The Family of Jesus, Our Brother

A Sermon on Mark 3:20-35

Nearly seventy years ago, Bob brought a young woman home to meet his parents for Thanksgiving. His father and mother, Howard and Gertrude, were faithful German Catholics. But Betty, the young woman, was not. Betty, my mother, was a faithful, evangelical Protestant, who, before meeting my father, had thought about becoming a missionary. The fact that they ended up in the Episcopal Church makes for a classic story about why our particular branch of Christianity has often become a safe place for people with all kinds of different religious roots. But that's a story for another time.

The story I want to share with you today is about my grandmother's response to the news that her Catholic son wanted to marry someone who was not Catholic. It was November, 1945, not quite six months after D-Day. My dad had just been discharged and was now home from the Air Force. He and my mom met on a blind date. It was love at first sight. Now, Dad had come home to ask his father and mother's blessing on his marriage. But before my grandfather could respond, my grandmother blurted out, “You WILL NOT marry that woman! Oh, my diabetes!!” and stormed out of the room.

My mom and dad moved in with her parents, with their blessing, for the holiday weekend, until they could figure things out. But there wasn't much time for that. Two days later, on Saturday morning, there was a knock at the door. It was my grandmother, and she was ready to pick up the fight, right where she left it. “You will NOT marry that man!” she repeated. To which my mother replied, “Yes, I WILL!” And then, my grandmother dropped her ecclesiastical bomb. “If you try to marry my son, if you go to any church in this city, I will send an arrangement of funeral flowers to the wedding!”

The post-World-War-II era was a time in our country's history when “mixed marriages” – back then, a Catholic and a Protestant – didn't happen all that often. We can still understand how someone might have a strong, even violent, reaction to such a “culture shock” of an idea. But over the years I have come to believe that what my grandmother did was an act of ecclesiastical terrorism, perpetrated by a woman I never knew – she died of her illness when I was two years old – in the name of her religion. Sometimes, it's the one who knows us best and loves us most, the one who teaches us tons about how to be a Christian – sometimes it's that very special person who teaches us – unwittingly, unconsciously, unintentionally, perhaps even when fully conscious and intentional – how NOT to follow Jesus, how NOT to be a sister or brother in Christ.

I grew up in the 60s, an era when the phrase “Kill a Commie for Christ” became popular. Since then, you may have heard some variation on that terrible theme. I don't know for sure, but “Kill a Protestant” or “Kill a Catholic for Christ” may have been popular in Ireland years ago. In this country it's been “Kill a Negro” or perhaps “Kill a Jew” – or, more recently, “Kill a Muslim for Jesus.” These are extreme things to say anywhere, including from a pulpit. And yet. . .and yet, they honestly communicate real feelings experienced by real people. Perhaps these are feelings some of you, sitting here in this church – if not today, perhaps sometime in the past – may have had. Maybe what we feel is never so extreme as “Kill Someone for Christ.” Maybe it's always something kinder and gentler, something not so obvious, that we feel or say. Something like “Please keep those Muslims – or please keep those immigrants – or please keep those homeless, mentally ill people out of my neighborhood. Just keep them away from my family. And don't even think of bringing one of 'those people' home with you.”

These feelings of fear and anger had to be part of an emotional stew brewing back in Jesus' day, as described by St. Mark at the end of this, the third chapter in his Gospel account. Both his family and the religious authorities had no real clue just what to do with Jesus. Except they wanted him to change his behavior. Some religious authorities were already convinced he wouldn't change, and so, he needed to be gone. That's called “level five” conflict. Five out of five. We want you gone. Or dead. Or dead and gone.

What do people do when they want you to leave? They start making things up about you. Rumors. Gossip. Innuendo. First, Jesus' family heard people saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” Then, the religious authorities said, “He has Beelzebul, (the Devil) and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Jesus must have known what was happening. He must have known they were frightened and threatened by all the healings he had done. Countless people thronged to him, illustrated by a half dozen healing stories in Mark's first two chapters, half of which describe possession by demons and unclean spirits. What better way to get rid of someone than claiming THEY are the one who's possessed? It reminds me of those priests or preachers who are full of the very sin those preachers would deny is within them, while they try and cover things up.

Whenever it comes to religious hypocrisy, Jesus will have none of it. He uses the scribes' own logic to defeat them. "How can Satan cast out Satan?” And then he uses a reference to his own strength, first described by John the Baptist. Remember? “The one who is more powerful than I,” John said, “is coming after me. . .he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8). This helps us see what Jesus means when he uses that other image of strength: “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” Jesus is saying that the powers of evil must be recognized and confronted – named, claimed and tamed, whenever we see them – if we are to experience the depths of God's gracious gift, God's never-ending love for us.

But those powers – today we often speak of evil, institutional powers as “isms” – may be hard to see. Like Racism. Is racism getting better or worse since we elected a Black President? And Ageism. Materialism. Fundamentalism. Militarism. Jesus uses the metaphor of tying up the strong man to reveal the scribes' captivity – and ours! – to these kinds of “strong men,” those painfully powerful people and institutions who have dominated life, throughout human history. The question is: How have we, how do we – unwittingly, unconsciously, unintentionally – become captive to the powers and forces of sin and evil we find in our human institutions? Are all of our institutions now broken? Government. Finance. Healthcare. Education. Even Religion. Even the holy institution of Marriage. And then, there's the blessed institution of. . .Family.

It's that last powerful institution – the family – that Jesus takes on, head on, in today's Gospel story. Jesus is clear: those who choose to be on the outside of his circle of friends – including, at this moment in his life, his own flesh and blood – will stay on the outside. Unless they and we are ready to do God's will, to “listen to God's word and (actually) do it” (Luke 8:21). Unless they and we are ready to include anyone else who is a friend of Jesus, a true sister or brother, in our circle of friends. In other words, just because we are born into a family that claims to follow Jesus does NOT automatically make us Jesus' friend, or brother, or sister, or mother. Christians are made, not born.

“In his response to his family's request to see him,” one preacher suggests, “(Jesus) is reminding them (and us) that those who take care of us, love us and nurture us can also help bind us to Satan” (Nibs Stroupe, Feasting on the Word, p. 119). Even our parents, for example, can take us to church and teach us how to love Jesus and yet –unwittingly, unconsciously, unintentionally – show us how to be a first-class religious bigot. What did Jesus say to correct St. Peter when he got out of line? What might someone have said to my grandmother? “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23)

There is one “ism,” one institutional evil power that I have not yet named. It's the sin of sexism, and, unfortunately, the evil of institutional discrimination against women, is alive, even today. Nearly thirty years ago Walter Wink, a groundbreaking New Testament scholar noted for using the biblical phrase “principalities and powers” to describe the institutions of our times, suggested that Jesus does not mention fathers in his list of family members, here and in other Gospel passages, because the family “serves as the citadel of male supremacy, the chief inculcator of gender roles, and a major inhibitor of change. It is in families where most women and children are battered and abused, and where the majority of women are murdered. In a great many cultures, men are endowed with the inalienable right to beat, rape, and verbally abuse their wives. The patriarchal family is thus the foundation on which the larger units of patriarchal dominance (and sexism) are based” (The Powers That Be, pp. 75-78). Simply by virtue of our birth, men are part of the problem. We men also need to be part of the solution.

Now, I don't know if you have heard about what's been happening to the nuns of the Catholic Church. But I have a particular soft spot in my heart for these wonderful women of God, these religious sisters who are sisters to the likes of you and me, too. It seems that the Pope, who's known as the “Holy Father,” has been telling them, through his doctrinal office, that they are too outspoken on issues of social justice, like caring for the nation's poor and disenfranchised, and too silent on issues the Catholic Church considers crucial: contraception, abortion and gay marriage. An article published last Tuesday entitled “Nuns, Rebuked by Rome, Plan Road Trip to Spotlight Social Issues,” tells how a group of nuns is planning a bus trip – that's a bus, not a Pope-Mobile – across nine states later this month, stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and health care facilities – all run by other nuns – to highlight their ongoing work with their sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus. The name of the tour? “Nuns on the Bus: Nuns Drive for Faith, Fairness and Family.” They will stop in the state of Maryland.

“By reserving the name father for God,” Walter Wink said, “Jesus subverts all. . .(sexist) structures. No one can now claim the authority of the father, because that power belongs to God alone” (ibid.). I wonder: Do I need to change my title of “father” to “Reverend Tom” and stand in solidarity with my sister clergy? What might I do, what little things with great love, as Mother Teresa once put it, might you and I to help our church, our world and our own families become more a part of the family of Jesus?

Here's Walter Wink, one last time: “Human beings will, of course, continue to be born to biological families. The family is not intrinsically evil. It is the source of great good.” Yes, indeed it is! “Like every Power, (the family) is created by God, and thus is holy and just and good. . .The family is fallen. . .(but). . .capable of redemption. . ..The goal is not the eradication of the family, but its transformation into a. . .partnership of mutuality and love. As such, (our families are) exemplary of the new family of Jesus” (ibid.).

By the way, my mom and dad celebrated 65 years of marriage before her death at the end of 2010. On their 25th anniversary they had their marriage blessed in the Episcopal Church. I preached at their 50th anniversary's renewal of wedding vows. I told my dad last week I was proud to be the son of such a courageous man, and I thanked him for his Christian witness and example. I now know that my mother and my father created, with God's help, a new, imperfect but perfectly human family of Jesus.

In the past week I have seen two bumper stickers about Jesus. One said, “Jesus is a Liberal.” The other said, “Jesus is the Answer.” I think we need a new bumper sticker, a new theology of Jesus, one that simply says, “Jesus is my brother.” If we really want to be part of the family of Jesus, if we really want to be Jesus' sister or brother, if we really want to renounce what our Baptismal service calls “the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 302), then maybe, just maybe, we need to welcome all the sisters and brothers we possibly can into this household of God, regardless of how they were raised or where or whether they put down religious roots. Maybe we need to learn, over and over again – and always, with God's help – how to be the real sisters and the real brothers Jesus is calling us to be.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
June 10, 2012