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Expanding the Family Room
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

First Presbyterian Church, Nashville
Dr. Todd B. Jones
Mother's Day, May 13 2012

Expanding the Family Room
Psalm 98
Acts 10:34-48

Ours is a world full of boundaries. No-Trespassing signs will tell you to find another way to go. No-Parking signs tell you to keep looking for a space. A floating rope in a swimming pool separates the deep from the shallow end. Lines painted on a gym floor tell you where you must stop lest you find yourself "out of bounds." Red stakes and yellow stakes do the same in golf. (The way I play the game, I see them all the time!) In the town where I grew up, railroad tracks divided the community, and you could live "on the other side of the tracks." Rivers, mountain ranges and sometimes carefully negotiated invisible borders provide boundaries for nations and states. From fenced yards to fenced borders, our boundaries try to keep insiders in and outsiders out. A visit to Berlin in 2005 remains unforgettable as I recall the vestiges of that wall that became a symbol of global politics in the twentieth century.

Whether visible or invisible, boundaries not only segregate but they also function to reinforce our identities. Not all boundaries are bad. Families, groups of friends, religions, teams, troops, and corporations depend on various boundaries to create and sustain themselves.

One way of reading the Old Testament is to see how Israel sought to create boundaries around all of life to protect and to sustain their identity in the world as God's chosen people. So the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 is a monumental event in the life of the early Church. Like Jesus, Peter was a Jew whose identity was reinforced by his observance of Jewish dietary laws. Cornelius, on the other hand, though "a devout man who feared God with all his household," was a Gentile. The Jews often referred to Gentiles as "dogs." Cornelius was also a Roman Centurion, one of the group responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and the oppressive control of the Jews by Rome. Luke wants us to know of the differences and the boundaries that should keep these two men apart, or at least at a safe distance from each other.

So both these men have dreams. Peter has a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven, and in it were all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds, all of them forbidden by Jewish dietary laws. But a voice said, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat!" Peter protests. But God says, "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean."

At the same time, Cornelius also has a vision, and in his vision he is told by an angel to send for a certain man in Joppa named Simon, who is called Peter. So while Peter is pondering what his vision means, the men Cornelius sent arrive. Peter is told by the Spirit to meet them, for they have been sent by the Holy Spirit.

The next day Peter goes with them to meet Cornelius, and in meeting him, begins at Cornelius' invitation to preach. Peter begins by saying, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable in His sight." Peter thought at first his vision was only about food, about dietary boundaries. But when he hears of Cornelius' vision, Peter realizes his vision is not just about food, but about people and about the boundary, the huge boundary between Jew and Gentile.

So led by the Holy Spirit, Peter proclaims that "Jesus Christ is Lord of all." And while Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard his word. And Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he baptized Cornelius and all the Gentiles who were with him, and he stayed with them for several days.

Now this is a story about the extravagance, the exquisite choreography of the Holy Spirit, something we all sense in our own lives if we are at all alive to God. But it is also a story about the wideness of God's grace. "I truly understand that God shows no partiality…."

And it is a story about crossing time-honored, revered boundaries. And all of this on Mother's Day! "What on earth does this have to do with mothers?" I have asked all week, because I am not dumb enough to cross that boundary and ignore Mother's Day completely from the pulpit! I do agree, though, with the ancient Spanish proverb. It says, "An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy." And I sympathize with the little girl, who wrote, "Dear Mommy, I wish Mother's Day wasn't always on Sunday. It would be better if it was on Monday so we wouldn't have to go to school."

But back to our Biblical text! Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether said that the Church has two jobs: "One is to pass on the tradition from one generation to the other. And the second is to be open to the winds of the Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation." As I have been thinking about those two jobs of the Church, I have realized that these are not so different from the task of parenting.

As parents, we need to pass on the tradition from one generation to another. I loved it last week when Mary Elizabeth Colton reminded us of what her brother said a few years earlier on Youth Sunday, quoting his father. "Remember, you're a Colton! Stand tall!" This is a huge part of the task of parenting, to teach our children the tradition of what it means to be part of our family. My parents have been dead for years, my grandparents even longer. But they speak to me all the time, and there is not a day of my life in which I don't remember gratefully all they gave to me, and in which I do not want to lead a life that would make them proud. I will forever be Ben and Eva Marie Jones' baby boy!

But parenting does not stop with simply passing on the tradition. You have to make it live! You have to teach your children to be open to the winds of the Spirit so that the tradition can come alive in them, so they can live their own lives faithfully. Because in the end of the day, our children do not live our lives (They don't even live the lives we want for them to live.); they must live their own lives. Our task is to nourish them with something substantive, with a sense of what is true and what is false, a sense of what is lasting and what is only passing, a sense of what is right and what is wrong, a sense of what is healthy and life-giving, and what is dangerous and destructive.

Jaroslav Pelikan taught historical theology at Yale for many years. He said once, "Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people. But tradition is the living faith of dead people." Our children need tradition. They need truth and love that are real. They need boundaries, yes. But they also need to be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit, so the tradition you offer them can come alive in them in their own time and place.

In 1976 at the Montreal Olympics, Finland's Lasse Viren won both the five thousand and ten thousand meter runs. He won the same two gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. But after the second double gold medal performance, his coach urged Viren to enter the marathon and try to do what only Emil Zatopek had done in 1952 in Helsinki, winning all three gold medals. Viren agreed, but he had a huge problem: He had never before run a marathon. (Not just in the Olympics, but never anywhere!) This was going to be his first-ever marathon, a race run more than any other between your ears.

So his coach offered Viren a plan. Frank Shorter was in the race, too, and Frank Shorter had won the gold medal at the 1972 Munich games. His coach told Viren, "Follow Frank Shorter. If he lays back, you lay back. If he surges, you surge. Whatever he does, you do."

Viren was not able to win. But the strategy worked pretty well. In a field of world class marathoners, Viren finished fifth … and he did it following the example of Frank Shorter.

As parents and grandparents, we are Frank Shorters. We have been running the race of life longer. We know how hard, how painful it can be. And our children and grandchildren are Lasse Virens – they are full of talent and promise – so full of God-given potential – but the only way they learn to run the race of life is by following in our steps.

When I was youth pastor in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, we always went on a beach retreat with our leaders at the end of the summer, so the kids at the core of that youth group were ready for the fall kick-off. I took Josh with us one year to Broadkill Beach in Delaware, when he was four years old. We were out on the beach with a bunch of kids early in the morning and I was walking. I turned around at one point, and saw Josh behind me with one of the high school kids helping him. He was trying with his little legs to put his feet in my footprints in the sand. It is a picture I have never forgotten. Our kids will follow in our footsteps, so we better watch where and how we walk.

I remember Tom Gillespie's trip here a few years ago for Kirkin' of the Tartan. He told about a tourist visiting our nation's capital with a taxi driver. They rode past the National Archives Building, where you can find among other documents the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It is our nation's tradition – "the living faith of dead people." Inscribed high on the wall are these words: "The Past is Prologue." The taxi driver read these words out loud, and then said, "It means, 'You ain't seen nothing' yet.'"

And on this Mother's Day, that is not a bad word. Honor your children by sharing with them the tradition – the scriptures, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, your own faith practices. Let them know what you believe most dearly and deeply. But teach them as well to be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit, so the tradition may come alive in them.

Because the past is prologue. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."


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