Focusing Out Lives – Part 3 of 6: Family in a Christian Home
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
May 21st, 2017
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“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. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Please be seated. Although that might be hard because this little burr of a text is with us now and it’s hard to sit with this text. It’s that text out of Matthew’s gospel that I kinda wish he’d forgotten to write down instead text that I just as soon avoid, to be frank with you. I wish that on the day he got out his note cards and was paging through them as he was preparing to write for that day. A gust of wind would’ve taken that particular card with this passage on it and blown it to the winds. Most folks do not like this passage because it seems so contrary to what we worship in America. Family right now seems so fragile, so fractured, so difficult. So the last thing it seems that we need is the Lord striding into our living rooms, sword in hand, ready to cut us apart. Most of us are so chopped apart anyway that he would be hard-pressed to put any more distance between us than is already there. Family is such a source of belonging and we remember the joy of family and so we have elevated it really beyond reason. This text provides us an opportunity to ponder what we expect from family.
As our expectations of family ideals have elevated, so have the pressures that we are doing something wrong if we don’t have it perfect like everyone else has it perfect. We have idealized marriage and we’ve made an easy target of divorce. If I were to choose a text to talk about divorce — as a church, a healthy understanding of divorce — it would be this one. Especially if we are willing to hear what Jesus is saying; we’ll get to that in a minute. But about divorce: in twenty-six years of being a professional minister, I have officiated 119 weddings and let me be really clear there is no way to predict which ones are going to work and which ones are not going to work. Some of the ones that I was absolutely sure had everything they needed to last were the first to divorce. And some of the couples that I’ve thought long and hard about saying to them: Ahh, I don’t think marriage is really the best thing for you right now. They got busy, they got deep, and they are doing fine. Again, there is no way to predict and there is no way that I found to divorce proof your marriage.
Choosing every day to love the other person in word and deed is a good step. But the other person makes decisions too and perceives things differently than we do. You add onto that emotional baggage from childhood. You add onto that bad examples from family. You add on professional development for you but not your spouse or your spouse is getting their own professional development and you go like this. You add into that meddling family members, extended family, and just the general pull and stress of family and emotional and world and life. True, sometimes the marriage is a mistake: different expectations, different needs and there are two great incompatible people and their kids. Sometimes the true person you married is not seen until well after the honeymoon and you spend a long time trying to change them. Sometimes we evolve; sometimes the other person does not, or vice versa. Sometimes people simply grow apart and over long lives the distance between two lives in the same house can be staggering. Sometimes we know there’s a problem and we start to extend ourselves and we seek counsel and we try hard work and sometimes it works and we become better people and we have a better marriage. Sometimes we find we are the only ones in the marriage extending ourselves and pretty soon we’re so far off balance, it’s no longer us. We stopped being who we are trying to make a marriage work and it’s all about the other person; almost a refusal to be happy. Sometimes divorce is just the best thing for everyone involved. Fortunately, we are people of grace.
Unfortunately, divorce is not the only thing that divides families. There are people who struggle with identifying their sexual preference. Just about the time they’re ready to step out of the closet they find they are kicked out of the family because of intolerance. There are parents who abuse younger children, who neglect younger children. There are grown children who abuse their parents as they age. There are parents and adult children who have reached an impasse over money, over religion and they no longer speak to each other. She said to me, my Dad and I no longer speak and I said: what came between you and she said: Fox news, all day, every day. We have family members who we can no longer speak with; who to be honest there is no relationship anymore. Some of us have even needed to unfollow family members on Facebook. Some of us have even had to unfriend family members on Facebook and we look at their address in our address book and wonder should we just erase now? When the separation is mutual that’s bad enough, but it’s even worse when you have been cut off and you don’t know why or you have to cut someone else off and they just don’t get it. This is very painful stuff. It’s about as painful as it gets.
Whether this rejection by your family or you needing to reject your family, this tension can absolutely consume a person. You begin to define yourself by the tension that you feel with your family and spending so much time it defines you. You’re either trying to hold yourself apart from the vacuum of your dysfunctional family and you kick yourself when you fall into their emotional traps. Or you’re trying to have a healthful relationship with your family and you kick yourself when you fall into their emotional traps. There is not a lot of time for doing anything else. Let me tell you nobody knows how to hurt one another like family does; our knowledge of one another. It’s such a great thing to have a shared family history until you’re having conflict and what they know about you is so powerful, the memories are so deep, all of them become weapons and arsenals against one another. There is no mystery why such a large percentage of homicides in this country take place in homes among family members.
One way that we deepen the hurt of a broken family is by tormenting ourselves with images of perfect families. Will you look at my pictures with me, the stack of pictures I have? Here’s a picture of a home in which Mom and Dad love each other very much and stay together forever. Flip, a home in which brothers and sisters are best friends forever and always get along and always understand. Flip, a home in which grandparents are jolly and always happy to see you and always have insightful instruction relevant to your life to offer. Flip, a home in which everyone is gathered at the dinner table together, telling amusing stories and admiring one another’s accomplishments. With pictures like those floating around in our heads it’s hard to not feel like a failure whatever our circumstances.
Although I was reading in the Bible; the Bible can be helpful sometimes. I ran across this Old Testament story, it starts in Genesis 25. It is between two brothers Cain and Abel and Cain is screwed over by his brother Abel. Thus begins the tension between these two siblings and it goes on for chapter after chapter. There is parental involvement and there is pressure upon the brothers to get along and they don’t get along and they kill each other. Then there’s another story later on about two brothers: Esau and Jacob and Esau screws over his brother Jacob or is it Jacob who screws over Esau. I can never quite remember because the point of the story is you got two brothers that are at it, you got parental involvement and they are trying to pressure the brothers to get along and they don’t get along and they don’t get along. The big event at the end of the story is that they don’t kill each other. That’s the end of the story; Jacob and Esau to live on one side of the river, each from another and they don’t crossover and they don’t kill each other.
Jesus retells that story in Luke 15, the story of the prodigal father and the two sons. Two sons could be the best of friends; they are not. They do not get along together and I think part of the message there — for those who are listening — is that the big accomplishment is they don’t kill each other. Family has that power and we all feel guilty that our relationships are not perfect. We don’t help it because we were raised on Lisa May Alcott stories and some of us grew up reading the Bobbsey Twins and we all have those Norman Rockwell pictures that we idealize. The truth of the matter is, sometimes families are close and sometimes they are not.
Another thing I’ll tell you is that sometimes when a family appears close, you might want to pull back the curtain because while some families break up and some family stay together; not everything is as it seems. I know, I know, the model we have is that Mom and Dad ruled the roost kindly but firmly and children grow up feeling safe and secure and accept their parents expectations of them and they try to live up to those expectations. The children compete with one another for the affection of the parents and the parents use this competition to shape the behavior of their children. Such a model for how family works and it’s all done in the name of love. But right underneath it is this pool of control and sometimes trying to control people backfires. Sometimes it works and what works on the oldest and the second child does not work on the third child and you have to learn how to parent all over again. What used to be helpful now offends the child.
Children leave home. Sometimes it works, sometimes they have to come back and live with Mom and Dad as adults for a while. They find that they are not quite equipped to deal with all the demands of adulating. They return home and there is a struggle with what rules where they will be and who’s paying for what and how do we help without interfering? How do we support without meddling? One year New York Times columnist, Anna Quinlan wrote a love letter to her father. In the column she talked about the simultaneous blessing and curse of being her father’s first child. She wrote: I was raised as my father’s oldest son. She details his high expectations of her and how she learned to value herself the way her father valued her: for her mind, for her achievements, for her reflection of him. Then one day she had an eye-opening opportunity and she stopped because it was an opportunity to realize that she and he were two different people, separate, not mirror images of one another. Much to her surprise, she found that she loved him a whole lot more after she realized she was a separate person from him. She said his expectations were hard but they took me places I never would’ve gone by myself. They were a curse and a blessing all in one.
I think Jesus knew how powerful families are in our lives; whether they’re working quite well or not at all; where we’re snuggled deep in the bosom of our family utterly estranged from our family. I think he knew how easy it is for us to be consumed, obsessed with our family so that we forget who we are apart from our family. I also think that he knew it’s only when we discover who we are apart from our family that we can be part of a family in a healthy way. I am a husband, son, brother, grandson, cousin, a nephew, and each of those identities have shaped my life, but none of them contains me. I am Jonathan. I am a child of God; I am God’s property; that is my true identity. Everything else grows out of that and then I remember that my life seems healthy and when I forget that I get sucked in to my families stuff.
Each of us has our own list of roles that we fill. Most of you are children and parents. But like me you are God’s child first. That is not a role; that is who you are. That’s the nature of your identity That is where your true peace and your security lie. When you know that, when you’ve learned the truth of it in your heart as well as in your head, then chances are you’re going to survive whatever brokenness happens in your family. You are going to move on and form healthy relationships with people whom God sends your way. When you know that you are a child of God, chances are that you’re not going to be swallowed up by your family whose love has a little bit too much control in it. In both cases, knowing your true identity can make all the difference. It can save your life.
I don’t think that we have to hate our families in order to remember who we are apart from them. But depending on what kind of family they are and how much control they tried to exercise over us, it sure might feel like we hate them for a while, while we are trying to get away from them and get healthy. The truth of the map of Matthew’s community — the truth of our text today — is that a whole lot of people in that community were already estranged from their families. In the first century it was the custom, it was the tradition, it was the way it was, for whole households to adopt the faith of the head of the household, in other words, the oldest male in the house. Children, spouse, slaves, servants, everyone, you adopted the religious belief; you adopted the standards of whoever ran the house. So dinner every night was a bit of checking in with Dad to see where the loyalties are today. Everyone in the house was compelled to believe what that person believed. So if anyone in the household elected to become a Christian, it was nothing short of mutiny, especially since becoming a Christian had all kinds of consequences. Becoming a follower of Jesus might mean selling everything you have and giving the proceeds to the poor. It might mean that you begin associating with whole classes of people labeled as outlaw and slave. And it would certainly mean if you are a Christian in the first century you brought the whole household under suspicion of the Roman Empire.
So there were plenty of people sitting in Matthew’s congregation who had already been kicked out of their families for believing in Jesus. They were living in the grief of estrangement and so when Matthew told them what Jesus said about hating their families it didn’t frighten them; it comforted them. It was as though Jesus had known what would happen to them and he was reassuring them ahead of time. Now we live in a different time and there are different consequences for believing in God. One thing has not changed since our desire for kinship. Some of us find that in our families. Some of us don’t. Some of us find that in our church family. Some of us don’t. Whether we do or whether we don’t, Jesus demand on us remains the same. He tells us to love him above all other loves and if that means losing those we love, we shouldn’t be afraid because buried in his demand is a promise that what we lose for his sake we will find again; returned to us more alive than ever before. It’s a pretty good promise and as for your family, I wish you the best. Amen.