Breaking the Cycles

Welcome back to this Epiphany sermon series called Generation to Generation. Where we are weaving together a couple of different things for these six weeks. First, the family tree of Jesus which we read last week from the beginning of Matthew. Second, family system’s theory which is all about how we are emotionally connected to our family unit and to our ancestors. And finally, we’re getting to know our own ancestors here by using the order of worship from old bulletins, and using our hymnals as we used to do, just temporarily, either to remember or to learn what flipping through them is like. Last week had me feeling super nostalgic because I used to go through and bookmark all the hymnal pages we needed before church every Sunday.

In our scripture reading today we have walked in on a conversation that is really between Jesus and Judaism.   We read from the gospel of John whose stories we know were shaped by a group of Jewish Christians, who had painfully broken relationships with their community, because of their new Savior. Stories like this one show us how they were dealing with that conflict with their neighbors and family members, and how they answered questions like, “Can you be children of Abraham, and followers of Christ?” I feel a similar tension here to what I have felt in many churches. The tension of past verses present. The way of our ancestors verses the way we want to go now.

This tension around change has family systems written all over it. Our families are like an emotional ecosystem, and the emotions within those ecosystems have an impact on how we think, and feel, and act. Family systems frequently struggle with the differences between one generation and the next, because of two competing needs: connection and differentiation. Connection is the need human beings have for love and support, and differentiation is the need human beings have to develop a “self” to know our own emotions and make our own decisions. A healthy family system has room for both. It is made up of differentiated people, that are not controlled by or controlling of others, but they are not so differentiated that they are cut-off from each other.

This ideal balance is tricky to achieve, not just because of our issues right now, but also because of all the stuff that happened before we arrived. The issues, attitudes, trauma, and broken relationships of previous generations are all still in our emotional ecosystem, even if we don’t know why they’re there. The past shows up in the present through the patterns and habits we inherited from our ancestors, both good and bad. To illustrate this, I brought something to show and tell, my grandfather’s Bible. On the inside cover it reads, “Retired this Bible from preaching on April 24, 1977!”

My grandfather was a lay preacher at just about the tiniest country church you can imagine. He wasn’t ordained, but he did love Billy Graham. I’m guessing he probably preached like him. My grandfather also loved the Gaither’s band, and when I think about the music that we listened to in their home, “Because he lives” immediately comes to my mind. We sat with him and my grandma during church every Sunday, long after his preaching days were over. They seemed to me like love embodied. There was nothing more important to them than their love for Jesus and their family.

When he passed away, I inherited his library. He had way more books than I could realistically take home with me, which I guess is something else I have inherited. Just like me, he wrote in his Bible, and he underlined it a lot. Like, sometimes just full paragraphs or pages, which is exactly what I do. And on the inside cover, he taped a page from his favorite daily devotional, “Our Daily Bread.” It is a lesson called “abounding in love” that is about 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. My grandpa believed fiercely in the power of love, and this too I have inherited. He was very proud of me for following a call to ministry, even though I don’t know what he would make of my sermons now, especially the lack of altar call and sinner’s prayer at the end of them.

The more my faith changed, the less we talked about it. As I grew up, I felt the rub that I know many of you have felt. We’re not supposed to challenge our elders on matters of faith. They know better than us. That’s just the way things are. In fact, he wrote on another page here, “God said it, I trusted it, and that settled it.” I sometimes wondered whether there was something wrong with me as a child because my faith was not as sure as his. I wasn’t convinced by everything that I heard in church, I had a ton of doubts and questions, and I liked Brittney Spears way more than I had ever liked gospel music.

I don’t preach like Billy Graham. My faith is different than his was, and yet, these are my roots. That little country church will always be a part of me just like the deep love of God that my grandpa taught me about. His call to preach the gospel as he knew it, now lives in me, a call to preach the gospel as I know it. I didn’t notice until after looking in my Grandpa’s Bible, that the conversation we read happens right after the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The scribes and pharisees drag a woman before Jesus and ask him if she should be stoned, and he said to them, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” They were doing things the way they had always been, and they expected Jesus to side with them against this woman, to side with death and violence, and to punish her for her sin. But he does not. I think that’s because Jesus was both connected and different. He was radical and rooted in his history. He broke some of the rules in order to more faithfully follow the most important commandments: to love God and neighbor. He gave out forgiveness without asking the religious leaders for permission because he knew who he was.

He was a descendant of Abraham, the one who left his home to follow God into the wilderness. The one who had so much faith that God blessed him and told him his descendants would be as many as the stars, and a blessing to the entire world. There’s no such thing as a perfect family. Not even Jesus had one, just read Genesis, it’s pretty messed up. But the stories of his family and everything they lived through was alive in him, both their struggles and their goodness. Abraham trusted the word that came to him from God, and Jesus tells his audience in John 8 that this is exactly what he is also doing, telling them the truth that he heard from God. I imagine that this would have been very powerful for that first generation of Christians who were risking everything to follow Jesus, the divine Word from God whom they themselves had heard from and believed in.

Jesus tells them that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin – which means everyone, because we all miss the mark sometimes, and that’s what sin is, missing the mark. This is one of those instances where I think he’s not just talking about these particular individuals but about the cosmic forces of sin with which all of humanity struggles. We cannot get out from under these cosmic oppressive forces that cause suffering, and injustice, and broken relationships among human beings. We have to be saved from them, set free by the Son who makes us part of God’s family, which won’t fix us overnight, but will help us to build a world with more peace, joy, hope, and love.

They respond by saying “we are not slaves to anyone.” But – we happen know that they were living under the thumb of the Roman empire, and also from the text that they almost just carried out a brutal execution of stoning in the streets. Is that truly not being enslaved to anything? Because I have no desire to stone anyone and feeling obligated to do so sounds like some heavy chains to me. Jesus tells them that the truth will make them free, but there is no place within them for his word, no room within them in that moment for grace like the kind that he had just extended to that woman he just met.

So, they are invited to “continue in his word,” a weird instruction which by the way can’t be about reading the Bible – it did not exist yet. The word that is translated here as continue can also be translated as abide, remain, dwell, and to be held and kept continually. Jesus says that if they stay in his words, dwell in them, allowing themselves to be held in them, then they will truly be his disciples, and they will know the truth, and truth will set them free.  We cannot stop the cosmic-sized forces of death and despair that are all around us and even woven into our family history, at least, not alone, but if we dwell in his words which are grace, and mercy, and love – those truths can set us free.

It reminds me of the freedom that can happen when you study your family system and you start to realize, “Oh, that’s why I’m like that,” and “Oh, I’m not the only one who struggles with that.”  In order to forgive your family’s flaws and free yourself from the issues you’ve inherited, you have to sit with them. I’m not saying it’s easy, or fast. In fact, I think it’s a project we get to have for our whole life long, but it is effective and beats the heck out of being stuck in cycles and patterns that feel terrible. Our ancestors have given us many things. The best parts of them become the most awesome pieces of who we are, and the worst parts become the chains we have to overcome. We overcome them by facing them and talking about them. Ignoring them really doesn’t work out for us.

Humanity’s demons, greed, vengeance, and white supremacy are on a rampage in the middle east right now. We, like many before us, are slaves to numbness and powerlessness, as we watch our own killing machines march onward with no heed to any call for peace. We may not be incarcerated, but that does not make us free.

This collection of words in the Bible which was treasured and given to us by our ancestors, was meant to be a path to freedom handed to us, not a weapon we use to hurt each other even more, generation after generation. The son has set us free, and we are free indeed to choose to live differently, to break the cycles that brought us here, and to heal the open wounds of the past through love and connection and the truth.

That will happen when we are able to sit with our past, knowing who we come from, and embodying in our own time and space the best of those who came before us. So, let us continue to free ourselves, and each other, and to become the people of blessing that God promised to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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