A man, his wife and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land, but tragically, at the end of the holiday, the mother-in-law died. The family were told they could bury her there for £200, but it would cost £5,000 to bring her back to the UK.
The man thought about it for a while and decided to have her brought back.
The undertaker was surprised and asked the man why he was willing to spend so much money, when it would be so much easier to bury her in Jerusalem?
“Well,” said the man, “because it’s my mother-in-law, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I mean, people say that someone buried here rose from the dead!”
It’s easy to become cynical about family life. Mother-in-law jokes are the stock-in-trade for many comedians. The weekly diet of drama and entertainment served up by our TV channels revolves around broken families, adultery, violence, or – for radio listeners – perhaps just the everyday headaches of country folk. But occasionally, something cheerful finds it way onto our screens. A generation ago, Carla Lane’s Bread on the BBC showed a happy family – a Catholic family – making their way in the world. Now Sky TV is trailing the launch this weekend of Starlings – billed as a “brilliant, warm and funny series” about a Derbyshire family which will “make you laugh and cry for all the right reasons”. We shall see!
Real family life doesn’t just happen – we’ve got to work at it. When our church commissioned a national report on family life a few years ago, the results were published under the title “Not Easy, But Full of Meaning.” It’s not easy – because we don’t get to choose who our family members are. Certainly, you might marry someone you find adorable, but they do come with in-laws. Each child born to a family is a surprise as the parents discover what kind of person they are raising. There are special challenges for those who choose to foster or adopt older children. What is required in each case is the same: it’s called LOVE.
The New Testament, written in Greek, uses different words for love. “Falling in love” is eros. “Liking” someone is philo. But the love which the readings command upon us today is written agapé – a word which means “I choose your well-being.” Our Lord says to us: You are a community. Choose each other’s well-being! Find a new respect for one another. Decide to make your family work as a community! And yes, that’s going to mean sacrifice of your own plans and priorities.
The whole season of Easter is teaching us one message, the message of agapé love. In order to fully experience the eternal life which Christ has now entered, we must love as Jesus loves. Do you remember last week‘s Gospel – the Father’s promise to prune you, so you can bear fruit in abundance? Do you remember the example of Christ on Good Shepherd Sunday – a different kind of hero, who can only become what God is calling him to be through sacrificing his own plans and ambitions? You are also invited to be a hero – a domestic hero, a hero-at-home.
There’s a clue in the very word family. F.A.M.I.L.Y. – Forget About Me – I Love You! [If that sounds like a rap to you, you’re not wrong – the rapping Franciscan priest, Stan Fortuna, sang this at World Youth Day Sydney in 2008.] True family only happens where your needs are more important than mine – and at the same time, you believe that my needs are more important than yours.
What I’ve said about our natural families also applies to our spiritual family, which is the Christian community – in particular, our parish community. When St John wrote “Let us love one another” he was writing specifically to members of the Christian community. Our first reading from Acts showed St Peter realising that God is inviting the whole world to be part of his family – the message of Jesus was not only for those born Jewish. We are called to be a community of Good News – a house of God where everyone feels welcome, where those who have drifted away know they are always welcome to return, and where newcomers find it easy to join in what we do.
But what does this mean in practice? It’s up to each one of us, as church members, to show agapé love to one another. We do this by a smile and a kind word, especially to strangers. We do this by respecting each other’s silent space for prayer. We do this by promptly volunteering for the church ministries which need to be filled. We do this by helping each other to engage with the worship by choosing to sing and take part with enthusiasm, even with those items which are less familiar. If we are serious about being a FAMILY church, this means each and every one of us must treat the person next to us as more important than ourself. Each one of us must make a decision – an agapé decision – that everyone who walks through the door of St Dyfrig’s is welcome here, and that each one of us will do our bit to make them welcome.
As in a marriage, so in membership of a parish, we will experience times when it seems there’s no spark in what we’re doing. The worship has become routine and ritualised. The music is boring or not always perfectly performed. Even the central heating doesn’t work as well as we’d hoped! It’s especially at these times we must remember: Family life is not easy, but full of meaning. For our parish to be a life-giving centre of Good News, each one of us needs to make a decision to work on it, on the weekends when we feel like it, and on the weekends when we don’t. It needs a positive attitude: I WILL come. I will sing. I will take part. I will volunteer promptly. I will make this a parish that other people will enjoy worshipping in. And you know what? You might just find that in giving life to others, God restores life to you.
As for our natural families, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at your own family today. Are there members you aren’t getting on with so well? Are there relationships which need a little extra effort to smooth out? The Lord is calling you to agapé – to make that effort. This isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty: there are no perfect parishes and there are no perfect families. None of us can accomplish everything we’d hope to do in showing love for different members of our community. But at the same time, there may be some new directions we can take, or difficult relationships we’ve been avoiding dealing with, which we might decide to tackle today. Not easy, but full of meaning.
I’m not married, so I want to borrow a final thought from George Dalton, a Christian writer who is:
I never look at my wife without saying a prayer of thanksgiving for her wonderful parents. Have I always been the perfect son-in-law? No, do you think the apostle Peter was the perfect son-in law? Probably not, because he was human just like we are, but we know he had a mother –in-law, and I’ll bet he loved her and honored her.
Dalton invites us to make a decision to show God’s love to all of our in-laws and awkward relatives. He notes that at first, if we change our behaviour, they’ll think we’re taking the mickey – but if we love them for long enough, they’ll realize that you really mean it!