The position we occupy in our families of origin is the only thing we can never share or give to another while we are still alive.
It is the source of our uniqueness, and, hence, the basic parameter for our emotional potential as well as our difficulties.”
As a minister, I have the privilege of hearing many family stories.
I hear people’s lament about their mother’s neglect or their sibling’s indifference.
Often people will characterize a current issue in their lives in the context of some childhood experience.
When a family loses someone, I witness the long-ingrained coping strategies they have honed, sometimes over multiple generations.
At weddings, I watch as families live into long-held expectations or default into petty jousting.
Perhaps most intriguing is to watch as families adapt and reform after disappointments, tragedies or simply unexpected events.
An untimely death, divorce or estrangement can leave a gaping hole in a family.
As one wise person told me “the hole never goes away, you simply learn how to navigate around it.”
This is what we learn to do in our families, or not.
Many of the rules and responses we learn in our families are unwritten.
Most are learned by observation and practice.
Rarely are the rules and rituals articulated or acknowledged.
Sometimes discussions are avoided by remarks such as “We don’t do that,” or “Let’s not talk about that.”
But that doesn’t make the issues, or feelings, go away.
Sometimes the dysfunction of a family is what takes root.
Sometimes the coping skills we pick up are destructive, like violence or addiction.
Sometimes we bring those dysfunctional responses into our communities – church, school or the workplace.
When this happens it is important for our non-family communities to be able to receive us with compassion, to help us heal from past wounds.
Often people feel limited from being their whole self in their family.
They feel judged or misunderstood.
They seek new ‘families’ yearning for the connections, respect or appreciation they feel they didn’t get.
It is in these newly found communities that the rules can be rewritten.
For Henri Nouwen, the word community has many connotations, some positive, some negative.
“Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals, and joyful celebrations. It also can call forth images of sectarian exclusivity, in-group language, self-satisfied isolation, and romantic naiveté. However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not “How can we make community?” but “How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?”
When Jesus dismissed his mother and brothers and sisters, he wasn’t saying that they didn’t exist.
He was simply saying that his community had expanded and he had found what he was seeking outside the family of origin.
Jesus redefines family.
He doesn’t reject the institution of family, and he doesn’t reject his own family.
He just opens up the meaning of family, expands it, re-frames it.
In this new and improved way of experiencing family, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious expert or a perfect person.
It doesn’t matter who your mother or father is, or what you’ve done in the past.
It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, gay or straight, old or young, rich or poor, completely able-bodied or not, one race or ethnic group or another.
Much of Jesus’ ministry and certainly the early church, was focused on nurturing this sense of connection, acceptance and compassion within a community.
The leaders of the early church, particularly Paul, were quite clear about the type of community they were trying to form.
In the second book of Acts we are told:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”
Later, writing to the church in Corinth, Paul urges them:
“That there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
The word “community” is a compound word; “com” means with and “unity” means what the word says…unity or being unified or having a common union.
Our church council and board of deacons have been wrestling with giving voice to the kind of community we want to be.
Their efforts started with drafting a behavioral covenant that was received as ‘too rule oriented.’
They went back to the drawing board and crafted a covenant prayer to guide the congregation in our deliberations.
Hear these words as a vision of our own faith community:
Dear God, as we gather to discern your will,
Let our church be a place where we learn about love and practice it, in keeping with our Covenant;
Where we envision peace and work through open and honest communication to build it;
Where we strive to find harmony and uphold the dignity of all, while benefitting from our differences.
May we listen without judgment, use words with care and exercise patience as we deliberate.
May your Spirit grant us the courage, power and grace we need to make decisions for the good of all.
It is in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen.
My friends, we are called to be in this community together.
We have each chosen this family to pursue our faith.
Let us open our hearts to any person who might be seeking a place to belong, a place to feel loved, a place to find God.
Let us pray.
Gracious, holy God of love and compassion, you created us to be in community with one another.
You have blessed us with families of origin and families of choice.
You empowered us to love one another as you have loved us.
Grant us the grace, we pray, to live out this gift each and every day.
Help us to be welcoming, nurturing, compassionate and kind.
Heal our wounds from past hurts and help us to focus on today.
Remind us, O God, of the forgiveness that Jesus was able to offer those who persecuted and betrayed him.
Help us to forgive our families for being less than perfect.
Teach us to love…help us to love.
Hear our prayers this morning for those whom we love.
For those who are sick, we pray for healing.
For those who mourn, we pray for comfort.
For those among us who carry hurt or pain attributed to our families, let your Holy Spirit create clean hearts.
Guide us to a future where each person is valued and each person feels loved.
Hear now our prayers as we turn to you in the sacred silence of this Meetinghouse….Jesus taught them to pray in these words…Our Father…Amen.
 Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, New York: The Guilford Press, 1985, p. 24.