“Family Values”

“Family Values:” a sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber on April 3, 2011, at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2

There’s an old Anglican tradition that makes this “Mothering Sunday,” a day to honor mothers with flowers and a special cake.  But Hallmark has persuaded most Americans that Mother’s Day is in May and the revised lectionary, selection of Sunday readings, gives us a reading for today that challenges us to think about family life in a way that goes much deeper than flowers.  “Who sinned,” the gospel asks; “this man or his parents?”  And the Old Testament gives us a picture of Jesse’s family that seems to include a father and seven sons; no mother and no daughters.  We’ve come a long way from Mothering Sunday!

I have a book published in New York in 1926 called “Rules and Manners of Good Society.” It seems to me actually to reflect a time about a century earlier. It has a few pages about children’s parties and it worries about whether formal dances should be arranged for young children: whether it’s good to give them experience in such matters or bad to push them ahead prematurely.  Have you maybe worried about that?

I have a magazine article I clipped at least 25 years ago that goes on about the generation gap and suggests that times are changing so fast that parents really can’t give their children any guidance anymore from their own experience.

And then I have this week’s gospel in which Jesus is asked whether the parents or their son have sinned when the child is born blind.  We might not put it that way ourselves but I think we are all still haunted by that question: not about physical blindness, of course, but about all kinds of blindnesses and limitations and failures; and not just of our children – we may not
have any – but of ourselves.  If I haven’t achieved what I want, if I find myself burdened by guilt or limited by unsatisfactory relationships -who sinned? I or my parents? What will my therapist say?

I remember a man who came to see me once when he was well into his 70s and burdened by a sense of failure in relationship to his children – all of them well along in life – and burdened by his inability to spend as much time with his own mother in a nursing home as he thought he should.

How much of our lives is dominated by the parent-child relationship?  How much of our national life is centered on concern for family issues?  You can read the stories about the wholesale
destruction of family life in our day: hunger and homelessness and drug abuse, battered spouses and abused children, and these prpoblems are not all somewhere else.  But even if they donlt involve us directly,  I wonder how many families can get up and out to church on Sunday morning without a crisis? Is there a family anywhere that can get through a day without some kind of tension or trauma?  God gives us the joy of families and, like everything else we touch, we manage to make it a burden.  Who sinned?  I guess we all do.

And suppose you look to the Bible for guidance. It’s cheaper than therapy.  Suppose you look up family, for example, in a Bible index.  Depending on the translation, you may find no reference at all to “family” in the New Testament.  Look up “parent” and you’ll do a little better – 20 references altogether and six of them just in this morning’s gospel.  Go beyond that and you find warnings about a day when, “Children shall turn against their parents” as a sign of the of the end of the world.  So that’s not too cheerful.  And then you find a couple of injunctions to obey your parents, a couple of denunciations of those who don’t, and that’s about it. Not really a lot of useful advice.

Well then, try to find an example of happy family life in the Bible.  Remember Cain and Abel?
Esau and Jacob? Joseph and his brothers? David and Bathsheba?  Lot and his daughters?  If you don’t know those stories, I’m certainly not going to tell you about them in church in Sunday morning!  Just believe me, if you think family problems are something new; they aren’t!  At least we can take comfort in knowing that the good old days weren’t much simpler than our own.

Think, in fact, about Jesus himself: you remember that time when he was twelve and his parents couldn’t find him and couldn’t understand him? Do you remember that time when his mother and brothers came to try to stop his preaching?

So where’s the guidance in all of this? What help is there for us?

There is still the Ten Commandments and the 5th  commandment, in particular:  “Honor thy father and mother,” which the New Testament calls “the first commandment with a promise.”  In fact, it’s the only commandment with a promise.  It says, “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”  Honor them. Whatever else may happen, they gave you life.  They deserve to be honored.

Yes, but if that’s so, why didn’t Jesus re-enforce that command and that promise?  The fact is that he seems almost to ignore it and even to talk against it.  He said more than once, “No one is worthy of me who loves father or mother more than me; no one is worthy of me who loves son or
daughter more than me (Matt.10:37  He said, “Anyone who has left father or mother or children for the sake of my name will be repaid many times over…” (Matt.19:29)

And what’s all that supposed to mean? Is the family the primary value or no?  I think the answer is No.  No, it’s not.  And maybe that’s something we need to hear.  For Jesus, God is the primary value and the family is not God.

I think we find ourselves in an age of ever smaller families. Not many of us grow up and live all our lives in one community.  Few of us have brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandparents and grandchildren nearby.  Family for most of us is smaller than ever before in the history of the human race.  And yet we need family desperately.  We need community.

We need others who care, and for most of us, for most of history, the family has been that community: a wide assortment of men and women and children of all ages who had that single bond of family and would fill the various roles in our lives that we need to have filled.  They’re gone for most of us; scattered from here to California and Florida and all the stops in between and overseas as well.  And the result is that we are left with the nucleus, the “nuclear family,” and that nucleus is asked to provide all the wisdom and strength and support we still need and which an extended family no longer provides. That little nucleus is asked to provide so much with all that pressure brought to bear. And what happens when the nucleus of the atom is brought under enormous pressure? Isn’t that the source of the most explosive force humankind has ever let loose?

The nuclear family is asked to bear a burden beyond any for which it was ever designed. No wonder we knock ourselves out for the children and parents we have left. No wonder we feel such guilt and anger and fear.  No wonder we feel such a compulsion to be with our children or parents at any cost.  We need them but we ask too much of too few.  The family cannot be God.  Our children cannot be God.  Our parents cannot be God.  God alone can be God. And God alone is able to bear the burden we try to place on each other.

So honor your parents and nurture your children, but worship God.  Give God priority. Put spouse and parents and children firmly in second place: firmly and lovingly.  I think the tensions will be less and the love we have to give will be more.

I think all this impinges on the church’s role too.  Over the years, I’ve seen church members become old and shut-in who have no family left at all.  Oh, maybe they have a second cousin in California – but no one else except maybe a local lawyer to help them when they can’t manage for themselves anymore.  And the church is their family, and we don’t play that role very well. Some of us try to, but it takes a whole community working together to be a family – and most of us are pulled too hard by the gravity of our own little nucleus – and it’s hard to pull away for someone else, someone we barely know.

Maybe, again, we need to work harder at putting God first, at being God’s family. Perhaps we could be more like God’s family when others need us if we put God first. Perhaps our own families would find more strength and love in that larger family than we could ever give them ourselves.

“Who sinned?” they asked Jesus; this man or his parents? And Jesus answered: “Neither one, but he was born blind so God’s power could be displayed.  Perhaps that’s our answer too.  It’s not so much a question of who sinned – we all have our failures, of course – but that’s not really the issue.  The point is that God’s power he displayed.  There’s help and healing available, love available.  God is able to supply our need but only as we worship God, turn first to God, make God the head of our family and the center of our lives.

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