Monday, August 20, 2012

"Families" Windsor Pride Festival Service, August 12, 2012, Rev. Martha Daniels

Ruth 1:1-19 
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
When Naomi heard in Moab that God had come to the aid of the people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Holy One show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May God grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

John 19:25-30
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.   When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 

Will you pray with me? God of all creation, be present with us—may we speak and hear your truth for all your children; may all families be reconciled in your love. In all your names, amen.

Families. Both readings are about families—more precisely chosen families. Ruth and Naomi chose to remain family; Jesus, Mary, and John—usually understood to be the disciple Jesus loved—a family by adoption, by choice.

Families. We all have them—every one of us was born into a family. Our particular family may have been functional or not, happy or not, supportive or not. They are a source of joy and pain and frustration and hope, sometimes all at the same time.

Families have been defined in many ways through history—as widely as the tribe--anyone who is related by blood, no matter how distantly, is considered family—and very narrowly—two parents, one male and one female, with children, are the family—uncles, aunts, grandparents, step-relations are “extended family.”  

The reality of families, though, has always transcended the definitions. Two stories about families.

A friend of mine who was adopted was upset by people who asked her if she knew her “real mother.” Her real mother was the woman who had cared for her through chickenpox and a broken leg, laughed with her, been with her through all the joys and struggles of growing up—in other words, had raised her. My friend had a biological mother whom she had never known, and while she was curious about her, she did not feel any particular tie that would make her birth mother her “real mother.” Family bonds are created by love and time and mutual support.

Story two. My mother was a single mother going back to university after her first husband died, and so she applied for what was called “married student housing” at that time, because it was subsidized by the university, and as a single (widowed) mom with three young children, funds were tight. But because she was not married, she was told she was not eligible. They were not considered a family because there was no husband, no father, present. One of her professors went to bat for her—this was in the mid-1950’s—and the housing department, to their credit, realised they were wrong. It was renamed “family housing,” and she was given a two bedroom apartment. Families are not defined by which figures are or not present.

Can family bonds be broken or dissolved? Well, most divorced couples will tell you there’s still a relationship, especially if there are children or a business involved.  Individual family members may die, but the family goes on—my sisters are still my sisters, even though one of them passed away last year.  You may have seen a story going around on the internet the last week or so; the horrible letter from a father to his gay son after the son came out to his father. In the letter, the father disowned the son and said he wanted no further contact with him. This was a parent who in spite of years raising his son, living and laughing and loving him, creating memories he said he cherished—suddenly was unable to accept him when he learned something new about his son. His fear and ignorance cut him off from a relationship that had apparently been good before that revelation. This is tragic; God is weeping. The father may have said his son is no longer his child, but that is simply not true. That bond may not be acknowledged, but it is there.

We hear a lot of talk about “family values” these days. But most people who throw that term around seem to have that very narrow definition of family I mentioned—one man, one woman, both in their first—and presumed only—marriage, neither attracted to people of the same gender, neither feeling gender dysphoria, with children born within the marriage, all attracted to different-gendered partners…. Statistically, you know the number of families who fit that definition has to be a small proportion of families in North America! How many blended families in various arrangements, adoptive children, single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, childless couples are there? Many. And then there are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered couples and singles heading families, many of whose families are also blended, adoptive, etc. And all LGBT people are a part of families, whether as children, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles. I can’t begin to list all the different ways families can be arranged, because every family is unique. These are all families in every sense of the word, unless that extremely, unreasonably narrow definition is used.

This I have to say—the greatest violation of family values is not being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or two-spirited; it’s not divorcing; it’s not remarrying. The greatest danger to a family, the most tragic violation of family values is to reject a member of your own family, to ban them, to disown them, to try to eject them from the family.

I know many of us have experienced that rejection. Those are not family values. I cannot imagine the pain of such a rejection—I am blessed by a loving, supportive family.  Even my conservative uncle who at first could barely even contemplate the idea that I am not straight has now told my aunt and cousins that he wants me to conduct his funeral when the time comes. But not all of us are so blessed. My heart weeps for my friends whose families cannot expand their hearts to take them in, or do so only partially, calling partners “friends,” or making it clear that partners are not welcome at family events. Perhaps in time they will learn to do so; in the meantime, to anyone who is in that situation, I would say this--keep yourself safe while also keeping your heart open to the possibility of change.

We’re graced with the presence this morning of Shawn Thomas—he is always a delight and a blessing. One of the most powerful of Shawn’s songs for me is titled “A Moment of Grace.” In fact, I cannot listen to it when I am driving—I tear up every single time I hear it. The song tells of that estrangement that sometimes happens in families—between a mother and child, a father and son—and then, in a moment of grace, there is reconciliation. “It’s a moment of grace, it’s a moment of truth, when the life that you thought you had, that you thought you’d found, gets turned around and the world surrounding you becomes something new…”

Something new. Sometimes, our definition of family is something new.

Ruth and Naomi were a family—no children involved, all the males dead, obviously not married, not two women in that time and place—and yet they were a family. Both of them had lost everything that had meaning to them except their relationship, and Ruth did not intend to lose that too. This was her family, period.

Jesus, in his last moments on the cross, thought of his mother, soon to be left alone, and he ensured she had a family—a chosen son, the disciple Jesus loved, the one closest to him. A chosen family.

For some of us, our chosen family—friends, partners, church, community—is our only family. For others, our chosen family includes people related by blood as well as friends, partners, and so on.  However you have chosen your family, it is your family—do not let anyone take it away or say it is of less value than someone else’s.

There’s a quote I love by Harvey Fierstein that ends, “Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself." I would say to you—“accept no one’s definition of your family; define your family yourself.”

Whether your family is you and your partner, you and your partner and children (yours, theirs, a blend), biological or adopted, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces—you define your family. It is true that some bonds will always remain in spite of pain—they may become thin, barely there—it may be necessary that they be so thin, for our own safety—but there may also come a time when there is a moment of grace and then they can grow strong again. Do not let go of those bonds entirely—it may be painful, but there is always the possibility of that moment of grace, that opportunity for love and hope to shine through and make conciliation possible.

So chose the strength of those bonds, chose the form and structure and members of your families. Because, in the end, all families, are chosen. Some are chosen deliberately and consciously—others simply happen and we don’t change it because we choose that as our family.

Family. Chosen family. In spite of what others may tell you, there is no one definition of family, and never has been. Chose your family—hold tight to the bonds that nourish and strengthen and encourage you; grasp lightly the ones that threaten pain, but don’t let go of them, remembering that moments of grace abound. It may yet come; do not let go.
In the many names of the one loving God, amen.

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