Family Ties

It should come as no surprise that Jesus sounds a little testy, a little gruff, in this morning’s gospel reading. He has returned home after a busy few weeks: binding the strong man, Satan, during his forty days in the wilderness; freeing the man possessed by a demon; releasing Simon’s mother-in-law, a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, and countless others from the diseases that held them back. And now, back at home, he runs headlong into people who want to bind him up, who want to hold him back from the work he’s been doing, who want to tether him in place before he can do anything else unusual or unseemly. Back at home, Jesus comes face to face with people who want to tie him up with family matters.

Don’t we do the same thing? How often have we told Jesus, “Not yet,” or, “I’m not ready for this,” or, “Do I really have to love her,” or. “Do I really need to forgive him”? Every time we shy away from a risk for the kingdom of God, whenever we hold back from loving our neighbors, every time we try to make following Jesus safer or easier or less demanding, it’s like we’re throwing out ropes to bind him up. And isn’t the case that so often we try to control Jesus because of our own family issues? “I can’t do this, Jesus, because I don’t want to hurt my parents’ feelings.” “I won’t commit to that, Jesus, because I could never put my family in an uncomfortable situation.” “No Jesus—if I do this, what will happen to my kids? To my spouse’s job?” We’re all caught up in family matters, and so often end up ensnaring Jesus in them, too.

Jesus knows firsthand about our human obsession with family. Three times in this morning’s reading from Mark people try to catch him in family matters. First, members of Jesus’ own family meet him as he’s walking home. Mark doesn’t tell us who these family members are. Maybe they’re his brothers, or maybe some uncles or cousins. Whoever they are, they’ve seen enough. They’re embarrassed! They’ve known Jesus his whole life. He’s no healer, no great teacher. He doesn’t cast out demons. He’s out of his mind! He’s gone insane! We’ve all got people like Jesus in our families, don’t we? People who go around saying ridiculous things—and they manage to say them at just exactly the wrong moments. Maybe it’s your aunt or your sister or your cousin’s husband. We love them (maybe), but… We. Just. Wish. They. Would. Stop. Jesus is bringing shame to his family. He’s ruining their reputation. So they set out “to restrain him,” as the NRSV says. Really, they’re going to arrest him, to hold him against his will, to make him stop, no matter what it takes.

Haven’t we ever been embarrassed by Jesus? Have you ever found yourself reading Scripture in a Bible study, or listening to the Word proclaimed in the pulpit, and you start thinking, “I really wish Jesus hadn’t said that”? Or you get to one of those awkward passages in Scripture, and you hurry by because it’s just so strange? My favorite thing is when the church goes out into the world to serve the poor, the imprisoned, the widow, and the orphan in Jesus’ name, and then we find ourselves having trouble telling others why we’re doing what we’re doing. Or when we get so worked up about spreading the gospel through some evangelistic enterprise that we find ourselves irritated at people wasting their time helping the poor, the imprisoned, the widow, or the orphan. Jesus is always ahead of us, and too often we join his family in trying to rein him in.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, another group intrudes on the scene. These aren’t Jesus’ blood relations. They’re scribes, experts in the law of Moses, leaders of the synagogue, and they want to tie Jesus up with a very different kind of family. Maybe this Jesus fellow can cast out demons because he’s one of them. Maybe he belongs to the family of Beelzebul. The name doesn’t just mean Satan or demon; it means the lord of the household. Binding Jesus with that accusation would cut him out of the family of David, and it would make sure that no one thought he belonged to Israel, to the family of God. Jesus doesn’t fit into the scribes’ idea of a good Jewish boy, so he must not be part of the family in the first place.

How often do our family ties keep us from seeing the face of God in our brothers and sisters! For the past few weeks the world has witnessed the heartbreaking agony of the Rohingya people of Southeast Asia. Unknown thousands have taken to boats and gone out to sea, only to find nation after nation closing its borders and denying them safe harbor. Those who choose to remain on land or cannot afford to escape face discrimination and hatred, maybe even genocide, in places like Myanmar. No one wants them; no one likes them; and it seems that no one is willing to do anything for them.

The Rohingya are just the latest in a long line of peoples to have found themselves on the wrong end of the ties that bind families together. They join African-Americans in the United States, indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere and Australia, black Africans in apartheid South Africa, Jews in Germany, Palestinians in the Middle East, Tutsis in Rwanda, Irish and Italian immigrants in New York City, and so, so many others. And this morning, it turns out they join Jesus, too. If you’re not part of our family, you must be part of Satan’s family! Jesus warns that this kind of blasphemy is unforgivable, but you have to wonder if it’s already too late for the scribes. And you have to hope that it’s not too late for us.

Three times Peter denies Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. And three times family matters threaten to bind Jesus in this morning’s lesson. First, it was his family. Then the scribes. Now, it’s his family again. This time, Mark tells us who they are—his mother, his brothers, and his sisters—but Mark doesn’t tell us what they want. The crowd informs Jesus that mother, brothers, and sisters are asking for him. What are they asking? Are they asking to be first in line the next time he starts healing people? Are they asking for special privileges because of their shared bloodline? Or are they trying to put him in his place, back with the family? And Jesus explodes: my mother and brothers and sisters are here and here and here and here! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!

Last fall during the first phase of our congregational study, several of you described Centre as a “family chapel.” Now if by “family chapel,” you mean that we’re going to restrain anyone, maybe even Jesus himself, who might embarrass us in Jesus’ name; or that we’re going to cut ourselves off from new residents of Forest Hill who don’t look, think, act or speak like us; or that we expect our blood relations to have special status in this congregation; then I have to tell you that we are in a world of trouble. Jesus has as little patience for that kind of family chapel as he does for the family ties that threaten to entangle him in Mark chapter 3.

But if by “family chapel” you mean that our congregation is open to the family Jesus welcomes and that we are going to seek out new family members so that we can look more like Jesus’ family than our human families, well, then I hope Centre really is a family chapel, now and for generations to come. Because then we might find ourselves doing the will of God. And then, we will hear Jesus call us his brothers and sisters. And then, by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit, we will be called the children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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