The Nuclear Family – Christian or Western?
A sermon on 1 Sam 2: 18-20,26; Luke 2: 41-52 & Col 3:12-17 by Jill Friebel, 28th December 2003


Christmas is the traditional time of gathering together with family. This could have been absolutely enjoyable and fun or it may have been boring or it could have been downright stressful and nightmarish.

For those who may not have a family or whose relationships are fractured, Christmas can be a stark reminder of that fact. It is well know that suicides and sadness increase over the Christmas holidays. The experience of Christmas hinges largely on what your experience of family is or isn’t. Because you don’t get to choose your family and a good part of your most formative years are spent in one, Christmas triggers off many memories of the past that are still very much part of the present. Things can surface at this time of the year that you try to forget and ignore for the rest of the time. Our Western experience of family is largely based on the model of the nuclear family - mother, father and children living together and more or less independent of the wider family members.

Samuel in our reading tonight was a small boy when his parents dedicated him to God and left him with Eli the priest and the wider members of a monastic community that was associated with the priestly families of Israel. His nuclear family had little to do with his upbringing and others shared in the responsibility. It couldn’t have done him too much harm because we read “that year by year Samuel continued to grow into an impressive young man. Everybody liked him and the Lord was pleased with him.”

Luke made the same comment about Jesus probably making the same point and comparison by basing his story on that of Samuel. “With each passing year, he grew in wisdom and maturity. God was pleased with him and everybody liked having him around.” Unlike Samuel, Jesus wasn’t raised in a monastic community as such, but neither was it a nuclear family like ours. It is obvious from the story that his parents didn’t miss him until the end of a whole days travelling. That just doesn’t happen in our families. I have left one of mine behind on occasions but it didn’t take the whole day to miss them.

The Eastern families were and still are more communal and include the wider family where other adults have care and responsibility for the children in the clan. It is easier to blend in and not be missed by mum and dad. In situations where there is only one parent there are others who can take on the roles important for the formation and care of children, and the children are drawn into the wider network of the family giving more stability and a greater sense of belonging. This can have positive and righting affects where the biological parents or parent simply can’t provide all that is needed in child raising alone. Who is up to this overwhelming task? I don’t think it was ever meant to be this way. The pressures placed on parents and the breakdown of relationships within the nuclear family has reached mammoth proportions today. So much can go wrong when we are isolated into a nuclear family unit and the world is kept out. Dark secrets are kept within families and there is a fear in reaching out for help, what will others think if I admit I can’t cope or I am abused or lonely or lost. Keeping the secrets can have disastrous consequences for everyone. Mothers feeling inadequate as mothers and wives, husbands feeling inadequate as fathers and husbands. But nobody says anything and nobody outside offers anything. It isn’t meant to be like this. Young women need older women, young men need older men, those who can guide and love and lead them into wisdom and maturity and teach them about real love and relationships and God. Learning about the most important thing in life – relationships - by watching the media or discussing your problems hour after hour with your friends, by looking at porn or trying out new ways or relating that seem exciting or whatever is the trend, just ends up with more confusion and distortion. In reality it gets lonelier and lonelier and more and more empty. What’s gone wrong?

What parent wouldn’t feel pleased and proud about their child turning out like Samuel and Jesus even if they hadn’t been solely responsible for it all? The knowledge of your children growing in wisdom and maturity so that God is pleased and everybody likes having them around is more than a parent can ever hope for. Maybe that’s why Samuel and Jesus turned out so well, the input of others besides the biological parents can have a positive impression and contribution to the formation of children becoming well-adjusted and wise adults. Samuel and Jesus received a communal heritage where God was honoured and worshipped. The idiosyncrasies of the parents have less effect when the family unit is broadened and under girded by a clan seeking to follow God with daily prayer and rituals reminding them of his love and providence. There were rites of passage as the children grew and it created security and safety and stability and connected them into an ancient tradition. It protects children from parents who are determined to raise their children differently to their own upbringing. How often have you said, or heard someone say, “My mother/father brought me up in such and such a way and I will never do that to my children” and amazingly enough that is exactly what we or they end up doing albeit in another form. It isn’t obvious to the one involved, but it is obvious to anyone with insight who is observing. Young children are at the mercy of their parents, and the more restricted their contact with others outside the immediate family the greater the influence and impact their parents will have. A wider community also protects parents from difficult and selfish children who manipulative and disobedient. When there is a clan who together are seeking the kingdom of God, journeying together in meaningful ways of prayer and worship and hands on care of each other there is a greater authority and structure that surrounds the child and effectively disciplines in love and ways that are good and right and healthy. This is not our Western or ‘so called’ Christian experience. But it is thoroughly Christian.

Jesus was an impressive young man, attesting to the skills of his parents, but we read how he takes leave of his parents and moves towards the God he calls Father. He is 12 in this story and he was so immersed in his spiritual heritage that he was able to hold his own with the teachers of the synagogue. I don’t think this was just head knowledge, he felt secure in his “Fathers” love, he had transcended his earthly parenting and was already communing deeply in the silence with his heavenly Father. Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not theirs to possess, in fact no children are a parents possession. They are a gift from God and he is the mother and father of every human child. They are given to us to protect and nurture and love and to be raised in the wider family of God’s people. The closest thing we can get to a community like the one Jesus experienced is here right in this community if we work at it. Right now it has the potential but it is still a long way from reality.

Here at South Yarra we have already agreed that worship and the spiritual formation of people are the two central pillars that we are building our community on. How is this going to work our in our day-to-day experience? How will we be any different than any other church that is really Western in culture with a bit of Christianity and not Christian in culture? Christian culture turns western culture on its head - read Nathan’s sermon from last week. Does your worship here draw you deeper into the heart of Christ and the Christian family or are you standing on the outside, keeping your distance and looking in? To actually kneel at the table and confess your deepest needs and longings could appear to others to be weakness. In fact it is the only place of healing and integration and is evidence of spiritual strength and wisdom. You can’t be half in the world and half in Christ. It doesn’t work. It causes confusion, loneliness and disillusionment for you and others around you. The Colossians reading tonight describes what we should look like with God as our Father and we as brothers and sisters.

“Christ has called you to be a cohesive body, permeated and held together by his peace…Hang in there with each other. No doubt there will be times when you will rub each other up the wrong way, but be forgiving. The Lord had no hesitation forgiving you, so follow his lead and forgive each other. Cultivate a mind set of gratitude.”

And so it goes on and on. Go home and read it again. I want to challenge you tonight to begin sitting in the silence with God. Remember our liturgy tonight, “We are who we are in our silence.” If you value pray and I would think you would coming here – why aren’t you praying? Why do you spend more time watching movies, meeting friends, getting into unhealthy relationships, justifying yourself and never getting around to praying? What’s going on? Why do you believe in something and value it but can’t do it? What is the resistance within you? I don’t expect you to know the answer to that. The things that keep us from prayer are often deep and painful and associated with things we are completely unaware of. It is by sitting in the silence and allowing God to speak into your chaos and mess that you can begin to see yourself as God sees you. It will be confronting and you will need a soul friend or someone within the Christian family who is known to be wise and mature who can help you hear what God is saying to you. Your past experience of family can be transcended within a truly Christian community. God is indifferent to social, political and biological determinism, your past parenting doesn’t have to have the last say on who you are and what you have become. I invite you this Christmas to allow the Christ child to be formed in you, be like Mary who pondered these things and was an obedient and loving disciple of her Son.

Come Lord Jesus, come into our hearts and lives.