A good friend of mine recently conducted a survey of churches in his small city. He called all of the churches, big and small, all denominations, and he called late at night so no one would be in the office. My friend wanted to hear all of the voicemails, and he did, hearing clergy voices and Office Administrator voices, and all had a welcoming message. But among the things the voice shared about the church was this, “We are a family church”. In 75% of the voicemails those five words were included in some variation. What do you suppose was meant by those words? It could be that the church was letting you know that like the early church we read about in the Book of Acts they communicate and share like a family. That would be a blessing! But there is also the real possibility that the intention was to let you know this church contains, includes, young families; mother, father, two children, you know, a family.
There is something about this model of family that normalizes an institution, that makes people feel they are in a good place, a place like them. Even if the prospective parishioners are in their 80’s there is this yearning to be in a church with “young families”, specifically families like the ones we normalize. If you have doubts about this look around your bank the next time you visit your local financial institution. The pictures on the walls, on their websites, on their brochures, all include mother, father and two healthy children. And churches for that matter do the same, even a congregation that hasn’t seen a child attend services for five years have photos all over their website of young heterosexual, healthy, families.
I get it. If you are one of those families, or you used to be, there is a sense that you are among your own. Further, you feel like the church is doing what it ought to do, teach younger persons about good “values”, honesty, integrity, giving back, service, kindness, overall goodness. Who wouldn’t want to be part of an institution that does that, that see that as its mission? Churches like this usually have the Ten Commandments posted on their walls, the Honour Your Mother, Honour Your Father, being two of the most popular. But all of those commandments work well with the paradigm of internal family values, how we are to treat those we know, those we love.
But the challenge for those trained, taught and steeped in the church of “family values” is how do we regard those not known to us, not kin to us, outside the boundaries of our church, of our family values? And on this score the church has not always fared well. I referenced last week our (Lucy, Kim and me) experience listening to residential school survivors who shared their stories, being taken from their own families, their communities, their traditions, their rituals, their language, their culture, and given “other” family values, “our western European” family values. The genesis of that decision, of that effort, is one culture feeling it is privileged to do that to another culture, feeling it/we are Christian and they are not. Oddly a movement begun by a Palestinian Jew has been normalized by white Europeans. And Jesus’ “family values” have morphed into 20th century American “family values”, that transition as seamless as it historically strange.
Matthew Skinner, New Testament Professor at Luther Seminary has some interesting observations about our Gospel text this morning.
If you’re looking for snapshots of well-adjusted and happy parent-child relationships from the ancient world, the Bible probably shouldn’t be on your short list of sources. Consider Jesus’ family. The New Testament preserves evidence suggesting that Jesus’ relationship with his family was rather strained. An important source is our reading this Sunday, Mark 3:20-35. “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!’”.
Yet, Christian tradition has had a difficult time reckoning with the perhaps troubling idea of family strife between Jesus and his kin. Consider what translators and even other Gospel authors have done with Mark 3:21:
•The King James Version totally removes Jesus’ family from this part of the scene, saying: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’”
•The authors of Matthew and Luke, whose books were produced after the Gospel of Mark and who included scenes similar to Mark 3:20-35, omitted from their narratives any suggestion that Jesus’ family thought he was crazy.
When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Look, here [these people seated around me] are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister and mother.”
It’s good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. It’s also good news for Mark’s earliest readers who found themselves estranged from their biological families (compare Mark 10:28-30). Bad news, however, for his relatives on the outside, and for others with high regard for customary notions of honor and social stability.
Jesus redefines the criteria for who constitutes his true family. More foundationally, Jesus makes a claim about what it might mean to belong to other people. He makes a claim about identity. Families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. Jesus speaks to deeply embedded cultural assumptions when he determines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God.
I have no doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels would not be well accepted within the social conventions of “family values” today. What kind of a son talks to his mother, to his brothers like this? Yet Jesus’ loyalty to them is less about a “family strain” and more about a family expansion. Jesus sees the love of a family as foundational but not limiting. Love may begin at home, with those we know. After all loving those with names and stories is an important part of character development. I know too many social “do-gooders” who love humanity…it’s human beings they can’t stand. But starting with the particular, with our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers we begin to develop love for the other, a love that we later extend, as Jesus surely did, to those who don’t know, those new to us, to strangers, to foreigners, to people not like us. Jesus demonstrated this development himself, he witnessed to this evolution.
Ask yourself how a single person, an ill person, an unmarried person, a person of colour, a gay/lesbian/transgendered person, feels about the images of “family values” we post on our church advertising? What is interesting to me is that those who in the past never gave the church a second look, because of how tied our identity to the normalizing of our surrounding culture, are the ones walking through our doors today. That is grace.
Jesus calls us to be the church and that means a church where family means all of God’s people not just the ones who look, act and talk just like us. Family is bigger than that. Jesus is bigger than that. We can be bigger than that. Thanks be to God for the invitation and imagination to be whom we are called to be. Amen.