John 11:30-44; Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
12 November 2006
In the early years of the last century Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo created an interesting, and ultimately quite influential, household in Paris. This household came to include Stein’s longtime partner Alice B. Toklas. Their home was a place where artists, writers, intellectuals, and other interesting people mixed together. Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other greats passed through this home, sometimes staying a part of the circle long enough to become part of the family.
It was often a dramatic and chaotic place, as you can imagine life among such artists and geniuses would be. There is an intriguing line in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,
Gertrude Stein has a weakness for breakable objects, she has a horror of people who collect only the unbreakable.
The line is referring to objects, but I also have a sense that it is referring to people. Gertrude Stein is only interested in breakable people. Of course there is no such thing as an unbreakable person, but there are people who pretend to be unbreakable and that pretense is off-putting. I have this general rule, if a family looks perfect, then they probably have far deeper and worse problems than a family who comfortably wears their dysfunctions for everyone to see.
The Stein-Toklas household is a pretty good lesson in how gay people create families and about how we need to be prepared to deal with the breakability of our family members.
I come to this topic aware that I am entering into sacred ground: Ground that for many of us is paved with brokenness – broken relationships, broken lives, and sometimes broken bodies. My goal tonight is to talk about family from a Christian standpoint so that we can create families that are aware of each others breakability and can heal the hurtful brokenness.
The Right wing uses their notion of family to beat up those who do not share their worldview. They have fabricated an image of the family of a husband and wife and 2.3 kids. It is an image that excludes singleness, divorce, blended families, and gay people. This image pretends that infidelity is not a problem. It pretends that parents are wise and generally good at raising their kids on their own. It usually advocates a patriarchal arrangement. And it assumes that there are no dark family secrets and if there are, then they should be kept as secrets in the dark.
This image of the “nuclear” family is not representative of the wide variety of family arrangements now or at any point in human history. Families have more often been arranged as large clans of kinfolk. Families were a mix of generations and relations, often including folk who were not related by blood but had been adopted, either formally or informally, by the family. The Book of Ruth, for example, illustrates this broader sense of what family means. Notice that when the son is born, it is a child for Naomi, though she has no blood relationship to the child.
The image of the nuclear family does not reflect the way human beings generally do families. It is also restrictive and unhealthy, and ultimately oppressive. As Michael Piazza writes in Rainbow Family Values:
The ‘American Family’ is simply too limiting, and does not adequately meet the emotional and relational needs of all members.
The GLBT community represents a different way to do families that is actually more reflective of the traditionally natural way that humans have formed families. And our image of families is more liberated and healthier. We call these “families of choice.” Families of choice are composed of close friends and sometimes our blood relations, partners, and children.
Not only is our image of family life more natural, healthier, and freer, I think that we are also more reflective of what Jesus taught about the family. Jesus wasn’t very concerned with “family values.” Jesus taught that we should regard the kingdom of God and our discipleship in the way of God as more important than family. That’s the meaning of his statements about not returning home to bury ones dead parents or that you could not follow Jesus without “hating” mother and father. Most telling is the moment when Jesus’ blood relations come to take him home because they think he’s acting crazy. Jesus refuses to see them and tells the assembled crowd of his followers that they, the crowd, are his family. Jesus advocates creating a family of choice.
I believe that today’s gospel gives insight into Jesus’ family of choice. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ household seems to function as Jesus’ family. They speak to each other and treat each other as family members. Jesus is deeply moved by Lazarus’ death and Martha and Mary’s grief. I firmly believe that this is Jesus’ family of choice.
Michael Piazza writes, “The ideal family which God dreams of for each of us is made up of individuals who know us and love us as we are, not as they wish us to be.” Many who have suffered broken relationships with their blood families have internalized a shame and still allow those families to hold guilt and hurt over us. We need to embrace the liberating gospel message that family is supposed to be made up of the people that love us unconditionally just the way we are.
I think that the most difficult issue for any of us in dealing with our family members, either the families we grew up in or the families of choice that we have created, is how to learn to live with each other’s breakability and brokenness. All of our relationships, be it with friends or our beloved or even with co-workers, require that we learn to live with each. We are not perfect. We will make mistakes. We will fail to live up to expectations and duties. We will be selfish. We will hurt one another. How do we learn to live with these truths?
I’m going to use the image of embrace. I intend it as a metaphor, but there is also a concrete literalness to the image – genuine family is often those people that we embrace the closest and the tightest.
Metaphorically, family are those people we embrace and who in turn embrace us the closest and the tightest. They are the people we accept just the way they are, who accept us just the way we are in return. This means that they accept us even though we fail and hurt one another.
Jesus told a story about embrace, it is the story of the Prodigal Son. A man has two sons. One of them decides that he wants to rebel against what his culture considered the traditional duties of a son toward his family. He asks his father for his share of the inheritance and then leaves home to go it alone. The son goes and lives wildly and promiscuously, breaking all manner of cultural taboos. He quickly runs through his money and ends up in poverty. He becomes something of a slave, working in the slop house feeding the pigs and eating from the pigs’ scraps.
Eventually he recalls that servants in his father’s house were treated better than this, so he decides to return home, beg his father’s forgiveness, and plead with his father to make him a servant.
The father has all this time missed his son. Every day he looks out, hoping to see his son return. One day, he sees his son in the distance. The son is dirty and almost unrecognizable, yet the father knows it is his son. He runs to his son and immediately embraces him.
The son then pleads with the father to forgive him and make him a servant in the house. The father says that the son will be welcomed home as a son and prepares a great feast to celebrate the return of the lost child.
The other son, who has fulfilled all his traditional duties, comes in from the field to discover this great feast underway. Immediately he is angry. No such feast was ever prepared for him. He angrily confronts his father. But the father responds to him as well with love, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
This father didn’t need to think or debate. He didn’t need to consider whether the son’s violations of his cultural and religious duties disqualified him from sonship. The father didn’t need to learn tolerance or go to therapy. He immediately embraced his son.
If family is based on embrace, then we have to develop the ability to embrace each other mutually. I think that means we need to practice forgiveness. We aren’t good at forgiveness because it is genuinely difficult. To become good at forgiveness means that we must unlearn many bad habits. We must unlearn taking offense easily. We must unlearn defensiveness and selfishness. We must quit gossiping. We have to develop patience and self control and humility. We have to learn to be honest, tactful, and compassionate all at the same time. We have to learn to listen. We have to try to understand something from a different person’s perspective. It means developing a sense of fairness and mercy.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t ever get hurt or angry or upset. It doesn’t mean that we’re a bad person if our emotions explode. Sometimes that happens. If it happens for you too often, then it is something you need to work on, but occasionally being overcome with emotion is only natural. Practicing forgiveness doesn’t mean that we always sacrifice our own interest for someone else’s. It doesn’t mean that we overlook all wrongs and injustices.
Though ultimately forgiveness is one step in the process of reconciliation, sometimes we can’t find reconciliation. Often we can’t be reconciled to abusers. We can’t be reconciled to another person if that person constantly rejects our attempts at reconciliation. But even in those circumstances, we can forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting; it means that the wrong done to us no longer has the power to control us.
I think forgiveness that embraces one another is the Christian practice that creates genuine family. Let’s face it, family are the people we generally hurt the most. Maybe it’s because we feel free to expose our ugliest and darkest sides because we assume that these people will continue to love us despite our ugliness and darkness. That’s probably true, but what we have to do is learn a spirit of forgiveness that includes our not taking for granted our family members. True familial love requires work.
There is a humility involved because we admit that we are breakable and broken while embracing other people in their breakability and brokenness. We love each other because we both have limitations, not in spite of our limitations.
Once we come to understand that this is the Christian model of family, then we receive the power to liberate ourselves from unhealthy relationships that call themselves “family.” We will no longer be trapped by those parents, siblings, children, or spouses who want to control us with guilt or shame or who refuse to love our authentic selves.
And once we come to understand the Christian model of family, then we also free ourselves to create genuine, healthy families of choice. We will form bonds with those people who do embrace us. Our lives will be shared with these people. We will care for each other when sick, be present for each other at moments of joy and crisis, and share in practices like living together, gift giving, traveling, spending the holidays together, and all the other practices that families share with each other. If we spend our lives with those who embrace us, we will be healthier, more joyful, and whole.
So, what about our families of origin? If they are not included in our families of choice, then what about them? In some extreme situations it will be best to cut off such people altogether. But most are not at that extreme. We do still have relations and ties with these individuals, but I think we should begin to view them differently. There is no one pattern, but we have to find ways to remove ourselves from the pain, guilt, shame, and dishonor that comes from those that refuse to embrace us. As Christians we should be willing and prepared to embrace them if they are prepared to embrace us, but embrace is mutual. We can’t embrace someone who refuses to embrace. Our practice of forgiveness will be tested by our families of origin.
The Christian story, then, blesses what many of us in this community already do. I want you to hear that; the Christian story blesses what many of you are already doing. Our family is those people we mutually embrace because we are broken and breakable people. Our family is those people who accept us just the way we are. May you be filled with the power and glory of God’s Holy Spirit that grants us the courage, wisdom, and humility to be a people blessed with the type of family that God wishes for each of us to have.