“Chosen Family”

Family is a complicated thing. Our families hopefully love and nurture us…and sometimes they misunderstand us. For some people, thinking about family is mostly comforting, bringing up memories of family dinners, shared work and play, and daily ways of nurturing one another. For others, thinking about family is painful, bringing up associations of abusive relationships that undermine our developing sense of who we are. Many of us fall somewhere in between, in our experiences of the messy and complicated lives of parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who sometimes made mistakes, but mostly did the best they could.

Family is a complicated thing. And, while family in 1st century Israel was understood a bit differently than we think about family now, it was still a powerful force in shaping how people understood themselves and the world. I’ll talk more about family later. But first, I’d like to give a bit of context to the reading that we heard from the Gospel of Mark.

Earlier in the 3rd chapter of Mark, Jesus went to the synagogue, where on the Sabbath, he healed a man with a withered hand. This angered the religious leaders. He and the disciples then went to the sea, and they were followed by so many people that they were in danger of being crushed by the great crowds of those seeking to be healed. Jesus told the disciples to have a boat ready so that they could get away if they needed to.

The story doesn’t tell us specifically, but I wonder if Jesus had hoped that his time at the sea would be a chance for him to have some quiet and reflection with his disciples. If this was the case, it didn’t work so well! Then, Jesus went up the mountain, and “called to him those who he wanted.” He appointed twelve apostles, to be sent out to proclaim the message and to cast out demons. In doing so, he expands his ministry and calls out the gifts he sees in others.

Now, we reach today’s text. Jesus finally goes home to his family. They are just about to eat dinner… and the crowds gather again. Jesus goes to speak to them, and THIS is the last straw for his family. There is the annoyance of sitting down to a family meal, and having that time once again be interrupted. And, their beloved relative Jesus is embarrassing them… people are starting to say that he’s “gone out of his mind!” Even more so, I imagine that they are afraid for his safety. His words and actions have been attracting the attention of the religious and political authorities, and not in a good way. By healing the sick, and going around talking about the kingdom of God (instead of the Roman Empire), Jesus was starting to be perceived as one who posed a serious threat to the status quo.

For some combination of reasons, when Jesus’ family sees him speaking to the crowds again, they go out to restrain him. They try to intervene in what they see as his insanity. As the story goes, Jesus just keeps on talking. The scribes say that he is possessed by the ruler of demons, and casts out demons by that authority. Jesus responds with some cryptic words about Satan and strong men and unforgiveable sins. These would all be interesting things to explore, but I’d like to stick with the idea of family.

Jesus offers some difficult words about family. When his mother and siblings call out to him, Jesus pretty much ignores them. He asks the gathered crowd: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”… and then looks at the crowd and said… here are my mother and my brothers!”

Ouch! In hearing this story, it is hard not to feel some pain on behalf of his family… what a hard thing to hear from your brother, from your son.  But, I think there are also some layers of complexity to this story that is easy for us modern hearers to miss.

I think that there is a political aspect to Jesus’ words. Families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. They were usually made up of several generations living together, and they were the source of people’s identity, security, and support. When Jesus challenges the first century conventional wisdom about family, he offers an alternative idea of how people might relate to one another in an economic and political way.

Biblical scholar Santiago Guijarro also writes about how the Herodian rulers at about this time had been implementing some policies around land distribution that had huge consequences for peasant families. As land was the basic support of the most families, when people at the bottom of the economic ladder lost their land, it often resulted in households falling apart. No longer able to support one another, individuals often had to work as servants for the landowners, or beg for food in the cities, or find other ways to survive. It became a very fragile existence. Guijarro suggests that when Jesus breaks ties with his biological family and talks about family in a broader sense, he is standing in solidarity with those on the margins of society. Guijarro calls this “a prophetic action coherent with the image of a God who is beside the poor and needy, and accompanies those who are victims of injustice.”

I also think this text speaks to the emotional aspect of family life. In particular… about who we experience as family, and about who we include in our circles of care.

I’ve often heard people speak of chosen family… the idea that sometimes those who we connect most deeply with are not those who we are related to by blood, but rather, those who we choose to weave together around us in tapestries of nurture and care and support. This idea often resonates especially deeply with those who have been excluded or not fully accepted by their family of origin. I think of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community as a group that has really claimed this idea of chosen family.

I think the Gospel of Mark has something to say about chosen family.

Jesus asks the gathered crowd: Who are my mother and my brothers? He looks around at everybody and says: Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

I think the good news of this text is that we are all God’s chosen family. Jesus sees us and chooses us all as brothers and sisters. He went beyond conventional boundaries of understanding family– that most central of connections — and claims all of us as his kin.

Perhaps we are invited to do the same. What if our family is the whole world? What if we broadened our own boundaries just a little, expanding our circle of care beyond our own families and communities?

There are many ways that we at First Church are already doing this. I think of the group that volunteers at Community Emergency Services helping to provide food for those in need. I think of the many people who volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. I think of the work First Church is doing around dismantling racism and white privilege in our society. I think of the commitment of this faith community to work to defeat the anti-marriage amendment, so that all people, gay or straight, might have the right to marry in Minnesota. I think of the musicians and artists and writers among us who use their creativity to inspire us, to speak truth, and to build connections between people. I could go on and on and on! This is not to say that there aren’t ways that we could go deeper and broader still as we think about our kinship with all people… and with all of creation. But I do think it is important to see and to honor the ways that we are actively choosing our neighbors as our kin.

My invitation and challenge to all of us is to see this work as a lived expression of our faith. We are part of the kingdom… the “kindom” of God that Jesus proclaims. As we are chosen, so may we choose others with abundant hospitality and grace. Though all are chosen by God, it is in choosing each other that I think we most directly experience God’s love and care.

In this season of Pentecost, we celebrate the spirit of God, the divine wind that blows among us. This wind blows away the stale and stagnant air that can sometimes settle into our lives, replacing it with something fresh and new and life- giving. I think that this holy spirit makes possible change in ourselves and in our communities that can sometimes be hard to get to. This wind can blow us toward greater inclusiveness, helping us to really see and choose ALL of our brothers and sisters as part of God’s kindom among us. Amen.