That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Reconciling Dysfunction: Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5B, 10 June 2018

For recreational reading these days, I’m into a novel entitled Winter of the Gods.[1] The premise is that the ancient gods of Greece are still with us, immortal but relatively powerless beings blending into the human world around them. The story is set in current-day New York City where the goddess Artemis, mistress of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo, lives and works as a private detective. As the novel opens, Selene (as Artemis is called) and her partner Theo, a professor of classics at Columbia University, are consulting with the NYPD about a bizarre murder. What they know, and the police don’t, is that the victim is Hades, god of the underworld.

This is the first death of an immortal god in millennia and the rest of the gods are thrown into turmoil. They have to join forces and work together to solve the murder before another one of them killed. This is difficult because if the Greek gods are nothing else they are a dysfunctional family. After all, they are all descended from Kronos, the divine son of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. Kronos overthrew his parents and ruled during the mythological Golden Age. He married his sister Rhea and fathered several children, but prevented strife by eating then as soon as they were born. Eventually, Rhea grew tired of this and tricked Kronos into not devouring Zeus, who overthrew Kronos and cut open his father’s belly and freed his brothers and sisters.[2]

As a theologian and a preacher, I am very glad I don’t have that mythology to deal with on a weekly basis! Finding something good to preach based on the stories of that dysfunctional family would be a task I don’t think I’m up to.

I only have to work with the stories of Yahweh whose first human creatures, Adam and Eve, his first children if you will, disobeyed his instructions on the advice of a serpent, ran and hid from him when they heard him coming, and blamed one another (or the serpent) when he questioned what they had done.[3] He, in turn, tossed them out of the Garden of Eden on their ears, condemning the man to earn his family’s bread by the sweat of his brow and the woman to endure pain in childbirth.[4]

As a theologian and a preacher, I am very glad that I don’t have to work only with the Old Testament on a weekly basis, because it goes on from there to tell a bunch of dysfunctional family stories about Abraham (who like Kronos married his sister[5]) and Jacob (who came to be called Israel[6]) who tricked his father,[7] cheated his brother,[8] and played favorites among his children.[9] Finding something good to preach based on stories of that dysfunctional family is a task that Jewish rabbis may be up to, but not me.

I’m grateful I have Jesus . . . who as a boy deserted his family to spend time with the religious authorities,[10] the same religious authorities who later rejected him believing him to be possessed by Beelzebub.[11] Jesus, the son of an unwed mother, whose family tried to restrain him claiming he was out of his mind and whose hometown neighbors took offense at him.[12] Jesus, who once told a potential follower to leave his dead father unburied and counseled another to leave his family without saying goodbye.[13] Jesus, who disowned his family saying, in public, in their presence, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” and answered his own question saying, essentially, “Not these people!”[14]

As a theologian and a preacher, maybe I’m not so glad. Maybe, as a theologian and a preacher, I need to face . . . maybe as Christians we all need to face the reality that there are no perfect families, there are no perfect humans, and quite possibly there are no perfect gods!

There is, however, the possibility of reconciliation and salvation. Indeed, not only the possibility but the promise of a better way, a still more excellent way.[15] As the today’s gradual psalm proclaims, there is with God (as imperfect as we may perceive God to be), forgiveness and plenteous redemption.[16]

I fully resonate to these myths of dysfunctional family relationships. We Funstons have at least our share of family issues. I have a niece who sometimes wears a campaign-style button that reads, “Let me tell you about MY dysfunctional family,” and she and I have often joked that we “put the FUN in dysfunctional.” So when St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his first letter to that church that there is a better way, a still more excellent way, and then launches into his treatise on the nature and value of love,[17] that fully human, fully divine sort of love that is not an emotion but an act of will that strives to accord dignity and respect to every person, that seeks (in the words of the prophet Micah) “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God,”[18] I rejoice. When his fellow apostle John writes that love is from God and that it is the will of God, I rejoice.[19] And I understand both of the epistle writers to be enlarging on nothing less that Jesus’ words in today’s gospel when he promises those around him that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[20]

It is an unfortunate reality that family dysfunction is playing out around us on a global scale. Families are being ripped apart as a result of political decisions that are really nothing more than petty temper tantrums. And, yes, I do mean the sinful and immoral separation of children from their parents that is happening on our own borders being carried out by agents of our own national government. And, yes, I do mean families whose breadwinners are being put out of work because of international trade decisions. But I mean much more than that.

We don’t need government agents or trade negotiators to tear our families apart; we do that very nicely on our own.

Two celebrities committed suicide in the past week: fashion designer Kate Spade on Tuesday and chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain on Friday. Social media and the press went crazy about both. But between Kate Spade’s suicide on Tuesday and Anthony Bourdain’s suicide on Friday, more than 500 Americans did the same thing. There was no big outcry for those deaths, although there should have been.

According to Wikipedia: “In 2016, there were 44,965 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.”[21]

Over 123 people take their own lives every day in the United States, and the rate of suicide is increasing in our country. Depression, mental illness, family strife, economic failure: the causes and triggers of suicide are numerous. Data show that if there is a gun in a family home, the likelihood of someone in that family committing suicide increases three-fold.[22] Other data show that about 20% of suicides are veterans, and that veterans are twice as likely to kill themselves as civilians who never served in uniform.[23]

Kate Spade’s suicide was tragic. Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was tragic. Every suicide is tragic. Suicide isn’t an occasional thing that happens to celebrities’ families and friends; it’s an epidemic and it’s happening to all of us. Our families are dysfunctional; our nation is dysfunctional; our world is dysfunctional!

Before my mother passed away (not by suicide but from the complications of cancer), she planned her own funeral. She selected as the epistle lesson at her requiem mass the passage from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians that we heard read this morning.[24] I think she did so because of verse 16 of Chapter 4: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” She probably understood, and influenced by her choice I have understood Paul to be referring to our physical nature, wasting away as hers was ravaged by cancer and disease.

But as I read that line again in light of current events, as I read that line again thinking of children taken from their families, thinking of celebrities and veterans and everyday people taking their own lives, thinking of world trade negotiations that sound more like children bickering in a sandbox, I wonder if the “outer nature” that we can shed, that can waste away through the mercy of God might not be our all-too-human family and societal dysfunctions. We can certainly rejoice if that part of our nature is leaving us to be replaced by a renewed “inner nature” of love, justice, mercy, humility, and the will of God.

If the witness of scripture tells us anything, it is that even the worst of our dysfunctions, even the worst of our family or national estrangements, even the worst of our sinfulness can be redeemed, and we can be reconciled with God and with one another, for nothing “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[25] All who seek to do the will of God, to do good, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God”[26] are Christ’s brothers and sisters.

Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 10, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons used for the service are Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and St. Mark 3:20-35. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Notes:

[1] Jordana Max Brodsky, Winter of the Gods (Orbit/Hachette, New York:2017) (Return to text)

[2] See Wikipedia, Cronus, accessible online (Return to text)

[3] Genesis 3:8-15 (Return to text)

[4] Genesis 3:16-19 (Return to text)

[5] Genesis 20:12 (Return to text)

[6] Genesis 32:28 (Return to text)

[7] Genesis, Ch. 27 (Return to text)

[8] Genesis 25:29-33 (Return to text)

[9] Genesis 37:3 (Return to text)

[10] Luke 2:42-49 (Return to text)

[11] Mark 3:20-35 (Return to text)

[12] Ibid. (Return to text)

[13] Luke 9:57-62 (Return to text)

[14] Mark 3, op. cit., note 11, above (Return to text)

[15] 1 Corinthians 12:31 (Return to text)

[16] Psalm 130 (Return to text)

[17] 1 Corinthians, Ch. 13 (Return to text)

[18] Micah 6:8 (Return to text)

[19] 1 John 4:7-19 (Return to text)

[20] Mark 3:35 (Return to text)

[21] See Wikipedia, Suicide  in the United States, accessible online (Return to text)

[22] Brady Center, Risks of Having a Gun in the Home, accessible online (Return to text)

[23] Bill Hathaway, For suicidal veterans, loneliness is the deadliest enemy, Yale News, September 28, 2017, accessible online (Return to text)

[24] 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 (Return to text)

[25] Romans 8:38-39 (Return to text)

[26] Micah 6:8 (Return to text)

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