Scripture: Psalm 24:1-2
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In the news recently, we have not been able to escape hearing about Baltimore, and Ferguson, and other cities, in which there have been racial incidents with the police.
Another thing we have heard much about in the news is gay marriage since the Supreme Court took up the matter last week.
Gay marriage. Police brutality and racism. Over and over and over. Two very different issues. Yet with the same roots. Privilege, discrimination, injustice. And in both conversations, what comes up? The family.
In discussions about race we hear about systematic policies enacted to shred the black family like giving AFDC only to single mothers.
And in the gay marriage conversation, we learn that marriage was instituted for the raising of children. I don’t agree, but this is what some experts seem to think. Personally I think marriage has roots as a property transaction linked to the legalities of inheritance. But, that’s not the issue today though it really is an issue in the marriage conversation. But today some people cling to a certain definition of a couple and a family. Can a couple in which the two adults are of the same gender form a legitimate family? What is the effect of that kind of family arrangement upon society as a whole? Family is part of culture so it is not just an individual, personal matter. And children are involved. So, many are weighing in on this issue.
So we are hearing a lot about family this days. What is a family? What makes a strong family? Why is the family deteriorating? Why are families breaking apart with the divorce rate up, more single parent households, etc.? Where do same gender couples, with and without children, fit in? And inevitably this conversation about family, relative to race or sexual orientation, veers from sociology, psychology, economics, government policy, and anthropology, into religion. We’re told that the family is ordained by God. And that family is a religious institution.
First I wonder about just what kind of family God ordained? One like Adam and Eve and their murderous son? One like Jacob and Leah and Rachel, where the groom is duped at the altar and gets the wrong sister? A family like the most wise of the wise, Solomon, who, we are told, had some 700 wives and 300 concubines? Or to move to the New Testament, a family like Ananias and Sapphira, who lie and betray and end up being struck dead? Or a family like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha? Since when do three adult siblings make a family? Is that the kind of family that is God – ordained? Or is the God ordained family a single, celibate adult, which is how we think of Jesus? That won’t do much for perpetuating the species.
So, just what is a Christian family? What does our religious tradition teach us about family? One image we have been given by society and the church in recent decades is the image of the family as mom, dad, the kids, the pets, all living in their suburban bubble where the boys play soccer and the girls are cheer leaders and they order pizza and play videos games and go on vacation together in an SUV. Oh, and yes, they go to church together every week in their Sunday best. It’s kind of the white bread, middle America version of family. This is touted as the ideal. And dubbed the Christian family ideal.
Yet what is really Christian about this? Or ideal? Except maybe the going to church every Sunday? It’s a stereotypic view of family that suits the American milieu, the American economy, and American sensibilities. There doesn’t seem to be much that is explicitly Christian about it.
What is Christian? When we look at Jesus, we see that he shows us that we are to give our lives away. We are to spend ourselves in service. We are to reach out to meet the needs of others. Forgive and work for reconciliation. In this self giving kind of life, we find our highest good. When we think of this Christian lifestyle, we can see that none of this directly relates to the idealized family that we described earlier.
What makes a Christian family is a family in which the concern is for others, for the wider community, for neighbors near and far, all families, and all children. The Christian family is a family committed to the well-being of all people; a group dedicated to making the world a welcoming home for all. There is story in the gospels in which Jesus is asked about family. He says that those who do the will of God are his family. What is the will of God? Self giving. Generosity. Unconditional, universal love. The Christian family, then, is not an isolated self serving group in a bubble, but a locus for care of one another and the world.
I grew up in what was in many ways a typical white upper middle class family. We took music lessons and were in after school clubs and scouts. My brother played little league and I took up ice skating. We went to church and youth group. Our family ate breakfast and dinner together most days. We played card games or board games several nights a week. We watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “Wild Kingdom” on TV. We went on family vacations every year. The one thing that I knew was different about our family then was that my mother as well as my father worked outside the home. In those days, most mothers in our economic stratum did not work outside the home.
But in addition to being a pretty typical family, I can now see how we were also very different. When we think about a Christian family as a group of people committed to the greater good, I now know that I, like many of you, saw this kind of Christian orientation to family embodied in our home growing up especially in my mother. She was always looking outward, helping others individually and collectively. There was a colleague that needed to have an abortion and my mom lent her the money. There was the gay man in the 70’s who wanted to be ordained. My mom was his gifts for ministry and she worked with him and the church so that he could be ordained. Also in the 70’s, there was a member of a youth group from years past who discovered that he was transgendered and wanted to go to Morocco for surgery because that is what you did in those days. He needed money and, yes, my mother lent it to him. In the mean time, my mom was busy arranging housing and meals for the scores of people from churches all over the country that were coming to Washington in the 60’s to protest. When we moved to Minneapolis, there was serving on the Minnehaha Parkway redesign commission. There was leading the PTSA during integration. Later, in Pennsylvania, there was starting a soup kitchen. And all along the way, there were the peace committees and justice task forces. My mom worked on many political campaigns at phone banks and literature drops and other volunteering. There was political advocacy and involvement as well as lots of social action work in the church day in and day out. And my mom worked outside the home, sometimes full time, sometimes part time.
It was clear to me growing up that my mom loved us and was completely devoted to our family, but her devotion did not stop there. Maybe it started there, but she exhibited that same commitment to others and the world, especially those who were being treated unfairly. That she could not abide. It was as if every person who was being discriminated against or given the short end of the stick, here in the US or around the world, was her child, her sister, her brother. And she would take their part.
We hear that the family is falling apart and there are many factors. There is an economic component – capitalism making us want so much that we must all work all the time. And the commoditization of everything, including spouses, so that we think we can return them for a refund when they don’t perform up to snuff. And wanting our children to turn out like perfect little products.
But from a religious view point, I think the family is falling apart not because of the composition of the families but because of the incurved nature of the idealized family today. Family first. It is self serving, it is tribal, it is looking in and caring only for immediate self interest. In addition, the ideal family has become an idol. How many times do I hear people say they can’t do this, they can’t do that, in terms of service, because of family? Instead of commitment to the world that God has made, and the fullness thereof, people are committed to those who live under their roof. Amen. Mother’s Day is a perfect example. People will tell me, “I won’t be at church. We are taking mom out to brunch.” One of the churches that rents our building will not have services today because it is Mother’s Day. Go figure? I’m a mom, and I would much rather my children go to church on Mother’s Day than go to brunch because church fosters looking at the world from a broad perspective. The church helps us to see the bigger picture. The church helps us focus on seeing beyond our immediate self interest to the well being of the human family and all of creation. It is that kind of orientation that makes a strong, supportive family. That kind of vision helps us to see that we are here to give. And we see the needs beyond our own kin. And we realize that our immediate family is the context in which we strengthen and support one another in our service and generosity to others.
One of my favorite books is Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I know that many of you came to that classic when you were younger. I only read it for the first time in my 50’s and I was stunned. The level of generosity exhibited by these dirt poor okies was astounding. Sure this family had problems. Huge problems. But any time they can help someone, they do. And the ending is a an unforgettable tribute to self-giving love. I am not surprised that the book is not often taught in school any more because it is ultra-subversive and a full and complete condemnation of the injustice sanctioned under American capitalism. If you haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, or haven’t read it recently, stop at the library on your way home from church.
What Christianity has to offer the world is a vision of family that looks out, that is concerned for other families, and for the family of humanity as a whole. That’s the Christian family. And the world desperately needs to hear that from the church not only in the cause of liberating LBGT families, but in the cause of strengthening all families and being a force for well-being and peace in the world.
As we heard in the Psalm, the Judeo Christian view is that the world is God’s and everything in it. As people of God, we are called to take care of God’s world, the big whole thing, not just our corner, our yard, our household but every corner, every yard, and every household, so that all people may live together sustainably and in peace.
I recently heard an interview on the radio with an astronaut. I think it was Colonel Chris Hadfield. He talked about coming up in the military with the Soviet Union as enemy number one. And then later being part of a space program in which the US partnered with Russia. The astronaut described one particularly perilous descent from space in which the astronauts’ lives were in jeopardy. When the capsule landed, what he could see out the window was grass and a rock. And he was elated. And he was filled with a sense of “home.” While kissing the ground and overwhelmed with the feeling of being home, he realized that the actual dirt under his feet was Kazakhstan. It was then that the astronaut realized that our home is Earth, the whole planet. All of it.
As Christians, may we share that view, that Earth is our home. The home provided for us by a God of infinite, universal love. And on this Mother’s Day and Festival of the Christian home, we celebrate our family, the human family, and teach our children to look out and love the world. Our home. Amen.