May 11, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Mark 3: 31-35, John 17: 25b-27
Finding Our Family
Today is the second Sunday in our spring worship series. Each Sunday we’re exploring one of the winning provocative proposals from our visioning process. Then we’re pairing this proposal with a simple action Jesus teaches his followers in the light of resurrection. Our action for today might sound simple, but it is a brave and exciting thing to try. It is finding your family. Now you don’t have to be adopted and searching for your birth parents, although you might be. You don’t have to have a subscription to ancestry.com and be searching for your history, although you might be. Whatever your situation, all of us have before us the work of finding our family. This just might be the work of our lives.
Today’s provocative proposal is printed in your bulletin. Church of Peace welcomes families of all kinds — a statement smiling and lovely. Can’t you just picture this on a cross stitch sampler or a calligraphied plaque that hangs by the door. But please don’t let this fool you. It might be a lovely sentiment; it is also a brave and exciting thing to try. Indeed, this is one way our congregation stands against the cultural norms and values that still dominate in our society.
Things are changing to be sure. But when it comes to family, there’s still a certain sense of what is supposed to be projected all around us. Many television commercials feature families that look like they come in a packaged set for a dollhouse, you know? There’s a mom and a dad, and a boy and a girl. They’re usually all the same race, with the same last name. This image carries with it the misguided connotation that this is what normal looks like —you know like the Berenstain Bears or the Simpsons. (Of course, there’s nothing all that normal about those families either. Come on, the bears live in a tree and wear people clothes!)
At Church of Peace, we know better.
We know that families can include more than two generations; there are families here with three and four. Grandparents are not like an accessory you purchase separately to go with the package. Our families are made of grandparents and great-grandparents.
Here we know that not all families are related by birth and blood; we honor adoption and the courage and love that go with it.
Not all families come with one mom and one dad. We honor single parent families, families with two moms and two dads; we honor families without children.
We honor individuals without any family to speak of, but we might go ahead and claim them as our sisters and brothers in Christ. You see why I live in hope for the day when television commercials and packaged dollhouse families will catch up to us.
Welcoming all kinds of families is a brave and exciting choice, and it’s one we can make because we experience our own families changing all the time. You might have the tradition of sharing a family dinner on holidays. Look no further than your dining room table to see the same people don’t come every year. Our families include a constant rhythm of people leaving and people joining. Marriages come to an end, people die, or become estranged, or run away from home, or move out of state. Babies get born, people get engaged, our friends become our family time and again. You can see this change around your own table.
You can also see how our families change in the pictures in our church directory. I love pictorial church directories, especially when they come with two sections. Here in the front is how we really live together —meetings and picnics, and musicians playing instruments. Then the back part shows our families so polished and put together. And the thing about these books, the moment they get printed, they are out of date. They reach out and grab a moment in our shared history, and they hold it up for all time. Because a month later, a day later, our family has already changed.
Now you might put your faith in your family. I recommend that you do not put your faith in the little boxes around these pictures, these picture frames that so loudly define who’s in the family and who’s not. We’re always drawing new circles around our family, always adjusting the size of the frame.
This is a brave and exciting choice. But it doesn’t always feel like one.
With all of this turnover in our own families and in our church family, we might experience this as something happening to us without our consent. Look, you didn’t choose for your wife to die, or for your daughter to go get engaged to that woman. You didn’t choose for your parents to get divorced or for your niece to get pregnant. Our families are changing all the time, and this is change we are not in charge of… except for the part we are in charge of, except for the choice we have in finding and claiming our family. We cannot control all of the letting go and the bringing together, that happens like it or not. But we can still make a choice. We can always make a choice.
Today our scriptures come to us from two very different Gospels. But in both Gospels, Jesus’ relationship with family is not without trouble. Remember he calls his disciples to leave their families and follow him. As Jesus explains in Mark, “There is no one who has left house or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…” (Mark 10: 29). In John, Jesus gets snippy with his mother when she pressures him into turning the water into wine (John 2:4).
In the story we hear today from the Gospel of Mark, it might seem like Jesus is rejecting his mother and brothers and sisters. It certainly might feel that way to them, and you could probably convince me that he is being rude. But rejecting them? I don’t think so.
See when Jesus went home, the crowd gathered around so they couldn’t even eat. The people were saying that Jesus was possessed by the ruler of the demons, since he had the power to cast out demons and such. They accused him of being out of his mind, so his family went out to restrain him. Our scripture picks up with Mary and his siblings standing outside and calling to him.
Notice, Jesus does not send them away. Jesus does not say, “I have no family!” He says exactly the opposite. He looks at the people and says, “You are my family. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Our second scripture comes from the Gospel of John, from the hour when Jesus is dying. The soldiers had just cast lots to see who would win his tunic. In these final moments, Jesus sees his mother standing near the cross along with the disciple whom Jesus loved. Notice Jesus does not send them away. Instead he draws a new circle around his family. He says to Mary, “Here is your son.” And to the disciple he says, “Here is your mother.” In his dying, Jesus is exquisitely human. He says to his friend, “You are my brother. Take care of my mom, will you.” And the Bible says that’s exactly what this disciple does.
I know people will say that we can’t choose our family. You get stuck with who you’ve got, that’s just how it is. Actually, there’s more to it. What Jesus teaches is that we can always make a choice —even when they think you have the ruler of the demons inside you, even from the cross. We are always finding our family, again and again. Maybe even here.
If you want a beautiful story about the power of choosing family, I recommend the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine. It features six characters who are each dealing with their own problems. Individually, their lives are a mess. Together, they become a surprisingly cohesive and loving family.
What happens is seven-year-old Olive Hoover gets selected to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Olive is not your typical pageant participant, and she is ecstatic by this opportunity. But in order for her to go, the whole family has to come along in their breaking-down Volkswagon bus. On the journey, each family member experiences their own crisis, and they find strange ways to support each other.
One of the last scenes is remarkable, and I don’t believe I will ruin the film for you by describing it. The Hoover family does make it to the pageant, and even though she doesn’t fit in with the other contestants, Olive takes the stage to perform a dance number taught to her by her grandfather. It’s to the song Super Freak, and the dance combines elements of a strip tease with what you might call modern dance. Olive is dancing her heart out, the audience is appalled, the Hoovers are mortified. While this is going on, the pageant director says to Mr. Hoover what everyone is thinking, “Go get your daughter off that stage!”
Olive’s father walks up to the stage; he sees her smiling and dancing; he looks at the audience, and I wonder if he doesn’t feel a little like Jesus’ mother and brothers when the crowds said that Jesus had a demon. Very calmly, Olive’s dad walks up to her, and he joins her. He starts dancing too. Next Olive’s uncle goes up there, then her teenage brother who would rather be anywhere in the world other than this pageant, then Olive’s mom. One by one, her whole family joins her on the stage and dances to Super Freak. This is how you find your family, right? a brave and exciting choice, every time.
Church of Peace welcomes families of all kinds. You could think of this as a lovely decoration we place by the door, but please don’t let it fool you. This is not a statement of polite tolerance. It is a challenge for us to make a brave and exciting choice. If we mean to welcome families who don’t speak English, then how can our worship become multilingual? If we mean to welcome gay and lesbian families, then how will they know they are welcome here, how can we tell them? If we mean to welcome college students who feel like they have no family, what kind of support can we offer? This is much more than allowing people to sit in these pews.
The good news is we are always expanding our welcome, re-grouping ourselves around tables and inside picture frames. Our families are always changing, thank God. Our family is here, thank God. We who dedicate our lives to the will of God find that Christ is our brother. Here are our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our seven-year-olds who make us get up and join in their dance. Here when we choose to follow Jesus with our lives, we claim each other, we find our family. Amen.