Sunday, July 2, 2017

Nurturing Families

The late Les Dawson, a British comedian with a deadpan style and curmudgeonly persona, once observed wryly, “Families are like fudge.  They are mostly sweet with a few nuts.”  Knowing a little bit about each of your families and knowing a lot about my own family, I think Dawson’s statement is pretty accurate. 

Not only do families have nuts, they also have “incidents”; moments and events that shape memories for generations.  These stories tend to move in one of two directions.  Either they are hero stories or they are cautionary tales.  The first kind inspires the best in the descendants.  The second explains a family’s bitterness and brokenness that might never be healed.

This morning we read one of the most dramatic and puzzling stories in all of scripture.  It is an account of the darkest day in the life of a particular family, who had more than their share of bad days.  The story begins with three words: “God tested Abraham.”  And with this the puzzle begins.  Why would God test Abraham in such an awful way?  Does God test us?  If so, how? 

One thing becomes apparent after the conclusion of the story: Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and his son, Isaac, do not believe God is behind the testing.  They lay responsibility for the near human sacrifice squarely on Abraham’s shoulders.  Sarah will have nothing to do with her husband from this moment forward.  Never again will Isaac speak to his father.  Families, it seems to me, are incredibly resilient.  They can endure many hurts and hardships and remain intact, but Abraham’s family never overcomes this moment.

Rick Riordan, the best-selling writer of teen fiction, notes “Families are messy.  Immortal families are eternally messy.  Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or for worse… and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.”  Well, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah manage not to hurt each other physically, but they deeply wound one another in other ways.

How many nights did Abraham lie down to sleep under the stars pondering God’s promise his descendants would be more numerous than the lights of the nighttime sky?  For years and years he yearns for an heir – someone to inherit his possessions and to carry on his name.  Does he ever long for anything more than an heir?  Does the loss of his family even matter to him?  It is possible it does not, but it would matter to each one of us.

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian minister and author, observes, “You can kiss your family… good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”  Many things may change over the course of our lives, but for most of us we begin life with family and we end life with family. 

Someone once noted there are nine words essential to the life of every family:

   I love you. 
   You are beautiful. 
   Please forgive me.

Families instill in us a feeling of belonging, a sense of worth, and a belief our mistakes do not define us.  I love you.  You are beautiful.  Please forgive me.  I wonder if these words were ever spoken by Abraham, Sarah, or Isaac.

As you may know, I returned to Suffolk earlier this week after spending 10 days with family in Ohio, four of those days on the road in New York state with my sisters to meet distant relatives we had never met before.  While we enjoyed our time with each of our relatives individually, what we found were broken families, people who haven’t seen each other in decades, and folks who live and work within a few blocks of one another having no idea they are related.  My sisters and I talked about our own family and recognized our grandchildren will not know each other either if we do not put energy into bringing us all together for an annual gathering.  Families are worth the effort it takes to nurture them.

We who gather for worship in this place recognize in addition to our family related through blood, we are also a part of a family related through water – the water of baptism.  In this family we also say,

I love you. 
  You are beautiful. 
  Please forgive me.

Like blood families, our parish family is strong and resilient.  We celebrate with one another, support each other, hold close those who grieve or are in pain, and sacrifice much for the life of all.  And yes, we are like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts (and you know who you are!).  It is here we recognize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

On this morning when we read about Abraham’s family and ponder how things ever went so wrong, I want to invite us to turn to the bottom of page 828 in the prayer book, and pray together the collect for Families:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who settest the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell.  Put far from them, we beseech thee, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life.  Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness.  Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh.  Turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.