Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who Is My Mother? Who Are My Brothers?

Sheepscott Community Church June 14, 2009

1 Samuel 8: 4-20; 11: 14-15
Mark 3: 20-35

Who Is My Mother? Who Are My Brothers?

A few weeks ago friends were visiting us from out-of-state. At a point well into the evening, when the candles were burning low, the wife alluded to the couple’s children, saying somewhat wistfully that neither of their children––one of whom is about 40 and the other approaching 40––was practicing the religion in which they had been raised. Although she herself is not religious, she understood the value of a religious upbringing for establishing a sense of moral foundation and supported her husband’s raising their children in his faith. She was concerned about the next generation in a world that was not as solidly religiously based as the one we might have known.

“And what about your kids?” she asked me. “Are they practicing their religion?”I had to say no. Like our friends, we had raised our children in the Christian faith. They were baptized and confirmed Catholics and continued at church until their teen years. At, and after that time, they began to follow their own way, which is to say, not attending church on a regular basis.

How did I feel about that, she asked. My first answer was that I had never lost any sleep about them in that area because I knew them to be good and loving people––most of the time. I almost thought then and still do think and feel that they themselves are responsible before God for their actions. We trained them p in the way we thought they should go, and now it’s up to them.

When I read this morning’s reading from Samuel, however, in preparation for this message, I was thinking more about the undefined line between parental guidance in the area of another’s faith and when that becomes unwelcome interference, a kind of evangelization that does not honor the separateness of the other person before God––yes, even our own children as separate persons––and the inviolability of that sacred space between them and God. But is that just an excuse? Taking the easy way out?

What caught my attention in the reading from Samuel was verse 4, the elders of Israel saying to Samuel, “You are old and your sons do not walk in your ways.” These elders did not trust Samuel’s sons, whom he had appointed as judges in Israel to lead them after his death, and they wanted a king to lead them. The concern of the elders was well-placed, for as the scripture points out, Samuel’s sons “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.”

In Samuel’s story, God does not seem to hold the prophet responsible for his sons’ actions, unlike the sons of Eli, who was the high priest when Samuel was first called by the Lord. In fact the first prophesy Samuel received when the Lord woke him from sleep focused on an indictment of Eli’s sons, who, as helpers in the temple, had been illegitimately taking the choice parts of the sacrifices away from God. As a result, God spoke this word of prophesy through Samuel to Eli, that the priesthood would pass away from Eli’s house, that God would judge Eli’s family forever because Eli’s sons had made themselves contemptible, and Eli did nothing to restrain them.

The only differentiation that I can distinguish between the two cases is that while Samuel’s sons also were guilty of sin, they were sinning in human matters of business and gain, whereas the sons of Eli were cheating God of his, God’s portion. In any case, the Samuel situation reminded me of the Eli situation because of the common denominator of wayward children, regardless of age, and how God might view culpability for that waywardness.

These questions bring us to Jesus’s question in this morning’s gospel, of those assembled in a house where he had gathered with his disciples. After he was told that his mother and brothers were outside and looking for him, he looked around at those seated there and asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” That was a very radical statement in that part of the world where family and tribal identification was everything. Think of Eli’s house, his family, descendants of Aaron, who had been named to the priesthood forever, before that privilege was withdrawn by God because of their abuse of the privilege. Their whole identification was with Aaron and the priesthood. Here in the West family and tribal identification is also very important, witness only one sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house. You get a clear picture of the connections and disconnections at such an event, but it’s all family. However, I believe that family in the Near East has different kinds and levels of political and social meaning from family in the West.

If we tolerate a few misguided Democrats in our Republican families or a few misguided Republicans in our predominantly Democratic families, in the Near East that tolerance of stepping away from the family tribe is probably considerably less, as we can observe in the enmity between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq. We get a sense of the competitiveness between these two pillars of Islam, acted out in family rivalries that translate into governing structures. Family loyalty to the point of death, and defending the family’s honor are everything. I only want to suggest to you why what Jesus is saying would be considered radical in that part of the world.

Let’s tease this apart a little bit more. Jesus doesn’t make that statement about mothers and brothers until the end of today’s gospel, which opens with the scene of a house so crowded with people who have come to see Jesus that he and the disciples can’t even eat some bread. When Jesus’s family hears about this, they go out to take charge of him, the gospel says, because “He is out of his mind.”

Why would they say that? Recall that the writer of Matthew has Jesus say, “A man’s foes, or enemies will be those of his own household,“ which is a quotation from the prophet Micah, chapter 7, verse 6. Two questions arise: Why would they think he was crazy? And what kind of an alternative model of family or kinship might Jesus be suggesting?

To answer the first question, they thought he was out of his mind because he had left home and family and probably a successful carpentry business in Nazareth for the life on the road of a wandering preacher. As William Barclay suggests in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “No sensible man... would throw up a business where the money came in every week to become a vagrant who had no place to lay his head.”

His family also knew that Jesus was provoking the religiously powerful men of his day, the scribes and pharisees, the experts in the law. Because of the power wielded by these men to make or break a person in the community, most people, if they had any common sense would try to stay on their good side. Not Jesus. He consistently called these men on their positions, challenging them by his inspired questions and deft arguing to really look at what they were saying and to consider the people whom their statements and judgments were affecting in their everyday lives. More than once he laid bare the hypocrisy that underlay their religious leadership.

So, he gave up a good job for life on the road, he was the antagonistic provocateur of the religiously and so, politically powerful men of his day, and, the third reason for his family thinking he had taken leave of his senses was that he had started hanging out with a really questionable crowd: some ignorant fishermen, a reformed tax collector for Rome and an ultra-nationalist fanatic were among them. You can’t really blame his family for wondering whether he was hitting on all cylinders.

However, from the point of view of a man bent on carrying out the will of God in his life as he discerned it through years of listening and sensing, of prayer and worship, it was clear that what most people used as the yardstick for judging a life meant little or nothing to Jesus. He had thrown away security when he left his job in Nazareth. He had also thrown away safety, choosing to follow a course of action that involved risk. And last, and possibly the most annoying to his family, was that he had shown himself indifferent to the verdict of society about him or his lifestyle, and how that might reflect on his family. He knew who he was––remember those days in the desert in preparation for his ministry. He had met himself in the forms of his particular temptations and he had resisted those temptations. He knew himself. He didn’t need his family or the neighbors to tell him who he was. If they made judgments about him, the judgments were on their own heads.

There’s a lovely story about the 17th-century Christian writer and preacher John Bunyan in prison. The author of The Pilgrim’s Progress was afraid that that imprisonment might end at the gallows and did not like the idea of being hanged. Who would? One day he felt ashamed of being afraid. To quote him: “Methought I was ashamed to die with a pale face and tottering knees for such a cause as this.” He came to a conclusion as he pictured himself climbing up the stairs to the scaffold. “Wherefore, thought I, I am for going on and venturing my eternal state with Christ whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell; Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do: if not, I will venture for thy name.” That is precisely what Jesus was willing to do. He ventured for God’s name. That was the essence of the life of Jesus, and that––not safety and security or reputation––should be the center of every Christian life.

What is Jesus is saying here about family in the context of his early public life? If his mother and brothers did not constitute his family in his new way of thinking, what is he suggesting could constitute a family?

The basis of true kinship can rest on several grounds other than blood. Common experience is one, especially if it is an experience where two or more people have really come through things together. I think of the choir in this church, very much like a family within a family. I think of all people in NYC, who experienced 9-11 as no one else in the country did, and the families of those who died at that time––they are another kind of family with a terrible and deep bond. As are those families who mourn for their loved ones lost on the Air France airbus from Rio to Paris two weeks ago. Support groups who meet to help each other stay sober, or stay away from any and all addictive substances––these are real kinship bonds, necessary to establish as a kind of family in such a mobile society where we are often far away or estranged from our families of origin.

Those examples overlap with the idea of common interest joining people in a kinship-like relationship. Christians can recognize that kind of kinship because they have a common interest in knowing, learning and experiencing more about Jesus, the basis for all denominational expressions of Christian religion.

Kinship can also derive from a shared common obedience, as in a platoon of soldiers from many different backgrounds who have the common bond of obedience to the commanding officer and beyond that to the Commander-in-Chief. They are part of a group that will stand for each other, and beyond their own interests, for a common goal, which is another characteristic of a kinship group.

Common experience, common interest, common obedience and common goal––only four ways of experiencing kinship that are not of the ordinary or expected family model, and Jesus with his troop of followers did choose a new model. If his family cared to come along for the ride––and who really knows how that all played out––I feel sure Jesus would have welcomed the company. Would have loved the company.

To arc back to the beginning of this message, what about our kids? In later life what can we do but love these members of our families and set the best example we can by being faithful to the principles we have lived by through life, modifying them when we see or understand something more clearly than we did before. It might help to make a few signs in our own minds that we hold up for reading when the occasion demands, such as: Bite your tongue: No unsolicited advice, please.

I remember when the kids were small and having to step outside the door from time to time to keep it together. It’s a good idea to do that, at least mentally, when we feel like we are going to lose it. So many doors slam shut permanently because of words spoken in anger or judgment that can not be taken back. There are some who will forgive such words, but there are others who will not, and when conversation ceases, so do opportunities for growth in relationship and expressions of love and concern.
opportunities for growth in relationship and expressions of love and concern.

Even with all that, I say clearly that when we see something that is egregiously wrong, where someone is in harm’s way verbally or physically or indeed spiritually, and whether that wrong is being acted out by our own children, by an acquaintance or friend, or by a stranger, we need to speak out and take the same risks that Jesus took. The tipping point, the telling point is whether our personal pride is involved or any sense of asserting our perceived power, that is where you, where we can tell if we are acting in God’s will, as part of that universal family of the divine parent.

If we have consecrated ourselves to God, which is to say surrendered our lives as best we can, we can count on the impetus, the push-to-shove from the Spirit of God that moves and leads us to speak out in such a case.

So, I’m telling you two things: Speak the truth as you best discern it when the occasion demands, whether it’s to your own kids or someone else. Do not speak when the urgency is based on anger or in a sense of the importance of your own point of view, the rightness of your position. Check in with God in such a case before wrongfully ruining a relationship in order to say what we might think is true––and may be––but doing that without the love of God informing what we say. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting history. But the most important part to me is the ending paragraph. When to speak and when not. God's love is the most important part of the decision.
    Thank you