Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC

STRONG FAMILIES ARE COMMITTED TO THE FAMILY

Hebrews 13:1-8

The first in a series of five sermons.

Mother’s Day deserves a Mother’s Day sermon.  I feel strongly about this.  It goes way back to childhood memories of drives home with my family after church.  I’d be in the backseat listening as my mother expressed her disappointment that once again on Mother’s Day the pastor’s sermon had completely ignored her special day.  Back then I was powerless to do a thing about it.  But when I was ordained, I finally had the power to redress this great injustice.  Not just for my own mother, but for any of you who have felt similarly slighted.  And so in defense of motherhood and everything else that is sacred, here is my annual Mother’s Day sermon!

In fact this year, Mother’s Day not only deserves one Mother’s Day sermon.  It deserves a whole series of sermons.  And you’ll be glad to hear I’m not going to preach the whole series today.  We’ll take five weeks.  You’ll probably also be glad that it won’t be a series just about mothers and the important role they play.  Even though I’m sure I could say enough nice things about mothers to easily fill five sermons, or more, I’m expanding the topic to the family in general.  We’re going to be talking in this series about what contributes to strong, healthy, happy families.

I want to begin by quoting Leo Tolstoy, that enigmatic Russian novelist.  Here’s what he said, the opening line of Anna Karenina:  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  In other words, there are many ways families can get off track.  There are many things that can go wrong.  In fact, there really are as many stories of what went wrong in a troubled family as there are troubled families.  But in families that are strong, happy, and healthy, there is a remarkable consistency.  There are certain attributes that are present, almost without fail, in families that are functioning as God wants our families to function.  We’ll be looking at some of these attributes in this series.

Here’s the premise:  Wherever you might place your family on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of its strength, happiness, and health right now, it can improve the more these attributes become part of your family’s life.  And also. wherever you might place your family on that scale of 1 to 10, it can improve, period.  There are no perfect families.  I know there is a tendency to think other families have it more together than yours.  Believe me, every family has its problems and its challenges, probably far more serious than you would guess from outside appearances.  The point isn’t to eliminate all problems and challenges.  The point is to make your family stronger and happier and healthier than it is right now.

Before we go further, we need to talk for a moment about what we mean by “family”.  This is a word whose meaning is not as obvious as it once was.  We’ve lived through a time of significant changes in our understanding of what a family is and isn’t.  You may disagree, but you need to know where I am coming from for the purpose of this series.  I’m using an inclusive definition of family.  It includes two parents and children.  It also includes single parent families.  It includes couples who have no children.  It includes same sex couples, with or without children.  It includes extended families, with grandparents and grandchildren under the same roof, as once was common and is again becoming more common.  It includes blended families.  It includes foster families.  It includes other combinations and permutations that I haven’t thought to mention.  In other words, it includes your family.

So how in the world are we going to come up with a simple definition?  How about this?  It’s not mine.  It comes from Kenneth Chafin, who wrote one of my favorite books on the family.  He says, “The family is a balanced environment, designed by God, for the growth of human beings.”

We recently observed Earth Day.  Our planet earth is a marvelously balanced environment designed for the growth of life.  But it’s also quite fragile.  It can get out of balance.  It has gotten out of balance in many destructive ways as human beings have failed to respect and care for our natural environment.

In the same way, families can get out of balance.  The “ecosystem” they offer us can become polluted.  When this happens a hostile environment can result that inhibits rather than promotes the growth of human beings as God intends for us to grow.

“The family is a balanced environment, designed by God, for the growth of human beings.”

Strong families are balanced in several critical ways.  There are several critical attributes that are found with remarkable consistency in families that are functioning the way God wants them to function.  Today we’ll be talking about the first of these.  Strong families are committed to the family.

The Universityof Nebraska is noted not just for caring about football but also for caring about the family.  They actually have a Department of Human Development and the Family.  A few years ago three faculty members who teach in this department released what they called a “National Study of Family Strength”.  I’m going to be referring to this study throughout this series.  Their first conclusion is what we’re going to be talking about today.  It’s a good place to begin because it’s the foundation for everything else I’m going to say.  A strong family is committed to the family.

Sounds so obvious you might think we could skip this one.  Actually this one is extremely important.  In a strong family there is present an amazing and a wonderful security.  You don’t have to go to bed at night wondering about the commitment that holds your family together.  It’s a given.  You know, you just know, that your family is built on the bedrock of the commitment you’ve made to each other. Far more important than what we do or don’t do is this underlying sense of security in knowing that you can count on your family to be there for you.  Here’s another pretty good definition of family:  Family means being there for each other, no matter what.

Having said this, I’m going to embark on what may seem like a tangent, but I promise you will soon see it really isn’t a tangent at all.  We’re going to look at today’s text from Hebrews.  God says, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”

One of the basic questions of life is, what can I count on?  Who can I count on?  So many of us have been let down so often, we begin to wonder if that question has an answer.  The Bible says that question does have an answer.  In fact, the Bible provides that answer.

You can count on God.  God “will never fail you nor forsake you.”  In other words, God will never abandon you.  God will never let go of his commitment to you.

This thought is so important, so fundamental to everything else, that God repeats it several times.  In Genesis, Jacob is running for his life.  Esau, his brother, has a score to settle with him.  Jacob had ripped his brother off.  He had stolen his brother’s inheritance.  Jacob is alone in the desert.  It is night.  He’s trying to sleep but he can’t.  He’s tormented with fear and with guilt.  And then God speaks to him in a dream.  “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . I will never leave you” (23:15).

We skip ahead to Deuteronomy.  On the verge of leaving the wilderness and entering the Promised Land, Moses calls the people together.  He says, “I am getting old.”  They already know that.  He’s 120.  Picture him standing there, barely strong enough to stand, speaking in a broken, trembling voice.  He says, “You be strong and take courage about the future.  I’m going to leave you, but don’t be afraid.  The Lord your God is going to go before you.  He will never fail you or forsake you” (31:6).

In the next book, Joshua, the new leader faces the challenge of the Promised Land.  God speaks to him:  “Be not afraid, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go . . . as I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.  Be strong and of good courage” (1:9,5).  See the connection?  Courage and confidence come from knowing you can count on God.

Another example.  This is one on that list of 50 Bible readings we gave you on Easter. Isaiah gives a prophecy about a time when the children ofIsraelwill find themselves in great hardship — they will be poor and needy, seeking water, “their tongue . . . parched with thirst.”  And then God will say to them, “I the God of Israel will never forsake [you]” (41:17).

Finally we return to Hebrews, written in a time of horrific Roman persecution.  Again, God’s promise:  “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”  In other words, I will never let go of my family.  I will never abandon my family.

Knowing this, knowing there is someone you can count on, brings courage.  It brings confidence.  The very next verse makes that plain:  “Hence we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?'”

OK, time to bring all this back to the topic at hand in this Mother’s Day sermon.  If our families are going to be balanced environments where human beings can grow, we have to know we can count on each other to be there for us.   This same amazing promise God makes to us must also be the promise we make to each other.  I will never let you down.  I will never let you go.  You can count on me to be there for you and for our family.  God wants us to model in our families his commitment to us.  Human beings have a basic need of knowing there are people in their lives they can count on.  God has given us a family to meet this need.

What does this mean in practical terms?  Six things.

(1) If we’re committed to the family, it means family comes first.  It means that when you’re asked to do something at work, when you’re asked to do something at church, when some interesting opportunity presents itself, you aren’t afraid to say four simple words:  “My family comes first.”  What do we let come before our families?  Talk about that in your families.  Decide what you’re going to do about it.  Then do it.

(2) If we’re committed to the family it means individual family members are valued and feel valued.  It’s not a matter of an authoritative father saying, “We are a strong family!”  It’s not a matter of everyone else feeling intimidated into meekly assuming their assigned, subservient role in the patriarchal structure.  Not at all.  Every family member feels special, valued, important, loved.  They feel secure as individuals within the security of their family unit.  What are we doing to make sure each member of our family feels valued?

(3) If we’re committed to the family, that commitment will not be abandoned in tough times.  Just the opposite.  Tough times will prove how solid that commitment is.  Strong families face all the same trials all families face — conflict, illness, financial problems, rebellious children, threats to marriage.  All families face these in varying degrees.  The difference between strong families and the others is not the kind of tough times they go through but the underlying attitude that they will make it through these tough times.  Circumstances that might cause one family to think their family is coming apart at the seams will cause a strong family to say, we’re going to pull together and get through this.

(4) If we’re committed to the family there will be sexual integrity in our marriages.  I’ve now read two of the three in that wildly popular series about the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”.  It’s a well-written, highly suspenseful series, but the characters, even the married ones, are hopping from one bed to the next as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.  Sometimes we think we know more than God about morality.  We don’t.  God says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb 13:4).  These words were written in the height of the Roman Empire, not exactly the most puritanical era in history.  Ancient Rome was about as licentious and permissive as apparently modern-day Sweden is.  There’s nothing new about doing our own thing and thumbing our noses at God.  God lets us.  But eventually we figure it out.  God knows best.

Here’s the thing about affairs.  Affairs are rarely about sexuality or passion or fantasy.  Affairs are about brokenness.  Something is broken in your life and in your marriage and you give in to something that makes the brokenness even worse.  Here’s the message an affair sends to your mate:  You are inadequate.  You are replaceable.  I am not bound by our marriage covenant.  You can’t count on me.  An affair undermines the foundation of commitment on which the family is built.

Sometimes affairs so undermine that foundation, the marriage comes crashing down.  Not always.  If the commitment is still there, God can help a couple rebuild their marriage.  But there are times when the marriage comes apart, not necessarily due to an affair, and there is little if anything that can be done to repair the damage.  I know that’s happened to some of you.  And even if it hasn’t, I doubt if there is a person here today whose family has not been impacted in some way by divorce.  Divorce is simply a reality in today’s world and when it happens it’s not necessarily the fault of either one of you.

I want you to know something about our church.  Our church is not here to judge or to condemn.  We’re here to welcome and to accept and to help rebuild people who have lived through a divorce.  We have many here who can testify that there is life after divorce.  We probably have some here who can testify that their divorce was the best thing that ever happened to them.  Not that we’re in favor of divorce.  It’s always a last resort.  But we are in favor of people and their well-being.

(5) If we’re committed to the family we will have identifiable goals we are reaching toward together.  You’ve heard that families that pray together stay together.  It’s also true that families that dream together stay together.  Spend time sharing your dreams.  Set goals.  Make plans for next year.  When we do, it delivers another powerful message — our family is going to be here next year.

(6) If we’re committed to the family we will give up goals that interfere with our family.  Here’s one example:  You’ve just been offered a promotion that will add $50,000 a year to your annual income, but it will mean moving to another part of the country.  Do you go?  A lot of people would think that one’s a no-brainer.  Or that if you get that dollar figure high enough, eventually it will become a no-brainer.  But if your family really is your first commitment, your first concern is not money.  Your first concern is your family.  Is this move best for them?  For us?  Not just for me.  If it isn’t you’d say, I don’t care what they’re going to pay me. I’m not going to go.

That’s tough.  That’s easier said than done.  But it’s about time we say in many ways, words, decisions, and actions, that we are committed to the family.

God is committed to us.  Are we committed to each other?  In this world where we often feel alone, abandoned, and forgotten, where can we feel loved?  In this world where we so often are let down, what can we count on?  In this world of endless change, where do we find the security of that which does not change?

Hebrews gives the absolutely best answer:  “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”  But where do we find Jesus?  Where do we see the love of Jesus embodied and made real in simple expressions of caring and commitment?  In this your church family?  Let’s hope so.  But first and foremost, in the family you’re with the rest of the week.

God will never fail you nor forsake you.  Can you say the same to those with whom you are joined in the sacred bonds of family?

 

Dear God, whose love we can count on, we confess that we   have not reflected your love as well as we might.  We speak longingly of “family” as an ideal which somehow always alludes our grasp but we fall short when it comes to the simple, practical  words and deeds of every day that make our families what they are or aren’t.  Forgive us, God.  Give us a vision of our families as you want them to be.  And by your grace, may we commit ourselves anew to being the kind of people our families can count on.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.