Friday, November 03, 2006

One of the Family

One of the Family
A sermon for the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service
First Presbyterian Church, Beaufort, SC
October 29, 2006

I want to thank you for the invitation to take part in your Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan event, and I want to thank you for the welcome and hospitality that I’ve received. It’s a very exciting thing for me to be with you this morning. I’ve been in the States for about two months now. And even if the initial excitement is beginning to wear off, I’m still able to marvel at being in a new country, meeting lots of interesting people, and seeing lots of fascinating places.

Moving to a new place forces you to think about your identity. It forces you to reconsider your place in the world. When you are removed from a familiar place, and when you move away from family and friends, you learn things about yourself and about your previous home, that you can’t really appreciate otherwise.

Preparing for this sermon has been part of a significant learning experience that I’ve gone through in the last two months. Perhaps today marks the end of the beginning of my time in the land of the free!

I’m sure that some of you will know of Senate Resolution 155 (March 20th 1998):

this resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this Nation through its most troubled times;
this resolution recognizes the monumental achievements and invaluable contributions made by Scottish Americans that have led to America's preeminence in the fields of science, technology, medicine, government, politics, economics, architecture, literature, media, and visual and performing arts;

It goes on to recognise April 6 as National Tartan Day. Today is not quite National Tartan Day. But we are gathered to remember and think about the influence of Scotland in our own lives, and in the life of the United States.

Before coming here, and before my invitation to be with you this morning, I had no idea that Scottish influence in America was quite so impressive. I only discovered Resolution 155 during my research for this sermon. Now I don’t want to get at all political. But I do want to suggest that the Senate resolution missed one really important Scottish influence in America’s history. There may be good and proper reason for the omission, but there is no reference at all to the religious or Christian influence that Scots brought to America.

Presbyterianism has influenced your country for good or bad way beyond its strength in numerical terms. One good aspect of that influence is its understanding of the nature of family life, and that’s what I want us to think about for the next few moments. What does historic Presbyterianism think about the family? Is there a model for Presbyterian family life?

You will all know Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard. If, perhaps, you don’t know him, you will know at least one of his poems:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Burns was born in Ayrshire in 1759, just a few miles south of my own home town. Burns is a fascinating character, in many ways a tragic figure. He has been described as an 18thC Johnny Cash - a pop star poet whose poetry matched his personal life in all its extravagance and range of experience, the highs and the lows, the good and the not quite so good.

One of his best known poems is called The Cotter’s Saturday Night. A cotter was a tenant occupying a cottage and the land attached to it. In the poem, we are presented with a picture, a snap shot, of 18thC rural Scottish family life. The cotter arrives home from his work in the fields to a bustling house full of children, young and old. On the eve of the Sabbath the family gathers together for a meal:

With joy unfeign'd, brothers and sisters meet,
And each for other's weelfare kindly speirs:
The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnotic'd fleet:
Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears.

We can take for granted that family is supposed to be a place where members are cared for, and provided for: there are many bible passages we could think about in that regard.

The apostle Paul, writing to his fellow worker, Timothy:

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1Tim5:8

Paul seems to take for granted that people care naturally for their families.

Jesus himself, teaching his disciples, makes that assumption too, and relates it to God's care for us:

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matt7:9

Burns had his problems with the Kirk - the Kirk certainly had problems with Burns. But there are two things that the life and poetry of Robert Burns point us to, two things that are rooted in our Presbyterian tradition of family life:

Family as a context for education

Don't you just love reading or hearing about the early life of famous people - how they were brought up, what their parents were like, the kind of school they went to… The early chapters in a biography are often the most interesting, the most revealing.

Robert Burns is no exception here, because we find two dominant influences. First, his father. William Burns sees to it that his son is given a liberal education. He organizes tutors for Robert, so that by the time Robert is a teenager he’s got a grounding in all kinds of literature. Burns is known for his Scottish poetry - but, if you read his letters, you find some of the finest 18thC English prose, writing on all sorts of hot issues of the day. Burns was a man of letters because his father made sure that he was educated.

But, no less did his mother contribute: Agnes Broun had a love for song, and a talent for melody. Burns was the poetic, lyrical master he was because his mother nurtured his talents, and inspired in him a love for song and words.

Education is a great theme in the history of Scotland from at least the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. The Reformers planned for schools in every parish, and one outcome was a level of literacy far higher than in other countries, notably England.

On old buildings in Scotland you will often see this symbolized. At the end of my street in Glasgow there is an old building, my guess is that it used to be a school. I think it’s been developed into apartments, but on the outside, above one of the upper windows, carved out of the stone, is the figure of a boy. What do you think he is doing? He’s not playing football, or soccer, or baseball - he’s sitting, legs crossed, with a book in his hands. The Scottish lad o’ pairts - academic talent spotted and nurtured for its own sake, and for the sake of the community as a whole. And it wasn’t just the talented that were taught. The aim was that all would have basic reading and writing skills.

Up until perhaps the middle of the twentieth century, Scotland was known for this emphasis. Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin, was born and brought up on a farm just outside my home town. As a boy he walked three or four miles each day to school! Education characterized Scotland as a nation, and the Church of Scotland was in a large part responsible for that emphasis.

That’s why Scotland, for such a small country, has made a hugely impressive contribution to the modern world. Space does not allow for a comprehensive list of the discoveries and inventions that have come from Scottish thinkers, scientists and engineers. But they were all the result of an emphasis on education. And the family was often the context for that emphasis.

But if family is a context for education, Presbyterianism also understands:

Family as a context for faith

Back to the The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, with patriarchal grace,
The big ha'bible, ance his father's pride:
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets (grey side locks) wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care;
And "Let us worship God!" he says with solemn air.

The poem goes on to recount the reading of the Bible, the word of God, and after the reading, the man of the house leads the whole family in prayer. And after family worship, the older siblings return to their own homes, the younger children go to bed, and the mother and father pray in secret for the whole family:

Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way;
The youngling cottagers retire to rest:
The parent-pair their secret homage pay,
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That he who stills the raven's clam'rous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flow'ry pride,
Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best,
For them and for their little ones provide;
But chiefly, in their hearts with grace divine preside.

Family worship is not just a Scottish Presbyterian virtue, but possibly the Scottish Presbyterian tradition best typifies the idea that church is not the primary place where faith is learned - we learn most about faith from our families! What a difference to our Western church culture today, which is dominated with Christian education programs because of the lack of family-based teaching about Christianity.

A friend of mine, a Scottish Free Presbyterian, talks about this. The home is where the basics of the Bible are to be taught, the elementary things are learned from Mum and Dad. Sermons in his tradition are based on the assumption that everyone in the church already knows the basics.

That’s why we read Proverbs 1:8 -

Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching.

So, we have family as a context for education; and, family as a context for faith.

A Higher calling…

Did you notice the final verses in our New Testament reading?

Now Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you." He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice." Luke 8:19-21

What’s your response when you read or hear that story? Don’t you just cringe? Don’t you want to question Jesus? ‘Jesus, you can’t really mean it?’ 'Jesus, are you really saying that you put other people before your natural family?' Jesus challenges our cosy ideas of family life.

And we don’t need to work out the implications of these words, because later Jesus actually spells it out for us:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

What kind of faith is this? What kind of Christianity do we find in these words of Jesus?

Well, it is radical. Jesus calls us to a radical discipleship which puts the word of God before everything else, before every other commitment. He calls us to love him more than any other person in the world. And, yes, I think I need to say this too. Going back to Luke 8, Jesus calls us to love other Christians as if they were family. He calls us all to be one of the family of faith. He wants us to who know God as Father, himself as Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as our friend and comfort in this world.

Is there a tension in all this? Does this jar with your thinking, and with your normal values? Well, it would hardly be God’s word to us if it didn’t cause us to examine our way of life. That’s why we need to be reminded of these things. That’s why we need services like this, so that we can shake off our complacency, and keep seeking the good.

I want to leave you with a final question:

Could it be that our natural families become mini models of the wider family that Jesus had in mind when he spoke those words? Could it be that our families become families of the faithful, those who have heard the word of God, and obeyed?

Yes! It can be so! Today, through his word, Christ is calling us to himself, he is calling us to hear his word, and follow him. He is calling us to confirm our membership of God’s family, not least, so that we can be better family members in our homes.

And in case you think this is too idealistic, remember that Jesus knows fine well the issues involved. Never forget that Jesus himself lived in a big family. He knows the frustrations, the problems.

Listen to this: Jesus knows what it’s like to lose a father figure. And I’m not talking about Jesus crying out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ No, I’m talking about Jesus losing his step father, Joseph. It is very interesting that we don’t read about Joseph in the later years of the life of Jesus. I think I’m right in saying that the last we read of Joseph is in Luke 2, the story of Jesus remaining in the temple while his family return home.

So, in all likelihood, Jesus knew what it meant for a young family to lose their father. He would have carried the burden as the elder son in a family bereft of a father.

That’s the Jesus we follow, that’s the Jesus we adore. A Jesus who, though he was the Son of God, yet for our sakes he became poor, took on our human form, lived among us as one of us, died our death, rose victorious over death on the third day, and now he reigns as Lord - and he knows the value and the struggle of being one of the family.

Wont you trust him again this morning? Wont you thank him for his grace, and trust him for the future? May God bless us, and our families, as we trust and hope in his good will towards us. Amen