“RELATIONSHIPS”[1]

COLOSSIANS 3:18-4:1

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              For those of a certain age, Norman Rockwell was the artist who captured our American way of life.  Beginning in 1916, he painted over 300 covers for the The Saturday Evening Post which have become classics in American art - everything from childhood adventures in the old swimming hole to moving tributes to war heroes.  They often elicited gentle laughter and/or deep sentiments.  He imaged what we imagined life was, or could be, like in those days of my growing up.

            Along the way he also challenged some of the narrow attitudes and prejudices of the era and called us to a broader vision.  Who can forget the powerful image of a brave little black girl in a white dress walking to school amid Federal agents, Rockwell's statement against the evil of segregation and racial prejudice.  Unfortunately, the title for that painting is still all too true.  He called it "The Problem We All Live With."

            Four of his most famous paintings were inspired by President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Speech.  In the speech Roosevelt outlined four essential freedoms, the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.  They became so popular that they were used to raise $130 million in war bonds.  The set of his four paintings even appeared on postage stamps.  His first in the series, “Freedom of Speech” appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on February 20th, 1943.  It showed a man in a brown suede leather jacket standing up to talk at a meeting.  The next weekend, February 27, 1943 his “Freedom of Worship” appeared on the cover showing not just Christians, but a broad variety of religious traditions, all part of the American dream, with the caption "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

            Two of his four “Freedom” paintings take place in familiar family settings.  His “Freedom from Want” painting shows a warm image of a family joyfully gathered around the Thanksgiving table with Grandma presenting the turkey to Grandfather for carving.  The other, “Freedom from Fear” shows a couple tucking their two children into bed for the night.  A decade later those scenes would be acted out on television by the likes of Ozzie and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, as well as Robert Young and Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best

            The truth is, the world has changed and our experience of family has changed since the days of Norman Rockwell.  The other truth is that even Rockwell's world wasn't as perfect as we wanted it to be.  Ozzie, as we later learned, ruled the Nelson family like a tyrant.  Ricky and Lucy's marriage ended in divorce, and we learned that father didn't always know best.

            What ever happened to the world of Norman Rockwell? What ever happened to the "family"? 

            Today, if your extended family network is anything like mine, it includes:

 

            Single parent families

            Multiple parent families

            Childless families

            Co-habitating families

            Long-distance extended families

            Multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-faith families

            International adoptive families

            Families broken by divorce or struggling with grief 

 

            It's all there, around today's family table.  Norman Rockwell doesn't seem to live here anymore.   And for that matter, neither does St. Paul.

            Which brings us to our passage for today.  Paul’s vision of relationships - husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters - can be troublesome for those of us who want to take scripture seriously.  The vision seems so out of date.  His vision is a set of three parallel couplets which need to be read together.  The first part of each couplet acknowledges the realities of Paul’s world and he gives advice to wives, children and slaves on how to live within that reality.

            In Paul’s world women had no rights. They were literally property of their husbands.   The Hebrew and Greek understanding of marriage reduced women to "things" to be used and enjoyed, not loved and cherished. It was a man's world in every way.  Women were seen as totally subservient to men, not only in society, but also in the home.  So, given that reality, Paul encourages them to live out their role in faithfulness to God.

            Children were less than property.  In the Roman world, fathers could cast them out at any time.  There was no Child Protective Services in Paul’s day.

            And slavery was a way of life.  One church historian says slavery was to Rome what electricity is to us.  Even for St. Paul, freeing the slaves overnight was unthinkable. The best a slave could do was do their best in their work, trying to please God, not just their masters, by the quality of their labor.

            The first half of the three couplets was Paul's way of saying, "This is reality and this is how to make it in the world as we know it for now, for the time being ..." BUT ... the second half of each couplet lifts up the first glimmers of an entirely new vision.  The second half of each couplet is the radical, unexpected, the earth-shaking word, the word which, if taken seriously, has the potential to transform relationships:

            "Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”   What a shocking, revolutionary concept in Paul’s day!   Paul has often been criticized about being down on women.  The truth is he presented a radically new view of marriage.  His counsel to husbands will reshape the marriage covenant

             "Fathers, don't provoke your children to anger."  The very idea that fathers should care about their children's feelings and treat them with any degree of respect as human beings of worth was unheard of, and it has the potential to reshape the entire family.     

             "Masters, treat your slaves justly."  Justice for slaves?  No one had ever considered such a thing.  "Remember," he tells the masters, "you also have a Master and that Master shows no partiality."  Now, if you begin to take that seriously, it will undermine the entire framework of ethnic superiority and racial prejudice.

            It is as if Paul is saying, "I know what it's like in the real world, but here are the seeds of a vision which ultimately will create a new world of relationships, marriage and family, parents and children, masters and slaves."  Here is the word which will create a whole new community where, as he tells them earlier, there can no longer be Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, male or female, young or old, urban or suburban, Methodist or Baptist, Nebraska or Iowa, rich or poor, black or white, red state or blue state ... but  for that to happen Christ must be all, and in all.  Or as Eugene Peterson translates it: "From now on, everyone is defined by Christ, and everyone is included in Christ." (Colossians 3:10) 

            St. Paul's words on relationships are set in the context of the two preceding paragraphs in this chapter where he tells us what it takes to build healthy families, healthy homes, healthy relationships, and healthy communities.  He tells us in the preceding paragraphs, and we looked at this last Sunday, what to take up and what to leave behind. Put away greed, promiscuity, evil desires, questionable language, anger.  Put on compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all, put on love which binds everything together.  And then he builds to this beautiful benediction, a word of blessing and promise for the family and home, for the nation and world.  He says≤

 

            Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ... let the word of Christ dwell in you richly ... and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  

 

            In the face of all the changes in the make-up of "family," here are truly lasting "family values" which can make all the difference.

            In 36 years as a pastor, I have been humbled and privileged to be welcomed into the homes of members of the congregations I have served.  And in the process, I've seen too many homes (and may I add, churches) where infidelity, anger, lying, gossip or bad-mouthing has undermined the possibility of healthy relationships.  The Apostle Paul says, "Put all that to death. Get rid of it."

            And in 36 years of ministry, I have also been blessed to be invited into countless homes filled with compassion, kindness, forgiveness, patience and forbearance, homes where people told stories, where the family was filled with laughter and thankfulness, homes where whatever they do, they try to do it as if they were doing it in the name of the Lord.  Certainly not perfect homes - there is no such thing - but homes where the peace of Christ has a chance to thrive and the word of Christ can richly dwell, where love binds everything together.   They didn’t all look like Norman Rockwell’s homes with two parents and 2.2 children, but homes who were living out family values that matter.

            Well, I started with the image of Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving table.  I’ll close with another image of a family table, maybe not as picture perfect as Norman Rockwell's, but perhaps more like the families most of us live in.  It comes from Robert Capon's book on marriage and family called Bed and Board. The last chapter is entitled "Dinner at Our House.” 

 

            I look down the table over which I preside.  I feel like God partway through creation.  Before me stretches a chaos only half turned into a world.  Self, wife, sons, daughters, dishes, silver, food.  Where is the Holy City in all of this?  Why is it so long in forming among us?  My carving tools rest on an intractable leg of lamb.  Unfortunately, others are already talking ... My first-born must have no gravy.  The third-born begs off mushrooms. "This piece is all fat."  "I can't eat that many carrots."

            "Quiet!" I shout. It's pretty negative, but it works, and in the shuffling stillness the kind of order comes again.  I quote to them St. Paul on the subject of pots talking back to potters.  I remind them that we are the children of God, not a mob.  The oldest one agrees.  My heart lifts. 

            But just about that time, the youngest one knocks over her milk.  Down toward me it races like a flood across the land.  I jump up and back, but over the edge it pours and I am hit; right trouser leg, below the knee.  It's the third time this meal, and the thousandth today.  My largesse is as nothing next to the cataract of milk she has produced in three short years . She has spilt it backhand, side arm, forehand and elbow first.  She has upset glasses with her head, her feet, her shoulders and knees; with her rump, her belly and the middle of her back.   And with endless variety of time and circumstances.  Upon thick tablecloths, yielding a white swamp which spreads ominously toward us all; or upon plastic tablecloths for a high-velocity attack.

            At that moment someone yells, "Michael hit me!"  In all my years with them, I have never actually seen it happen - how they manage the surreptitious right to the ribs, or the invisible elbows in the solar plexus.  All I see is the mayhem which follows.  Two are arguing and three are talking at once.  The city has collapsed again and the jungle returns.

            Finally my wife serves the chocolate souffle with whipped cream, which draws us all together in praise.

            It's not quite the heavenly city, but neither is it chaos.  We are the solitary set in family, and I love them all-their faces, their voices, their bodies, their minds; and I thank them for their company during these long short years together.[2]

 

            May it be so at our tables.

            May it be so in our marriages, our families and in our church family.

            May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.

            May the word of Christ dwell richly in us.

            And may love bind everything together.

            Amen.



[1] Much of the message borrowed from “Whatever Happened to Norman Rockwell?” a sermon by John E. Harnish.

[2] Capon, Robert Farrar, Bed and Board, (Simon and Schuster, 1965) page 167.