Friday, August 31, 2012

Family Love & Expectations

My maternal grandfather, my Daddy Bill, was a farmer, a 1st generation American, who spoke German before he spoke English. Even though he was born in Texas, he never lost the German accent he learned as a boy. His life on the land was not easy: working from can to can’t, raising three children during the Great Depression. They had food because they grew it, but they never got ahead, and even in the good years life was hard.

Oh, but he loved God. He and my grandmother raised their family in an atmosphere that was permeated by the presence of the Lord. It was an atmosphere that rejoiced in the knowledge that they were loved, and that Jesus came not only to save, but also to bring them abundant life. They never had much in the way of material wealth, but oh, they did have abundant life. He played the violin and his sweet wife Emilie, my Mamaw, played the piano, and their children danced and sang while they played both hymns and popular tunes. They spent their social times with neighboring families at the church. The ladies had their quilting bees. Prayer and Bible stories infused the waking hours of the day, and at times throughout the night.

I wasn’t even in my teens when Daddy Bill shared his favorite Bible verse with me. It is part of our Old Testament lesson for today. Joshua called all the tribes of Israel together and told them to “choose this day whom you will serve.” And the end of that paragraph was Daddy Bill’s watchword: “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” It has remained with me, adopted as one of my favorites. That verse has been in a prominent place in most of the houses I’ve lived in. Our present home isn’t the first one that’s had a plaque nailed to the entry on the front porch – “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Theologians commonly agree that the Book of Joshua was written sometime during the late 7th century before Christ – well over 600 years before our gospel narrative. In Joshua’s story, all the tribes of Israel speak in one voice that they too will serve the Lord. It is a different story from the followers of Jesus we hear about today.

"This teaching is difficult," they said. "It's too hard. Who can accept it?" And many who had been following Jesus departed; they couldn’t accept or even try to understand the deeper meaning of his words. To them, it sounded like cannibalism, something totally against anything they could imagine.

I remember a time I said, "this is too hard." It was when my dad had been diagnosed with stage four-pancreatic cancer and my mother had Alzheimer’s. I was talking to my cousin who had already lost both of her parents. I told her that this was too hard and I just couldn’t deal with it. She gently said, "I know, but you don't have a choice." And I was so blessed by that time with them.

It is true there are difficult things that we can't walk away from. But difficult teachings are another matter. Yet, Peter has the right of it in his answer to Jesus. Jesus asks, "do you also wish to go away?" and Peter answers, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Several years ago, some people here at St. Paul’s said they were leaving The Episcopal Church, because they couldn’t deal with our acceptance of everyone. This was shortly after Eugene Robinson was elected bishop in New Hampshire. The first question I asked was whether they had found another church. We need a church family to help nurture and support our faith when it wobbles. If those who wanted to leave hadn't found somewhere else to go, I urged them not to leave, at least not then. If they had found another community that was nurturing and supportive of them, then I urged them to go with my blessing.

Recently, I found the following statement online. I’m not sure where Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church is located, but this is their welcome notice, and I believe it is ours also:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli, or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery, or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!”

The difficult teachings don't go away just because we change congregations or denominations. They are always there, poking and prodding us. The teachings of Jesus are frequently difficult, sometimes too difficult. That is when we turn to our brothers and sisters in faith. We need them to listen to our doubts and questions and help us come to understand better. After all, we are supposed to grow in faith, not rise from baptism fully formed. You don't teach a child to count from one to ten and then put them in an advanced calculus class.

But once we have come to believe, there really is nowhere else to go. Leaving doesn't help solve the difficult things. Difficult teaching makes us uncomfortable. It's supposed to. If we have made ourselves a cozy nest of our faith, then we are not working hard enough on being faithful. Reread the gospels. Go back and hear what Paul wrote while he sat in prison. Nowhere will you find Easy Street. Almost everywhere you will find challenges, obstacles, tests, hard teachings..

We have told God that we will serve Him as Christians: that we will follow Jesus throughout our lives. So how do we serve and follow Him? Does our service to God show in our daily lives, or is it simply played out in a minor way when we come to worship on occasional Sunday mornings? The Church universal has certain expectations of its members. One is that as Christians, we will be in worship more Sundays than not. That would mean at least 3 Sundays a month. Another expectation is that every person would be in some type of ongoing Bible study or spiritual exercise to deepen his or her relationship with God.          

What happens if someone doesn’t meet the Church’s expectations? Absolutely nothing! Your relationship with our Lord won't grow deeper. Yet God, and the church, will continue to love and accept each person who walks through the door. But as members of the family, we want to see you more often, visit with you and share family stories with you, just like I shared my family story with you today. And when the hard lessons come, we want to be close enough that we can work through them together in a spirit of love. This is how Christ’s family learns to follow him, by carrying out our commitment to serve him by serving each other. “As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” May it be so, Amen.