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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/21/2020

Let me repeat part of that in case you missed it: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter in law against her mother in law; one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Happy Father’s Day! Can you think of a worse Father’s Day text? I’m pretty sure these verses don’t show up on any Hallmark Father’s Day card. For those of us who preach this is always a bad text, no matter what day it falls on, because, no matter what you say, you can be pretty sure people aren’t going to like it. Even efforts to explain away what Jesus said and say, “Well, that’s what he said but here’s what he really meant,” wind up sounding pretty lame. The truth of it is, this is a case where a lot of people are going to say, “I don’t care if Jesus said it, and I don’t care what you or any other preacher says about it, it’s just wrong. Family is the most important thing.”

That is in fact what studies show. Back in January, Peter Marty who is the publisher of Christian Century, wrote an article titled “Family as idol.” In it he cites a recent Pew Research survey that says that the number one source to which Americans look for meaning and fulfillment in their life is…the family. Religious faith, on the other hand, was down the list behind spending time with family, being outdoors, caring for pets and listening to music. This was among “all Americans” but my guess would be that if it were just among people of faith, whatever that faith might be, the results wouldn’t be all that different.

If I went back and looked through the hundreds of funeral sermons I’ve done, both for faithful church members and for those who hadn’t darkened the door in years, I’m pretty sure that I would find very few where I didn’t mention the individual’s love for and care for their family. For a lot of people it’s the virtue that covers a multitude of sins and it is a virtue! That’s the thing! Family is important; Honor your father and mother is the Fourth Commandment and it’s the first one that has to do with relationships with other people. Family is important in the commandments too.

Family is important and family relationships are something that we ought not take for granted although I think that frequently happens especially if we’ve been blessed to have a relatively stable, nurturing, loving family structure around us. I know that I appreciated my parents a lot more when I started teaching school and found out how messed up the home life of some of my students was; it made me realize how good I’d had it and still did have it.

It wasn’t fundamentally different in Jesus’ day. Family was important then too, even if most of the families portrayed in the Bible were flawed in some fashion but that’s just part of the honesty of the Bible; if we’re honest most of our families are flawed in some fashion too. Still, those relationships are important and it’s always sad when there are situations where family relationships are so strained that individuals don’t even talk to each other.

But, it may be that the importance of family is the very reason that Jesus says what he does, so here comes my latest effort to explain away the “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” part of this text. Keep in mind that this whole chapter in Matthew is about Jesus calling and commissioning the disciples and with that he doesn’t sugar coat anything; he doesn’t encourage them with promises of great success. Instead, he pretty much tells them to expect failure, highlighting all the challenges they will likely face as they are sent out, as he says, like sheep into the midst of wolves. Included in those challenges is the possibility of division within families. That part of it however, is just reality, reality that they would experience and reality that we experience as such division is part of most of our families.

For most of us though, such division is not a peace vs. a sword kind of division. On one side it’s most likely about disappointment, disappointment for example, that despite your best efforts, for your children and/or your grandchildren, involvement in church and a relationship with God are not things that are meaningful to them. On the other side, from their perspective it’s a matter of indifference, not hostility; it’s OK for you but it doesn’t mean anything to me. On both sides though, you still love and care about each other. So, I think we can effectively explain away the Jesus as the cause of division part of this text.

It’s the loving father or mother, son or daughter more than me part of it that is more difficult to deal with, bringing even very faithful people up short, causing them to say, “If that’s what it takes to make me worthy, I guess I’m not worthy,” and perhaps that’s where Jesus smiles and says, “Gotcha!” Actually, I can’t say for sure that Jesus would say that, but I am pretty sure that Martin Luther would.

I can’t say with any confidence that Jesus didn’t mean exactly what he said. I don’t know that I can explain it away because this is a First Commandment thing: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” with Luther’s Small Catechism explanation, “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things,” and he doesn’t add, “all things except your family members.” The First Commandment is pretty clear and in that light what Jesus said is pretty clear.

It is an impossibly high standard and while it’s not unusual for Jesus to set impossibly high standards, this one feels different. Most of the time we agree with him; we agree that, while we know we can’t do it, we should at least strive to meet Jesus’ standard of loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, not judging others, things like that. But putting anything ahead of family, even God, somehow doesn’t seem right. If that’s the standard for worthiness, we perhaps are ready to ignore what Jesus said and live with not being worthy. We’ll take our chances.

For Martin Luther though, that puts us exactly where he wants us as with his “Gotcha” he snatches us from the despair or resignation of “We’ll take our chances,” and allows us to hear the good news that while we are right about our unworthiness, by grace, Jesus makes us worthy. As we often say, Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. We might not be able to love God more than family; we often don’t love God with all our heart, soul and mind which Jesus says is the greatest of the commandments, but the story of our faith is that Jesus has done it so trusting in him, dying and rising with him in the waters of baptism, we know that we’re OK. As Paul said in last week’s reading from Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us;” while we were still sinners.

In one important sense that does get us off the hook that Jesus puts us on with today’s difficult text. In another sense though, it doesn’t. As we also often say relative to Lutheran theology, justified by grace through faith doesn’t mean that what you do and how live doesn’t matter. Having been justified, that is, having been made acceptable to God, we are invited into a relationship and we are called to grow in that relationship. That includes taking seriously the teachings and sayings of Jesus especially when they challenge us or disturb us and that’s what happens when he talks about family.

What Jesus is constantly calling us to do, is to re-examine our priorities concerning what is important in life, the danger being that good things can become idolatrous, in fact, for many people, maybe most people, it is good things that wind up taking up exaggerated importance in our lives even if we’re quick to deny that they’re idols. Family can be one of those things. In the article I mentioned earlier, Peter Marty talks about, and I quote, “the self-enclosed or ingrown nature of many families, where dreams and expectations are wrapped up in family togetherness,” end of quote.

Now family affection and togetherness are a good thing as that’s how we learn about things like unconditional love and acceptance and taking care of each other, but what Peter Marty contrasts that with is Jesus’ understanding of family, which is much broader and leads outward rather than inward. Jesus calls us and invites us to be part of and care for a much larger family.

Jesus definitely touches a nerve here and in other places where he talks about family. The fact that many of us immediately become defensive about it, is a pretty good indication that, like it or not, he makes a point that we really shouldn’t ignore.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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