07/24/22 – God’s Dysfunctional Family

GOD’S DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY

July 24, 2022
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 1:2-10; Ps. 85; Col. 2:6-15; Lk. 11:1-13
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

The ironic statement we often hear today is “my family puts the fun in dysfunctional.” What would comedians, TV sit-coms, Thanksgiving and Christmas family movies and the work of playwrights do without the trials and tribulations of family life. And what a loss to classic murder mysteries if there were no family arguments over inheritance!

Family — they are the source of our greatest joy and greatest pain. Our families make our life meaningful, and at times miserable. As parents, we never stop fretting about our children, and even the best marriage relationships go through ups and downs. Sibling relationships are almost always tinged with some envy and competition, even when they are also our most steadfast companions. Many of us carry scars of psychological wounds inflicted by family members. Of all the relationships, the parent-child relationship is the most influential in our psychological development. The family imagery invoked in our scripture passages today reflect the significance and intensity of family relationships in our lives. Family, whatever the configuration and regardless of biological ties, are essential to our well-being. Those that politicize family models and so-called family values based on the bible, simply have not read the bible thoroughly. Family members do terrible things to one another in the bible – murder, rape, incest, and betrayal.

In the bible, God is portrayed as Father and Mother; and the relationship between God and Israel and Jesus and the Church are portrayed as bridegroom and bride.  All of humanity is identified as our sisters and brothers. In Hosea we see the consequences of what is popularly known as a “dysfunctional family.” In the story of Hosea, it is the familial relationship between God and humanity that has broken down. On the other hand, in our gospel reading from Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to God the Father, for the things that make us all a holy – and functional – family.

Hosea is a difficult book to read. A contemporary of Amos, who was also an 8th century prophet in the Northern kingdom of Israel, Hosea delivered a harsh message to the country. The tale of Hosea, his wife and children, found in chapters 1-3 are believed to be a metaphorical account of God’s relationship with Israel. Hosea represents God and Gomer, the unfaithful wife. Gomer broke the marriage covenant as Israel broke its covenant with God.

Hosea is instructed to give their three children names which convey the extent of God’s wrath. Jezreel is the name of the valley in which Jehu, anointed by the prophet Elijah to replace the wicked King Ahab, killed all the worshippers of Baal. Lo-ruhamah means “one for whom I have no compassion.” Lo-ammi means “not or no longer my people.” (Preaching the Old Testament, Ronald Allen and Clark M. Williamson. P.255) To use a family relational term, Israel became estranged from God and the estrangement would last more than one generation.

Yet, Hosea, in the role of God, still loves his wife dearly. The tragic tale ends on a note of grace. In the future there will be reconciliation and redemption. The relationship between God and Israel is sacrosanct. Like the father of the Prodigal Son parable in Luke’s gospel, God’s love for the people of Israel is stronger than God’s anger. Though Israel will suffer the consequences of her disobedience, she will be forgiven and brought back into relationship with God. It is forgiveness that keeps a family in loving and peaceful relationship. Like God, parents must teach their children to be responsible and accountable for their destructive and self-destructive behaviors, but it is the love parents have for their children that allows for forgiveness and restoration of relationship.

The complementary reading to this passage from Hosea, Psalm 85, continues the theme of God’s enduring love for Israel which, in the past has never failed to provide forgiveness and restoration even when Israel lacked faithfulness and acted against God’s righteous commands. The psalmist pleas with boldness and confidence in God’s mercy: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.” These two readings provide a great lead-in to our gospel and epistle readings for today.

When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he was teaching them about the relationship between God and the one who prays. It is a prayer that acknowledges God is the highest power and the only One worthy of our worship. It is also a prayer that assumes an intimate relationship with God and a desire to be obedient and faithful.

This lesson in prayer is also found in Matthew’s gospel. What we say in our worship service, the prayer known as The Lord’s Prayer, is closer to the words found in Matthew. Yet, biblical scholars believe that Luke’s is closer to what Jesus probably actually told his disciples, due to the simple logical deduction that gospel writers might add to Jesus’ words, but they were unlikely to delete anything Jesus said. Having heard and spoken Jewish liturgy all his life, Jesus took lines of ancient Jewish prayers to create the prayer he taught his disciples to pray.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples have observed him praying at every major event of his ministry– his baptism, his Transfiguration, in the Garden of Gethsemane before he is arrested and, finally, on the cross. Luke frequently reports that Jesus’ custom was to retreat to a “deserted place” to pray. Prayer is a practice in which Jesus maintains his relationship to his Holy Father. Even at this point, only mid-way through the gospel, the disciples have realized that prayer is transformative, and they want to learn to pray as Jesus did. This is the only time in any of the gospels where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them something. They wanted to have the kind of relationship with God Jesus had. In response to their request, Jesus took lines of Jewish prayers that, in his divine wisdom and understanding of God, were foundational to our relationship with God and one another. He provided them with a step-by step guide to engage the Almighty and ask for what we truly need.

Addressing God as “Father,” we acknowledge our dependence on God. For Jesus, Father or Abba, was a term that conveyed both respect and intimacy; and acknowledges God is accessible to us. Using the term, “Father” we are immediately reminded to whom we belong as a people. Referring to God as “Father” has come to be problematic in a society that acknowledges the patriarchal word does not have positive imagery for all. For those, perhaps it would help to understand that Jesus did have that positive, intimate relationship with the one he knew to be his divine father. Regardless of our own relationship, or lack of a relationship with our father, we carry an ideal of what a good father is and does.

To say, “Our Father” rather than “My Father,” is of monumental significance. That alone should transform our behavior and how we act towards one another. To change our self-centered perspective allows for us to see others as also being children of God. It reminds us we are all children of God and brothers and sisters to one another.

With the phrase, “Hallowed be your name,” we give thanks and express our singular devotion to God above all others. “Your will be done” indicates our relationship with God requires our obedience. The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” proclaims our desire to share in God’s vision for the world as opposed to any others’ visions who vie for our allegiance. In our epistle reading, most likely written by one of Paul’s fellow evangelists, the author warns the Colossian congregation there are many false teachings being followed in the world that may tempt us away from God’s vision which Jesus taught was the kingdom of God.

“Bread” is a powerful metaphor in the bible. It is bread that provides our sustenance for living. It provides us the life-giving strength to endure and thrive. We need daily replenishment because we cannot feed ourselves but are dependent on our Creator for our needs that can only be met with the bread God supplies.

Next, we are to ask for forgiveness from the only One who has the power to forgive us and make us whole again when our relationship with God has been fractured by our disobedience. Because God created us to be in relationship with God and with each other, we cannot be reconciled with God unless we reconcile with one another. So, we ask God for the strength and the will to forgive others.

The variance in churches using the word trespasses or debts makes ecumenical gatherings awkward for the brief few seconds when the ones that have said “debts” wait for the “trespassers’ to catch up after their additional syllables. In Luke, this part of the prayer has us saying, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive all those in debt to us.” The translation to the word “trespasses” came much later. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “trespasses” is an archaic English term that goes back to only the thirteenth century. Among other uses, the word “trespasses” can mean sins. Since both Matthew and Luke were translating Jesus’ Aramaic words to Greek, we do not know what Jesus actually said. Luke chose the word “debts” because it more closely conveys the Jewish understanding of our relationship with God and our neighbors as defined by the Torah. It is no accident that it is the same word that is used in Jesus’ parable about the man who owed his master ten thousand talents. In each case, it was a situation of a debt, which to Jews such as Jesus, underscores all human relations, and our relationship with God.

The concept of debt is central to our idea of rights and justice. Debt is a part of our economic system. The problem arises when one counts any action that does not benefit themselves directly as a debt owed to them. People, who are overly focused on what others owe them, have little to offer in a relationship and become self-centered. Another human foible is overestimating what we are owed due to an inflated ego. Economic narcissism creates injustice in a society. This is why we have such a tremendous income disparity in our country. The wealthiest and most privileged in our country have somehow justified receiving generous tax breaks at the expense of tax-funded goods and services that benefit everyone, particularly the poor. When CEO’s can demand salaries that are up to 1000 times more than their average employee, there is an extremely unrealistic sense of what is owed to them. They seek to corner the market on bread and leave but crumbs to the rest of God’s children, all 7.753 billion of them.

Within God’s family, we too often act like competitive siblings, harboring anger and resentment that feed our pride and self-righteousness. We see this in global conflicts as well as the divisive conflicts within our own country and communities. There is no “fun” in this dysfunctional relationship we have with others. There is no peace. Our failure to love, a sin in every world religion that I know, has made the family of humankind dysfunctional.

When Jesus said: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” “he reversed the common understanding of debts. Luke highlights God’s grand reversals of our status quo throughout his gospel. Here, in Jesus’ model for prayer, we are to give up our debts, not weighing what we believe is owed to us. When someone commits an injury or injustice against us, we see a debt that must be repaid. Forgiveness cancels the debt.  Because we are dependent on God for everything, the debt is far too great for us to ever repay. It is the reconciliation of our account with God that restores us to right relationship to God. The author of Colossians describes how Jesus accomplished this for us:

“And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God
made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing
the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it
to the cross.” (Col.2:13-14)

According to Luke, Jesus’ final words to the prayer model are: And do not bring us to the time of trial.” The words of the Lord’s Prayer based on Matthew’s gospel say: “Lead us not into temptation.” This translation made the news a few years ago. Pope Francis suggested the words to the Lord’s Prayer, used in Roman Catholic worship services, be changed. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does. “A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away.”  In essence, the pope said the prayer is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, father, please, give me a hand.”

Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer ends with a simple doxology, not found in Luke, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matt. 6: 9-15) It was a nice touch that gave the prayer more of a flourish for use in worship services. Luke, instead, finishes with two parables of Jesus as further explanation. This sounds like Jesus, the rabbi, doesn’t it?

The first parable presents a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door at midnight asking for three loaves of bread because a guest has arrived, and he does not have enough bread to feed him. Despite the obstacles of a locked door and the neighbor’s insistence that he is being asked at an inconvenient time. Jesus tells his disciples: “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “Persistence” is the noun form of an active verb. Jesus also uses the active verbs, “ask, seek, knock.” Prayer is active engagement with our God. Yet, as Richard Rohr has said: “Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.  (“Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps”, 2016. p.41) Much of our liturgy in worship is prayer. Liturgy, meaning “the work of the people,” is the active engagement of our true selves with God in worship. Paul describes the life of faith as praying constantly. Prayer is not just words; it shapes how we order our daily lives and how we perceive the world and our relationships.

Jesus’ second parable is a preposterous comparison of God as our Parent as opposed to a cruel parent who would be on Social Services most wanted list. What human parent would give a child a snake when he asks for fish to eat? What parent would give their child a poisonous spider when she asks for bread? Clearly, the message is ‘and God is greater and has more love and mercy than any human parent.’ God has given us the priceless gift of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are to pray with confidence to “Our Father.” Will Willimon wrote:

“The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending our lives toward God in the way
that God has offered— ‘thy will be done, thy kingdom come.’ We have quite
enough teaching in the various modes of achieving our will in this world. We
build our kingdoms all over the world and the wreckage is all around us”
(William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer
and the Christian Life, p. 22).

Prayer requires honesty and persistence. Prayer is an act of remembrance. It reminds us of who we are and to whom we belong. It comforts and encourages us. Prayer opens our eyes to see the world through the lens of our Savior Jesus Christ. Prayer opens us to the gift of the Holy Spirit that gives us the will, the strength and the courage to do what Christ has taught us to do. It is a challenge to find what we think are the right words in prayer. With the Lord’s Prayer, we have words that have nurtured humanity’s relationship with God for thousands of years. If we let those words speak to us as we speak them, we have a prayer that has the power to transform us. The Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to the best family reunion we will ever experience!

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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