Sunday, January 31, 2010

Desperate Households: Purposeful Parenting

“Keep on Keeping On”
Ephesians 6:1-4 and Proverbs 22:6

Tell the truth! It was that simple. It was both the most important rule in the house I grew up in, and the most basic advice my father would give me. If you’re in trouble, tell the truth. It will go better for you. If someone’s trying to hurt you, tell the truth. If someone’s trying to hurt someone else, tell the truth. That’s why things like pretending you didn’t know who broke the lamp, or trying to change a D on a report card into a B, or saying you’re going to a movie when you’re actually going somewhere you aren’t supposed to go: that’s why those things didn’t work in the house I grew up in. That’s why it didn’t work when one of us four kids tried to convince Dad that the parking lot was icy, and even though driving slow, it was the ice that caused Dad’s truck to hit the cement bottom of the light pole. It didn’t take Dad too long to figure out that the truth was that it was easier to hit the light pole on an icy parking lot when you are spinning donuts in that same parking lot.

There were other important things, too. We were expected to make our bed every morning, to pick up after ourselves, to help with the chores, inside and outside of the house. When the chain saw started, it did not matter what your plans were, we were a family, and all were expected to help. My parents expected us to treat one another with love. On Sunday mornings we knew we were to be ready to go to church. A curfew was meant to be kept. Parents were to be respected. School work was to be completed. Trying your best was the very least you could do. A’s on a report card were worthy of celebration. Less was very often more. Vacations were things families always did together. More than anything, I knew my parents were living to make my life better than theirs, not that theirs was bad, but they wanted more for us.

Were they perfect? Probably not. Certainly not. But I give thanks for how my parents parented purposefully.

The scripture we read this morning encourages parents and children to be intentional in their relationships with one another.

The role of the child is one of respect: to show consideration and thoughtfulness to one’s parents. That is to say that children should be attentive to the care, direction and guidelines of their parents.
But that assumes that parents are being good models. When God commands children to “honor your father and mother” God gives a promise with that commandment: “That it may go well with you.” There is an assumption that parents are being good models of godly lives. The assumption is that parents are giving their children a model to follow that will actually give them the abundant life that God intends for them. That, my friends, requires some purpose in our parenting.

Ok, before I preach myself right out of this sermon, let me say that no where does the scripture require perfection in our parenting. Human as we are, perfection is not possible. You only need to ask a child in their early teens if their parents are perfect to be reminded that we sometimes mess up and stand in need of the grace that God offers us. Yesterday was a pretty good day in my parenting life, but I still messed up at least a half dozen times. Thank God for grace, because we parents need it!

So if we don’t need to be a perfect model, what kind of a model do we need to be? A healthy model seems what God asks. God asks us to model a life marked by guidelines. “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the scriptures say. Purposeful, godly parenting gives our children a sense of what will give abundant life and what will suck the life from their existence. We do not do our children any favors when we opt for friendship over boundaries, trade in rules and guidelines for a “hey, all my friends think you’re the coolest mom ever!” There simply are things that will give our kids a good life and there are things that will make our children’s lives more difficult. For instance, my dad’s #1 rule of “tell the truth” seems a simple enough boundary. But without it, a simple lie about sneaking a peak at another kids test in 3rd grade can turn into insider trading or cheating on taxes or embezzlement. We give our kids boundaries so that it may go well with them, for their whole lives. We discipline our children so that, even when they are old, they will know the ways of the Lord. That is the intentional, purposeful parenting to which God calls us.

That’s hard work. I’ve only been a parent for 12 years, but I know that this is really hard work. It is so easy sometimes to just give up. Does it really matter if I try hard today? Maybe for just today we can be friends, rather than parents and children. The rules are so hard to enforce when you’re getting pushback. It would be easier to just let it slide this time. You who have ever tried to influence the life of a child know what I mean. Some days it would just be easier to give up. But Paul, in Galatians, gives encouragement, not only to Christians trying hard to lead the Christian life, but also to parents trying hard to keep on keep on at parenting. Paul reminds us why we do this hard work of parenting. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) Sometimes it takes a very long time to see the blessing of your hard work of purposeful parenting, but at some point, you will see the harvest of your work of keeping on keeping on.

My mother was a great model of what it meant to parent in this Christian sense of it. She was not perfect. I like sometimes to remind her of that. I like to recall the time that I brought a bouquet of dandelions for a mother’s day corsage and she told me that dandelions were just weeds. No, she wasn’t a perfect Christian mother. And there were some teenage years in there where I thought she was the absolute worst mother ever. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to say I despised her and her mothering ways. But when I was about 22 years old, my mother became the smartest, most loving woman I had ever known. She never gave up on parenting, even during the years where it would have been easy to just give in to this last child and the ridiculous ideas of her teen years. When the harvest came, I would guess my mother was grateful that she hadn’t given up. I sure am glad my mother kept on keeping on! I am blessed and my life is well because of my mother’s and father’s purposeful parenting.

Some of you are parents now, and I would guess you have been particularly attentive to the things I have said, if they carried any godly wisdom at all. For some of you, I would guess you believe your parenting years are behind you. Still others have never and may never be parents to their own children, whether biological or adopted. So it is possible that several of you have kind-of tuned me out this morning without meaning any disrespect by that. This next part is for all of you, for anyone between the ages of 2 and 102. This next part is a word on parenting for anyone who calls Homestead their church family.

God has called Homestead to become family at its best. That means in our own homes, to be sure. And that’s one reason why this sermon series has been important: to help us make the best of our own families. But family at its best as our church mission has always been about more than our families. It’s always been about helping all sorts of families be the best families they can be. Family at its best is about helping parents across the Rochester area parent their own children. We are learning more and more what that means as we learn more and more about the families of Rochester and their particular needs.

But one thing has always been clear, highlighted in the congregational response to the baptism of children in our midst. We vow in that response to live as an example that others can look at, to live intentionally as a Christian so that others might know what that looks like and why it is so appealing. We vow in that response to witness to Christ, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all children who ever walk in the door, and even more children than that. We vow to create a community of love and support that will be a blessing to all children whom God will entrust to our ministry sphere. We vow to be in prayer for children, that they may choose the ways of Christ for themselves. You see, at the time of baptism, we vow to be Christian parents to every child whom God brings into our midst in any way. That’s the children in our Sunday School and worship, for sure. But it’s also the 7 year old boy who rode his bike to the church nearly every day this summer, just looking for someone to care about him. It’s also the children of the Interfaith Hospitality Network families who are housed for a time in our facility. It’s children we haven’t even met, who will play on our green space. It’s children who may sometime eat at our church during a free summer lunch program. It’s really all the children who ever come anywhere near us or to whom we ever come near. Purposeful parenting is what we do at Homestead, for our children and all of God’s children! May it be so! May God give us courage to the task! Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Desperate Household: Marriage Lessons

The Key: Being Subject to One Another

Ephesians 5:21-33

Last week I wondered aloud if I was crazy to come out of the gate on this preaching series about the household speaking to the subject of intimacy. This week the question is equally valid. I am not necessarily a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that this text is easy for me. It confounds me every time I come to it. And how many weddings in conservative settings have we heard this text followed by an exposition of how a woman needs to know her place and how a husband needs to rule over the household. There is a classic read of this text that troubles me. So as I begin to think about it with you, I am aware of that history within most of us.

Paul opens this section of Ephesians by encouraging us saying, “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.” Paul is describing a way for all of us to be with one another. If we are faithful Christians, wanting to walk in the ways of Jesus, then there is a way for us to be with one another that isn’t like the culture around us. Another translation says “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” When we think of being subject to one another we think of a kind of slave and master relationship. But that, I don’t believe, is what Paul is describing. What Paul’s phrase encourages us to is a life of serving one another, not out of a relationship where one has power over another, but out of a relationship of mutual love for one another, first demonstrated in Christ’s servant love for us.

When I read this text from Ephesians, I read this first phrase as a sort of thesis statement. Paul makes his point in the first line. Live a life of trying to outdo one another in service. What follows people have taken as prescriptive, a rigid account of how husband and wife are to live out that service to one another. It is a rigid account in that this prescription delegates a particular role for the wife and a particular role for the husband. That, anyway is the traditional reading of the account.

As I read this text over the last three weeks or so, I began to believe what follows Paul’s thesis statement is not so much prescriptive, as descriptive. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And then Paul goes on to describe some ways we can live that out in the marriage relationship, not the only way to do so. Paul describes for his generation a way he can see husband and wife “being subject to one another.” He gives examples of what it might mean within that marriage relationship.

If there is a key to marriage, or any relationship for that matter, Paul gives it to us in the first phrase of this section of Ephesians. “Be subject to one another.” Serve one another out of love. Do things for one another any chance you can. Think of the other person first. What would be good for them? How can I make their lives easier? Better? More full? As the Thompson’s talked about it in the video, it is finding the joy in doing for one another. To be kind and outdo one another in demonstrating a love for one another.

Elvin hasn’t yet gotten this servant’s attitude straight the afternoon he comes over to the Huxtables to pick Sondra up for a date.

Remember the Cosby Show?

Elvin has learned about marriage in that more conservative tradition. But he has some idea that Sondra’s parents don’t have that kind of marriage.

While he waits for Sondra to be ready for their date, Claire inquires as to whether or not Elvin & Cliff, her husband, would like a cup of coffee.

“You mean, you’re going to get?” Elvin asked confused.

“Yes. You’re surprised?” Claire wonders aloud?

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Huxtable,” remarks Elvin. “I didn’t think you did that sort of thing.”

“What kind of thing?” she asks.

“You know, serve,” he responds.

“Serve whom?” You can hear and see Claire getting a little steamed.

“Serve him.”

“Oh, as in serve your man?”

“Yea!” Elvin says confidently. He thinks they have finally got to the center of the issue. But there is Cliff in view, hanging his head in his hand and wishing for Elvin that he was somewhere else. Cliff can see what’s coming.

Wagging her finger at Elvin, Claire starts in “Let me tell you something, Elvin.” She passionately describes how what she is doing for Cliff is not “serving,” as that’s the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. No, what she is doing is bringing Cliff a cup of coffee in the same way Cliff brought her a cup of coffee earlier that morning. “And that, young man, is what marriage is made of. It is give and take. 50 / 50.” And just to bring home the point, she tells him that if he doesn’t change his attitude, “you’re never going to have anyone bringing you anything, anywhere, any place, any time, ever!”

There’s the nugget again, that nugget of marriage advice that we all need. That nugget of relationship advice that Paul, out of his love for Christ, gives to those of us who want to live in Christ’s ways. Marriage isn’t about who’s in charge of what. Marriage isn’t about power over another. It is about a mutual love that is lived out in trying to do for one another. It’s drawing a bath for your wife when the work day has been particularly hard for her. It’s spending time listening to the joy your husband wants to share about this week’s football game. It’s surprising your partner with their favorite home-cooked meal. It’s a well written note of encouragement in their lunch. You know the kinds of things that Paul encourages us to. You know the nugget of relationship advice that makes a marriage work. Mutual love for one another, lived out, quite frankly, in finding ways to serve one another out of that love.

May such an attitude and work of love reign in your relationships, and especially in your marriage. Amen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Desperate Households: Intimacy

Genesis 2:18-25
I am glad to preach this Desperate Households series. But I want to let you know that this is not just a series for married folks with children at home. We’re going to talk about… Intimacy, Marriage, Parenting, Divorce, and Lifetime Love.

The church does not talk enough about these topics. So the fact that we’re going to talk about them isn’t meant to exclude anyone. All of us, whether we ever choose marriage or not, whether we ever contemplate divorce or not, all of us need to know the biblical and spiritual basics of these issues. All of us need to build a foundation of understanding, for it is on that foundation that we are able to keep our footing through many circumstances. So if you are single, or long past your parenting years, widowed, divorced or empty nesters, these messages over the next few weeks are for you as well. There is a message God has for all of us on these topics, and it is a very different message than the one we get from watching TV or listening to the cultural influences around us.

Am I crazy? Intimacy? It’s a topic the church has been reluctant to speak about publically over the years. So right here, in the midst of our worship experience, we are going to talk about God’s gift of intimacy.

Parents of children and youth, I just want you to know this morning that I have chosen my words carefully, so I do not want you to worry about that. But I will tell you that I am guessing that my message may generate further questions, and that is a good thing. May this be the start of a fruitful discussion with your children.

So, my friend Rhea, was a youth minister while she and I attended the same seminary. She took her youth group on a retreat where the topic was sexuality. When she came home, she relayed the message of the main speaker. This speaker took out a flowering plant. She used this beautiful flowering plant to describe the gift of sexuality that God gave each of us. This beautiful, pure gift is just that, a gift from God. When our sexuality is lived into in the ways that God intended, it causes the gift to flower, to grow, to become more beautiful. Up to this point of her description, Rhea did not have a problem. Nor do I. Intimacy and sexuality is truly a gift from God. As it comes to us, it is not something evil or wrong or sordid.

Then the main speaker began to describe what happens when teenagers participate in sexual activity before marriage. Perhaps she was unaware of something that did not escape Rhea. Rhea knew she had brought with her at least a few youth who were already sexually active. Statistics show that 60% of youth will have a sexual encounter before they graduate from high school. But Rhea wasn’t dealing in statistics. She knew the stories of some of the youth of her youth group. She had walked as pastor with some of her youth through their far too early experiences of sexuality. Whatever the speaker would say next, Rhea was listening carefully.

But it wasn’t so much the words that came from the speaker, although Rhea would never forget them. It was the visual demonstration that went along with the words. As the speaker plucked flowering blossoms off the plant, she described the destruction done to the gifts of sexuality and intimacy when one participates in pre-marital sex. She continued until the beautiful flowering plant was a stem without any beauty to it all, destroyed, damaged and ruined. No matter what her words said from there, the visual image for the youth in the room was that if they participate in pre-marital sex, their beautiful gift will be forever ruined.

It was here that Rhea grieved for her youth, and worked with them for the rest of the weekend. The youth were left with the idea that it was all over, they were beyond hope, that nothing could restore for them the really beautiful way they had been created by God. Grace, Rhea repeated, over and over and over again. Grace is the gift of God for this and so many other situations where we fall short.

In the second chapter of Genesis, we get one of the stories of God’s creation of humanity. From this particular story, we learn a couple really important things:

Humanity is created as partners and companions for one another. When the first man was alone, God thought it was not good. Alone is not good. We should be in community, together. So God made more than the first man. God made a helper and a companion for the man. And that is how God has designed us. We desire to be in partnership, companionship with one another.

Secondly, we learn that intimacy is naturally the way in which God created us. I think that’s what the story of the rib gets at. The helper, partner, and companion comes from the first man. There is a very literally sense that we come from one another. That is intimate and beautiful. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” says the man. That is oneness, closeness, intimacy.

We also learn that partnership and intimacy is something for which we need not feel ashamed. We are called to recreate the intimacy in God’s design and plan for us. Though two people are just that, two distinct people, God gives us this intimate way to be one again. We leave the families in which we learned about relationships, and we experience this deep intimacy by becoming one with our partner, companion and helper. And in that deep intimacy, when it is as God intended it, we are not ashamed.

God created us for intimacy with another human being, but there are boundaries for that intimacy: boundaries that are designed for our benefit, boundaries that allow us to be naked and unashamed. The scriptures tell us that this intimacy is designed for people who “leave their father and mother.” In the culture in which the creation story was told and recorded, one did not leave the home of their parents until it was time to be married, when an emotional separation from the family of origin was possible. Intimacy is designed for two people who can give themselves to one another fully, be completely vulnerable before one another. This giving of ourselves happens by God’s design within the commitment of marriage. Before we can ever be vulnerable with another, there has to be an unconditional commitment. Before we can be vulnerable enough to be before another naked and not ashamed, there has to be a person who will say to you, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Vulnerability comes when a commitment is made to be with another person through all the messiness of life, the weight gain, the moodiness, the job losses, the confusions, the financial struggles , the health diagnosis. There can never be true intimacy without the unconditional commitment that comes through the covenant of marriage.

What one has in a sexual relationship outside of the commitment of marriage is not intimacy. I am not naïve enough to think that we are a room full of people who do not know what I mean by that. Sexual relationships outside of the commitment of marriage, whether that is pre-marital or extra-marital sexual encounters, cannot know the intimacy and vulnerability God intends. The person you are with has not made a commitment to you, nor have you made a commitment to them. And while for the moment it may feel wonderful, and you may mistake the good feelings as intimacy, it is not the intimacy God intends when it is outside of the commitment of marriage.

I have not seen the movie, nor do I recommend it, but I am told of a scene in Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s Vanilla Sky that brings this point home. Cameron’s character was stalking Tom’s character after a sexual encounter. Her character says to Tom’s, “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not.” What Cameron’s character understands is that the deep intimacy in a sexual relationship is supposed to be attached to a promise to never leave one another. Pre-marital or extramarital sex does not have this deep promise attached to it. So when we are involved in these kinds of encounters, we are torn within us. We have been naked, but indeed, we are ashamed. We have been intimate without experiencing the intimacy that God intends as a gift to us. We have literally become one flesh, but only temporarily so in a body designed for this kind of oneness to be for a lifetime.

Ok, so I think I have said that clearly enough. God designed us to experience intimacy with someone with whom we have made a lifelong commitment and promise.

I can only imagine that there are some here today who have experienced a sexual encounter outside of the commitment of marriage. My goal this morning is not to bring guilt or shame or pain into your lives through my words. I wholeheartedly believe these kinds of encounters are outside of God’s plan for our lives. They can create a brokenness in who God created us to be. But unlike the beautiful flowering plant whose blooms are gone and not coming back, God makes a way for us to be restored. God’s desire is for us to be whole. God’s purpose is to bring healing to your brokenness. God’s plan is to bring restoration for you so that you can experience the gift of true intimacy. And that is possible as we turn our lives toward God. That is possible as we accept the grace and forgiveness that God offers. Friends, all of us have failed in one way or another, and all of us stand in need of God’s grace, if not in this area of our lives, than in another. The restoration happens when we accept the forgiveness that God offers to us.

Today, if you are so moved, I have written a prayer for us to pray silently in the moments ahead. It is a prayer of commitment to the kind of intimacy that God gives as a gift to us. I invite you now, in the silence of hearts, to pray either this prayer or to pray as you are lead. May God bless our desire to be whole and well.

Let us pray…

Dear God, I want to practice appropriate intimacy from this day forward, to do my best to remain pure in thought, word and deed. Give me the strength to be pure in what I say, what I do, what I wear and what I think about. Help me to avoid things that tempt. Assist me in refraining from all sexual activity that destroys the gift of intimacy you have given me.

In the case that I am not pure in these things and I stand in need of Your grace, I pray for the courage to accept Your gift of grace in my life, for this, and all things. May it be so, as I make this commitment to you and to the one with whom I will experience true intimacy as you intend. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Be Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

I woke up early the day after Christmas. I didn’t want to, though. I had taken two long naps on Christmas Day to catch up from the day before and went to bed early Christmas night. I wanted to sleep in … but I was up before it was light out. In the stillness of the early morning, I was sitting on the couch relaxing, when something we hadn’t seen in days was suddenly there. Sunlight. The sunlight poured into the living room. And when the sun comes in my living room, it’s hard to ignore!

On Christmas Eve in West Bend, Iowa, my sister-in-law, Linda, had to get her flashlight out. It had snowed and rained for a couple of days in Iowa and it was the rain icing on the power lines that was the problem. It caused the lights in the house to flicker on and off, on and off. The flashlight was just in case. It’s really hard to find your way in absolute dark.

Darkness was what the people of God had been experiencing in the time of our Isaiah text this morning. It’s likely the early days of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. Those days are easily cast in shades of grey and gloom. Israel was once a powerful empire, but they lost a war to Babylon and had been taken captive and sent to live in a place that was not home. Now they were a downsized clan trying to rebuild their lives and their kingdom. The prophet pierces this gloom with a brilliant light, a vision of God's glory transforming the world and a promise that God will restore God's people.

The prophet calls to the people. Arise! Shine! Lift up your eyes and look around! The promise is that God will transform the people’s lives. This is how he says it: The glory of the Lord will appear over you… Then you shall see and be radiant… And in transforming the people of God, they will transform the world through their light! Nations shall come to your light.

So often we read these words of Isaiah referring to the infant Jesus, and I suppose from a Christian perspective that’s natural. First because of the reference in Isaiah 60 to gold, frankincense and myrrh that is mirrored in Matthew 2 and the story of the wise men. But more importantly, we Christians see all of our hope and light through the incarnation. The glory of God came into our lives through the infant child. The light began to shine when the star rose over Bethlehem. That light guided the seekers from the East to the infant Jesus.

What is fascinating to me is who is drawn to the infant Jesus by the light. That light drew people of wealth and means. They came to worship one of poverty and need. That night in Bethlehem, the rich and poor mingled in harmony. That night in Bethlehem, the rich bring gifts for this poor infant. It is so much a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that the grown Jesus will proclaim: a kingdom of peaceful co-existence; a kingdom of mercy to the poor; a kingdom where the rich understand their ability to bless others; a kingdom where no one is forgotten.

The star guided the rich visitors to the meek infant Jesus. It was light that drew them to this transformation. It was light that caused them to change everything. Remember that Herod had asked them to come back and tell him when they found this infant king. But siding with poverty instead of the power of Herod, the wise men went home by another road, changed, transformed, made new. It was the light of the incarnation that reshaped them, and in turn, the light, through them, changed the world around them.

The promise that God’s glory would shine on us happened that night. The star pointed to God’s glory in the infant Jesus. The star pointed to the kingdom of God glimpsed that night. But if it is just a picturesque image, it is nothing. The light shines not to illuminate the darkness of long ago. The light shines to illuminate the darkness of today. And the way that it shines is through us. Just like it was to shine through the nation of Israel so long ago. The light shines through us when we bring peace to places of discord and strife. The light shines through us when we bring mercy to the poor through gifts that bring them life. The light shines through us when we bring our abilities and resources to make other’s lives better. When we bring Light and shine it in everyone’s dark corners, the kingdom of God is at hand.

Barbara Bate (formerly on the staff of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church ) tells of a time when she saw God’s light shining through. She was travelling in Zimbabwe to preach and lead a workshop. After worship, she visited a children’s village called SOS. Here orphaned children are raised, schooled and loved. These are mostly abandoned children, “dumped” as they are called in Zimbabwe. When they come to SOS they are gathered in small groups of children. Local mothers look after each small group of children. Most of those mothers are active United Methodists. They hold the children, feed them, name them and give them a place. Part of their care for the children is also to bring them to worship each Sunday. [You can ready Barbara’s account here.] Here is a community of people dedicating themselves to these abandoned children. Here is a community of people letting the light of God’s glory shine through them. Here is a community of people putting their faith to work. Here is a community of people being light for a very dark place in our world.

Zimbabwe is not the only place in the world where there are dark corners in which to shine the light. What dark corners of Rochester need to the light of Christ? What people abandoned by our culture need to be held, fed, named? The call of God is clear for those of us who have God’s glory shining on us, those of us who would call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. Arise! Shine! Be light for the world. In 2010 my prayer for Homestead and its ministry is that the people of Rochester would say of us, “We know they are Christians because of their work!” Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead United Methodist Church
Rochester, MN