“Jesus and the Family”
August 10, 2014
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.