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We know that the family has changed a great deal. The old "Ozzie & Harriet" model of Dad going off to work, Mom staying home and waiting for the kids to return from school is now just a black-and-white piece of nostalgia - only a tiny percentage of America's families fit that picture; most do not. An elderly doctor listened to a woman complain about the disappearance of the old-fashioned family doctor. Finally he lost patience and replied, "Madam, if you will show me an old-fashioned family, I will produce a doctor for it."
The American family these days could surely use a doctor, or SOMEONE to provide some healing. In preparation for this morning's message, I reread a sermon by that great English preacher of the past generation, Leslie Weatherhead. In a message called "What is God's Plan for the Family,"(1) delivered shortly after World War II, I was intrigued to note Weatherhead's despair over a report from the Marriage Guidance Council in June, 1945 reporting that TEN PERCENT of marriages were finishing in the divorce court and that the figure would be TWENTY percent if separations were included. Talk about the "good old days." We know that ONE-HALF of the 2.4-million-or-so marriages to be performed in our nation this year will end in divorce. Some 25 percent of Anglo children, 35 percent of Latino children, and 60 percent of African-American children are being raised by single parents.(2) The modern family DOES need help.
People do not even agree on what constitutes a family anymore. Sometime back a national insurance company requested that 1200 randomly selected adults define the word `family.' Surprisingly, only a small number, 22%, opted for the traditional definition: `a group of people related by blood, marriage, or adoption.' A much larger percentage, nearly 3/4, chose a much broader definition: `a group of people who love and care for each other.'"(3) If people are not even certain what a family IS anymore, what does one say about Christian Family Sunday? Perhaps the best thing to do is to see what the Bible says about the Christian family, and then discover what that might mean for you and me.
The first thing to note is that a really "Christian Family" has nothing to do with blood or marriage. The "Christian Family" is one in which the members are related to Christ, just as the Leininger family is one in which the members are related to me. The true Christian Family is the church.
Our lesson from Ephesians makes that clear. Back in the early days of the faith, there was a serious problem concerning the understanding of who "qualified" to be a part of God's family. The issue then was both blood AND marriage - racism - Jew versus Gentile. As bad as racial division has been and remains in modern society, it was even worse back then. The apostle Paul realized the disastrous consequences of such an attitude, so he wrote to clear up any misunderstanding.
He began by noting the estrangement Gentiles had previously experienced. After all, a good Jew believed "that the Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of Hell; that God loved only Israel of all the nations that had been made...It was not even lawful for a Jew to render help to a Gentile woman in childbirth for that would be to help bring another Gentile into the world...If a Jew married a Gentile, the funeral of that Jew was carried out...Even to go into a Gentile house rendered a Jew unclean."(4) Paul knew all this.
He also knew the absolute segregation between Jew and Gentile in worship; he knew "the dividing wall," as he called it, the barrier in the Temple court, beyond which no Gentile was permitted upon pain of death. In fact, he himself was finally imprisoned and killed after being wrongly accused of bringing the Gentile Trophimus beyond the barrier.(5) But this good Jew was able to see beyond his tradition and write to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus, "you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household." You are family! It was an amazing statement.
Jesus had said as much years before. He said that all who believed were in his family: they were his brothers, his sisters, his mother.(6) The only thing that followers of Christ were to see in one another was that here was a person who was related to Jesus - FAMILY! We need that reminder.
Think of it this way. Are you a child of God? Then every other child of God is your brother or sister, your family. Look around you. The Bible says that, if you are a Christian, these are your family. There are some wonderful folks here, people to whom you would be proud to be related - yes, a few of us are eccentric, but every family has them. That's all right. As we all know, we can choose our friends but we are stuck with our relatives. Just as in the family into which we were born, we are not free to say who should or should not belong. We are in this together, for good or ill.
What does that mean for us at First Presbyterian? Well, being a member of any family brings with it both privileges and responsibilities. Just as in the home, there are dishes to be washed, grass to be cut, errands to be run - there is work to do. But it is not ALL work - there are ears to listen, tears wiped, hugs given, hurts bandaged. I could not begin to tell you how often I have heard someone say that they would never have been able to survive a particularly trying period without the love and support of their Christian family in the church.
Because we are a Christian congregation in 2003, there is one huge challenge (which requires three responses) to our living as FAMILY. The challenge centers on the fact that we are a mobile society. Many of you were raised together; many of you were not. Even though Warren is an incredibly stable community, it is not as stable as it once was. We do not all come from here. We did not all go to the same schools, shop at the same stores, or root for the same teams. That means we do not KNOW one another as we would if our modern society were different. For us, the first response to the challenge is to take extra initiative in simply becoming acquainted. That is one of the reasons we wear nametags.
For those of you who know plenty of folks around here, seek out one more...and then one more, and then one more after that. Many people have great difficulty in making new friends. Those of you who find it easy need to go out of your way to help them. For those who do not have enough "Christian Family" here, give yourself more opportunities to become acquainted than just at the beginning or end of worship - that will never do the job. Join a Sunday School class (we have them for all ages and interests), join a choir, golf, come on Wednesday nights, become a part of Presbyterian Women - there are loads of opportunities - take advantage of what is already available! As has been said, if you want to HAVE a friend, you must first BE a friend.
I read once of a man who failed to remove his hat when he entered a church. He was presently sighted by a horrified usher, who quietly drew the man's attention to his apparent forgetfulness. The man explained that he had been worshiping in that church for three years, without anyone speaking to him, and he thought the hat might do the trick.(7) From what you tell me, that may well have happened here in years past, but not recently, thank goodness - in fact, we all know that this is genuinely one of the friendliest congregations anywhere, and I am incredibly proud to be your pastor. But we can always do better. Our first response to the challenge is to seek out those whom we do not know with the intention of paraphrasing the apostle Paul's words, "you are no longer a stranger to me, but you are `Christian Family,' my brother or sister in Jesus Christ, a member of the household of God."
The second response to the challenge has to do with our getting to know our young people. They are a part of the family, and a particularly vulnerable part. Yes, we live in a mobile society, and our kids travel with us. That means their roots are not as deep as they might have been in previous generations. For youngsters who are at a vulnerable age as they begin to find their way in the world, the problem is exacerbated.
You have heard that ancient Chinese curse, "May you have an interesting life." Well, our youngsters these days are surely being treated to an "interesting life" - drugs, alcohol, sex, incredible peer pressure. If we can help them make their lives a little less "interesting" by providing new roots, new friendships, we should. Horace Bushnell is reported to have said that the influence of the family is so strong that we never quite get the smell of our childhood home out of our clothes.(8) The same can be said of the "smell" of Christian family during our youth. What we do or fail to do for our youth at this stage of their "interesting" journey may well determine their relationship with the Lord and the church for the rest of their lives. They need us, and we need them. After all, they are a part of our Christian family.
The third response to the challenge is to develop a relationship with the children of the church. When we welcome them in baptism we affirm that they are our family too. Parents stand before us and the Lord and promise to raise their child in "the knowledge and love of God." You vow, "We will help." Then in an act that is fraught with symbolism, the loving mother and father hand that new life over - they give the baby to the minister as the representative of the Christian community and, in so doing, say that this child, from the moment those sacred waters dribble down that tiny forehead, has a new and larger family - the family of God.
Now, I know that some folks, once their own child-rearing days are over, would rather not have that responsibility. In fact, if you can believe it, when I was serving in South Florida among a disproportionately large number of retirees, there were actually some who LEFT the church I served because they could no longer abide little children, even for five minutes during the Moment with the Young Disciples. They reminded me of English essayist Charles Lamb who was once asked by a woman, "Mr. Lamb, how do you like babies?" He replied with his usual stammer, "B-b-boiled, Ma'am."(9) To those who refused to follow through on the vows they took as church members to "guide and nurture these children by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church," my response was effectively, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!"
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson insists that "it is not old-fashioned to think about...concern for children as a central ethical issue, even for those who do not have children themselves. In this period of history...all of us who...want to be responsible to the future need to be sure that we have a relationship with at least one, real flesh-and-blood child."(10) We have lots of children at First Pres. Take the time to get to know them - they are a JOY!
I can promise you it will be fun. One Sunday School teacher was teaching her young charges about the ancient error of making idols and was having her pupils finish each sentence to show that they understood her. "The idol had eyes," she said, "but could not..." "SEE," cried the children. "It had ears but it could not..." "HEAR," was the answer. "It had lips, but it could not..." "SPEAK," they responded. "It had a nose but it could not..." "WIPE IT," shouted the children. Fun. But families SHOULD have fun, shouldn't they?
The Christian Family - the Family of God. I wish I could say that, once the family feeling is established, all will be peaches and cream, but we know that is not true. There are sometimes family feuds - not nice, but that is real life. There are idiots in the family, but all families have them. Some will occasionally be angry at this or that decision - it is the same in any household. Some will end up doing a disproportionate amount of the work because someone else has dropped the ball. (Sound familiar, Mom?) The one difference between the family that lives under THIS roof and the one that lives under yours and mine is that the Head of the Household is the God of the entire universe who one day will welcome us all to a brand new heavenly home.
Christian Family Sunday. A day of celebration - a celebration of the word the Apostle spoke so many centuries ago, that word that breaks down the barriers that isolate us from one another, that word that says we need never be alone again: "You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household." You are family!
1. In When the Lamp Flickers, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1948), p. 128
3. Quoted by Elizabeth McGregor Simmons, "Preaching on Christian Family Sunday, Journal for Preachers, Easter, 1990, p. 25
4. William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, Revised Edition, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 107
5. Acts 21:28-29
6. Mark 3:33-35
7. Maxwell Droke, Ed., Anthology of Anecdotes, (Indianapolis, Droke House, 1948), p. 182
8. Simmons, p. 28
9. Clifton Fadiman, Gen, Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), p. 341
10. Quoted by Simmons, p. 27