Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Authors have portrayed the gift of the family in a variety of ways. John Bowring penned the following, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”  George Santayana sighed, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” A witty high school writer captured an apt metaphor, “Our home is like a service station and garage – a place to refuel and to park yourself at night.”  Of course, not all families are healthy or stable. Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Or as the American humorist Sam Levenson once lamented over his family, “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.”

As we all know and have experienced this has been a hard year for families.  Children and their parents have struggled with loneliness in this pandemic. They have been separated from extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles and playmates. Of course, we’re all waiting to break out again and return to our old patterns and favorite haunts.  Yes, soon, the doors world will be open to you- and what will you do first?  What will your choices and priorities say and teach your family?

So with the year 2020 beginning to disappear in your rearview mirror Jesus’ invitation to discipleship to follow him may not sound rather bleak and cheerless. But my friends, I believe it is one of the most important lessons that we can offer our families.  So this morning, let us begin by recalling the lessons that we have learned in the past year, and then let us consider the  lessons that are important for us to teach our families in the year ahead.

For you, this past year may have been filled with one blursday after another, but what were the silver linings of this pandemic?  One lesson, you may have discovered is that there really is not much in life that is absolutely essential.  A year ago when shops, schools and workplaces closed down, there was fear everywhere and as well as annoyance. How am I going to survive without my daily latte from my favorite coffee shop, or my weekly manicure, or my Friday night visit to the sports bar? Yes, what we thought we could never live without now may seem rather silly, frivolous and completely unnecessary.  As we were forced into our own homes and out onto our decks and patios with just our immediate families, we quickly learned what is truly important in life, family, friends, health, happiness, and everything else was really secondary.

Over and over, you may have discovered a second lesson that there’s wonder in the everyday things of life- especially those things that prior to the pandemic had seemed so mundane, such as sending your kids off to school, hugging your parents, going to work, getting your monthly haircut, tying a tie in the morning, shopping in a crowded mall, eating out, attending weddings and going to church. When daily rituals and routines were gone, it nurtured a new sense of appreciation for the small things in life.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned was that nothing compares to a true, in-person interaction.  This past year may have been the introvert’s dream.  There was no longer an antisocial stigma associated with missing out on various events, from graduations to birthday parties to baby showers, and no excuses were necessary. By Zoom you could even attend a black-tie fundraiser in your sweatpants, but most people I know were longing for the return of real in-person relationships.

Certainly, we have all discovered that we are stronger and more adaptable than could have ever imagined. Those first weeks in March a year ago brought many of us to the edge of panic and despair. No leaving our homes unless it was absolutely essential?  Working from home for the foreseeable future? Kids home from school without play-dates, indoor attractions or playgrounds? Most of us wondered how we would make it past that first interminable day. And then one day passed, and then another, and when we realized that we hadn’t lost it – at least lost it completely, we began to move on to accept that new normal.  And as families, yes, as parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends, we taught those lessons to our children of what is truly essential, of how important in-person relationships are, and how strong and adaptable we can all be.  But my friends, as life has begun to seem brighter with the vaccinations for many on the horizon, and sun is now climbing higher in the sky warming the earth, there is a new set of lessons that will need to be taught. Most importantly, what is the life you long to return to?

This morning’s gospel, seems to be preparing us for that coming day. Jesus was warning his disciples, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” We are all going to be running after the excitement of the year that was lost, and chasing after the experiences we missed. Like Peter, you may not be particularly pleased with Jesus throwing a wet blanket onto your dreams and expectation for the future.  And frankly, neither were any of the other disciples. What in the world was Jesus talking about?  Suffering and the cross?  Certainly there had to be an alternative road of faith to travel.

And yet we read that Jesus taught his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”  That may not sound like good news as you are longing for this corona virus to be over and preparing to return to your former, normal life?  But my friends, it is a matter of perspective, energy and pursuit.  You and I are soon going to be making choices again.  And one of the most important questions will be, and now what place will faith play in your life?  And believe me, people, especially in your own family will be studying your actions.

So consider carefully Jesus’ invitation to follow. Will Jesus be a part of your decision making for the future or not?  I am reminded of the young mother who heard her young sons quarreling. She was preparing pancakes for her sons, Peter, 5, and Thomas, 3.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.  Their mother saw an opportunity for a moral lesson, What Would Jesus Do.  “Boys,” she said, “if Jesus was sitting here, he would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait.'”  So the older brother Peter turned to his younger brother and said, “Ok. Thomas. Today you can be Jesus.”  We’re not all that comfortable with Jesus’ words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”  Denying yourself is really about putting yourself in a proper perspective.  It is to ask yourself, what are your fundamental relationships?  Who is dependent upon you and your love?  Who needs you?   No doubt, that is what you discovered this past year. Returning to normal, will mean returning to those all important relationships.

Let us now contemplate Jesus’ second word, and perhaps, our greatest challenge.  “Take up your cross.” In happy, healthy families there is a strong possibility of emotional support.  This is especially true in times of crisis. The pandemic has taken a toll on the emotional and mental health of many families. As English author Charles Dickens wrote in his novel David Copperfield, “Accidents will happen in the best-regulated families.”  Crosses, great and small, have appeared on the horizon every day.  They may be spiritual challenges, perhaps a health concern, a financial burden, an issue of life and death.  How you meet the hour of trial will depend on your willingness to take up your cross for the sake of your family.

Unfortunately, one of the most persistent myths in society today and in the church, is that the normal and healthy families do not experience problems and stress. Let me assure you, normal Christian families do not always live in perfect harmony, not even the pastor’s family. The difference between healthy and destructive families, however, is not the absence of problems, but rather how they deal with crosses in their lives.  To carry the cross is your honor.  It is the privilege of going forward into life and living it fully, meeting everything that comes your way with a full heart and deep sympathy for those you meet along the way.  To carry the cross is the choice to do the right thing.

Finally, we need to learn and to teach our families how to follow Jesus- and how to make time for him.  In the midst of World War II, when British families were struggling with issues of hope and direction, C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist said in a BBC radio interview, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.” It is good advice for us today as well, as we begin to make choices. Why do we meet here Sunday after Sunday? Why do we study scripture and pray to God? What exactly are we trying to accomplish?  The answer is quite simple: we are here to stay in touch with our Savior. We want to become more aware of Jesus, to follow and to become more like him. It all begins by knowing who you are, and what and who is important to you.

My friends, it is my prayer for you as we draw near to the end of this pandemic, that you would learn to cherish and attend to Jesus’ invitation, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”  Yes, I pray that you would accept Jesus’ invitation- even if it is a way of suffering.  For “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.