2nd Sunday in Lent Sermon

February 25, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

In the heritage of our church tradition, people of “extreme faith” hold a privileged position. These are the ones history remembers. These are the ones who become saints, who epitomize what we just heard Jesus say,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

They’ve denied themselves, their families, and the comforts of home, forging their way into the world and confronting all its hostilities. Just recently I read a fictionalized story of St. Peter. Fleeing the persecution of Emperor Nero in Rome, he had a vision of Christ on the road. “Where are you going?” Peter asked his Lord.

A voice of ineffable sweetness and abundant sorrow rang in Peter’s ears. “When you abandon my people,” he heard, “I must go to Rome to be crucified once more.”

The apostle lay still and silent with his face pressed into the dust. His companion thought he had either died or fainted, but he rose at last, picked up his pilgrim’s staff, and turned again toward the seven hills.

“[Where are you going, Lord?] the boy asked, like an echo of the apostle’s cry.

“To Rome,” Peter murmured.[1]

And, indeed, tradition teaches, Peter was crucified in Rome – upside-down in fact – his tomb now the center point of St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of Christianity in the western world.

The church’s honoring of these heroes of the faith is appropriate. We do need these stories. We do need to see that this kind of faith is possible. And we need stories of the Kingdom of God – the true reality of God – being embraced and enfleshed in our midst. When Francis kissed the leper he met on the road, it was a manifestation of the great reversal of the Kingdom of God that was the hallmark of all Jesus’ teaching. Revulsion was turned to compassion; exclusion was turned to community; the outcast became Christ in his midst.

This is the heart of God. So of course we need these stories.

And yet, there’s also a shadow-side to such story-telling. There’s an implicit message we too easily absorb from them: You’re not good enough. You’re not doing enough. You’re a disappointment to God, who just may say, “Enough!” and damn you to hell. We all know how this feels because we’ve all felt it.

But, for heaven’s sake, somewhere between “where we are in our life of faith” and “being crucified upside-down for the faith,” there must be some middle-ground! And I don’t say this as a compromise; the Kingdom of God is a “pure reality” to which we continue to pivot as our beacon and our goal. But what is being asked of us – on any given day, in any given circumstance – is simply to take the next step before us, whatever that step may be.

And what I want us to consider today is this: Our families are the most frequent setting for these “next steps of faith.” For most of us, our families are our nearest sphere of intimacy – of belonging and identity – be they the families we live with or our families of origin. And for those of whom this is not true, the absence of such belonging is usually accompanied by a heart-breaking story.

For, clearly, nature has decreed that we be conceived and birthed and raised and shaped within families. Which is another way of saying God has decreed that we be conceived and birthed and raised and shaped within families. For God is the author of creation – a creation, we believe, that resembles its creator.

And lest there be any confusion on this front, consider how many of the fundamental narratives of scriptures are shaped through this elemental structure of family:

Adam was helplessly alone in the garden, until God created Eve: his helpmate and partner. And as a couple – made in the image of God, male and female he created them – they lived into the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply and to care for creation, together.

Through Abraham and Sarah, a son would be born, and with this family God would make a covenant; and through this family all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it didn’t come in a golden chariot from the sky – a spectacle from the heavens. It came in a womb, at a breast, in a household. The Word became flesh in a family.

As did we all. There is no existence for us that is not birthed of a woman and shaped by a family (in one form or another). This is the way of God. So, of course, this must be a place, by God, where the Kingdom of God should be sought and fostered.

And one of the fundamental realities of our place, within family, is that there’s no hiding. At work, at church, in society – we do our best to put our best self forward. And that’s fine. Appropriate, even. But we can’t hide in our families. They know us, for better, for worse.

They know what we look like in the morning. And what we smell like. They know if we wash our dishes or leave them in the sink. They know how we act when we’re cranky and unguarded. I showed up unannounced one day at a parishioner’s house. The husband greeted me at the door and called for his wife, “Honey, Eric’s here.” She misunderstood what he’d said and snapped at him, “I’m doing something right now,” then rounded the corner: “Oh! Eric!” She was so embarrassed; I’d caught her being a normal person. And my affection for her doubled.

I remember how much the weight of this “can’t-hide-yourself-from-family reality” impressed itself on me when Henry was born. I knew I wanted to do my best by this little boy: to do everything in my power to love him, to protect him, to raise him in an environment of integrity and faith. And I knew there was no way to shield him from the realities of my brokenness. Whatever insecurities and fears and bad habits lived in me would become part of the world in which he was being formed and mis-formed. It was inevitable. As it is for everyone, born of sinful parents.

But the flipside of this is also true. Even amidst our brokenness – even in really messed up families – the impulse to love and be loved by them is irrepressible. It is built into us. Even kids in abusive homes would rather be with their parents than in foster care. Even in families that are totally estranged, the pain of this severing gives voice to the yearning: their absence is an abiding sorrow. Everything in us is wired to crave the love of parent, the love of sibling, the love of spouse, the love of child.

And the combination of this “can’t-hide-yourself-from-family reality” along with our craving to love and be loved by them, should give us everything our families need to flourish. And yet…so often, they don’t.

Marriages are stale, punctured with disappointments. Adult siblings have stopped talking to each other. Children have felt the weight of their parents’ expectations and fled.

What’s missing here is that which dwells at the center of our gospel. And that is “grace.” Grace bridges the reality of our brokenness and our yearning for love. Grace is the crown jewel of the Kingdom of God. And nowhere is it more needful, and nowhere is its potential more possible, than in our families.

Grace is a shared willingness to name and admit the ways we hurt each other, to seek understanding from what this hurt can teach us about ourselves, to forgive each other of the harm we have done and the guilt we carry, to accept that forgiveness, and to move onward together, with an open posture of hope between us.

The practice of grace is a shared commitment, and not always easy. Every situation is different, with its own nuance and complexity. But if the shared intention is love – love that desires the true wellbeing of you both – that is sufficient. Grace will find its way.

I remember our honeymoon. I’d done something selfish and impulsive … that just so happened to trample one of Cynthia’s lifelong dreams. Although it was August, I assure you, the atmosphere in the car became unseasonably cool. That evening, Cynthia named what I had done and why it hurt. As soon as she said it, I saw it for what it was and knew it to be true. I apologized. She looked me squarely in the eye and said, with determination, “I forgive you.” And I knew in that moment that a choice lay before me. What I wanted to do was keep beating myself up. But I also understood that this was the one of many sins we would commit against each other. And if this marriage was going to work, we needed to learn to forgive. And how to accept forgiveness.

A theologian once said that a Christian marriage is the smallest of churches. It is a sacrament in that we embody Christ, the bridegroom’s, inseverable commitment to his bride, the church. But, perhaps more importantly in terms of our experience, this marriage – this tiniest of churches – can hold at its center, an altar of grace: a safe and committed place to express our love, through forgiveness, again and again, throughout the years.

Sadly, though, what often masquerades as grace in our families is really a lesser virtue: tolerance. We put up with a lot – we overlook things; we bite our tongues; we keep the peace. And, certainly, there’s a practical value in this. But over time, if we over-rely on this virtue of tolerance, it can cause great harm. Each act of tolerance becomes another stone, building a stronger wall to protect us and our true yearnings. And along the way, they’re reduced to nothing more than the problem we’re enduring.

Grace asks so much more of us than mere tolerance. And so much better! Grace invites us to hope and believe there is much still to be discovered and enjoyed, to keep looking, with love, to see them – your spouse, your sibling, your child, yourself – for who they truly are and are becoming, beyond those definitions our families assigned so long before. And grace invites us to keep risking, revealing those vulnerable places within us – our longings, our dreams, our fears – with hope they’ll be received with tenderness, comprehension, and respect.

What began in the womb for each of us – this unstoppable miracle of growth and becoming – remains God’s intention for us, the whole of our lives. And grace within families, can be a womb of its own: a place of safety and belonging, nurture and growth. Amen.

[1] Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis