1 Cor 12:12-26; Ruth 1:14-18
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Here is a little secret about me, I don’t like being given topics to preach on. I like being given Biblical texts. With the text as my starting place I can see what emerges as I study the bible. When I am given a topic it often means that I have to find my texts and weather it is my training or my personality, this always feels like proof texting or making the Bible say what I want it to say.
So here we go – pick texts to talk about family, the family of God. (flip through bible) I don’t know the Bible super well but I do ok and nothing is coming to mind. There is not a go to text for families. There are lots of families in the bible but I’m not sure many of them are ideal. There are brothers killing each other, families scheming and tricking one another, troubling sexual acts between relatives. And what about the problematic texts where women are considered property or useless unless they can deliver a child, preferably a male one. This feels kind of like choosing a text for a wedding ceremony, there are not ideal couples in the Bible that are easy to base a wedding sermon off of. We can talk about love – there are good passages on that! – love is patient and kind. Or we draw on the Ruth passage that was read today – but that is not between a loving couple. It is a daughter-in-law speaking to her mother-in-law after all of the intimately related males in their life have died.
Being a product of my generation I went to my wise advisor Google for some help. Here is what the internet handed me:
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
and when old, they will not stray.
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
is God in his holy habitation.
6 God gives the desolate a home to live in;
and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
1 John 4:20
There you have it our tidbits of texts with a good dose of teaching from Proverbs.
(hold up Bible) Here we have a book about God entering into the messy complexity of our lives and relationships and showing us what it is to be loved, to love and be transformed by the love of God, right there in the mess of it all. If I had to categorize families and relationships from the Bible I’d probably just say, it’s complicated.
Maybe this is a bit of a relief because really who has the rosy Hallmark family. Lets think back to Christmas with our families. I adore my family and yet holidays are hard. Equal parts wanting to soak up every minute with my family and at the same time longing to have my own space again and wishing that relationships weren’t so complicated.
Even what comprises a family is complex – single parents, step families, grandparents raising a grandchild. It’s not a cute family unit and was it ever?
“In Bible times, a family was much more than a private haven of affection: it was a productive unit spanning generations. Nancy Pearcey, explains:
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home performed a host of practical functions. It was the place where people educated children, cared for the sick and elderly, ran family industries, served customers and the community, and produced a surplus to help the poor. The home reached out to the wider society.” https://www.
Marjorie J Thompson in her book Family; The Forming Center notes that as our social fabric tears and traditional structures of family crumble we can succumb to our cultural habit of idolizing the biological family unit. (p.134) Families are not perfect but they are so important.
A problem for us as Mennonites that we share with some in biblical families is our insider-ness. Who was in the family or people group and who was not – how should outsiders be treated. Mennonites can feel like a big family. When we go to the Mennonite Church USA convention it can feel like a family reunion especially for those of us who have lived in Mennonite dense communities or studied at Mennonite institutions.
We play the Mennonite game – following family lines trying to figure out how we are related or how people fit together. I had someone come up to me at church and say we were almost related. When I looked at her with surprise and some skepticism she traced the line of connection, my sister-in-law’s sister is married to her husband’s cousin. 10 points if anyone can figure out who that is.
The problem with having insiders is that that puts some people on the outside. One of my friends in seminary raged at how often people would look at him oddly when he’d say his last name. They would comment “Hickman isn’t a Mennonite name”. He would forcefully reply back “well it is now!!”
When things become complicated reading the bible we often look to Jesus – let’s look at what he says. Jesus himself was a contradiction. Jesus lived a single life, called his disciples away from their families but used family imagery, terms and illustrations in his teachings. “His direct naming of God with such an intimate family term strongly suggests a familial dynamic at the heart of the Holy Trinity.”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p133) Jesus goes on to bless marriage at the feast at Cana, bless children and names them as having qualities that are a gateway to the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches with stories of families, explaining unconditional love as a father and son in the story of the prodigal.
But there are a number of difficult texts when we look at what Jesus said about family
In Matthew 10:35-37 – Jesus says:
35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[a]
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
And later in Matt 12:46-50
46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Again quoting Thompson “In a single sentence, Jesus has redefined the family from core to periphery: A true family is one whose center is unswerving allegiance to God alone and whose parameters expand to include everyone who delights in God’s will. Jesus is interested in inaugurating a new community. Yet even this community of grace is described in family terms” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.134)
So much of our faith formation happens in families. We learn about God from the significant people in our lives. Our theology is shaped and refined in the love, commitment, trust, grace and forgiveness, or the lack there of that we experience in our families.
Yet the church community should be the place where our understanding of love, acceptance and a call to service is extended. Jesus seems to tap into this idea with some of the “radically disturbing things (he has) to say about the place of natural kinship” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.132)
As humans we long for connection, but have we lost the art of connection. In our over sexualized society we project romance onto all intimacy and then put pressure on families to have it all together on their own. Is Mom, Dad and 2.2 children ideal? What about support systems? What about single people? What about the elderly? The single parents, the youth who have aged out of foster care system? How do they all fit into our loving networks? Do we as churches fall into following age and stage in our relationships only befriending the people who are at the same life stage as us? How do we all find our space of belonging?
It may not be that we are not connected but that we are over connected – a mile wide and an inch deep. If we are connected across so many communities, all our many commitments and networks, are we really known and held by any of them? “We’re busy, but disconnected. Our relationships are several, but superficial (frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effect on loneliness).” https://www.
Even in families we are lonely. A number of recent headlines point out how lonely we are becoming.
“Surgeon General Says There’s a Loneliness Epidemic” “Young People Report More Loneliness Than the Elderly”
“The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness” https://www.
We live in a society that values our individualism yet we are persons in community – wired for connection.
“loneliness causes “an insidious type of stress” that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” https://www.
“Like Jesus, we exist for relationships. Created in the image of a triune—and therefore eternally relational—God, to be fully alive means to live in relationships. If Jesus was history’s most “fully alive” human, it shouldn’t surprise us that a person can’t become fully human without a community.” https://www.
We are members of a body, the body of Christ here in Park View. As we read the New Testament we see a breaking open of the bloodline and family systems of the people of Israel. Jew, Greek, slave, free, man, woman, young and old all drawn in. No longer do you need to be born in, to find inclusion or grafted in by marriage. We are part of God’s family and household, a chosen people through grace, faith and baptism. Members of one body with all our varying gifts.
“The kinship family is viewed primarily as a biological and sociological entity. Within the church, however, the family becomes more than the most efficient unit for human propagation, nurture, and ordering of society. It becomes part of the larger, transforming kinship of those bound together in baptism to the body of Christ”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p 135)
Can we live together creatively and faithfully? Families are those we feel stuck with but also deeply known by and who hold us through it all. As we call each other brothers and sisters, siblings in faith can we treat each other in that way? Can our church family be both biological and a chosen family bound to one another?
I know I have quoted this before but it seems relevant to hear it again: If you love community you will destroy it, if you love people you will create community.
Can we as a church prioritize forming authentic community.
Not wanting “our church family” to morph into “a church for families”. But one where people who show up in all stages of life, family, singleness or marital status are drawn into discernment and networks of mutual care and mission.
Jesus came and brought connections between people who had never shared the same social arena and now called each other brother.
“Early Christianity scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:
Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain contented with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.” https://www.
This is hard work but may we, like Ruth, say to our chosen family…Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. And your God shall be my God.
May it be so with us as we embrace this family of God.
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