The Rev. Canon Barbara J. Hammond (Sermon)
Families can be the greatest strength of our lives or the biggest problem. For some people, leaving home is almost impossible, for others it is a necessity if they are to find peace. Some families seem to be always in a state of turmoil. It is my experience that every family contains some dysfunction. Families, like society, are made up of individuals who must balance individual needs and expectations with those of others especially those who are more powerful. Dysfunction at the extreme means that there is no balance in this relationship. Mild forms mean that everyone feels that they have more to gain by co-operating and respecting others in order to have their needs and issues respected. Usually, someone thinks they are not getting the respect that others get. Within the same family some may feel affirmed and strengthened in a loving environment while another feels ignored and abused. Remember the Smother’s brothers – Mom always liked you best. Favouritism, physical and mental abilities, appearance, gender, mental or physical health, economic success or failure, cultural and belief systems can all play a role in family dynamics. The issue is really not whether there are issues of dysfunction in a family but how they are handled.
Today we listen to another story about Jacob’s dysfunctional family and I think it has some important messages for how we deal with the dysfunction in our workplaces, communities and even countries. The issue is not whether we can eliminate dysfunction but rather how we deal with it – how we get along with one another even if we are different or have been treated badly. Whole countries must face the dysfunction that elevates some and abuses others within the framework of the national family. The disaster of the Charlottesville riots and the very disturbing response of the American President reveal not just social inequity but social blindness and deafness. Like so many dysfunctional families, the raw hurts of some have been hidden beneath a beautiful myth of freedom and public happiness and success. So this discussion this morning about dysfunctional families is really about more than the nuclear family or biblical family as some would call it.
In spite of all the problems we have with families or within families, it is the basic unit of social interaction. What we learn in families is what we take to other situations of cooperative interaction at work, school, churches, neighbourhoods and even governments and international affairs. That is why current political language reverberates with the language of family values, hard working families and an inclination to give the impression that whatever is being done, it is strengthening families. We even speak of traditional and nontraditional families emphasizing the cultural importance of families and our perception of what a family is supposed to be. The reason for this language is set in a vision of what the world should be like if everyone was like me – like us and if they are not like us how we should handle the situation. Who will be the favourite and who will have to conform to the more attractive and powerful elements of social interaction? What do we do if we are the favourite or the forgotten other? What does the bible say about families?
It is very difficult to find a family in the bible without serious difficulties including the Holy family. The gospels tell us in several places that Jesus did not identify with his family of origin but rather called those who followed him his brothers and sisters. Cain, the younger son of Adam and Eve murdered his older brother Abel because he felt that Abel was being favoured. Certainly the family of Abraham and his descendants were very dysfunctional. Jacob cheated his brother Esau, and as we heard last week the sons of Jacob sold the favourite son, Joseph, into slavery in Egypt. I could go on. I challenge you to find a non dysfunctional family in the bible. Still, these were the chosen people of God. The Bible tells us that God used them to be a sign in the world of the presence of the true God and how God wanted people to live together in harmony and peace. They were to be the family of God and heirs of God’s mercy and generosity. They certainly needed God’s mercy because they did not live together in unity.
The story of Joseph made a really good musical and is a pretty good read in the bible. In Egypt, because of his honesty and ability to interpret dreams, Joseph rises out of slavery and prison into the favour of the ruling elite and to control of the finances of the state of Egypt. Under him, grain was collected from every producer and stored during the seven years of abundant harvests and then sold back to the citizens in the seven years of famine. By the end of the famine, the Pharaoh controlled all the property and resources of Egypt and the surrounding area. One of the groups of people from the surrounding area who come for grain is the family of Jacob – the brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery. Our lesson today is the moment when Joseph reveals who he is to his brothers. The story offers us two pieces of insight that apply to family relationships and also to any institution or group including governments that need cooperation and interdependence in order to survive and thrive.
First – sometimes what seems to be an adversity is actually a good thing – a gift from God – that forces us in a new direction that will be better for us. So often adversity is treated as a problem caused by some member of the family that did something wrong. Adversity can be like being fired from a well paid job that you did not like that much and discovering a better, more enjoyable job that you never thought of doing. Adversity can be like your family having to move and discovering a more challenging situation that reveals new abilities and interests in yourself. Adversity can be like the illness or injury that gives you time to read or develop more patience and coping skills. No one wants to create adversity but sometimes it is what makes us a better person or community.
Sometimes adversity opens our eyes as to what is really going on around us. When Jesus is confronted by the Canaanite woman, he meets a woman who is very strong because she needs to be if she is going to get the help her daughter needs. Jesus’ attitude to her strengthens her resolve and makes him reconsider the cultural views that envelope both of them. God is not just helping our family or our country or our needs. God is helping everyone who asks for help in the belief that God can help them. St. Paul tells us that even those who have rejected the help and way forward that Christ has provided, are still loved and cherished by God. Adversity often makes us more aware of how much we need the love and presence of people and God who we might have ignored or even rejected. Adversity can open our eyes, our hearts and minds and so we are strengthened and renewed.
Second – mercy is how conflict is resolved. Mercy opens doors and breaks down barriers. Mercy lets conversation begin again. Mercy is not earned or deserved – it is given in order for a relationship to change and move forward. Trust must be earned, not mercy. Mercy – forgiveness does not give permission for bad behaviour to continue – it allows people to talk, not yell at one another. This allows change and the process of earning the trust of others.
I know of families and friendships that become nonfunctional because people stop talking to one another. Nothing is gained by this except for silence and resentment. Mistakes or misunderstanding can never be resolved or overcome this way and wounds can never really heal. Hurts that remain unattended can build such resentment that people not only stop talking to one another but also stop listening. Labels that denigrate such as describing protestors as communists and terrorists suggest that what they have to say has no value and will not be part of the conversation that needs to take place in a healthy community or family. Conversation that follows mercy is about listening as well as talking. It is about trying to understand one another not dominate or control.
The word of God is about conversation built on mercy and relationships that give strength to overcome adversity and thrive. Laws and rules that define cultures and family values can stop us from trying to understand one another and grow in respect and accommodation. Jesus says that evil is what we say when we do not care about one another, when we do not listen and value the needs of others. The evil that comes out of such attitudes can grow and become monstrous if we do not stop and listen. Such efforts will not always succeed but they will never succeed if we do not try.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us is a basic part of all relationships be they family, church, work, government or neighbour. It is fundamental to our relationship with God through Christ. It is how the tyranny of sin is broken and we are free to be children in the family of God. Amen