Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“Finding Community in an Acrimonious World”

Sunday, October 31, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Anybody hear Jon Steward’s sermon on the mall yesterday?

I walked by the mall on my way to church at 9:30 yesterday morning and it was already filling up. When I tried to get back there at noon I couldn’t get any closer than Constitution Avenue. It was a phenomenal crowd. I predict some of you will tell your grandchildren you were there…whether you were or not.

I ended up coming back to the church and watching it on the internet.

If I heard him right, Jon Steward’s sermon was about American’s living together in community. His point was that Americans live together in community everyday, work together everyday, and get things done together everyday. The problem, he said, is not with Americans in our local communities. The only place we can’t manage to get along with each other is – he turned around and pointed to Congress – and on the 24-hour cable news shows which create an artificial and unnatural acrimony. We ordinary Americans are better, he was saying, than our government or our media.

Well, what do you think?

There is surely lots of acrimony and asperity and acerbity and pungency in our world. Acridity: a harshness, a meanness between nations and people and groups and individuals.

Where does it come from? Is it artificially induced by TV and politics? Or is it part of the human condition? Is it curable, resolvable? Or will it just always be this way?

Is it something that we could avoid if we were just left alone? Is it something we could overcome if we just tried harder? Or is it just the way things have to be on planet earth?

What we believe makes a real difference.

In this little sermon series we’ve looked at global community and war. Is war inevitable? Is peace possible?

We’ve looked within Christianity which seems so divided and factious and sometimes hate-filled. Can Christians ever manage to get past our ideological differences and become a community in Christ?

We looked at our workplaces where conflict is, I argued, almost inevitable, a given. We are going to have tension in our workplaces but there is a difference between the conflict and tension that comes from the push and pull of needing to get a task done and the conflict and tension that comes from our need to be in charge and our need to not want to let anybody tell us what to do. Is truly creative conflict possible in the workplace?

What you believe makes a difference.

What about out families? This is our topic today. Can we manage to live together in our families without acrimony?

I will not ask for your experience with a show of hands.

But what we believe about this also makes a difference in the way we will live our lives.

I want us to think together about living in families today, but I want to walk gently. In a group this size there will be some persons who have had a horrendous, unspeakable experience as a child in your family. To even raise this topic causes you pain. I am sorry.

The most horrible things that happens in the world, happens to children, and they often happen at the hands of family members.

To those who have been abused, terrorized, traumatized, assaulted, neglected, bullied, manipulated, made to feel inadequate, I am very, very sorry on behalf of every adult in the world. Our number one job as adults – each and every one of us – is to make sure the world is safe for children.  

But even when our family has done a fairly decent job of keeping us safe and treating us well, is there any family without pain, without resentments, without jealousies and disappointments?

The Bible is not very optimistic about family dynamics. Name me one very functional family in the Bible?

Certainly not the patriarchal families of the Old Testament; Abraham and Sarah’s family? There was the little problem of Hagar and Ishmael, among other things. Isaac and Rebecca’s family? With their favoritism and open warfare over their sons they messed up their sons’ lives for most of a lifetime. Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s family? There was a structural problem in that family arrangement from the very beginning.

Interestingly enough, the most positive story of a family in the Old Testament is the story of two biologically unrelated women – a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law who had both lost their husbands but who lived together as a family. Ruth and Naomi. Ruth’s words to Naomi – “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. Where you die, I will die…” are still favorite words to be read in wedding ceremonies (Ruth 1:16-17 portions).

Turn to the New Testament. For all the fuss we make about the “holy family,” it too was not without its problems. I love the story about Jesus’ family coming to have him put away because they thought he had gone out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Jesus apparently had problems with even the so-called “Holy Family.” When they came to have him put away because they thought he had gone mad, Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him and he said to those who were listening to him teach – you are my real family. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:34).

Even Jesus’ family was not without its problems.

Every family is complicated. Every family is broken in some way or another, even Jesus’ family.

Jesus actually does not seem generally very family friendly.

You know this passage from Matthew?

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  (Matt 10:35-38)

Do you know this passage from Luke?

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-6)

Here’s another passage that appears in both Matthew and Luke. Here’s Luke’s version:

To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-62; see also Matt 8:21-22)

Sound very family-friendly to you?

Now, part of the reason these passages are in the Gospels is because they were written to a generation that included many people who were rejected by their families because they became followers of Jesus. People all too often had to choose between Jesus and their families. There are ways that can still happen today.

But I think there is another truth here as well.

The deeper truth is that for followers of Jesus, family is no longer defined by biology or by legal definitions.

They tell Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside the building calling for him. What does he say?

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:34-5)

Jesus de-biologizes family. Jesus de-legalizes family.

Here’s what I think that means. I think it means two things.

I think it means that just because you are someone’s biological or legal father, mother, daughter, son, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, it doesn’t automatically make you family.

Even when we have a biological or adoptive family, it is not biology or the legality that defines the family anymore. 

I am very happy that marriage equality has come to Washington, DC and I believe all marriages ought to be legally honored, but, to state the obvious, you understand that it is not a license from city hall that makes a marriage.

Birthing or adopting a baby does not make a parent. Having a biological or legal mother or father does not make you a son or a daughter.

What makes us family is understanding our relationships as an expression of God’s intention and will for us. It is receiving the family member as someone God has given us to invest ourselves in.

When we receive someone else in our life as a gift from God to us that makes us family.

Being family is an act of surrender and a decision and an act of will. Just a biological relationship or a legal relationship is not enough. Being family is a form of spirituality.

Dear Martin Luther – the priest who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries who began the Protestant Reformation. You can see his statue in Thomas Circle. Someone has called him God’s little oddball.

Dear Luther decided to get married after writing a theological treatise about marriage. Priests were expected to be celibate. Janes Nestingen writes: “The papacy insisted that genuine sanctification requires detachment from the flesh – so the celibacy requirement for priests and religious. Luther argued that marriage is also one of the gifts of God. In fact…Luther [came to believe] that ‘marriage is the most religious state of all,’ the ‘real religious order.’”

After he wrote his paper, he married Katherine von Bora and they had six children.  

Luther came to believe that the locus of divinity within the world is not where things are clean and pure removed from the messiness and confusion of real life in the real world but in the thick of the mess. Our families are our families not because they are neat and orderly and have it all together – not even because they enhance our lives – but because holiness is in the middle of the mess they are.

Old Martin Luther, who complained after years of celibacy about the humiliation of having to change diapers, came to speak of family as vocation.

Everything depends on whether we see our family as an accident or as a spiritual calling. The old saying is that you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. Not true. The only way we can have family is if we pick them, fragmented and dysfunctional and messy as they are.  

The other meaning in Jesus de-biologizing and de-legalizing family is that we are not dependent upon biology or legalities to be part of a family. Like Jesus did, we can make our own families.

Some of you have done this your whole lives. You have formed your own families, independent of biology or legal contract, to celebrate holidays and birthdays and to share the joys and sadnesses of life.

There was a couple in one of my churches. They worshipped together every Sunday, sitting as far back in the shadows of that old sanctuary as they could. He got ill and she nursed him and cared for him through to his death. They were very, very private. I loved the two of them.

After his death, she came to meet with me to explain why there would be no funeral at our church for him. He had a legal wife whom he had not lived with for 30 years – the two of them had been together for 20 some years, but he had never divorced his first wife and she was still legally his wife. He had a child from that marriage. The funeral would be held at his legal wife’s church.

She tried to be matter-of-fact in telling me. She was a very matter-of-fact person.

I said to her, But you and I know who has been his wife these last 20 years. And you and I will have a funeral for him in this church. Just us. And we did.

All of our families are broken. We all know pain in our families.

I have a new favorite Bible verse. It became my favorite verse when I was reading Darwin summer a year ago. It is from the Book of Hebrews. Hebrews 2:5.

“Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.”

God did not send an angel into the world to save us, Hebrews says.

Whatever God is doing in the world, God is not doing it through angels. He is doing it in the midst of the messy, unkempt, jaggedy, mucked-up, sometimes acrimonious lives in the real world you and I actually live in.

And I think that actually is what Jon Steward was trying to say in his sermon yesterday. It is in the midst of the bazaar craziness of life that we will find grace. He wouldn’t use those words, but I think it is what he was saying. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more,” the Apostle Paul said. (Rom 5:20)


James Arne Nestingen, “Luther on Marriage, Vocation, and the Cross,” Word and World (Winter, 2003), 33.