“Jesus and the Family”

August 10, 2014


Matthew 10:34-37


As you were listening to the reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning, you might have thought, “Wait a minute! I’ve heard this before—and not too long ago! Is this a summer rerun?”

Well, I did read those words of Jesus in worship back in June—but I assure this sermon is not a retread.

Here’s what happened:

Several weeks ago when I started to preach from the middle section of the Gospel of Matthew, I chose a text that was especially troubling, one in which Jesus says things such as: “Fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” “Take us the cross and follow me.” And “Those who find their life will lose it.”

Challenging words.

And I think I navigated my way through them fairly well. Many of you said so after worship and I was feeling pretty good down in Rockwood Hall, drinking coffee and soaking up the compliments.

Then John Reitz came up to me and said something like, “Bill you did a pretty good job with that.” And I smiled because that’s what I like to hear. And then he added, “But you really didn’t touch on some of the most troubling parts of that text.” The part that I avoided was the lesson I read. Jesus says that he has come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. He says that he has come to bring not peace but a sword.

I mumbled something about there was so much there and how could I deal with it all in one sermon and blah, blah, blah. But I knew that I’d just received my assignment for the summer.

And I should tell you that I say all of this with John’s approval. If you talk with me at coffee hour or any other time, you’re not going to show up in a sermon unexpectedly. I do not promise, however, that I’ll always do a follow-up sermon when you remind me of how I’ve come up short.

Fortunately for me, John was going to be away for a few weeks. And I took some vacation time.

And now it’s time to listen once more to those words of Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

While such are troubling at any time, back in June, John heard them within hours of receiving the news that his father had died. And as most of you know, I’m preaching on this text less than two weeks after the death of my own father.

So, what’s Jesus getting at here? Why would he say something that sounds so cold, so heartless?

Let’s begin with what we know: We do care about our families.

For better or worse, our families have shaped us; our families have given us an identity. Who has not thought, “I sound just like Mom when I say that?” Who hasn’t had the recognition that “I’m acting just like Dad?” We recognize ourselves in our children and find more than physical resemblances in our sisters and brothers.

Whether we think of an extended family of forty or more, or can identify with the button I once saw an older woman wearing that read: "I am a family,” the configuration of people close to us is very important. We worry, we laugh, we work, we play—we do much of what we do because of our families, with our families, and for our families.

There are some people who are quite able to hate their parents and siblings. And there are parents who don’t care for their children.

But many know a deep and abiding love for family members

A mother lies awake in bed, waiting for her teenage daughter to come home at night, wondering about how her son is doing in college.

A father wants to tell his children that he loves them, that he’s worried about their future, but seems only able to argue with them.

A grade school child secretly worries about how Mom and Dad are doing—so too do children in their forties and fifties.

Even apparent indifference or rebellion betrays our concern.

After all, teenagers do not rebel against all parents, all families. They rebel against their parents—the ones who have shaped who they are. And they usually find the way to rebel that will really bug just their parents. So, too, the breaking of family bonds and the resulting claims of “I just don’t care” are usually the results of deep hurt caused by those closest to us, those for whom we cared the most, those whose love we eagerly sought.

Children or adults, single or married, content or distressed, we are care about our families.

When, out of concern for our families, we listen to Jesus, we hear words that disturb.

I told you when I began this series of sermons from Matthew that there’s much in this Gospel that I choose to avoid. In one section that I skipped over, a disciple tells Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus issues that stinging retort: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” It’s one of those many occasions in the Gospel that leave us thinking that Jesus could certainly be a little more Christian. Instead he suggests that basic human concern for our families and family obligations connects us with what is lifeless.

A little later, the mother and brothers of Jesus come looking for him.

When he is told that his mother and brothers have arrived and that they would like to speak to him, Jesus looks around and says: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? ...Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Certainly it is not hard to imagine the person who responded in this way also saying: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

If at this point you remember your own children or your own parents and think: “Well, that’s not me. I’m out of here,” I ask that you stay for a few more minutes as we continue to explore the words of Jesus that we’d rather avoid.

Yes, as he often does, Jesus exaggerates here. He speaks in hyperbole to make a point. But it doesn’t help for me to simply say, “Don’t worry. Jesus didn’t really mean this.” Such an approach does not satisfy nor does it help us as we seek to follow in Christ’s way.

So what’s happening here?

Jesus is doing several things at once.

Jesus is inviting each person to define himself or herself as an individual—separate from other family members but in contact with them. You are not your mother or father and you are not called to live out their lives and their expectations. Parents are not their children and eventually they must let them live their own lives.

So it is in some way for each one of us. God has created you with unique gifts. For peace before God, then, live your life in all the freedom that you have.

Jesus exaggerates. He is not calling for emotional hatred but for the reorganizing of relationships.  The claims of Christ redefine all other claims on our lives. And if we take those claims not literally but seriously they send us back into our relationships as new and loving people.

Jesus is also making the family answerable to the realm of heaven that is coming into the world.

Christian communities from the earliest time to the present often have been an alternative to the family, providing “emotional and spiritual solace and support” for those who have not found it among their biological relatives.

Jesus’ critique of the family is especially important for us to hear in our time when families are changing. It is important for us to hear in our time as new possibilities for families open up.

The slogan adopted by people in Connecticut who were advocating marriage equality was “Love Makes a Family.” We have seen this to be the case in Iowa and in this congregation as well. In this church our families include individuals who could wear that “I am a family” button, straight and gay and lesbian couples, parents with biological and adopted children, as well as other bonds of the love that makes families.

Rather than lamenting the decline of the family here at Congregational UCC we celebrate families in all their diversity—a diversity that finds roots in Jesus’ radical redefining of family.

Jesus puts the family into a new perspective so that we can see beyond our individual families to the family of all those who follow in Christ’s way. With such a vision in front of us we are aided in avoiding a narrow and exclusive approach to family life.

Let me be clear. We want—and we need—stable and sustaining relationships in our lives. We seek health and happiness for ourselves and for those close to us. We long to see our loved ones living with a sense of wholeness, a sense of purpose, a sense of security.

We place prime importance of pursuing these things first for our family alone. the danger here is an isolation that leads us both figuratively and lately literally to fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world, turning our backs to the very children whom Jesus—and we’ll hear this in Matthew in a few weeks—whom Jesus commands his followers to welcome with open arms. Ultimately it leads not to what we seek, but to the fearful guarding of all of the “good life” we are able to grab and hoard.

Jesus expands the definition of the family and in doing so shows us a way leading to so much more for so many more.

God has created us to live together in peace. God has created us to care for one another in ways that lead to health and wholeness. God has created us so that we might all enjoy the life we are given and use it fully.

Yes, it’s true that we often choose paths other than these. But isn’t the way of peace and wholeness and life what we would seek for our family?  What we dream of for ourselves is God’s dream for all humankind.

Very often, doing God’s will is simply seeking all that we desire—not only for ourselves and our families, but for the rest of the world as well.

It is recognizing our own need for a home and also seeking decent housing for all people.

It is taking care of ourselves as well as advocating and providing for the health care of children and adults who otherwise would not receive it.

We do these things not as isolated individuals or families, each depending on our own strength. We do these things together, recognizing that we are sisters and brothers of Christ, one family as we do God’s will.

Our hopes, our concern, our dreams for our families are some of our deepest and strongest feelings. We live these dreams best when we seek to make them real for the whole world. The family that we are in Christ defines and empowers our individual families.

In Christ we are part of new family and invited to embrace one another as brothers and sisters. The living Christ empowers us to reach out to the rest of our family around the world with the peace, the wholeness, and the life that is God’s will.