Sermon: Welcome to The Family

We are simultaneously part of many different families. Some of them endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

JudeanDesert
The Judean Desert near the Dead Sea

My Grandpa loved life, loved his family, and loved making others laugh. I remember sitting with him in the kitchen: he’d smile a big broad smile, and then let his upper denture drop – “Clunk.” We kids would respond with peals of delighted laughter. Grandma, sitting across the table, would inevitably say: “O, Earl!” – Which only provoked more laughter. They were both lovely people, and were both quite strong and wonderful characters.

We all have such “characters” in our families: some eccentric, some difficult, some amusing or endearing, sometimes a combination of all three! They are people who don’t mind living life a bit off from the norm. In fact, at least in my own experience, these same relatives are often seen as embodying a set of qualities – or oddities – that “run in the family” – traits that are usually good (I hope), but sometimes not. They might include patterns of behavior; health issues; physical traits and gifts; ties to a particular place, time or nationality, or a particular legacy, among other things. But, they identify us as “us”: they help us see how and why our family came to be what it is, what it stands for, and why we are who we are.

We are simultaneously part of many different families: our family of origin, the family we marry into, the family we create with our spouse, our church family, our work and school families. Some of these families endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. But, they all provide us with an identity, and a reason for being who and what we are. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

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Sermon: Family

The challenge then is not who should be part of our family – that choice is not ours. Nor is the challenge to decide if we are to love them – because the Bible says love all, no exceptions. The challenge is how to love them, because they’re going to be climbing up that same ladder we’re on no matter what we do, Jesus made it so.

Hunter Family, ca1900; (c) 2015 Dorothy Vander Meulen
The Hunter Family of Waterbury, CT, ca 1900;
(c) 2015 Dorothy Vander Meulen

Jesus says “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

How does this relate to us, and why does it matter?

Please join me in prayer…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of the Family of God. Amen.

I lived in the Tidewater area of Virginia about 20 years ago. Many of my co-workers, friends and neighbors were part of military families, mostly Navy. One September, a friend who served on board the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Enterprise invited me to be his guest for the ship’s “Friends and Family Day Cruise”. Now, how could I refuse such an invitation to see the Enterprise? I accepted!

USSEnterprise CVN65This was an event where the ship’s officers and crew could invite those close to them to come on board for a short cruise that included tours, a picnic, and some presentations and demonstrations. Towards the end of that afternoon we ran into a co-worker of mine: a wonderful and godly black woman named Veronica. She told us her husband was an officer on the ship.

While there, we really wanted to check out the ship’s control tower, that big “Island” on one side of the flight deck where the bridge is. But, one of the rules was that only officers and their families were allowed up there. Veronica assured us that going up would be no problem…

Wondering how she could do this (since we clearly weren’t family), Sean and I timidly followed her up the ladders. Almost immediately, we were confronted by two very stern guards, holding their rifles at the ready. They said, “Sorry Ma’m, only officers and their families are allowed above Deck O-3.”

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The Besiegement Narrative

Original Article: Even After Hobby Lobby, the Religious Right is Still Terrified

The “besiegement narrative” that the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson talks about in his recent article found on The Daily Beast is indeed a theme I frequently saw and heard during my sojourn through many of this country’s more [religiously] conservative religious denominations.

Such an “us vs. them” theology has a long history in Christian thought, going back to at least the time of the persecutions and martyrdoms of the early church, and even further back into ancient Judaism.  And, in fact, in examining other faiths, you quickly find that it is a universal theme.  This is because such a narrative is  a good way to define the boundary between who is and who is not one of “us” (whoever “us” is).  It is a theme that can bind people together; generate and focus emotional and physical energy upon a (real, potential or imagined) threat; and define what it means to be “us” by making it crystal clear who and what we are not.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Being able to draw a line that separates “us” from “not us” seems to be necessary – because if a group cannot define that boundary, it has a very difficult time explaining who they are, what they stand for, why they should continue to exist, and why you might want to be one of “us.”

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Unconditional Love

The “Good Samaritan” by Chinese Artist He Qi

We often hear that God loves us unconditionally, and that we are called to love everyone we meet in the same way.  Matthew 22:37 & 39 give us the two Great Commandments, which are founded upon this principle: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  St. Paul dwells on this topic in the well known “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians (1 Cor 13).

Unconditional Love is central to the Christian Gospel.

But, what is “Unconditional Love”?

Recently, I’ve been reading “Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason” by Alfie Kohn, an interesting and informative book that seeks to apply science and reason to the raising of children.  The book is fascinating, and not just because it uses convincing science and logic to throw many cherished myths about raising children right out the window. 

What struck me in reading Kohn’s work is his thoughts on what “Unconditional Love” means, and it’s importance in becoming the well rounded, stable and (spiritually) healthy individuals we are meant to be. 

For one, he points out that if we demonstrate our love for another only when we meet their expectations, then our love is conditional.  Unconditional love “doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.”

He also states that if we love children just as they are, then they learn to “accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.”  This in turn helps them to be freer to accept other people just as they are, and helps them to flourish, instead of being lost in a sea of judgment and rigidity.

Kohn also says that “Conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.”  This is true of conditional love of any sort.  Paul says it best, in Romans 7:22-24: For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

In other words, we are inherently good (or, at least we yearn to be “good”) says Paul – and Kohn – and Jesus.  But, if we do not learn to love unconditionally, if we choose to see the flaws in others before we see what God sees in them, then we are allowing the sin that is in our flesh (as Paul describes it) to obscure the goodness within us, and within others.  We then fail to love others unconditionally, as we are called to do, because we  have not learned to see beyond what a person does to embrace who they are – a beloved child of God, just like everybody else, including us.

Ultimately, “…The choice between conditional and unconditional parenting is a choice between two radically different views of human nature.”  Are we essentially economic robots – our behavior is purely the learning that love is earned in return for correct behavior?  

If we are primarily automatons that require incentives to behave well, then how can we be authentic people – authentic in terms of understanding who we are, and authentic in our dealings with others?  Our love is conditional if we accept others only when their behavior is acceptable.  This also means that we can only accept ourselves if the person we seem to be meets whatever standard we’ve set for ourselves.  We will be distancing ourselves from God’s unconditional acceptance of that inner person we try so hard to hide from everyone else, including ourselves.

Why do we need to create a false “self” that others will find acceptable?  When we do so, we can never be the person we are meant to be – we will always be a façade, a mask behind which we hide (and often lose) our true selves in the name of finding acceptance.

Kohn goes on to say that “Unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge … [that love] does not have to be paid for in any sense.  It is simply and purely a gift …. to which all … are entitled.”

This is echoed throughout the Bible, and especially the New Testament.  God is seen as “our Father.”  We are called children of God, and members of the “Family of God.”  Paul says it in a different way at times, describing us as members of the “Body of Christ.”  God’s love is a gift, one that will never be taken away, one that is always there, not given as a result of anything we’ve done.

All of these biblical metaphors reflect an understanding of the importance of accepting and loving others unconditionally; and understanding that they reflect how God loves us.  “The other” is part of who we are, and so we must learn to love others unconditionally if we are to learn how to love ourselves in the same way, and learn how to accept the unconditional love of God which is already there, waiting for us.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is not just about learning to love your neighbor, but also about learning to love yourself.

Love!

– Allen

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Things Have Changed

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things. This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it. We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact. It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

Sermon presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC (Brattleboro, VT)
June 2, 2013
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10

The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum
The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum

As most of you know, my father, Allen Vander Meulen Jr., was once a Minister here.  It’s humbling and a bit surreal to stand here nearly 50 years after his first Sunday here; and I am happy to report that both he and my mother are here today!  Thank you, Rev. McFadden, and all of you, for inviting me to speak here this morning: it is a blessing and an honor.  I am deeply grateful.

My earliest memories are connected with this church.  One of the first, I think, is hearing my Dad’s voice boom out over the congregation during hymns.

You see, he’d stand here and sing as he’d always done in his previous churches.  But, in coming here something was different, something that he did not realize mattered.  Those previous churches had not had one of these [TAP ON MIKE].  So, singing in full volume with his powerful voice had never been an issue before, he’d never had to think about it – and didn’t think about it because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him – he didn’t hear what we heard.

And I was three years old – I didn’t know any different.  I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal, not even at those times when I recalled it decades later.  It had been cemented in my mind as the way things were, life as normal.  My perspective on it was never challenged until a moment of revelation – in my forties, I think – when I finally heard the story of how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator at the time, took my Dad aside one day and said in that wonderful old Vermont accent of his “You know Allen, next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step back!”

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things.  This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it.  We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact.  It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

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