June 16, 2013

Genesis 13:1-18
Psalm 133
1 Timothy 5:1-4
Mark 3:31-35

“A Blessing to Others”

In Presbyterian and United and perhaps some other Churches as well, it is common to celebrate “Christian Family Sunday” on Mothers’ Day. This year, I thought we could do it on Fathers’ Day instead – equally appropriate, and the same day as our Family Worship service and church picnic.

As I thought about “Christian Family Sunday” I started thinking about what makes a Christian family distinct from any other family. Is it just the fact that Christian families come to church on Sundays? Or is it religious activities that take place in the home? Reading bible stories, saying grace before dinner, or perhaps having a practice of bedtime prayers?

Is it the determination of Christian families to care for one another and to forgive one another when we find ourselves in conflict and hurting each other? Don’t other families find ways to forgive and mend their relationships too?

I came across a resource of “Christian Family Sunday” that encouraged looking at biblical families. Some of these families, like Ruth and Naomi for example, might give us some good examples of what it means to be faithful to one another as families, to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of the most vulnerable, and to stick together through challenges.

Other biblical families, of course, might give us some good examples of how NOT to deal with our families. Jacob’s constant trickery and lies for example, don’t make for a great model for us. Neither should we follow the example of Cain and Abel for how to be a good brother.

The story Reuben read about Abraham and Lot is an interesting one, though. When the two households couldn’t get along and share the same space, there came a time when Abraham discerned that it would be best for the two of them to go their separate ways.

But he didn’t storm away in anger and claim the best land for his household. He maintained and maybe even strengthened the relationship with Lot by giving his brother the first choice of land. He made a sacrifice, gave generously, and God blessed him.

There may well be times when we could learn from his example when it comes to our relationships with our siblings, our spouses, our parents or children. Maybe we can keep his example in mind when we find ourselves embroiled in conflict with our loved ones. How might God be calling us to give of ourselves to make space for peace and healing in our relationships?

If you had a more conservative preacher on “Christian Family Sunday” you probably would have been listening to one of the texts from the Apostle Paul’s letters concerning Christian households… maybe Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3. By not choosing one of those passages, I am perhaps revealing my bias.

Although Paul encourages both husbands and wives to love and serve one another, there is still a rather strong patriarchal context that causes difficulties for us in contemporary society. While the church today promotes equality and mutuality in marital relationships, the scripture texts from Paul must be read very carefully and contextually in order to avoid being influenced by the gender assumptions of the first century.

But when I consider what the bible has to tell us about the Christian family, it’s not those passages from Paul that come to mind. What happens in families and household is important – that partners, parents, children, brothers, and sisters learn to live together with love, respect, and care for one another is critical.

But I think that the most important distinctive of a Christian family is that it doesn’t exist for itself alone. The Christian family is not an isolated unit living together within a household. The Christian family exists in relationship with the community, the church, and the world, and it IS FOR OTHERS.

I have preached at enough funerals over the years now, that I’ve noticed when individuals (sometimes parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents)… when they have lived mostly for their own families. I’ve heard a lot of eulogies and tributes, and I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with families and talking with them about their loved ones’ lives.

I have heard about a lot of excellent fathers and mothers and grandparents who have worked hard to care, and to provide, and to show love for their families. But what is so often distinctive about the people who are actively engaged in their Christian faith is that when their loved ones reflect on their lives it is clear… they did not live for their families alone. Their lives and energies touched and impacted the lives of a much wider community.

In the wedding service I use from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, there is a lovely prayer of blessing on the couple that is included after the couple have made their vows and been declared married. And there’s one line in particular that I find particularly meaningful. We pray: “By your gracious Spirit, bind them together and make them a blessing to others.”

Whether it be a couple, or a parent and child, or a couple of sisters who share a home, I believe that the Christian family is bound together by the love and blessing of God – not for its own sake – but so that the family may become a blessing to others.

I love my husband, not only because I love him, and not only because he loves me… but because in living together in that relationship of love we are equipped (both individually, and as a couple) to do ministry in the church and in the world.

Nick and I are friends with Bishop Don Bolen, the Catholic Bishop of Saskatoon. And I often say to Nick (partly in jest, and partly with utmost seriousness) that Don should get to have a wife. He’s make such a good husband for someone, I say. And it would be so good for him to have a partner with whom to share his ministry.

I know I’m being a bit silly when I say it, because marriage is not the be-all and end-all. Being married is no better and no worse than being single, and people in all kinds of family configurations are called to live in love and to serve and bless the world with their lives. But I am very aware of the fact that my ministry is strengthened by the fact that I belong to a Christian family in which I am blessed and equipped to be a blessing to others.

The Gospel text I chose for today also points to the idea that Christian families exist not for themselves, but for others. Jesus’ biological family shows up outside the place where he is preaching one day, and he uses their arrival as a teaching opportunity. Someone relays the message that his mother and brothers and sisters are looking for him, and Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

One way to interpret Jesus’ question is to assume that he’s rejecting his family. One might conclude that being a follower of Jesus means abandoning families and households, commitments and responsibilities in order to dedicate ourselves to God and God alone.

But I don’t think Jesus is rejecting his family. Later in the Gospel story, when he’s hanging on the cross, Jesus very clearly instructs one of his closest friends and followers to take care of his mother Mary. He clearly hasn’t abandoned her. He cares for her very deeply. But his family has expanded… beyond just his family of origin to include “everyone who does the will of God” – these are Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters.

The Christian family is not bound by blood lines or by living arrangements alone. When people come together in seeking the will of God and following the way of Jesus we become brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God.

Paul’s letter to Timothy describes what life among the believers should be like – not just within the nuclear family, but in the whole community. Paul says, “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters – with absolute purity. Honour widows…”

The respect, and love, and care that so many people consider a part of family life… the responsibility to care for those who are poor or vulnerable within the family unit… is extended to the whole community. Within the household of God, we are family, the letter reminds us, so we need to treat one another as family.

No matter what our individual families look like… singles, couples, parents and kids, blended family combinations, extended families of all shapes and sizes… we do belong to this Christian family – to the Church throughout the world, to the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and to this particular congregation here in Saskatoon.

Today, let us give thanks to God for this family, and ask for God’s help to live within it – for good communication skills, for respect and care, for the determination to figure things out when there are conflicts or misunderstandings. And through our participation in this family, may we be blessed and equipped to become a blessing to others – to this community and to the world.