Long ago, when my niece was still a very little girl, we were all sitting around the dining room table at my mom and dad’s house.
I don’t remember the occasion – it must have been some sort of holiday, or a family birthday – a few members of our extended family were with us, including my uncle, who farms in southwestern Minnesota, and his daughter.
At some point in the conversation I got an idea, so I turned to my niece and said, “Did you know that Lowell (my uncle) is your grandma’s brother?
And that Lowell is my uncle? And did you know that your grandma is my mother?
And your daddy is my brother?”
As I was going around and pointing to people, she suddenly threw her little hands in the air, and exclaimed, “You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”
“You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”
On this mother’s day, it’s not bad to consider these words as a sort of starting place – you mean EVERYBODY has a family.
And these family relationships were meant to be a gift, a blessing given to us by God.
Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, grandparents, uncles and aunts, other caregivers
– all these are part of the richness of family relationships first created “in the beginning” when God looked at Adam and declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
So all of human community began with family relationships at the very foundation.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus realizes this reality when he is speaks to his disciples.
He is in speaking to them “on the night in which he was betrayed.”
He has one last chance to tell them everything they need to know before he is crucified.
And so today our lesson begins with these important words, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Orphaned -- that's a powerful word -- isn't it?
(You mean not everybody has a family?)
And Jesus uses it on purpose because his disciple would understand the word, and would know that ro be an orphan meant to be cut off, deserted, without anyone to care for you.
To be an orphan meant to have no name, no place to belong, and no inheritance.
Several years ago I happened upon an old movie, made in the 1940s, I believe.
It featured Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon and was based on a true story about a woman in Texas named Edna Gladney who made it her life’s work to help orphans to find good homes.
Before I watched this movie, I didn’t know that at one time children whose parents were not married – who were given up – were considered unadoptable.
If it was discovered that the child was “illegitimate”, “respectable” people would not consider that child to be unfit to adopt,
because of the circumstances of their birth. Mrs. Gladney fought for the laws to be changed so that all children had a chance to be adopted.
"You mean everybody can have a family?"
So a family is a gift, not just because a family is a place where we are loved and affirmed, and told were are special, (although I hope this is the case),
but for the very practical reason that in the family we are given a name, we are given a place, we are given means of support, a way to live and thrive and grow up.
“Orphans and widows” are the special concern of the old testament prophets for this very reason.
They realized that those without advocates, without a place, without a name, without a family,
were most vulnerable to people who might try to cheat or abuse them.
And orphans and widows were a major concern for the early church.
They nurtured and cared for those who were left out and left behind by society.
But of course when Jesus promised his disciples, ‘I will not leave you orphaned,’
he was not talking about our families here on earth, with mothers and father, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts – as important as all of them are.
He was talking about the community of his disciples, people who gather here.
He was promising them that they would never be alone – even if they were orphans, even if their mothers and father, or their children, abandoned them, even if their family relationships were not perfect.
He gave them a promise of another kind of belonging, another name, another means of support.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” he said, “I will come to you.”
And if we are honest, most of us know that we need this kind of promise as well.
If we are honest, we know – even if we have great families, for whom we give thanks every day – that we need the belonging, the love that Jesus promises.
Because even great families for whom we give thanks every day, are not perfect,
and there are times we let each other down, and there are times when we feel lonely, and there are times when we know we have not measured up.
During this time of Easter we’ve been focusing on this theme: “The gift of Easter is love”.
Each week we’ve been focusing on love from a different angle – one week loving ourselves, and one week our enemies, loving the world, and loving creation.
This week’s theme: loving our families – is in a way both the easiest and the hardest to talk about.
It’s easy because today is Mother’s Day – and to love those we are related seems to be the easiest and the most natural thing of all.
But a child’s love for a parent – and parents’ love for our children – can also hard to talk about.
I have a little book that I use sometimes at funerals that speaks about this kind of love.
It’s called “Love you Forever.”
It begins with a mother rocking her baby, and singing a song to him, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always/as long as I’m living/my baby you’ll be.”
I love this little book for the picture of a loving parent it gives, and for the pictures of the child as well, for example:
“The baby grew. He grew and he grew and he grew. He grew until he was two years old, and he ran all around the house.
He pulled all the food out of the refrigerator and he took his mother’s watch and flushed it down the toilet. Sometimes his mother would say, “This kid is driving me CRAZY!”
Well – you see what I mean – family love is both the easiest – and sometimes the hardest kind of love to talk about -- and also to do.
It is both easy – and sometimes difficult – to love the ones closest to us
– Martin Luther liked to call our family our ‘near neighbors’
so the command to ‘love our neighbors’ also applies to our families, the ones who know us best, the ones who we have cared for – and sometimes let down –
the ones we have supported, and sometimes failed, the ones we have listened to – and sometimes ignored.
“Love your neighbor as yourself also applies to our families, which means that loving our family is an action, not a feeling.
If you’re a parent, it includes making tough decisions, listening, making meals and reading stories. If you’re a child, (even an adult child) it includes listening, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, doing chores.
And it involves knowing that the love you have for your child – or your parent – is not big enough – is not enough to carry you through hard times or tough times.
So – and this is for parents – ‘loving your neighbor’ involves telling your children and grandchildren about a love greater than your own,
telling your children and grandchildren about the God who loves them forever – and relying on that love yourself.
I think of Lydia – the successful businesswoman from our first reading.
She’s down at the river and she hears about God’s love – she hears the story of Jesus and his love (You mean EVERYBODY has a family?)
– and what is the first thing she does?
She and her whole household – her whole family – are baptized.
She wants to share what she has discovered with her family
– she wants to share with her family the love of the God who loves us forever, a love that will not let us go or let us down, even when we let each other down.
She wants to share with her family the love of God that will never abandon us, in whom there are no widows or orphans.
And then she welcomes the apostle Paul and his friends into her home – caring for them, feeding them, giving them a shelter as if they were one of her own, as if they were also her responsibility, her family.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promises us.
“You mean EVERYBODY has a family?”
Brothers and sister in Christ – absolutely.