Family Roles (February 3, 2013)

Sermon for 2/3/13 (Fourth Epiphany)

Deborah White

“Lord God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only human.  But the Lord said to me, Do not be afraid…I have put my words in your mouth.”  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen

We are in the season of familiar lessons.  You may have noticed that every week since Christmas we have had at least one reading that many of us can practically recite by heart.  Two weeks ago we again heard the story of Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana in Galilee.  Today’s New Testament reading is familiar to many of us because it is often used at weddings.  The 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible.  Paul’s description of love is rich, moving, and lyrical.  It is also completely inappropriate as a relationship manual.  It has very little to do with the institution of marriage as it was practiced in the first century.  For the early Christians, marriage was about social and economic survival.  Weddings existed to seal marriage contracts that were made years in advance.  To paraphrase Tina Turner, love had nothing to do with it.

So why did Paul write this letter?  After all, most of his writings were prescriptive, in that they provided the early Christians with guidelines for living as disciples of Christ.  In effect, they served as the first Christian handbook.  In the letter we read last week, Paul talked about spiritual gifts and encouraged the Corinthians to discern and use these gifts.  In today’s portion of the letter, we find Paul warning the Corinthians not to argue about whose gifts are the greatest because all gifts are worthless if you use them without love.  And then he tells them what he means when he talks about love.

There is a practical reason for Paul’s eloquent explanation.  We have to remember that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in Greek – and there are not one but four words for the word we translate as “love” in Greek.  The first of these is storge, which describes the natural love of a parent for a child.  The second is philia – the brotherly or sisterly love that is between friends.  It is the third word, eros, that is associated with romantic love.  It is this meaning that we often apply to this particular passage and that’s why we read it at weddings.  But Paul was not writing about eros.  His letter is not a prescription for a good marriage.  Paul’s letter is a description – a description of the fourth type of love: agape – the perfect love of God.  It is God’s love that is patient and kind.  It is God’s love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  It is the love of God that is powerful enough to manifest itself on earth as a human being – and then to allow that human to be sacrificed to save us.  Paul is not telling us how to love one another.  He is telling us how God loves us.  Completely; perfectly; and without reservation.  Perhaps most importantly, God knows us.  God sees us as we are.  The psalmist tells us that God has known us from our mother’s womb.  He knows us better than we know ourselves.    

That is a powerful thing: the knowledge that we can be truly and fully known – and loved anyway.  Because who among us has never doubted that we deserve to be loved?  Who among us has not had the thought, “If he really knew me, he could never love me”?  That is why so many of us create emotional shields to hide behind.  We are afraid to be known.

One of the ways we hide is by developing or allowing ourselves to be put in certain roles.  Dr. Ilan Tobin writes, “With hardly any thought at all, you can probably say whether, in your family of origin, you played the role of the responsible one or the rebel, the people pleaser or the mascot.  Roles serve an organizing function.  In a family [or any community][1] , roles sort out each person’s relationship to the group.”  But family roles can be dysfunctional – and very hard to shake.

I suspect every one of us has had the experience of being “disrespected” by someone we love.  It’s hard to see someone differently when we have always thought of them one way.  I have a friend who is a pediatrician whose child had a fever one night.  When she suggested to her husband that he give the child a certain dose of medicine, he said, “But shouldn’t we check with a doctor first”?  In that moment, he could only see her in the role of “mom” and not as the talented physician she also was.  Psychologists know that a person’s “birth order” often says something about their personality – not because older siblings are naturally more responsible or younger children more outgoing – but because these traits fit their roles in the family.  When we decide to emotionally grow and stretch – to get “unstuck” from our assigned role in life, we have to remember that there is always someone else who is invested in keeping us stuck.

The people in Jesus’ community were no different.  They couldn’t see him as anything other than the role he had in his community.  The people who heard him preach in the synagogue “all spoke well of him” – until they recognized that he was Joseph’s son – the town carpenter.  The story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth appears in all of the synoptic gospels, suggesting that it is an important one – but each version is slightly different.  Mark’s account suggests that Jesus could not do any deeds of power.  In Matthew’s story, Jesus did not do any deeds of power because of their unbelief.  In Luke’s gospel, which we just heard, Jesus does not need to be told that the people of Galilee are unable to see Jesus for who he is.  They are blinded by what they think they know about him – and, they don’t want him to be something else.  After all, acknowledging that the Messiah is among you would be enormously disruptive to the community’s family system.

Jesus himself seems reluctant to take on his new role as a prophet and Messiah.  Remember that at the wedding in Cana Jesus did not want to demonstrate his power by changing water into wine.  He knew that once he performed that first miracle there was no turning back.  His begrudging willingness to do as his mother asked started him on the course that ultimately led to his death on the cross.  He could no longer hide his true nature and purpose.  He had to give up his role and allow others to see him as he truly was and even for Jesus that was hard to do.

In our Old Testament reading, God tells Jeremiah that he has been appointed to be a prophet.  Jeremiah protests, telling God that he is “only a boy” and he doesn’t know how to speak.  But God tells Jeremiah not to be afraid because God has made him just for this reason.  God knows that Jeremiah can prophesy because God has made him to prophesy.  God formed him in his mother’s womb – just as God has made us to be who we are.

God knows who we really are.  He has known us “ever since we were born.”  God’s love is not based on the role we play in our family or how others see us or the things we have done in the past.  Those are only ways that we think we know one another – just as the people of Galilee thought they knew Jesus as a carpenter from Nazareth.  They could not accept Jesus as a prophet and a messiah because they thought they knew who he was.  And Jesus understood this.  He knew how hard it is to see someone you know as they truly are rather than who you think they should be.  He also knew that it is a terrifying thing to allow yourself to be known.  Jesus knew that many of us are even afraid to know and love ourselves.

St. Paul knew that as well.  Paul recognized that when we look in a mirror, we see ourselves only dimly.  We are not capable of loving one another in agape – perfect love – at least not here and not now.  But we can love one another.  We can love each other in philia and storge – and reach for that perfect love – agape.  In fact, Paul tells us that we must love one another.  He warns us that our spiritual gifts are worthless if we do not use them for love’s sake.  Every amazing, impressive thing we do means nothing if we don’t do it for God’s sake.

When Jesus says that no prophet is accepted in his own hometown, he is acknowledging that we must transcend the roles we have been given.  As Christians, we must allow ourselves to be known and loved.  We must love one another for who we are – even if it feels, sometimes, as if it is in spite of who we are – because that is how God loves us.  “Do not be afraid, says the Lord, for I am with you.”  Be who you are.  Do as God wills.  Live with faith, hope, and love, but remember that the greatest of these is love.”  AMEN.

[1] Italics mine.

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February 3, 2013: Family Roles.pdf

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