Preaching + Complicated Relationships

.simply complicateD. Image by Sippanont Samchai via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When a new friend learns I’m an only child, they often assume my life is free from complications. I am an only child who made myself and the house messy. I thought it very unfair that I had no siblings to blame! When a new neighbor figures out we’re a multi-racial family, they don’t know what to say. “Nice to meet your whole family!” is a great way to start. When a beloved relative repeatedly said racist things about our kids, we cut ties.

Humans can disagree over all sorts of things; relationships can be complicated by, including (and not limited to):

  • birth
  • death
  • marriage
  • immediate & extended family
  • adoption and/ or infertility
  • class
  • race
  • gender
  • addiction

Holidays may remind us of what we have and what we don’t have in the “relationship” column of life. Spring and summer, with graduations, weddings, family reunions, and vacations, can be just as triggering as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Those hearing your sermons might be offering easy answers about complicated relationships, like “It’s all in God’s timing” or “Everything happens for a reason” at coffee hour. What if you preached an alternate theology instead? What if you gave them another way to think about it? How do we as preachers navigate through messy and complicated relationships?

It’s good to remember that God’s people have argued for centuries. If we drew a genogram of any family, we would see places where relationships were ended, took a break, or were reborn. (See Noah, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Cain and Abel, Rachel and Leah, the disciples, the woman at the well and her community).

When we preach, we use the Bible texts, the news of the week, and the circumstances and context of the place where we preach. In any given group gathered for worship, we can find someone celebrating, someone mourning, someone deliberating about what to do or say in a relationship that bothers them. We know complicated relationships because we, in part, live them too.

When these Scriptures come up, talking about complicated relationships might fit well into a sermon:

“I can do anything through the power of God, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, author’s translation, Advent 3C) Anything, here, may include reconciliation and redemption. Redemption is not always ours to find, but sometimes redemption comes through walking away, setting boundaries, and saying “no.”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:38-39, Easter 2A, 3A) Baptism can help us focus on the new life that is promised, every day, over and over again. This passage is also helpful for reminding us that God knows those “who are far away” even if we’re no longer in relationship with them.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Pentecost 4B, Lent 4C) This scripture can help us remind folks that God is in the new life business, always. God is working for new life all the time, we don’t always see it or sense it.

“If you wander off the road to the right or the left, you will hear his voice behind you saying, ‘Here is the road. Follow it’” (Isaiah 30:21, Good News Translation). The road of relationships is not easy. However, it is wider than it might first seem. God guides our steps, and helps us make new and different decisions. The lyrics in “There’s a Break in the Road” by Susan Tedeschi give me life:

Everybody find they own thing and I guess you think you found yours,
Your new thing’s supposed to burn so hot, nothing like it ever before,
Like the last year’s model you put me down, handled me like a used car
And when you misuse the one that’s been so good to you I don’t believe you get far,
because there’s a break, there’s a break in the road

In Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Later, we read that the mortals are dried up and hope is lost. (Ezekiel 37:2-14, Lent 5A, Pentecost B, Easter Vigil ABC) We may have folks who feel as if they are permanent residents in the valley of dry bones. God promises to open graves and bring them back to life, to re-member people back to life.

In Hebrews 11 and 12, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” to recognize that these Biblical characters made their way by faith. We read that many were not given what they were promised, since God had provided something better. We as preachers can proclaim this truth, without being flippant or negative, but honest about complicated relationships. Sometimes we aren’t given what we wanted or hoped for.

Over and over again, we’re given stories of relationships that are complicated and messy. We navigate relationships as best we can, and sometimes that means we stop navigating them completely. We get to remind our people that God creates new relationships where we see no hope.