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Please pray with me, “God, our relationships are difficult. We want so much to know we are accepted and belong but we struggle to accept others and create a space of belonging. We see differences more than we see similarities. We hang with those who are like us, those who make us feel comfortable and we ignore and fail to see those who discomfit us, who call us out and challenge us to greater things. Help us, Lord, to see with the eyes of love, to see with the eyes of compassion, and strengthen our hearts that we will stay present and not turn away.” Amen
With God all things are possible. This is our reality, our faith, the ground on which we stand. With God, all things are possible. We live in a world where change is hard, where divisions are easier to see than healing. Yet we stand within God’s word and proclaim the healing power of that word nonetheless. We insist on the basic truth of this word, this healing. We create our lives and make our decisions based on this unseen truth, that with God, all things are possible, all healing is within reach.
Today we are speaking about family, who is my family, and this is sort of an odd thing for a church that calls itself a family church to ask. We might almost take comfort in today’s scripture as it seems to affirm that all people who abide in Jesus, who follow Jesus’ way are family. But it’s a little uncomfortable too. There is a part of me that wants to take Jesus to task. I want to ask him if he forgot himself and where he came from that he would ignore his own mother standing outside the door. It was bad enough that when she came to him at the wedding at Cana asking him to help with the lack of wine that he called her “woman.” For all the mother’s out there I just want to say, “WHAT? You called your mother WHAT?” So just maybe there’s a little discomfort here too.
There is something about Jesus insisting that all who seek God, who follow him, who desire to be closer to God, are family and that blood bonds are not as significant that is deeply radical. We are familiar with the ten commandments including the need to honor one’s father and mother. This is a basic societal expectation in Hebrew society, but do you know how strongly it was enforced? When Jesus defied the expectation that he would drop everything and tend to his mother and his blood relatives he was again being the radical rabbi who turned every expectation on its head. In the era in which Jesus lived if a young man defied his family he could be drug outside the city gates and stoned to death. But Jesus defies this tradition just as he encouraged his followers to do so. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow him and the answer is yes, but. Yes, but, let me go and bury my father. And Jesus responds let the dead bury the dead, no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
It’s a scary text. It’s a text that insists we let go of our obligations, our community ties, our societal expectations and simply follow God. Just follow, now, right now, without hesitation. No wonder the pharisees and other religious thought this was cult! Would we be any different today?
Is anyone feeling a little less comfortable with our being a family church yet? Whew! Deep breath, so what does this mean for us? Are we to be a family church and if so what does that look like? What does it mean for us to follow Jesus, just go, now, right now, forsaking all other obligations and ties?
Robert Frost once defined home as the one place where, when you show up they have to take you in, no questions asked, you simply belong. I love this definition. To me it not only speaks of home but of church. Now I know there are churches that don’t really want the social misfits, the uncomfortable people, the ones who challenge our sense of what’s right, but I’m talking about church that welcomes all people exactly at they are. A church modeled on, formed on, in and through the very love that Christ shows us, gave to us and in which we seek ever to abide, is a church that sits with prostitutes, tax collectors, traitors, lepers and HIV positive people. No matter who you’ve been, or what you’ve done, you are welcome here, no questions asked.
This is the counter cultural church in action. I once knew a pastor who believed firmly in instant obedience. If he was in prayer and something came to him, he felt that he must act. So one day, this happily married pastor was in prayer when it came to him that he should go down to the corner where the prostitutes gathered in his town and invite them to church- so he did, immediately. He got up and walked down there, and evangelized. He brought a good message of hope, of love, of inclusion to these women who were treated very poorly by most upright, upstanding members of the community. Now, it took some time to win their trust but he felt that God had called him to do this and it was a bit uncomfortable to be standing down there talking to prostitutes when members of his congregation would drive by, but he did it anyway. He carefully explained to his wife what he was doing and he just kept on.
One bright sunny Sunday morning as the service was getting started a couple of these women walked in late to church. Now, you all know how we are, as the service was getting started and they were a bit late the only open pews were the ones in front, the ones no one wanted to sit in. The so-called “pews of shame” so called because that’s where the late comers and the pastors always end up sitting. And they walked down the center aisle dressed to the nines in their best outfits, which still looked a little like street wear, and sat down in the front pew. This went on for a few weeks and the pastor was thrilled! Clearly God had sent him to these women to help them transform their lives and it was working! It was incredibly validating.
You all know where this is going, right? Because for a while the upstanding members of the congregation tolerated their pastor hanging out with prostitutes and they tolerated these women showing up in church dressed inappropriately, but slowly it became evident, in all the small ways that we do sometimes, that they didn’t approve and these women didn’t fit in and they weren’t really accepted. And they quit coming.
The underbelly of the church was exposed. It isn’t that these were bad people, but being church is about so much more. It redefines who my brother, who my sister is. And just like family, we don’t get to choose, but we do get to love and we do get to honor, accept, and create a place of belonging for all the incredible, wildly diverse, unexpected people that God sends us to be our family in Christ.
I didn’t watch the interview with Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar gave to Fox news but I did catch some of the hard and painful clips. Unlike this church that found itself being called into relationship with a group of prostitutes, who’s mistakes and sins were immediately apparent, Michelle and Jim Bob knew and loved their son long before his sins and mistakes were evident, he was already family, already one of them and he was given the acceptance and belonging that we all crave long before he made any mistakes. When people come to us and we can see that they don’t have it all together, that sin has touched their lives and changed them and we can see that, it’s harder to invite them into our space and say, “hey, you are one of us.”
Who is family today? Do we hold out our hands to all people, sinner and saint alike, or do we strive to keep ourselves safe? The radical, inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ exceeds all boundaries. It pulls us into unsafe places where we have to see and recognize the sinner in the saint, the powerless victim who reminds us of our own vulnerability, and the ones who we can save, who’s lives we can change, if we are willing to forgo our own comfort. Family isn’t easy. No one pushes our buttons like family and yet, in healthy families, we commit to working out our issues. We commit to honoring our differences rather than being divided by them. If relationships are change agents, then family relationships are master change agents! Being a healthy family means so much more than tolerating one another. It means being willing to be changed by and for one another. It means learning uncomfortable truths and hard truths and loving anyway.
When Jesus’ family came to the door of that crowded room they came because they were concerned about him and they didn’t understand what he was doing, who he was, or what it all meant. They wanted to stop this disruption of the social order because they were good citizens and they, like all of us, like to keep things calm. And besides, they loved him and didn’t want him to get in trouble. Jesus refuses all of this. Jesus wasn’t about maintaining the status quo, he wasn’t about staying safe. Jesus was all about getting into trouble and upsetting the status quo. He was all about loving the most inappropriate and socially unfit people-without having to shun the upright and popular, no choosing sides!
Edwin Markham sums this kind of family so beautifully when he wrote:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !
Love and I, Love and you, Jesus and all of us, we have the wit to win because we know, we really know, that our family circle is so very wide and vast, it takes everyone in. All of our marvelous, flawed humanity is in, prostitutes, Josh Duggar, that obedient pastor, that difficult congregation, you, me, all of us, have been taken in. We have a home and a family where we belong, where we are accepted, where we are loved in all of our difficult glorious humanity, because Jesus has come to us and no one and nothing can ever take that away.