Family Reunion


A sermon preached on January 31, 2010 based upon Luke 4:16 – 30 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

8984859If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, and the category on the board is “close calls”, which you pick for say, $500, and Alex Trebek reads the following: 

“They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff…”

having just listened to Bob read this morning’s Gospel lesson, you would know the question was, “What happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth?”

They almost killed him. 

I don’t think that a lot of people know about this Bible story.  

I don’t know about you, but this story disturbs me, in large part because I find the whole subject of anger frightening, both the anger of others, as well as my own anger.  And there’s a whole lot of anger present in this story.  Maybe what’s particularly scary about this story is that the anger is present among people who are essentially what we call “family.”  In those days a small town was more or less one big extended family.  These are the people Jesus grew up with, indeed were raised by.  We’re talking uncles and aunts and cousins and such.   This story is describing a “family reunion.”

What compounds the scariness of this story is that at one moment things seem to be going just swimmingly; the hometown folks are proud as punch of their boy returned home with all the reports of how he has done great things out in the world.  And the next moment they are trying to kill Jesus. 

Where did all this anger come from?  Anger like that doesn’t just appear out of thin air; apparently it’s been buried somewhere, quietly hiding underground, waiting for something to trigger it.  It’s scary to think about all the anger that gets carried around in people, hidden from view inside ourselves and the people with whom we live. 

In this case, Jesus himself “triggers” the anger.   He seems to have a fair amount of anger himself, which in and of itself is kind of disturbing to the image we tend to have of Jesus.  When I ask children to give me words that describe Jesus, one of the first words that come up is “nice.”  Jesus doesn’t seem particularly nice in this story. 

In seminary counseling classes I learned about what is called “family systems theory,” which has as its starting point the observation that no individual person can be understood in isolation; that individuals exist as a part of larger groups, the most notable being the family.   Seen in a certain light, a family is a single organism, with all the members interconnected, affecting one another in ways of which they aren’t fully aware.

Family system theory points out that within families there tends to be a force that strives to maintain the status quo, a certain familiar balance, even when the balance of the status quo can be unhealthy.  It is out of this way of viewing families that the now-overly-familiar word “dysfunctional” originated. Symptoms in individuals are seen as a part of a larger dysfunction of the family.  To effectively “treat” an individual it is often helpful to “treat” the family as a whole, leading to the rise of “family therapy.”

Part of what family systems theory calls attention to is the “dark side” of families.   For instance, when one member of the family has a drinking problem, there can be ways in which, as painful as the drinking can be to the family, the other family members can unconsciously conspire together to keep the drinking going.   Hence, the rise of the term “enabling.”  Enabling can involve a conspiracy to avoid talking about the problem, or it can involve the “secondary gains”  that the spouse of the drinker receives from feeling so needed, or simply so “good” in contrast to the “bad” drinker. 

The same sort of thing can occur with a youth who is “acting out” or manifesting depression.   Often on closer examination, the youth is found to be expressing a symptom of a larger sickness.  It has fallen to the youth to unconsciously express the “dysfunction” of the family. 

With this way of seeing things in mind, let’s return to our Gospel story.  Jesus has come home to his original family system.   On the Sabbath he goes as always to the synagogue.   He reads from a passage from Isaiah that speaks of a great healing breaking out, a new justice arising, where various forms of oppression are being overturned.  He claims that in the present moment he himself, anointed by the Spirit, is the agent of this healing and liberation.

At first the family seems to bask in the glow of what “their kid” has accomplished.  If he is doing such great things out in the world, than surely that must mean that as the people who raised him up, they must be pretty great themselves.

And that’s where things quickly turn ugly. 

Jesus begins to lambast the hometown folks for their pride and arrogance, their sense of entitlement.   He says that they have no special claim to God’s grace, reminding them of a couple of Old Testament Bible stories in which God’s prophets passed over Jews like themselves delivering instead blessing and healing to a couple of foreign Gentiles.  It’s at this point that the family’s anger explodes to the point of violence. 

I find it helpful to have different scripture lessons talk to one another.  Along with this story, the lectionary for this morning includes one of my favorite scriptures, Paul’s famous love chapter in first Corinthians 13. If we don’t have love, Paul says, we’re nothing.  He says love is patient and kind and all these other good things.   It’s not rude. 

At first glance, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly “loving” in this story.  You could easily see him as playing the part of a rude guest. 

Paul says love is “slow to anger”; another translation says love isn’t “irritable.” There’s some subtlety here.  Paul doesn’t say love can’t be angry;  it’s just not quick to anger.   Sometimes love can be expressed as anger.  There is also a significant distinction between “irritability” and “anger.”  Irritability is, in a certain sense, a lie.   It’s anger that is coming out indirectly, often towards objects that don’t have anything to do with what we’re really angry about.  Irritability is anger that isn’t owned; anger that is “leaking out.”

Paul says that love rejoices in the truth.   Evidently Jesus’ words to his hometown folk — harsh though they are – speak a truth they need to hear, and as such are fiercely loving.  In the lingo of family systems theory, Jesus is naming the dysfunction, but unfortunately the family has a lot of energy invested in refusing to own up to their dysfunction. 

The thing about 1st Corinthians 13 is that you can’t really hear what Paul is saying without feeling humbled.   If you are not feeling humbled, then you’re not getting what he’s saying.  He is saying you can have all kinds of things that the world honors and covets, but if you don’t have love, in the end, your life amounts to absolutely nothing.   Paul is talking about love in its purest form – divine love – the Greek word agape.

When I examine my own actions, my innermost thoughts, I know that there is plenty that is not love running through every part of me.   I am impatient, envious, boastful and arrogant; I want my own way, I hold on to resentments.  If I don’t admit this stuff, I am not telling the truth.   This is another way of saying that I am, indeed, a sinner. 

I do believe, however that there is also within me “love”.  It is not “pure” love, or maybe it is “pure love”, but it’s mixed in with  lots of other stuff, so it is awful hard  to locate it in its pure form.

So families are peculiar organisms.  “Love” is a word we often associate with families, as well we should.   But part of what the scriptures this morning say to me is that the love that exists in families is inevitably mixed up with other things as well:   fear, guilt, pride.  Even hatred.  How else to you account for the presence at times of such explosive anger?

In other words, within families (and churches as well) love exists side by side with hate.   There are ways in which we oppress, we wound, we hurt the very people we love the most.  

This isn’t stuff we like to admit.  Our mind goes to great lengths to avoid seeing the ways we do this.   And when we are pushed to acknowledge it, our first reaction can be violent anger, which, if we stop to think about it, proves the very point we are denying. 

If the people of Nazareth were as good as they wanted to think they were, they wouldn’t have tried to kill Jesus when he called them on their arrogance.

But admitting these things is the only way we move toward the wholeness that God intends for us; the wholeness that Jesus announced when he stood up to speak in the synagogue in Nazareth. 

The alcoholic can’t begin to recover till he or she admits they have a problem over which on their own they are powerless to solve.   The “enabler” can’t stop enabling till he or she confesses that they have been doing so, and begins the hard process of giving up the self-righteousness that drives them.  And we sinners can’t begin to come to terms with our sin until we fess up to our sin – all that  is within us that blocks the fullest expressions of love. 

In the end, the people of Nazareth felt compelled to throw Jesus out of the community; to essentially break off their relationship with him.   Seeing themselves as good people was that important to them.   It was, of course, their very great loss.

Those of us who have lived a long time within the family of the church can easily find ourselves in the same position as the folks of Nazareth.  We’ve also “grown up” with Jesus.  The story confronts our arrogance and entitlement as well.  It challenges us to look at the anger that lies beneath the surface in our lives. 

I grew up in a family where my parents never fought, and then one day when I was going into seventh grade they quietly announced to me that they were getting divorced.  I was stunned.   Looking back, perhaps if they had learned how to fight – to deal directly with that underlying anger – they wouldn’t have felt the need to end the relationship.  Who knows?  Perhaps they could have come to a deeper love.  Instead the marriage died. 

Ideally, being a part of a church family should give us an opportunity to learn how to move to the deeper love, and part of why it gives us this opportunity is that one of our starting assumptions is that we are — every one of us — simultaneously sinners and saints.    Of course we are sinners; of course there is a darkness that looms large within us, of course we often treat the people we profess to love the most with a subtle cruelty.  We don’t have to pretend it isn’t so.  We can own our stuff, and deal with it.

But thanks be to God for the forgiveness that is the heart and soul of the family of Christ.  It is this forgiveness that time and again allows us stay in relationship with one another and to persevere together to the greater wholeness, embodying a love that does not end.

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