Sunday, June 22, 2008

Family Values: Reflections on Proper 6, Year A (RCL)

I preached in a local parish this Sunday, the Sixth after Pentecost. I was discussing the lessons for the Sunday with some colleagues. We noted especially the Genesis lesson, in which Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness; and the Matthew lesson, in which Jesus said that believers would find their enemies in their own household. My immediate reaction was, “I’ve got to preach on family values!”

This will be a big year for discussion of “family values.” Politicians in this election year will speak often of “family values;” and religious “politicians,” clergy and church leaders who want to sway their listeners, will refine that to speak of “Biblical family values.” We can expect to hear those words this year as much as ever, if not more.

The problem, of course, is that “family values” and “Biblical family values” are catch phrases, rhetorical short hand phrases for a particular understanding of how folks should live. They point to a set of morals, justified by citations from Scripture, that those who recite the phrases want to endorse, and want the rest of us to follow. They promise a peaceful and happy life for those families that follow them.

And, of course, we know the problems with those catch phrases. They raise more questions than they answer, being based on assumptions that are questionable. We know the questions. For example, whose values? We are appalled when we hear of “family honor killings” in some parts of the world (although such events are hardly unknown here); but in their context they are part of normative family values. We’ve paid a lot of attention recently on issues of polygamy in these United States, as we’ve paid attention to issues of polygamy in some provinces of the Anglican Communion. The difficult thing is that polygamy is an accepted part of family values in some places in the world, and was once in a specific time and place in America.

Which leads us to the next question: who is a family? We are more and more attentive to one-parent families and to blended families. We’re even getting more honest about and more accepting (even if we still have some way to go) of families with two mommies or two daddies. Some of us remember living in the midst of extended families, with more than one family nucleus and more than one generation living in the same town, in and out of one another’s homes.

And then there are those troublesome citations from Scripture – like the lessons today. Take, for example, the story from Genesis. Abraham had a problem in his family. In the face of her barrenness, Sarah had offered Abraham her slave Hagar as a concubine. It was an appropriate offer, at least according to the family values of their culture, to prevent a worse event: the failure of a male heir. But, then, by God’s grace Sarah bore a son; and suddenly Sarah wanted no threat to Isaac’s inheritance. “Get that boy away from my son, and get his mother out of my house!” Sarah demanded. And Hagar found herself sent out into the wilderness with a few days’ bread and one skin of water. The vision of God that had comforted Abraham had not been shared with her. It is true that this accorded with God’s plan, and that God made of Ishmael his own people, also faithful to the one God; but one would hardly hold up any of these events as part of a model for us to follow in our families.

And then there was the Gospel lesson. Jesus takes on quite bluntly any image of peace in the family:

"For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

This hardly seems to relate to the images conjured or intended by those who speak of “family values,” much less “Biblical family values.” And yet we know empirically that this happens. If each baptized Christian has within the Holy Spirit to lead, and if each is led to a different and individual vocation, it’s virtually inevitable that we might differ even with those closest to us about how to follow Christ.

So, when we hear the phrases “family values” and “Biblical family values,” we need at least to be very attentive and thoughtful, if not entirely suspicious.

Which is not to say that there are no values in Scripture to guide us in families. They’re certainly there. They’re just not laid out as “family values.” Instead, they are the values of the Kingdom. Remember not too many weeks ago, when we were called to seek first the Kingdom, trusting that in that we would also receive all else that we needed? S, if we seek to live out the values of the Kingdom, I think our families will benefit. If we love our neighbors as ourselves – and not forget that our family members are also part of the neighborhood – our families will benefit. If we forgive as we have been forgiven, even up to seventy times seven – including those who can be most grating to us because they are closest to us – our families will benefit. If we seek to be like our Master, if we seek to shoe the sacrificial love of Christ to those around us – including those on the other side of the breakfast table, or the other side of the bed – our families will benefit.

And isn’t that a major part of our difficulties in family life: that those closest to us, those we should love most, are not those we think of first when we think of object of our Christian charity? We have all known folks who were “so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.” They are devoted to the service of the Church and the care of the poor; and the emotional and spiritual needs – and sometimes the physical needs – of their families suffer.

So, in this season when we will hear so much about “family values” and “Biblical family values,” I think we should take a different approach. If we seek first the Kingdom, and live out those values in all our relationships, our families will benefit, and we will benefit in them; and the rest of the world will see in our families, as in all our relationships, just what our values really are.

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