11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14B)
Sermon by the Reverend Jo-Ann R. Murphy, D.Min.
“ABSALOM, MY SON”
So, today we meet Absalom and we hear the poignant tale of his death at the hands of General Joab. Absalom was King David’s third son and according to legend, David’s favorite. The escapades of this family system are difficult for even the most diligent biblical scholar to follow but an over-arching view will make you shake your head and seriously consider calling a family therapist.
But then again all our families are a complicated mix of love and jealously and dependence, aren’t they? Throughout the Gospels Jesus speaks on several occasions of the difficulties of family life. There are numerous scripture passages where Jesus points to the difficulties of family life. Both in the canonical Gospels and in the Gospel of Thomas we hear such verses as:
- “Whoever does not hate his father and mother cannot be a follower of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters . . . will not be worthy of me (Thomas 55).”
- “Then his mother and his brothers came and standing outside they sent to him and called him … and he replied, ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ 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 3:31-35).”
- “A woman from the crowd spoke up and said to him, ‘How fortunate is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’ But he said, ‘How fortunate rather are those who listen to God’s teaching and preserve it (Luke 11:27-28).”
It seems Jesus knows something profound about family relationships. It seems Jesus knows far too well the paradoxical nature of relationship of those closest to us. We’ve all heard the phrase “he left home to seek his fortune.” We all know the truth of the necessity of leaving home. But then we return, don’t we? That’s the paradox. You can’t go home again, but you must go home again. Home is where we depart from and, for good or for ill, home is where we return. Something in us must reconcile with our pasts, must make peace, or try to, with our own family.
What is the family, after all? The family is society in miniature. It is the place where we first learn how to love, and be loved. It is also the place where we learn to abuse, or be abused. The family is not just an oasis of domestic serenity, a paradise of calm in an evil, turbulent world; it also involves power, and power of any kind invites the possibility of abuses of power that can deform and destroy human lives.
This is summer. Have you had a family vacation? Are you planning a Labor Day family gathering? This is the time of year when many of us reconnect with our families. When I was a little girl every summer vacation consisted in railroad trips from New York where we lived to Southern Illinois and Cincinnati to visit my grandmothers and other relatives. I remember those trips fondly, reconnecting with cousins I rarely saw; leisurely and plentiful meals prepared by doting aunts and eaten on screened porches or picnic tables in the August heat; pastimes such as Bingo or berry picking, seldom enjoyed during the rest of the year. Now I wonder how those trips were for my parents.
If your summer plans include a visit “home” or a shared vacation with family and relatives, there are a few hints available to us from Jesus as well as from modern family psychologists. Since the last time you were together, what’s changed in your family system? Who’s been born? Who’s gotten a driver’s license, graduated, or retired? Who’s gotten married, changed jobs, suffered a serious health crisis? Who’s died?
Remember that your family is a system and in a system the whole is affected by each part and each part is affected by the whole. So, you are affected by your family and your family is affected by you.
Especially during vacations, resentment can build around a pattern of over-functioning and under-functioning. Step back for a second and look at who’s doing what in your family. Is the balance equitable?
For years when our family went on vacation to a seaside cabin the first thing I did after we arrived was to go to the supermarket. While the rest of the family headed down to the beach with their towels and suntan lotion and beach chairs, I trudged up and down the supermarket aisles loading up the cart with provisions for the week. Then, of course, the contents of those bags had to be stored away in the pantry and by the time that was accomplished it was time to prepare dinner. By the end of the first day of vacation I was tired and irritated while everyone else already had a sunburn. It was years before I figured out what was really going on.
If you over-function, you can be certain someone else in your family system is going to under-function. If one person is the designated angel, look around. I’ll bet you’ll find a devil there, too. If you shift your usual stance, the system will shift. Any change you make in your functioning will change the system. And the only one you can change is yourself.
But, secondly, systems RESIST change. Families resist change. You can count on resistance to any change you make, whether it is a change in your behavior, a change in the menu, or a change in the configuration of those who vacation with you. Count on resistance. Plan for it. Be prepared to stay the course. Try handling resistance with humor and grace, not by running headlong into it. Be responsible to your family, not for it.
When I first voiced my discontent with how we organized our vacation, my complaint that I was doing all the work while everyone else just played was met with disbelief. “That’s what moms always do, don’t they - - shop, cook, and clean up? Moms serve us, right?” “Wrong! That may have been the way we did things in the past, but from now on I’d like to change things,” I said. “I’d like two or three of us to go to the grocery store. The chore will go much faster if more of us help. And let’s divide up the responsibilities for preparing meals. Someone else can prepare a meal back home and bring it in a cooler. That way we’ll all get to the sand and the ocean sooner.”
You would have thought I’d suggested that the Pope isn’t Catholic, such resistance ensued. Verbal resistance first and then passive aggressive resistance. The kids disappeared and were nowhere to be found when it was time to head for the store. The person who agreed to bring the evening meal “forgot.” It took several seasons of sticking to my plan, but not getting angry, and not jumping in to pick up the pieces before the system that was our family began to shift.
A reliable clue that you’re setting foot on a very rough road is the intensity of your own reactions. Use your anger or hurt as a signal that important issues are at stake. Try to remain non-anxious. Never attack, never defend. When you feel the need to do either, you’re hooked.
Third, a big trap, call it a valley into which many of us sink at family gatherings is the valley of expectations. Surely this year Uncle Morris will not drink too much and fall asleep before the steaks are grilled. Maybe this summer your sister-in-law will thank you for coming instead of making backhanded remarks about how much extra work guests cause her. No one will blame you for the inclement weather and the kids, the kids, just this once they will be appreciative of all you’ve done for them and not act as if they are deprived because you won’t spring for para-sailing lessons. No, no, no. Especially on vacation, lower your expectations of family members to zero. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Hear the story of David and his son Absalom as a personal warning. Family relations are fraught with peril. Jesus tells us “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.” I think Jesus was talking about his family and yours and mine.
But as we know, tremendous rewards await those who persevere. It is worth remembering that at the end of his life we find Jesus lovingly cradled in his mother’s arms at the foot of the cross.
My definition of a miracle is an experience wherein one can see the presence of God at work among us. Wouldn’t it truly be a miracle if this summer you saw the presence of God at work in your family? Keep your hopes high.
I end by borrowing from another tradition. I leave you with a favorite quote from the Sufi poet Rumi. I take it to be a mantra for family relations. “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”