Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jesus’ Family Values
Mark 3:20-35
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 10, 2012
Second Sunday after Pentecost

Though following God’s will sometimes separates us from those closest to us, God is always at work forming us into a community where grace is our common bond.

How can you not be in favor of family values?  Isn’t it the case that a strong society is dependent on stable nuclear families with a mom and dad who are always in harmony and where children are all well-adjusted high-achievers?  And wouldn’t it make sense that we should do everything in our power to make a strong family our chief priority and our first loyalty?  And wouldn’t you think that if anybody would be an ally in forming that kind of family, it would be Jesus?  Wouldn’t you think that one of Jesus’ main priorities would be to help people form happy, harmonious, stable, healthy families?

Jesus’ Mission and His Family

Jesus was doing so much good.  He was restoring peace of mind to people others had defined as demon possessed.  He had gone out of his way to heal a man who was paralyzed, and another whose withered hand made a normal life impossible.  He had demonstrated an ability to love people others had condemned.  Wouldn’t any parent be proud of a child who was intent on doing so much good in the world? 

 Not everyone was impressed, though.  The crowds were getting larger and larger when Jesus spoke.  He went back home to Capernaum, a little town by the sea, that he was calling home.  Like a rock star on tour, the crowds pressed in on him and his newly commissioned disciples so that they couldn’t even find a place to sit down and eat.  His family wasn’t as impressed as the crowds who’d come to hear him speak.

They were worried about Jesus.  He’d caused a lot of trouble.  He’d healed the paralytic on the Sabbath, instead of refusing to do work as the tradition had taught.  The Pharisees and scribes were angry with him for undermining their teaching.  The Herodians had even talked about killing him.  He’d cast out demons from several afflicted people.  They sent down people from the Conference office to check him out and concluded that since he was casting out demons, he must have a demon himself.  They were afraid for his safety.  They were afraid for their reputation and their safety.  After all, if someone is mentally imbalanced, his family probably had something to do with it.  They had not yet come to see themselves as among Jesus’ disciples.  They weren’t among the crowd pressing in on him.  They were on the outer perimeter of the crowd, trying to get to him.  “Come on home, Jesus.  You need to take some time off.  You’re not well.  We’ll get you a good doctor and some medicine and you’ll stop thinking about fighting demons.  You’ll let go of this obsession to help people even when doing so breaks our laws and traditions and makes our esteemed teachers angry.  You’ll be all right, Jesus.  We’ve got a room for you in a very nice hospital.”

That was what they’d concluded.  Jesus was not only mistaken or misinformed.  He was ill.  He was crazy, out of his mind, they said.   

I can’t imagine anything more disheartening.    It is one thing to have the religious authorities to misunderstand who you are and why you are willing to bend almost any tradition or rule to heal hurting people.  It’s something else altogether to have your own family question you.  What do you do when those closest to you, those who’ve raised you and grown up with you, don’t really understand who you are or what your mission on this earth is all about?

Our Families

There is something interesting if not profoundly ironic in realizing that Jesus’ family was not perfect.  They did not discern who he was or what he was really about.  They wanted to stop him.  They thought he was crazy.

Is there any such thing as the perfect family, the ideal family, the model family?  Please don’t get me wrong.  We all need and want strong, loving, accepting, nurturing families where we have the opportunity to grow up and become who we were meant to be, to have the opportunity to flourish and grow and develop our potential, to be happy.  So, you’d assume that if we start looking at the Bible, we’d find examples of those model families.

Let’s start with Adam and Eve, the first family.  What about their family?    Eve succumbed to the temptation by the serpent to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and asked Adam to eat the same fruit.  Adam blamed her for enticing him.   They both  felt guilt and hid from God and were thrown out of the garden.  They had a family.  Among their family were two boys Cain and Abel.  Cain was jealous of Abel and killed him.  What about their family values?

Let’s look at Abraham, regarded as the founder of the people of Israel.  They are the model family, right?  God promised him and Sara that they would be parents of many descendants in spite of their old age.  But they grew impatient, so Sara told Abraham to take Hagar, her servant, and have a child by her—Ishmael was his name.  Sara finally conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the heir of the promise to Abraham.  Sara grew jealous of Hagar and made Abraham send her away.  Regardless of how pleasant the reality show “Sister Wives” makes polygamy look, it certainly seems like a challenge, doesn’t it?  What were their family values?

How about King David?   Was he part of a model family?  Things were going well for awhile, until David decided to have Bathsheba brought to him.  They slept together, and she conceived a child that would eventually die tragically after birth.  David tried to cover up his adultery by having Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, sent home from the front line of battle, but he would not go into Bathsheba because he was a soldier completely devoted to King David’s cause.  So, David arranged to have him killed.  Later in David’s life, his son Absalom mounted a rebellion against him.  David wept bitterly as what had to be done was done—Absalom was killed.  What were their family values?

Your family may not have the drama and intrigue of the Sopranos or the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, but most of us realize that no matter how hard we try to form what we might consider to be an ideal family, it doesn’t always work out that way. 

There was tension in Jesus’ family over his mission, over his identity.  They did not understand him, just as our families don’t always understand us. 

Jesus’ Dilemma

Jesus is faced with a difficult set of circumstances.  As a faithful Jew, he can begin to doubt the truth of his message and the propriety of his tactics.  Maybe compassion for the sick and empathy for the tormented are just not worth all the criticism.   Who wants to go through life labeled as a tool of the devil because you’ve pushed against the boundaries of a great tradition?

But the more painful dilemma facing Jesus wasn’t how to respond to the wild accusations of the religious leaders he’d grown up being taught to revere.  It was how to keep the peace with his family.  To challenge authority is one thing, but to challenge your family, and to finally be rejected because they do not understand or accept you, leaves you vulnerable to being isolated, ostracized, abandoned, and alone.  Who among us could blame him if he’d heeded his family’s advice, tempered his message, quit facing down the forces of evil so that his family would withdraw their assumptions that he’d gone off the deep end?

This temptation is not as dramatic as his other encounters with Satan.  He’s not being asked to bow and worship the evil one in return for unlimited earthly power.  He’s just being asked to conform to the norm, to be a little more conventional.  In short, he’s being asked to quit taking this God thing quite so seriously.

He could be a good, respectable, devout Jew, perhaps even a well-respected rabbi.  But he’s got to quit making everybody so uncomfortable.  He’s got to quit healing sick people on the Sabbath.  After all, they’ve suffered long enough, let them suffer awhile longer!  And dealing with these demons, that’s not very wise, even if he has some kind of supernatural authority over them that makes them flee his presence so that troubled people are restored to sanity.  There are just some things that are just too hot to handle—presenting yourself as an authority over demons just makes people ask exactly where you get the power you think you have. 

But Jesus refuses to water down his message or to walk away from troubled people or to back down from any force that robs a person of the fullness of life God intends.  He doesn’t say to the crowd who’d assembled to hear him proclaim words of hope and to enact the power of God’s kingdom over against those who were content to be compliant with pain, suffering, and oppression, “You’ve got to leave now.  I’ve got to go home and work through some things with my mom and my brothers and sisters.”

He says something that is more than insensitive—it’s hurtful.  For a parent to hear any child declare that their family is not something they cherish and appreciate makes you feel as if all your efforts to raise and loving, loyal child have failed.  Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  As if he didn’t even know their names.  As if he’d forgotten who’d nurtured him to this point in his life.  As if he’d forgotten all that Mary had gone through to give birth to this special child.  “Who are they?  I don’t even know their names.”  And then he looks around, not at Mary, not at his brothers and sisters, but at the crowd, “Here are my mother and brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

I know it sounds harsh.  But aren’t you glad that Jesus had the courage to decide that he would do God’s will even if the religious leaders accused him of evil or insanity?  Aren’t you glad that Jesus refused to respond to the anxiety and concern of his own family, much as he must have loved them?  You see, Jesus knew that his life would not be an easy one.  He knew that the world needed something more than another gifted teacher of the law, and he knew that his family needed something more than the typical obedient eldest son. 

The world needed someone who was willing to stand against religion that was big on outward form but lacking inward power.  The world needed someone to stand up to evil even if that meant being linked with the very forces he was fighting against.  The world needed someone who put human hurt and suffering above proper observance of rituals.  The world needed someone unafraid to do God’s will, even if that would lead to rejection by his community, family, and even if that would lead to the brutal suffering of death on a cross.  Jesus was going to be faithful to God’s call on his life.  Jesus was going to being the agent of the redemption of the world, regardless of what suffering he experienced.  Jesus’ loyalty was to a much larger family—the human family who still stands in need of his power, grace, and mercy!

Jesus’ Family Values

Jesus redefined the bonds of family.  The family he was most interested in wasn’t the family that was held together by blood, shared history, common genetic traits and characteristics, or by proximity or location.  “Those who do the will of God…  Those are the folks in my family,” he said. 

I know it may sound harsh, but isn’t there something liberating in those words?  Sometimes our families get into trouble not because people love each other too little—yes that is a problem, but because people love each other too much.  It’s easy for a spouse or a partner to think that the other person is there to bear the obligation of making them happy.  It’s easy for children to assume that it is their parents’ job not only to provide for their basic human needs, but to give them everything they want.  It is easy for parents to assume that because they have fulfilled their duty of being loving, faithful, and steadfast, that they have some lifetime claim on their children to live their lives to make them happy. 

Jesus was inviting us to see our primary loyalty in a different way.  I know that this is hard, for there are many things, worthy things, good things, that demand our loyalty, time, energy, and attention.  Our nation, our job, and yes, our family.  But none of these things, good as they are, is worthy of our ultimate loyalty, our complete allegiance.  To put anyone of these things first in our lives is to be guilty of idolatry.  Idols never deliver on what they promise!

Jesus offers something else.  Jesus invites us to be part of his family—we have a name for it.  It is called the church.  And it is a place where we are bound together not by racial identity, class, status, gender, sexual orientation, but by something else—our desire to do the will of God.  And something odd happens.  When we put God first, and accept our place in this community, the new creation, Paul calls it, we find that everything else begins to find its proper place in our lives.  We love our family,  we work hard to ensure its health and stability.  But we do not idolize it.  We realize that our family, as good as it is, as loving and caring as it might be, cannot satisfy our deepest longings.  We recognize that our family is no more immune from imperfection, frailty, and yes failure than the families of those great heroes of faith, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sara, David, and yes, even Jesus’ family that struggled to grasp how to order itself in light of the mission announced by Jesus.  And knowing that most families aren’t perfect helps us to love and accept our families even with their imperfections. 

Something interesting happened with Jesus’ family.  I’m sure they went home angry, hurt, confused by what Jesus said that day.  But they came around.  They moved beyond their relationship with Jesus as mother, brothers, and sisters.    Tradition has it that Jesus’ brother James, though a hardliner in some respects on the law, was nevertheless the leader of the poor, struggling church in Jerusalem.  He became a disciple.  And no one could have been a more loyal, loving mother than Mary.  Nor have many who’ve come after surpassed her commitment as more than Jesus’ mother, but as his most loyal disciple.    When everyone else fell away as Jesus endured scourging, humiliation, and crucifixion, Mary seems to have walked that path, every step along the way with him.  Something changed her from that day at Capernaum when she thought he’d gone off the deep end.  She decided to join her Son in doing God’s will.  And there in that moment of greatest sorrow and testing, Jesus does finally speak not only as the Lord who calls Mary to join him in putting God first, but also as a loving son.  This family bound together with something other than flesh and blood had begun to take shape even before Jesus’ death, even before Pentecost.  There as he hung on the cross, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman here is your son.”  Then he said to John, “Here is your mother.”  And the Bible says that from that hour John took Mary into his own home.”  (John 19:26-27)  They were bound together not by flesh and blood, but by something greater, their common commitment to do the will of God, their common commitment to being disciples and followers of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ family can sometimes be an unusual, dare I say odd looking collection of folks.  They dress in different ways, may speak in different languages, even come from different parts of town, or different ethnic groups.  They may not resemble each other in any physical way at all, but they come together around one common desire, to follow Jesus, to put him first, to be faithful disciples.  And in doing that, they receive great joy, and all their other relationships find their proper place.


Fred Craddock describes this bond that is greater than blood, something he learned from his days serving a little church in Tennessee as a student:

“It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”

And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”[1]

I think something like that is what Jesus had in mind that day in Capernaum when everyone thought he’d lost his mind.  Amen. 

[1] Richard War and Mike Graves, eds., Craddock Stories, Fred Craddock (Saint Louis, MO:  Chalice Press), p. 152

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