Rev. Amy Morgan
February 4, 2018
16 But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!"
31 Then [Jesus’] mother and brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.
32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you."
33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"
34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!
35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
The baby bird, freshly hatched from his egg, could not find his mother. As he frantically looked around for her, he fell out of the nest. Determined to find his mother, the baby bird picked himself up and went searching.
He asked a kitten, “Are you my mother?” But the kitten was not his mother. Nor was the hen, or the dog, or the cow. His mother was not a plane or a boat.
Finally, the baby bird saw a big thing, and he decided that must be his mother. But when he ran up and climbed onto it, the big thing said, “Snort!” The baby bird knew then that this was not his mother. He was very frightened and cried out, “I want to go home! I want my mother!”
Just then, the big thing dropped the baby bird back in his nest. His mother arrived moments later, back from finding some food for her baby to eat. She asked the baby bird, “Do you know who I am?” He said, “yes, I know who you are. You are not a kitten or a hen or a dog or a cow or a boat or a plane or a Snort. You are a bird, and you are my mother.”
P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s book, Are You My Mother?, explores questions of family and belonging. The baby bird, not knowing what his mother looks like, passes right by her at first. He has no preconceptions about what his mother is like, leading him to wonder if a variety of species and machinery could possibly be his mother. In the end, he learns that his mother is the one who is most like him. It is as simple as that. The baby bird’s concept of family expands and then contracts. It is complex and varied, and then simplifies.
This book is a classic because it speaks to the way many of us experience family. At some point in our lives, we feel lost, lonely, disconnected. Our family of origin becomes so foreign to us that we hardly recognize them, and certainly don’t see ourselves in them. And so our concept of family expands beyond those we’re connected to by birth or blood. We go in search of those with whom we feel a sense of kinship and belonging.
We begin to wonder if perhaps we belong with those who are different from us. Could my family be with someone who speaks, looks, believes, differently from me and my family of origin? Perhaps I belong to something as powerful as an airplane or as grand as a river boat or even as magnificent as a giant steam shovel. We seek our family in the common bonds of shared experience, or a common worldview, or a mutual ideology. Many of us attach to families of classmates, neighbors, co-workers, or, especially today, sports fans. Go Patriots!
And then one day, we realize we are back in the nest, with people who look like us, who speak our language, who know our ways. They may not be our family of origin. But our family of choice, however far afield we may have gone searching for them, eventually morphs into that family of familiarity, of likeness. Our concept of family has expanded and contracted. It has been complex and varied, and then simplifies.
For some of us, it simplifies into the family of faith. The family of the church. These are the people who look like us, think like us, talk like us, live like us. When all our other families fail us, we know that in this family we belong.
Jesus follows this pattern, too, of expanding and contracting family. Leaving his family of origin, he goes to fishermen, sinners, tax-collectors, asking, “are you my brother?” He approaches prostitutes and widows, women who are poor or chronically ill, asking “are you my mother?”
And eventually this disparate group bands together to form a sort of family. Jesus chooses from among the great crowd following him 12 disciples. After this, he goes into a house where the multitude gathers again so that, as the gospel of Mark says, “they could not even eat bread.” Now, in Mark’s gospel, bread always carries overtones of the Last Supper, and this reference is no different. Jesus’ family had grown so large that they could not even commune together. The sense of intimacy and the sacredness of the relationship was gone.
Then Jesus’ family arrives on the scene, having heard that Jesus had “gone out of his mind.” Now, literally, the Greek says, “he had gone outside.” It is a Greek idiom for madness, but it also alerts us to Mark’s theme here about who is in and who is out in the family of Jesus. Jesus has gone outside of his family, he has gone outside the bounds of his faith community. He has gone outside. And the insiders – his mother and brothers, the scribes and the Pharisees – see it as madness. His family of origin is coming to restrain him, put him in a straight jacket, lock him up and throw away the key. They are not coming to gently bring him back into the fold. They are coming to bring him inside, hide him away, shut him up.
And so when his mother and brothers call to him – from the outside – Jesus contracts his definition of family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This would seem to be a rather expansive definition in some ways. Jesus’ family has no exclusions for race, social status, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or even, we might note, religious affiliation or creed. To belong in the family of Jesus, it doesn’t matter one bit who you are. Instead, it matters what you do.
And that is why this definition of family is not expansive after all. It is contracted, simplified, narrow. It seems to exclude Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, though in the greater context of the gospels, that is debatable. It certainly excludes the leaders of his religious family.
And perhaps it excludes us as well. We gather at this table to eat bread, while so many in our world go without food. We are baptized into the family of Christ at this font, while so many go without clean water. We worship in this beautiful structure while so many go without a roof over their heads.
Are we the ones doing the will of God?
Or are we the ones standing outside, calling to Jesus, so we can restrain him, bring him inside, conceal his madness?
Because the defining characteristic of Jesus’ family is madness, going outside. The family of Jesus, those doing the will of God, are those who are going outside – outside of their comfort zones, outside of their ideologies, outside of their cliques and clans and tribes. They are going outside of their communities to serve those who live on the other side of the tracks. They are going outside of their country to serve those on the other side of the world. They are going outside of their churches to serve those of other faiths or of no faith. They are going outside of their political parties to reach compromises to serve the common good.
And most of the time, we Christians, we, who have been claimed by Christ and adopted as children of God, we are trying to keep this Jesus quiet. We want a domesticated Jesus, one whose family is so expansive that anyone can belong to it. We want diversity. We want the multitudes, the crowds.
But we may find that when we come to this table, we cannot even eat bread. We cannot commune as a family. Because our sense of intimacy, the sacredness of this relationship, has been drown out by the crowds. Crowds of people who would rather learn the Word of God than do the will of God. Crowds of people who want God’s grace for themselves but can’t bring themselves to extend it to others. Crowds of people who believe in God’s providence but can’t stomach Christ suffering. There are so many kittens and boats and steam shovels in the church; so many mothers and brothers and scribes and Pharisees; so many who want to be in the family but not do the will of God that we cannot even eat bread.
The family of Jesus is not about numbers of members or the width of our welcome or the diversity of our body. Perhaps there’s nothing necessarily wrong with those things, but they do not define the family of Jesus. And if we try to make them define this family, we will find ourselves outside, calling for Jesus, trying to bring him inside our box so we can shut the lid and lock it.
Because the truth is, there’s nothing particularly attractive about doing the will of God. It’s difficult, and costly, and goes against just about every value ingrained in us by our consumerist culture. We should not expect great crowds.
Instead, we should expect to eat bread. The body of Christ, broken for us. We should expect the blood of Christ, shed for us. And we should expect to take up a cross and follow our brother Jesus into a death that we hope like crazy has resurrection on the other side of it. It’s madness. We’d have to be out of our minds.
And I hope to God we are. And if we aren’t, let’s resolve to be. Let’s resolve to go outside, even if it looks like we are out of our minds. And then, we will be brothers and sisters, of Jesus, and of one another.
May God bless our resolve and bring it to fruition. Amen.