Sunday, April 28, 2013

Family Stories

Here's today's homily.  The readings are Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.


I’ve always loved the story of Peter’s vision.  There’s something about that image of the sheet being lowered, full of all kinds of animals, that immediately captures the imagination.  All those creatures, all that potential food, and obedient Peter determined not to eat anything he shouldn’t, until the voice in his dream tells him it’s okay.  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  And soon enough, he learns that all people are clean, too.  “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

This is only one of my favorite Bible stories.  I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, of Nathan challenging David to recognize his wrongdoing, of Jesus blessing the Canaanite woman, the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with him.  I could offer a much longer list, and I’m sure all of you have lists of your own.  I’ve noticed that many of my friends who aren’t religious seem to think of the Bible as a tedious collection of rules, of shalts and shalt-nots.  To me, it’s a collection of stories.  I come to church every Sunday to share a meal with friends and to hear old tales, stories I know rendered new by occasion and circumstance, made fresh whenever I hear them.

That’s what Jesus did with, and for, his friends.  They traveled together and ate together, and he told them stories:  about the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, about bridesmaids and laborers, about lost sheep and pearls of great price.  And his friends, in turn, told stories about Jesus’ amazing deeds.  Hey, remember that time when Jesus walked on water?  Remember when Jesus called us away from our fishing boats to follow him?  Remember all those people he fed, and healed, and loved?

This is what made the disciples a family; it’s what makes the church a family.  A family is a group of people who love each other, and take care of each other, and stick together.  Families share meals, and over their food they often share stories, not just about what happened that day, but about who they are and where they’ve come from.

Sometimes those stories seem boring, especially to the children at the table.  In my own family, my sister and I must have heard fifty thousand times how our father left home when he was sixteen to hitchhike across the country and join the Navy.  As the son of a truck driver, someone who never expected to get past high school, he loved to tell us how the GI Bill allowed him to go to college, and then to law school.   He routinely bragged about some of his legal victories.

My mother had her own set of stories:  about growing up during the Depression and watching her mother put plates of sandwiches on the back porch for hobos, about meeting my father in college and sneaking out of her dorm to see him after hours, about her nearly miraculous recovery from alcoholism after Dad divorced her because of her drinking.

Not all of their stories were happy, of course.  They both told sad tales about the deaths of their own parents.  But now that both of them are dead, my sister and I treasure all of our family tales, even the ones that made us roll our eyes when we were children.  These are the tales that tell us who we are and what our parents considered important:  compassion, education, perseverence.  Both of my parents, in different ways, overcame long odds to lead happy lives.

So I was very intrigued by a recent New York Times article about research into childhood resilience.  It turns out that the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family story.  Children who know a lot about their families, about where they came from, do better when they face challenges.   Psychologists gave children a twenty-question quiz with questions like, “Do you know where your parents met?  Do you know a story of something really terrible that happened in your family?  Do you know the story of your birth?”  The results of that quiz turned out to be the single biggest predictor of children’s health and happiness.  The kids who knew the most about where they came from had the most sense of control over their lives, the highest self-esteem, and the strongest trust in their families’ success.

The researchers also studied the kinds of stories families tell.  They identified three types.

The first is the  ascending narrative, the rags to riches story where things start out bad but get better.  “We came here with nothing, but we worked hard and made our fortune.”

The second is the descending narrative, the riches to rags story where things start out great but go downhill.   “We were wealthy and powerful once, but then we lost all our money in the stock market crash, and now we have nothing.”

The third is the oscillating narrative.  This kind of story goes up and down and up and down. It shows families dealing with both success and failure, weathering both losses and triumphs, bouncing back from hard times.  This third type, the oscillating narrative, was the healthiest one, the one that best prepared children to deal with hard times of their own.

Here are three oscillating narratives.

One.  “Susan, I was so happy with your father, but then I lost almost everything from drinking, and I was in the hospital and everyone thought I was going to die, but then I went to an AA meeting, and I got better.”

Two.  “I used to persecute Christians, but then God literally knocked me to the ground on the road to Damascus, and I discovered the love of Christ.  I helped plant a lot of churches, and God and my new friends are keeping me going even though I’m in prison now.”

Three.  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another.”   These words challenge us to think about how Jesus has loved us.  He has fed us and healed us.  He has comforted us, included us, and taught us to include others, even those we consider unclean.  But he has also told us stories, and he has left us with the greatest oscillating narrative of all.  A child born in poverty is revealed as the Son of God, gains a following, is betrayed and crucified, but rises from the tomb.  Darkness gives way to light.  Despair becomes hope.  Life conquers death.

This is our family story.  Christians have been telling it for two thousand years now over their bread and wine, even if some of the kids at the table roll their eyes and say,”That old story again?  I’ve heard that one a million times!”  It’s the best kind of story, the one that will leave us healthiest and happiest and most prepared to face the challenges of life.  We love God, and ourselves and one another, by remembering this story when we need strength, by retelling it at church every Sunday, and by sharing it with the strangers and outcasts we welcome to the feast.


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