seagull flying

Sunday, May 4, 2014

This evening our sermon was preceded by a wonderful presentation by Joan Duncan on domestic violence and the good work of Penelope House, which educates about, advocates for, counsels, and shelters victims of domestic violence.

Texts: I Peter 1:22-23; Luke 24: 13-35

While I was associate pastor of another church, a member of that congregation once opined that her friend’s church was drawing lots of young families because of classes that promised to unlock the Bible’s secrets for a happy home. This church member suggested I offer a workshop for young mothers to teach them biblical lessons for Christian families.

I assured her that I wanted to support our families—of all kinds—and parents—of both genders. I admitted that the home is often the hardest place for us to live in a consistently loving way. But then I shocked her by saying that the Bible offers no secrets on happy homes and few, if any, role model families.

Here’s what I meant. Genesis is the biblical book that focuses most on family relationships, and this first book in the Bible features families riven by fratricide and incest . . . parents favoring one child over another . . . siblings selling a younger brother into slavery . . . children deceiving their elderly parents. . . patriarchs controlling the lives of women and sacrificing their children. . . women used as concubines and sister wives. Not a single example of “traditional family values” in that book. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy command the execution of rebellious adolescents. The book of Proverbs offers the unfortunate adage popularized as “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24). Jesus said nothing about creating happy homes and more frequently said things like “I have come to turn son against father” (Matthew 10:35).

Some churches that uncritically and simplistically use scriptures to guide families end up replicating an ancient and harmful patriarchy. They might miss the way a textured story describes rather than prescribes. They might cherry pick verses to condemn their own gay children and stigmatize couples who’ve divorced. One group of Christians uses a phrase from Ps. 127 (“Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of [children]”) to create the Quiverfull Christian movement whose main “aim” is extremely large families.

I don’t assume the Bible is a guidebook on “Christian” parenting or marriage. Instead, I look for love in the stories and sayings and poetry within the ancient writings. I listen for wisdom for all of us as member of the Human Family, as members of our own families of birth and families of choice.

By coincidence we scheduled Joan’s talk about domestic violence on a day when the lectionary readings seem to have nothing to say about family relationships. Someone intent on instilling “traditional family values” would not have chosen today’s Epistle and Gospel lections. But today’s random readings speak to us about right relatedness in ways that transcend cultural understandings of family.

So return to our lesson from I Peter 1:22-23. Those two verses are packed with wisdom about right relationships. We hear that our aim is “genuine mutual love”—not a quiver full of children—not submissive wives—not sons and daughters who’ve felt the rod of punishment and rebuke—not patriarchy. We are to love genuinely, deeply, from the heart. When we are obedient to the Truth—the truth about who we are and who God is—then we relate to one another in mutual ways. Wives in mutual relationships are NOT subordinate to husbands. Spouses in mutual relationships do not batter their spouses to reinforce their illusion that they are superior—or out of their own unacknowledged sense of inferiority. Mutual partners do not abuse one another verbally with wounds that take longer to heal than physical wounds. Communities forged in mutuality do no consider single people to be missing something essential in their lives, nor do they disrespect and marginalize same sex couples.

And even in the one relationship where equality cannot happen until a child reaches maturity, the inequality between parent and child is for the child’s protection and care—not for control or abuse. The inequality of the love between parent and child benefits the vulnerable one. And if old age robs a parent of the ability to give mutually, if a parent can no longer function fully or communicate or even remember his or her child—that inequality readjusts to protect the more vulnerable one, this time a parent who has grown dependent on the child.

The mutuality of our relationships causes us to “love one another deeply from the heart.” If our relationships are unequal–if oppression, violence, dishonesty, disrespect characterize a relationship–both parties are harmed and the person being harmed needs to separate from the abuser if healthy boundaries and mutuality can’t be maintained. To this day some church leaders are complicit in abuse by urging victims to stay in an abusive home as their Christian duty—making a pretense of mutual love, which is not possible between victim and abuser. Let’s acknowledge, too, that physical and emotional abuse can be committed by women.

This scripture affirms what your heart knows is possible: a relationship of mutuality where each person’s needs are honored, where both partners shoulder responsibilities in equal if not identical ways, where everyone in a family seeks the best for the others. The “secret” for a happy family is rooted in the simple spiritual practice of giving and receiving love in a mutual relationship. Here’s the entire class or workshop about the Bible’s “secret” to happy families: love your neighbor/ partner/child/parent/sibling/family of choice . . . as you love yourself. Class over.

Finally we return to the Gospel reading, Luke 24: 13-35. From this resurrection story we see that Christ continues to be experienced in our human relationships, especially as we share bread with one another and sit around a table in a mutual meal where all are equal. It was at the sharing table that the disciples suddenly saw Jesus there in their midst. He’d been with them all that time, but they did not recognize him until he was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

And so it is in our simple practice of sharing as equals that we glimpse the Christ. Again and again. In recurring resurrection.

God who meets us at the Table, who comes to us as friend and stranger, let us remember Jesus as we remember our equality
in the breaking of bread,
the sharing of the cup,
the memory of Jesus,
and the hope for healthy relationships in the human family. Amen

Labels: family values, mutual love, Penelope House
1 comment:

ElleJuly 4, 2014 at 5:50 AM
Let us not forget the commandment to Love our neighbor as ourself. This does not sit as well with us as the first commandment to love God without all our mind, heart, and soul. That one makes us feel good, the second one not so much. To love someone NOT like us in color, creed, culture, sexual orientation, etc, is not near as palatable as Loving God.


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Ellen Sims
Mobile, Alabama, United States
UCC minister at Open Table: A Community of Faith in Mobile, Alabama, committed to providing a progressive Christian voice in the South.
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