“Oh, What Stress!” – August 14, 2016

“Oh, What Stress!”

13th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – August 14, 2016

A few weeks ago I was called into the hospital to visit with a person I will call Susan.  Susan had been to a women’s retreat and had a profound spiritual experience.  She came back home and her family and friends thought her new behaviour was odd.  She believed they didn’t understand that this encounter with God had changed her in a way that was life giving and exciting.  “It’s not fair that I’m in here” Susan told me, describing the Psychiatric unit of the hospital.

It is 10:00 Wednesday morning and John comes into the church and tells Dolores that he is hungry.  John wonders if we have any food that can tide him over until the Soupateria opens in another hour and a half.  He is the third person that day that has come in seeking a food hamper.

It is 2:00 am and Lois still has not dropped off to sleep worrying about her granddaughter.  Her granddaughter is 17 years old and dropped out of school after grade 9.  She refuses to get a job.  When she needs money she prostitutes or sells drugs.  It seems like each day she has a new boyfriend.  Her Mom, a single parent is at her wits end trying to figure out what she can do to help her daughter.  The Mental Health clinic, Social Services, RCMP, a lawyer, and private counsellors have all been consulted, yet have no answers.  It is another sleepless night.

Bill sits in the support worker’s office telling her about the emotional pain he is bearing as his self esteem has slowly been eroded after over a half dozen years of belittling comments and put-downs from his girlfriend.  The emotional abuse has left him physically ill as well as emotionally raw.  He knows he must leave the relationship, but with little rental housing available where does he go?  How does he afford first and last month’s rent?  How does he cope with the stress?

For Susan, John, Lois, and Bill – life is full of stress and pain.  Families are split apart because of anguish and hurt.  I suspect that each of us can relate, at least in a small way to Susan, John, Lois, and Bill – for their stories are our stories.  We understand their stress, for we have lived with stress.  We have gone through situations that have caused pain and discomfort.  We ask “where is justice and hope for these individuals and their families?”

We all know that stress is a fact of life.  Just read any contemporary magazine and likely you will see an article containing 10 tips to handle stress.  Portions of school curriculums talk about stress and how a young person might cope.  And yes, even sermons at church address this timely topic.

As we read the Gospel text we hear Jesus stating “What stress I am under.”  The challenges and no doubt frustrations that Jesus faced, surely lead him to feel tension.  He was on the way to Jerusalem where he knew that there was going to be a confrontation.  As if that wasn’t enough, his own personal family was divided – and the disciples were bickering.  I can imagine that Jesus was a prime candidate for an Advil or Tums commercial, for no doubt he had a doozer of a headache and a mighty fierce upset stomach.

But isn’t it startling what Jesus has to say about families?  Surely division and strife are not what most of us think of when we seek to follow the way of Christ.  However, division – as much as the mighty signs and wonders of Jesus – may be evidence of the presence of the reign of God.

We all know that following Christ means living a different kind of life.  Such a life is obvious in our obedience to the call of God.  For some, responding to the way of faithfulness may be challenged by those people who are closest to us.

Following Jesus the Christ is a decision to be made, but not all choose to walk with him.  Sometimes within our families not every member makes the decision and commitment to walk the path set by Christ.  And that can lead to some quite devastating consequences.

It was slightly more than 35 years ago that I was wrestling with God over whether I should leave a satisfying and rewarding career in the YMCA and present myself as a candidate for full time ministry with the church.  The concern of leaving my job was minor compared with my fear that my marriage would not be able to withstand the pressures of seminary training and congregational ministry.  And sure enough, that fear was well founded.  A year after presenting myself to my home congregation and presbytery as a candidate for ministry my marriage ended.  My personal story is minor compared with many others who have chosen faithfulness to God’s reign and have been shunned by their entire family.  However, the truth of the matter is that in Christ, some of our most fundamental relationships can be threatened.

I suspect that many of you also understand this passage in a personal way.  You raised your children in the church.  You ensured that they attended Sunday School and mid week groups.  You did your very best to live out the baptismal vows that were made when your children were babies.  Yet, in spite of all this, many of you feel the pain of having children who choose not to attend worship.  For some of you, religion and church is something that you are not able to discuss with your family.  It has become a point of division and conflict.

The gospel text speaks to the fact that we often make an idol of the family.  It is not that loving your family is bad, but that loving anything more than God is wrong. 

Talking about family may well make us a little defensive.  When we are feeling this way, it is too easy to assume that Jesus was asking us to give up our families.  However, what Jesus stated was not that we must abandon our families, but instead we are to give up our idolatry of the family.  Jesus is intent on telling us that no idol should keep us from engaging our faith journey.  We are called to lay aside all those things that we cling to so closely, even family.

But, as we know all too well, there is a significant segment of society that talks about “the family,” as if it is something that they have and you don’t.   This language permeates conversations at school, church and even politics.  Challenging to the image of Mom, Dad and 2 children is popular but possibly dangerous.  It certainly proved to be so for Jesus.  Jesus announced that he had come to call the “traditional family” of his time into question.  He offered his ministry and his life as evidence that the reign of God is at hand.  He warned people to “be on guard against all kinds of greed,” called them to be prepared, and in no uncertain terms called them hypocrites when they pretended they did not understand.

Let’s back up a little and think about the context in which Jesus was speaking.  Jews of Jesus day were raised learning the stories of forebears of the faith.  As we read the Hebrew Scriptures there is little doubt that family meant something different than it does today.  Multiple partners, children raised by whole communities, and discarding a spouse because of infertility, were all normative, more than 2000 years ago.

  The family in the 1st century was linked to the values of property and economic stability.  Strict rules of ownership dictated the order of marriage, inheritance and political power.  While times have changed, we continue to cling to links that connect our family ideals to economic stability and particular values.

Today, we seldom hear of orchards or vineyards being passed down from father to daughter, nor do we often hear of sons following their mother’s career path.  While some career paths are still gender dominated, that trend is starting to change.  For instance, we are seeing more females in the trades than ever before.  More men are now teaching in the elementary schools. 

One of my favorite saying is, “family is a circle of friends who love you.”   To follow Jesus puts us into a new circle that has no social, economic, racial, or political boundaries.  This almost incomprehensible view of human relationships and partnership with one another is nothing short of radical, and some might even say blasphemous

It is a call to each of us to welcome all kinds of families into our circle of welcome.    The Dad, daughter and grandparent.  The 2 women committed to each other.  The woman alone with grown children.  The aged man and woman and their single son.  The man who has never been in a committed relationship.  All are family.  All are a circle of friends who love you. 

In these stress filled days, when you wonder where to turn, know that God is with you.  In these stress filled days, know that Jesus also experienced the discomfort of tension.  Susan, John, Lois, and Bill who we met at the beginning of this sermon, are experiencing the peace and comfort of Jesus walking with them.  They have each turned to their churches and are experiencing the support and welcome of community.  All four, while knowing the reality of stress, also know the truth of God’s incredible love.  Stress is a fact of life.  So too is God’s all encompassing grace.  May we also hold fast to the assurance of God’s abiding grace.  Amen.

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