“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
I could hear them coming from far off in the distance. The volume of their honking let me know there were a lot of birds. I turned toward the sound, and my dog Sydney and I were stopped dead in our tracks as we looked up and saw at least 40 black and white Canada Geese drifting in over Lovelace Park and preparing to land on the pond. Simultaneously they all lowered there wings and stuck out their legs, plummeting gracefully down, and came in for a landing. One of the joys of living near the park is the opportunity to have this experience fall and spring as the geese migrate over Chicago, and I never get tired of it. During the summer I also get to see families of geese that live on the pond and raise their young, and their life together fascinates me. Research has shown that many geese are monogamous for life. Both male and female raise their young and the young stay with the parents until they meet their own mate. As the flock feeds and rests, one or more geese keep watch and let the other geese know of encroaching danger. When they migrate they fly in distinctive “V” or “U” formations or in lines. By taking advantage of the wing tip vortex of the bird in front, each bird can save energy by reducing drag. The energy savings in flight can be as much as 50%. When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock. By living together and sharing in the burden of raising their young, eliminating the need to look for a mate every season, watching out for one another and flying together over long distances, the geese provide more efficiently and effectively for themselves and their family.
The human family is also the basic social unit that has allowed society to thrive. It is in the family that we first learn to play, to share, to help, to love. Some families effectively prepare family members to be strong, contributing members of society; others do not. Researchers believe that a combination of traits makes a human family strong rather than just one single characteristic. Strengths come from how family members interact with each other, how they treat one another, and what families do as a group and as individuals to support the adults and children in the family. In the August 2002 Child Trends Research Brief, researchers looked at family strength data from two national surveys and found that adolescents and parents who described themselves as being in strong families reported: being close to each other: feeling concern and caring for one another and interacting with each other. A Clemson University report states that family strengths like these create a sense of togetherness and belonging. At the same time, individual family members develop their own personality, self-esteem and potential. These strengths help families solve problems and adapt to change.
The fifth commandment found in the book of Exodus affirms the value God places on the family. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12). Yet Jesus spoke little about the family and when he did it was often in confusing terms. “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,” Jesus said in our gospel reading this morning. Later in the 12th chapter of Matthew, the author writes that when someone told Jesus, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you,’ Jesus spoke these strange words: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister, and mother.’” (Matthew 12: 46-50).
What in the world did Jesus mean and what was the point he was trying to make? In the lectionary commentary Texts for Preaching, the authors point out that “In the carrying out of their mission, the disciples are rejected by some but received by others.” When they are welcomed, a bond is established between the ones who welcomed them, the disciples themselves, Jesus and God who Jesus describes as the “one who sent me.” Through this bond all four parties are joined in a “profound solidarity. A new family is created…In his upside down comments about the family Jesus relativizes the natural family relations and establishes a new family bound together by a common commitment to do God’s will.” This new family becomes bonded through its mission of welcoming one another and of sharing a cup of cold water with one another. A new family is born through God’s presence in their caring and sharing with one another.
Kenneth Haugk, founder of Stephen Ministry and author of Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life writes about this new family bonded together in faith. “The Scriptures describe the Christian family in a variety of ways. One of the most powerful metaphors for this is used by the Apostle Paul, who states that every Christian is part of the body of Christ. (l Corinthians 12) Just as the human body has many parts, so it is with the body of Christ. It encompasses people of vastly different ethnic groups, cultures, ages, abilities and interests. Yet this heterogeneous body is a unity. Jesus has connected every believer with himself in such an intimate way that he lives in us and we in him. In a burst of creative love God has suddenly laced [together] fragmented, lonely humans to himself and to each other….
The term body of Christ describes people united by Jesus Christ into a real community. This “family-ness” of Christianity entails both benefits and responsibilities. We are called to move beyond mere superficial relationship with others to discover what in-depth caring is all about.”
The early apostles and Jesus’ disciples faced the same imperative and challenge to care for one another as family. Unable to care for those in their new “family” and spread their message at the same time, they decided to divide and conquer. They chose Stephen and six other men whom they appointed to the task of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphaned, the sorrowing and suffering….to care for all of the needy. It is Stephen, the first chosen among them, for whom Stephen Ministry is named.
We might ask the question, “Why do we have a group of people here in our KUC family trained to listen to and care for those in need among us? Are any of us really that needy? Susie Kiphart reminded us last week in her talk about her work in Ghana that, “all of us are in need in one way or another and all of us have something to give.” The body of Christ, where ever it is found, is full of people who are needy. It is just must easier for those of us in our affluent and successdriven communities to hide what we need from one another…to pretend we are a perfect family.
In the book The Price of Privilege author and psychologist Madeline Levine states: “Somewhere back in our ancestral history it made perfect sense to hide our wounds from our enemies so we wouldn’t be clubbed over the head and dragged off to a cave. For those who continue to fear that those around them will exhibit aggression rather than compassion, presenting a ‘perfect’ and formidable front is the best insurance again being exploited and misunderstood. Vulnerability is a kind of admission: an admission of hurt feelings, of neediness, of things not going well. This is not the territory we are comfortable in. We like the high ground, the places that feel secure and capable and accomplished.” And so we keep quiet, suck it up and hold it in and expect everyone, including ourselves to bounce back from any and every disappointment and loss. As one woman here told me, three months after the death of her husband, someone came to her and said, “You’re fine now, aren’t you?”
Levine tells the story of a sweet, quiet woman who came for therapy week after week sitting ramrod straight in her chair and telling Levine how blessed and full her life was. Levine however sensed a sadness underneath her controlled exterior and so she waited week after week for the woman to disclose why she was there. Finally one day, out of desperation, Levine moved her chair close to the woman, looked into her eyes and told her that she felt the woman’s sadness and that she believed the woman must be coming to see her about something that must be terribly hard to talk about. Minutes passed in silence and finally, the woman began to tell Levine of some of the unspeakable things that had happened in her childhood. How, because of them, she had buried herself in school and then her marriage and her role as a mother and school board president and volunteer until she no longer felt anything and could no longer cry. She had decided that the cost of vulnerability was too great. Bright and capable, she developed the hardworking, organized parts of herself that allowed her to stay busy, while shutting down her emotional life. Over the ensuing months she began to share with Levine and then her family the past she feared and slowly, slowly she began to come back to life.
We cannot embrace only our strengths and disregard our weaknesses. Throughout the course of a lifetime we face all types of situations. Some of them are more difficult than others. Some examples might be emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, the loss of a loved one through death, divorce, loss of a job or depression caused by neglect or mistreatment. When these kinds of situations occur, we find ourselves struggling with anger, sadness, fear, resentment, pain, hurt, guilt, grief and shame. Sometimes we feel that these emotions are too painful or too frightening to deal with so we hold onto them, hoping they will go away but they do not.
Whether we are aware of it or not, these unresolved situations, these secrets, eat away at us. They affect our self-esteem, happiness, and relationships with friends and family. They cause problems with our sleep, appetite, concentration and energy level. Anxiety and physical problems such as ulcers and headaches can be symptoms of these secrets. All kinds of problems which keep us from being the person we dream of being begin to grow as a result of not dealing with the feelings associated with the situation. We may strive to divert our attention through overworking, drugs, alcohol and withdrawal from those around us, anything that will help us and protect us from these secrets. By not talking about the situation and by holding onto these feelings, we are draining ourselves of energy which could be invested in more positive and healthy outlets. Living this way keeps people from really knowing us. We are human because we love and suffer, because we excel and fail because we are independent and needy.
In Letters by a Modern Mystic, pastor Frank C. Laubach, wrote, “In defense of my opening my soul and laying it bare to public gaze …, I may say that it seems to me that we really seldom do anybody much good excepting as we share the deepest experiences of our souls in this way. It is not the fashion to tell your inmost thoughts, but there are many wrong fashions, and concealment of the best in us is wrong. I disapprove of the usual practice of “small talk” whenever we meet and of holding a veil over our souls. If we are so impoverished that we have nothing to reveal but small talk, then we need to struggle for more richness of the soul.”
In a healthy strong family, members of the family are close to each other, feel concern for one another and actively care for one another. The same is true in a healthy strong church. If you doubt what I say is true, go back in your own life, remember when you couldn’t accept a helping hand, and then remember the times when a helping hand saved you. Geese can teach us a lot about life lived in community, navigating the way for one another, watching out for dangers that threaten us, being faithful for the long haul or when life implodes around us. The Bible encourages us to, “Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings. (Galatians 6:2) May we be his faithful followers. Amen.