No More Sermons – A Look at Family Values

Rev. Mark Braun, Wisconsin Lutheran College Professor of Theology

If I never hear another sermon about “family values,” it will be fine with me.

That may sound like an odd thing to read in this magazine. It may seem to contradict the theme of this particular issue of this magazine. But stay with me.

The portion of the religion curriculum that falls to me each semester includes courses on the Old Testament. Therefore, I meet regularly the awful depictions of “family values” that come to us on some pages of Scripture. We are confronted with alien cultural values and skewed personal behavior, entirely out of step
with what we have been taught to expect from the Bible.

Feeling inadequate that she has given her husband no male heir, Sarah encourages Abraham to take her young Egyptian maid Hagar to his bed, hoping to provide a son for him through her – and Abraham says, “Yes.” Family turmoil predictably ensued.

Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel (who are also sisters) battle, bargain and beg for their husband’s attention. He has made no secret of which wife he loves more; one has his heart, but the other keeps having his children. The sister-wives then raise the stakes by each giving their husband a concubine, so that for a time Jacob is fathering children by four women.

Great King David, the man after the Lord’s heart, collected wives as political chess pieces; lost his first wife through no fault of his own but then wrenched her from the arms of her new husband, only to all but imprison her in his palace; and married yet another woman almost immediately after the death of her foolish
husband. All this happened before he famously committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers, arranged for the husband to die a combat hero, then
comforted the grieving widow by adding her to his harem and beginning a family through her.

Wise King Solomon married seven hundred wives of noble birth and another three hundred concubines. The numbers boggle the mind. Has anyone attempted calculating how many descendants Solomon left behind?

My point is that when politicians, pundits or preachers indiscriminately exhort us to “return to Biblical family values,” we might ask, “Whose family’s values are you thinking of?”

But we do not live in the Old Testament times, and many of the transgressions of that era are no longer common among us. Still, if I never hear another sermon about “family values,” it will be fine with me. I know how easy it is to listen to such sermons – and how easy it is to preach them. I also know how difficult it is to live up to them.

Our particular tribe of Christians often comes under criticism for not being sufficiently vocal about our faith and values. Lutherans are accused of “quietism.” We appear reluctant to “confess with our mouths” the faith we surely “believe in our hearts.” Christians from other denominations – let’s not names names – are more vocal in the “family values” arena.

But what is often criticized as a weakness is something I regard as a strength. We are uncomfortable wearing our values on “our sleeves,” and we are often reluctant to tell others how they ought to live – because we know our own weaknesses and failings so well. We would much rather watch the unspectacular, day-to-day virtues of hard work, honesty, integrity, patience and commitment that people practice without fanfare.

Years ago, on the first day of an overseas tour, a woman joining our group introduced herself to me by saying, “I want you to know that I am a very good Christian.” Stated that way, she turned her introduction into a challenge to live up to. She turned out to be a difficult, demanding traveler – so much so, that if her bold claim and subsequent boorishness were the only criterion available to me to judge the merits of Christianity, I would sooner become almost anything else – or nothing at all – than a Christian.

I don’t want to hear another sermon about “family values,” because I already know all the things I should be doing and how I repeatedly have failed to live up to my intentions. Mark Twain is supposed to have admitted once that there were parts of the Bible he did not understand, but, he said, “It’s the parts of the Bible I do understand that bother me.”

What I need to hear is repeated assurances of God’s forgiveness, and frequent reminders that God’s strength will be made perfect in my weakness. I need to see more quiet examples of men and women who try, who fall down and who get up to try some more.


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