“Family Ties”

When I say the word “parent”, what do you think of? Do you have memories that you associate with this word? For many of us, myself included, those memories are strong and positive. I am shaped by the people my parents are; to this day, even as an adult, so many of the decisions I make are shaped by how they raised me. My values were instilled in me by my parents: the importance of being trustworthy, the value of hard work, and the inherent worth of every person are just some of these values that they passed on to me. They continue to be very important people in my life; I seek out their opinions, and I treasure the time that we get to spend together. They have shaped so many aspects of who I am, everything from parenting to politics, from where I went to college to what I do for fun. My father baptized me; my parents married Rebecca and me. In some ways, my career path even mirrors my parents’. 

One of the things that I learned from my parents is how to act. I learned that how you treat people is important: kindness and respect and generosity are all traits that I saw my parents demonstrate,as well as a desire to take care of people – whether that is by listening to people who need to speak, or speaking for people who cannot, or by living my life in such a way that my actions are a testament to my values, which are deeply rooted in both my upbringing and my faith. 

But I have learned through my life that things are not as simple, not as black and white, as I thought they were when I was younger. It’s not always clear what the right path forward is through a complex situation. Most of us have probably experienced being with someone we love and respect, only to hear them say something or see them do something we disagree with. Maybe you have witnessed them casually using a racial or homophobic slur to describe someone you see across the street, out of earshot. Or maybe they have recounted a story to you about being undercharged for their purchase in a store, and delighted in pulling one over on the store as though it were a huge victory. Or perhaps, if you’re a solid 20% tipper like I am, you have seen them leaving only a dollar tip for their $20 tab. 

What do you do? Do you go ahead and say something, regardless of the consequences to you personally? Do you speak up about their offensive language, knowing that they might brush you off, saying it’s “no big deal” and you should “get over it?” Do you point out to them that there might be negative consequences for the salesperson and suggest they go back to the store and make it right, risking their anger? Do you compensate on the tip you leave, making sure that the server receives a fair tip, regardless of how close to payday it is, or how short your bank account is?

Or do you weigh the benefits of trying to right this wrong against the potential costs to your pocketbook or your friendship? Maybe you think, in the grand scheme of things, no one was really hurt. Or maybe you weigh everything else that you know about them against this sin you have just witnessed, and decide, on balance, they’re a pretty good person, so it doesn’t really matter. 

You may not think specifically about your parents in these types of  situations; I don’t. But looking back, I can see how I interpret the values they instilled in me through whatever situation I am facing. I can see either how I live up to the standards of behavior that my values imply, or how I don’t. And when I don’t, I usually feel as though I have let myself down, and I resolve to do better next time. But regardless, on reflection I can see my parents’ values and teaching in my actions. 

In our Gospel reading for this week, Jesus reflects on his relationship with the Divine Parent. This is like a parental relationship on steroids. Not only are Jesus’ values and teachings reflective of what he has learned from this parent, but his very actions are God working through him. He tells the eleven that he is in the Divine Parent and the Divine Parent is in him. He then he goes a step beyond this and says, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God; God works through me, and my actions are not my own.”

I don’t know about you, but that idea has always made me a little uncomfortable. To my American ears with their filter of self-determination, it sounds like Jesus doesn’t act independently, that he does not have the freedom to make his own decisions, that he is in some ways a puppet for God. And if Jesus – a part of the Trinity – is unable to act independently, then what does that say about me? About us? One of the things that we prize very highly in America today is our independence, our freedom to make our own decisions, to plot our own course. What career do I choose? Do I like being the center of attention, and act in such a way to make sure that happens, or do I prefer to be a wallflower? Do I tend to go with the flow, or am I a disrupter? 

We know from the Gospels how Jesus would have likely answered these questions. He was a rabbi, he tended to hold people’s attention at parties, and he was definitely a disruptor. But if Jesus was doing all these things because his Divine Parent told him to, then what does that mean for us? Are we just puppets, too? Just going along with whatever we are meant to do, with God holding the strings, like a giant puppet master in the sky?

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying. I think that Jesus was saying that there is such a communal bond between him and his Divine Parent that he was willing to be influenced by this, even in his humanity. Even as a person with the power to be independent and to make his own decisions, he chose to lean on God, to draw on his values and his faith, again and again. Even when he was tired and cranky, even when he didn’t have much gas in the tank, even when doing so meant chastising his closest companions – his chosen family – for their short-sightedness or their lack of understanding. He was called into the family business he inherited from his Divine Parent – the business of salvation. And he answered that call.

And he tells the apostles that this doesn’t end with him. He calls them to continue this saving work – calling them to do the same work that he did, and in fact, to do even greater things, because they’ll still be active in the world even after he departs. And he will be in them, the same way that the Divine Parent is in him. 

As humans, we tend to think that once someone leaves, they’re gone. How could Jesus still be with the apostles, if he was with the Divine Parent? So Jesus told his apostles that he was sending another divine family member – a wise aunt or uncle perhaps, someone to act as a mentor and guide. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would be the one who would help the disciples continue to interpret Jesus’ words, so that whatever circumstances they found themselves in, they, too, could lean on God, to draw on the values and the faith that Jesus had instilled in them. 

So what does this mean for us? Where are we in this beautiful trinitarian family, this circle of love and teaching and imparting values that flows between the Divine Parent, Jesus, and the Advocate, around and around?

We, too, are the children of the Divine Parent. We, too, are embraced by this circle, this community of divine love and inspiration. We, too, are instilled with the values and the faith that we have been given by God, and we, too, have been asked to inherit the family business – this business of salvation. And our Parent is wise, as many parents are. Our Divine Parent provides for us in this world we are in now, that is so different from Jesus’ time on earth. We have our stories, passed down from generation to generation and from century to century, so that through knowing our past we can secure our future. We have the Spirit, the divine Advocate and mentor that helps us to interpret our stories to face new situations we encounter. We have the stories of our ancestors, learning from them and being inspired. We have our creativity, learning from new situations we face to craft the stories that future generations will learn from and be inspired by. And we have our family: our Divine Parent, our sibling Christ, and our wise aunt the Spirit, our parents and relatives, and our faith communities, who help us to lean on on the values and faith that we have learned so we can continually choose to say yes to God. 

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