God, Be Merciful to Families

Rev. Scott Summerville
Isaiah 64:1-9

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O God, you are our Father [and Mother]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O God, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

This is the season of the year that really puts the focus on our families. In many ways the family is defined by who we sit at the table with, even if it’s only once or twice a year.

Who is your family? How is your family? With whom are we sharing the holiday feasts? Who is part of the family, and who is not? Where are the empty spaces in the family circle? Who is gone from us, separated by death, and how do we deal with – how do we cope with – those empty spaces at the family table and those empty spaces in our souls?

Who is new in the family circle? Someone married into the circle. Somebody has been away from home, maybe off to college, and is back in the circle for the holidays. Somebody had a baby since the last gathering and there is a brand new person in the circle, who promptly grabs all the attention. The family circle does not stay the same over time.

The holiday season is the season of light – the season of candles – but some of the light that shines upon our families may be uncomfortable. The holiday season can reveal the divisions in our families. Who is speaking to whom and who is not speaking to whom?
Who has cut themselves off from the family and left a broken place in the circle? What are the uncomfortable memories – what are the unresolved grievances that strain or even break the family circle?

Our family circles can be places of simple pleasure where we gather and find our place in the universe, or the family gathering can be a place where we strain to keep the appearance of family while underneath we are aching and longing for something more from one another.

The holiday season is an intense time for pastors. It is intense for us, because we are balancing all the busy activity of the congregation and all the busy activity of our own families. It is also an intense time, because we are aware of how the hard the holidays can be for many people. In this season grief can feel greater; loss can be more intense; sadness and separation can be harder to bear than they are in ordinary times. Families are the most complicated things in the world. When we are with our families there are things happening deep inside us that we are not even aware of. When we are with our families, things are happening in us that are deeply rooted in our genetic code, our instincts, and our basic needs for nurture and acceptance, and it is very difficult to be thoughtful or objective about our own families.

The family is the place of life’s simplest and deepest joys – the joy of birth, the delight of welcoming life into the human family, the excitement of weddings, the sweet ecstasy of being a grandmother or grandfather, the sharing of memories that span generations. Because the family is so crucial to our very being, family can also be the place of our deepest hurts and wounds. Our families are where we learn what it means to belong or not to belong, to feel accepted or not to feel accepted, to be part of the circle or to be outside of the circle.

The family is so crucially important. The family is sacred ground. The family table is sacred space. Honoring this sacred ground in the sacred space of our families can be challenging, sometimes very challenging. In this season of the family, I offer some cautious advice for treading upon this holy ground.

Do not try to fix your family. Just try to love your family and accept people as best you can.
Do not judge your family by some standard of perfection or assume that other families do not have the same kind of struggles and human troubles that your family may have.

There are all kinds of families these days: the so-called traditional family is no longer the typical family. There are blended families. There are adoptive families. There are single-parent families. There are countless immigrant families in this country where loved ones are separated by thousands of miles and by national borders, such that parents may not see their children and children may not see their parents for years. There are combinations of people in all kinds of ways that constitute families. But every family has its challenges, and there are no perfect families. Every human family is human. No human family is perfect.

During the season of Advent we often hear the words of the prophet Isaiah and his promise of the Messiah who will bring the day of God’s peace. This morning we also heard a prayer spoken by the prophet Isaiah. In this prayer Isaiah addresses God as “Our Father.” Some inclusive language translations of this verse use the words “God, Our Father and Mother,”
to convey that God is not literally a father and to draw out the loving parental qualities of God that are conveyed in the prayer.

In this prayer Isaiah is praying to God on behalf of a great extended family of Israel; perhaps we could even say that Isaiah, this prophet with a universal vision, is praying for the extended family of humanity. I suggest that we hear this prayer as a prayer for all of our families.

The beginning of the prayer is intense and dramatic:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

But the prayer ends quietly and humbly; the prayer ends with the prophet speaking intimately with God:

64:7 [God], there is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
64:8 Yet, O God, you are our Father and our Mother; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember our sins forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

In a way it is a very humble prayer, it is a prayer of confession; Isaiah acknowledges the human failings of the people. He prays to God that God will be merciful. But in another way this prayer of Isaiah is bold and audacious. Just as Moses had done long before, Isaiah takes it upon himself to remind God of God’s special relationship with God’s people. A mortal human being has the audacity to say to the Almighty, “Consider this: we are all your people.” Is it possible that there is something that God does not know or that God has forgotten, such that a mortal being would need to remind God or invite God to consider something? Is it possible that there is something that God has not considered? It’s one thing to say to your wife or your husband or your parents or your children, “Have you considered such and such…?” But what does it mean to say to God, “Have you considered?…?”

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O GOD, and do not remember
iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Isaiah is a very subtle advocate for the people:
Yes we have sinned and deserve whatever we have coming to us, but, God, if I may humbly remind you, not that you can forget anything or need to be reminded of anything, but if I may humbly remind you, you made us and we are yours. You made us, and we are yours!

Isaiah was a great prophet; he also would have been a great diplomat or a great lawyer.
How beautifully he pleads the case for humanity. The prophet Isaiah speaks to God and says, “God, if you judge us by the standard of perfection then our goose is cooked and we are lost. But if you love us and remember where we have come from and how human we are, then you will not judge us so harshly. God, don’t reject us; we are your people. No matter what separates us, we will always be connected; we will always be the clay that you have fashioned, we will always be connected to you and you to us.”

Which brings me back to this holiday season and to our families. The thing about family is that we can separate ourselves from one another physically, but even if we move to opposite ends of the earth, we will always be connected. I think it would be great if families could say: “We will hang in there with each other; we will not reject each other, we are bound together; we can be family, even if we are not perfect. We will not try to change or fix each other. We will do our best to find each other’s strengths and support each other in all the changes of life. We know that we do not have one another forever; so the time we have is sacred time.”

Blessings to you and your family and this family of faith in the unfolding of this Advent season.

Shalom, Salaam, Grace and Peace to you.

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