“The Family of God”

Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 12:46-50

Families are complicated.

Many of us here have families that not long ago would have been called “non-traditional”, with grandparents, inlaws, step and half children, bonus kids, cousins, aunts, and maybe a close family friend or Godparent filling out the roster.

I feel sorry for any Dunn, Therkildson or McSwyny children who have to make a family tree for a homework assignment.

And if we’re being honest, families are a little bit…weird.

I mean that both in the general sense; our ideas of what a family is a little bit weird if you stop and think about it, full of blurry borders and wavy lines that define who we choose to call our kin.

And, that each family is weird in its own way. Each family has its own dynamics of where power and loyalties lie, and those dynamics often reflect the realities not of the present, but the past.

For an example, I have five older siblings, ranging in age from 55 to me at 33, yet when we all get together at Thanksgiving and Christmas, somehow the imprinted pattern is that I’m forever 9 years old, eternally incapable of almost everything, and when we gather, I have to keep watch that I don’t get thrown in the pool again.

The flipside of that, of course, is that I am a grown man in my 30s, with a good job, and my siblings still send me cash for my birthday, just like I am 9 years old.

So I don’t think I’m far afield in saying that families are complicated and weird.

It’s easy for us to think of these complications and weirdness as the result of some sort of decay or degeneration in the life of the family, and to blame it on either the evils of the denigration of morals in a godless society, or the financial strains and stresses of the modern economy, but it doesn’t take much digging to realize that family has always been complicated.

But today I think we should erase one complication: sometimes we make too much of a distinction between families of blood and families of choice- that is, those persons who we choose to call family, but I would argue that all families are families of choice, and this includes the family of God.

We can read that in our scriptures for today.

In our Gospel reading, from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is doing his Jesus thing, teaching and preaching to a crowd indoors, when his mother and brothers appear outside and want to speak with him.

They assume that he will drop everything in order to talk to him.

Honor thy father and mother, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, and violating it, at least by the letter of the law, could result in death.

As he so often does, Jesus turns this around. Family? What is family? He seems to ask us.  Is it just the ties of family and marriage, ethnicity and tribe?

And if this is a challenging question to us now in our personal lives, with all the complications of what makes a family, in Jesus’ time and place, this question would have been outright scandalous.

It’s hard for us to remember sometimes, but Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi, preaching to Jewish people, and Judaism, unlike Christianity, is a religion that’s also an ethnic group.

The Israelites had survived war, famine, assimilation and exile as a coherent people partly through their strong ethnic and tribal identities, reinforced by a religious identity.

So for Jesus to ask this question, “are you really my family?” to his mother, Mary, and his brothers, is scandalous, immoral, and against family values in his time and place.

Jesus’s answer is that in the Kingdom of God, family of blood will be secondary to family of choice. It is those who do the will of Jesus’s Father- God in heaven, who Jesus counts as his own kinfolk.

His disciples, gathered in front of him are his mothers and brothers and sisters. This reminds us of a key aspect of the Christian faith that is becoming more and more apparent in a secularizing New England and United States: No one is born a Christian; Christians are made and formed by faith.

As infants and toddlers, the adults around them- usually parents, but not always, as we remember how families are complicated- implant seeds of faith in baptism, and that faith is fertilized and watered by those around them until it blooms as our children grow into their identities as people and in Christ, through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

So Jesus’ answer to this question is his way of telling us this fact: to follow Christ does not happen automatically because of the circumstances of birth.

Just because Mary and his brothers are related to Jesus does not give them a special place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

One does not get grandfathered into the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no legacy admissions into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus’s yoke is light, but it is a yoke we must each carry.

I do need to point out here too that neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a merit-based admissions process.  If it were, we would all be found failing. 

The work of the Christian is faith, and the will of God is that through our faith, we will be transformed into following the Gospel, fulfilling the law: Loving God with all our soul, heart, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

But the hard work has already been done. Our reading from the book of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus had to become a human in order to redeem creation, and especially humanity.

Jesus was no angel, in a literal sense.  He was and is God and man. Though his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he acted as the high priest and made atonement for the sins of the world.

Through our faith and its resultant works, we become part of the family of God, adopted by the perfect father, brother to the perfect son. I hope we don’t come away from these challenging readings, however, with the feeling that our families of blood and families of choice are without value.

The Bible tells us that Jesus’ brothers become some of the leaders of the earliest church in Jerusalem. The Bible tells us Jesus’ mother Mary was one of the few that remained at the cross during the worst moments of the crucifixion, and to this day she has a position of honor in the church.

For us, those burdens that we have to carry ourselves? Well, family ensures that we don’t carry them alone. And I think this is what Jesus is really getting at in his answer. Family is not about blood relations but about the care we choose to have and give for each other.

Often those things are tightly related, but too often they are not. For whatever reason, we all know of people who have become family without being a direct blood relation, and there are folks who are blood relations that we do not call kin.

Many of us have a teacher who still gets a Christmas card, a school security guard who knows your life of faith better than you do, a friend who has been there when no one else would be who gets a thanksgiving invitation.

That is family.

Because family takes work. It means making choices.  It means actively choosing love, actively choosing compassion and actively practicing forgiveness and listening and sharing burdens.

With those acts, we choose our families. Every time we choose to do the hard work of love and compassion, when we listen, teach, and share our burdens, we choose our family.

I’ll leave us with a tidbit of wisdom I share at weddings. At weddings, the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians often comes up- you can say it along with me if you have it memorized:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

One thing that Paul specifically does not mention, I note, is that love is easy. Love is hard work.

Our culture does not usually portray this; instead, we read “ten easy steps to a happy family” in a self-help book,  or watch a relationship straight in a romantic comedy that has 22 minutes of separation and hard times and then everyone lives happily ever after, or maybe a family that when it argues, does so with one liners and tension is resolved with a laugh track.

We know that this is not reality.

Love is in the hard kitchen conversations, slammed doors, tears, and the eventual opening of those doors.  Love is in the tearful confessions and assurances of pardon.

Love is in the everyday happiness of seeing one another at the end of the day, checking in with one another as the weeks go by, and seeing each other grow up and old.

This is the love that I hope you have with not just someone, but several someones that you call family. And it is also a pale reflection of the love that that God has for us, the love that God chooses for us, the God who chooses to call us kin.