05 September 2010

Pentecost XV

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18

The Lectionary

Collect of the Day: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.

Somebody once made the remark, “Friends are God's way of apologizing to us for our families.”

One might ask, How shall we see our way through such a curmudgeonly statement into something edifying? However irritating the attitude, there is a grain of truth in this grouchy remark.

Today’s gospel reading is tough, but a tough gospel lesson is the only kind that can really do what it is supposed to do – proclaim the release of captives from a particularly formidable prison, the prison of a destructive family system.

So here it is once again, in not so many words: “If you don't hate all your old family members, and even life itself, you can't be my disciple.”

If we do that, what will we have left? Do we like the direction this is taking us? What good does it do to ridicule our traditional aspirations of being thankful for all that we have received from our mothers, fathers, their relatives, and the people they married? Why isn't Jesus encouraging us, instead, to help and love our relatives?

We must patiently wrestle with these questions as we consider today’s gospel, and not run around them like an impetuous Ferrari driver behind a string of eighteen wheelers that happen to be blocking the view of our destination.

Often in the gospel, the prospect of discipleship or a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord involves requirements that are a little scary. Here we are being told to abandon our relatives – after all they've done for us. Does that seem like the right thing to do? Let's be patient with ourselves and pray for the grace to be open to the surprising ways of God, so that God can move us ahead with our spiritual development into realms greater than what our past has equipped us to imagine.

Consider the family relationships of two people. Let’s call them Elsie and George. You probably know people just like them. Both Elsie and George came from backgrounds that were very limited spiritually. They assumed that their present and their futures would really not be much different from their pasts. They knew no angels. Their gift of faith had not been delivered to them.

Elsie was the daughter of a very depressed mother, a woman who medicated her depression with alcohol and then would spend days at a time in bed. Her mother's husband abandoned the family before Elsie was in her teens. She had a younger brother and a little sister whom she loved and looked after. Very typically of the adult child of an alcoholic, Elsie felt she was the cause of everything that went wrong in her midst. In fact, she believed that she was the cause of her mother's depression.

Similar in some ways was George. George was a gentle spirit who led a tragic life. He felt obliged to step up and expand on his father's very profitable business as a consultant for factory plant managers. George hoped that if he took on his father’s vocation, his father would finally show George that he approved of him and would give him his blessing. George wanted desperately to have that. But George’s talents were quite different from those of his father. George was miserable for many years, and eventually the business failed and his marriage ended in divorce.

There were churches and ministries in the neighborhoods of both of these people. They sometimes even attended services. But neither Elsie nor George ever realized how God calls all people to understand themselves by a greater instrument than the familiar experiences of their pasts.

We, the human beings that we are, are a people who understand ourselves by the way we experienced and remember the support of, or betrayal of, our critically important relationships in the past. The late British psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed a theory that adult personalities are best understood by the quality of attachments they had in their childhoods. Bowlby believed that adults who, as children, experienced traumatic betrayal of their early attachments, needed healing in order to form the bonds of affection that are generally understood as necessary for healthy living in maturity.

Most of us were fed, clothed, and sheltered in the critical first decade of life by our families of origin. This can even be said of the people in Elsie's and George's pasts. We owe our physical survival to the people who raised us.

With that affirmation, though, we must realistically acknowledge that no family of origin is without flaws. Even in the Bible, we see examples of these flawed family relationships: chemical abuse, obsessive-compulsive behavior, domestic violence, pathological behaviors stemming from the hopelessness of unresolved grief, and destructive sibling rivalries are all there, along with their confessions and redemptions.

These flawed relationships are a part of our spiritual histories. Many of us have been guilt-tripped and otherwise manipulated by our family members. We may also have done the same to them. To get relief or perspective, some of us have sought out therapy. Others may attend twelve-step meetings.

Others may prefer to seek support from friends or blow off steam with drinking buddies. Because we seek relief by such activities, we find a grain of truth in that impious remark, “Friends are God's way of apologizing to us for our families.”

There are friends who, in some ways, act like the Good Samaritan, who bind up our wounds and leave us prepared to think a little more clearly. And by the grace of God, there are other friends who are even more fully like the Good Samaritan, who stay with the broken ones, people like Elsie or George, so that their wholeness can be restored by discovering or recovering the baptismal way, the commitment to Christ’s way, and by understanding the true purpose of his or her existence.

We, as either the ministering, or the ministered to, as we begin our journey through the wilderness of life's challenges, come to know what is really meant by Jesus' tough language. As we travel with him, we learn that the flaws and sins in our histories, along with the destructive patterns of behavior they generate, are the things we are called upon to hate, not the souls of the ones who were victimized by them.

In the compassion that comes to us in our new life, we come to understand the spiritual blindness that infected both our relatives and ourselves. That is a far better thing than to let them do what they may have once done: define who we are.

-- The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than forty years, is currently interim priest in charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick Georgia in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling, and tandem bicycle riding with his wife Sherry.