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Practicing Love Sermon 1- Practicing Love Series 9/4/2016

Posted 4:00 PM by
Sermon, Proper 18C                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
4 September 2016                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Practicing Love…in your family

An Amish boy and his father went to a shopping mall. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and then slide back together again. The boy asked, "What is this, Father?" The father responded, "Son, I don’t know; I have never seen anything like this in my life!” While the boy and his father were watching with amazement, a grumpy-looking lady moved up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened, and she walked into a small room. The walls closed, and the boy and his father watched the small numbers above the walls light up, rising one to eight.  Then the numbers came back to one.  Finally the walls opened up again and a gorgeous 24-year-old blonde stepped out. The father, not taking his eyes off the young woman, said quietly to his son ... "Go get your mother." J

Families are easy to poke fun at…there’s so much material!  We live in close quarters…we’ve got history together…we know how to push each other’s buttons….

How is it that families, where love seems such a natural thing, can be so difficult, so unloving, so destructive sometimes? 

Jesus had hard words to say about family.  His own family situation is a bit vague, but the Bible tells us about his mother Mary, his father Joseph (at least his earthly father), and some brothers and sisters.  But Jesus was often at odds with his family.  They tried to shut him up when he started preaching, and he rebuffed them.  He said the words we heard in the Gospel today: “Whoever …does not hate father and mother, wife and children…cannot be my disciple.”  What did he mean by that? 

Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, of course.  We aren’t meant to “hate” anybody – not even our enemies.  But clearly Jesus was saying that his Gospel values outweigh even our devotion to our families.  If our families prevent us from following Jesus, we must choose Jesus.  Following Jesus was (and is) countercultural, and in his day, the choice to be his disciple was a radical one.  Families would not approve! 

Families can bring us such joy and laughter and just good fun!  But sometimes our families ask too much…. They can try to control us, shame us, and place unfair burdens on us.  Boundaries are so important in families…  For instance:

  • One relative of mine was so disruptive that I finally had to limit visits to a couple of hours, and not allow overnight stays at our house.
  • My cousins have rampant substance in their family, and they had to watch as their brother destroyed his body with substance abuse and finally died at an early age – not because they didn’t try to help, but because their brother would not, or could not, accept it.  We’ve all heard of “tough love,” knowing when to step back and detach.  It’s the hardest kind of love to practice, in my experience. 

But not everybody has a family, and that can feel like a big void.  My mom and dad were good at welcoming individuals into our family circle, when they had none of their own.  Leslie and I try to practice love that way too….  And of course our church congregation is a natural place to create family – not by blood but by adoption into Jesus Christ.  People who have no family, or who have been ostracized by their families, or who are far away from family…all can find a home here at St. Dunstan’s.  That’s who we are – a core value here.  All are welcome.  No exceptions. 

Last week someone here asked about practicing love with our adult children.  I tell you, I’m learning about that as I speak!  We want the best for our children…and we hate to see them make choices that seem unhelpful, or even destructive.  And yet, the emphasis has to shift from “children” to “adult.”  Adults have freedom to choose, to find their own path.

Jesus didn’t have any adult children (I don’t think), but he did show us his responses to adult persons who were making life choices.  I think of the story of the rich young man – a young man who, I believe, Jesus already knew.  This young man had a lot going for him; he had many choices and opportunities.  He asked Jesus what was the most important choice for him to make: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He had the right question.  Jesus looked at him answered him.  “Follow all the commandments.”  “Done.” And then Jesus looked at him in love and said, “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” 

Jesus set a clear choice before the man, but he didn’t want to make it.  Jesus knew what that young man needed to do to have a full, beautiful life, and Jesus practiced love by telling him. 

Unfortunately, the man loved his possessions too much, so he went away sad.  (I’ve always imagined that that young man came back to Jesus later, when he was a little older and wiser, and found his true calling as a disciple.  But we’ll never know.)

In this story, Jesus is fathering the young man; he treats him as a beloved son.  But Jesus does not force his will on him.  Jesus does not force his will on anybody, really.  He leads, he offers, he suggests, he persuades, sometimes he entreats us.  But he does not force us.  That’s how he practices love.  (The father of the prodigal son acts in a similar way.  He lets his son go and seek his fortune; when the young man comes home, destitute and weary, his father welcomes him home.)

So families provide us with some of our greatest blessings, and also some of our greatest challenges in practicing love.  It’s complicated.  One of my best teachers on human nature and human relationships was a rabbi named Edwin Friedman.  He studied family systems and made some remarkable discoveries about how families work.  If you are interested, we could talk more about all of this. 

But for now, this family of St. Dunstan needs to gather with our founder Jesus, around his supper table, and renew our familial bonds with each other, and with others in our lives.  Next week, we’ll focus again on practicing love…with those who are lost, like the lost sheep that Jesus went after.  It’s Homecoming Sunday, and a time to pause and remember the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, too.  Brunch at 10 a.m. Please come.  AMEN.  


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