Who Is My Family?

Scripture: Mark 3:19-35

Given On 07/21/13 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY (7th in The Life, Abundant series)

 I’m pretty sure that mine was the last generation of kids in the United States who could freely roam in neighborhoods without any fear. Everyone’s yard was free to be walked on, every street safe, cars drove safe and slow. From the time that school let out to the time when dinner was served there was a constant cycle in my neighborhood of youngish boys moving from house to house playing video games at the house of the kid with the coolest and newest gaming system. Playing basketball at the house of the boy who had the full sized half court in his backyard. Shooting pool at that friend’s house with the pool table. I remember the Christmas that Santa Claus brought the McLeod brothers three a trampoline and all of a sudden our house became a stopover on the constant cycling of boys from house to house. Virtually everyday was spent in this cycle of houses, biking back and forth, until the sun started to set and we would know, or would be called by our parents to let us know that it was time to come in for dinner. I suppose in a lot of ways, my childhood was somewhat picturesque. My wife, Lesley, often jokes that I grew up in Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town in which the Andy Griffith Show was set and there is some truth to that. Most of my friends were not the kids who were considered the troublemakers of the community. Among those friends now are doctors, lawyers, politicians, and, well, a pastor. And in this neighborhood cycle, whenever the final call for dinner was made, there was a push to have at least one friend over for dinner once a week. It was a pretty fair system in which if you participated you were almost guaranteed to score an invite to a friend’s house provided that you also participated equally in the inviting of friends for dinner as well. For me this meant two things, one, a night every now and then away from my younger brothers and the brotherly squabbles that often painted our relationships when we were growing up but also a chance to sit at another family’s table and for an hour or so be welcomed as a guest. The result of this neighborhood cycle and the subsequent time of breaking bread together was that in a lot of ways I grew up with about ten sets of parents who both kept me in line but also held me in great concern and cared deeply for me. And I for them. When I moved back to my hometown after living abroad it was many of those same families with whom I connected. It is an incredible feeling to run into these same surrogate parents 20 years later with my own son and know that I still occupy a place in their hearts and they in mine.

Our gospel reading for the morning picks up early on in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Having been baptized by John the Baptizer and then having faced the temptations of Satan, Jesus is now ready to begin his ministry. He immediately calls his first followers, choosing an odd assortment of fishermen, tax collectors, and others holding odd jobs — and having assembled his first followers Jesus feels comfortable returning to his home. Word of Jesus had already begun spreading far and wide, his healings becoming legendary. His words already beginning to shake up the establishment. His claims of being the Holy One of God being viewed as blasphemy. And because of all the excitement that was already building around his ministry, when he arrives back to his home town he is immediately inundated with people clamoring to get close to him. And we are told they press in so tightly that he can’t even eat. Upon hearing all the commotion, his family comes to bring him home. They have heard all this talk of healing and challenging the powerful structures that controlled both the religious and civic life within the country and this claim of Divine origin and they had become convinced that Jesus had lost his mind. Don’t miss this part. Jesus’s family, his flesh and blood were so confused by the things he was saying that they were convinced that he had gone crazy and must be restrained, saved from the crowd but also from himself. And the scribes that had come from Jerusalem to see what was going on taunted Jesus by saying that he was using demonic powers to bring about the miraculous healings. That he has an unclean spirit. That he was of the Devil himself. And surely worrying about the mental and physical health of her son, Jesus’s mother along with his brothers come to take Jesus away from the crowd. As they arrive at the house at which Jesus is speaking, their presence is announced and Jesus is expected to respond. “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

If the church today is to find itself the vibrant community of faith that it so earnestly desires, a serious commitment to transcending the boundaries that have become the make up of the Western culture in which it finds itself must begin and begin soon. Many human development theorists posit a growing ability to love and find commonality with larger and larger circles of communities in which those boundaries that seem so hard and fast when we are younger become subsumed in the growing inclusion of persons with whom we can live and love. Beginning in childhood our loving care grows from settled within ourselves to enveloping our families. From our families we begin to gather around persons with whom we share common traits and/or interests. Continuing on we might increase our love and concern for persons of the same background. Beyond that point, it takes a concerted effort to move beyond the boundaries that separate us one from another. This is why the story of Jesus with his family becomes such a crucial part of the journey from where the church finds itself today to where it desires and needs to go. When Jesus finds himself in a room of persons who have perceived something of the Divine in him, a reality of which his family has yet to become aware, he finds himself with the opportunity early on in his ministry to redraw the lines of  of in-and-out, of us and them. “These folks here, they that have heard God’s call in their life, these are just as much my family as those who come to take me away because they think me crazy. I am starting with the persons gathered in this room, they have been engrafted into my holy family, but we’re not done and we’re heading out to get some more. At the heart of the message of Jesus both in this episode and throughout his ministry is the desire not to exclude but to include. The desire to never be satisfied with the circle of concern in which he finds himself but always, always, always seeking to take his followers and head out into the darkness and bring folks back into the light. This all begins with the movement of Jesus to eradicate the traditional familial boundaries that so often define me and you and them and to say all those who have been touched by the spirit of God and seek to do the will of the Divine, those are my brothers, sisters, mothers.

I have tried throughout my faith journey to also begin to bend the definition of what constitutes a familial relationship. When I began the process of interviewing with the committee that brought me here, one of the first things I said is that I was looking for a congregation that understood itself as being an extended family. A congregation in which the terms “brother” and “sister” were used and meant something deep and profound about the kinds of relationships that were found within the walls of the church. A place where each person who came in the door of the building would be welcomed in the same manner that you might welcome a long lost cousin showing up to Christmas dinner. A place where everyone here always had a spot at the table. And so imagine my joy when I arrived here at this place and found just that.

I was told last week after the service a story from the history of the church that I had yet to hear since arriving here. Evidently, when one of my predecessors arrived in Amsterdam to begin his ministry at the Presbyterian church, one day early on, he and the congregation were greeted by the sight of a burning cross on the lawn of the church.  I have long heard stories of such blasphemous and hateful behavior but to hear it coming here to what is now my new home, I was a bit taken back. However, my response to the story and my response now are the same. If folks are going to that extreme a display of hate, your love is doing exactly what its supposed to do. And as a church, we continue to strive to do what it is that we are supposed to do. Earlier this week, I ran into the office briefly to grab something off my desk and continue on to an appointment I had. When I got to the parking lot, I was greeted by not a small number of cars parked in the upper lot. This was the first day of classes for HFM BOCES and folks from around the neighborhood were coming into our space to make their lives better, maybe to make a fresh start, definitely taking a risk in either returning to or starting classes. Leaping out in faith that if they put the effort in that there is a better life at the end of the path for them. Folks taking a chance, here in our building, looking for the movement of the spirit in their lives though they may never use that language. Folks wanting to believe that this place, our building, can be a safe space in which to learn, in which to explore a new and unknown culture and language, away from the condescending looks and disparaging words that you know they hear and see on a regular basis. You did that for them. Your faith in the movement of the spirit in the life of this congregation provided the foundations by which members of the neighborhoods might find sanctuary from the storms of life if only for a few times a week. You did that for them. This church has always been a welcoming community of folks with faith seeking understanding and you have taken the opportunities given you by God to open our doors once again, perhaps wider than they have ever been to be a force for change within the community. You did that for them. Let’s not stop there. Jesus gathered with a group of believers so early in his ministry that most folks just thought he was crazy Jesus, the carpenter’s son, so much so that his own family wanted to take him back home because they were sure he had just had a delusional snap with reality. And standing in that room Jesus declared for everyone that had ears to hear that all those who had been touched by the love of God and sought to share that love with the world were his brothers, sisters, mothers. He said, “I’m starting with the folks in this room, but we’re not done. We are going out into the darkness. Into the broken world of Roman occupation and debilitating poverty, of violence revolutionary outbreaks and concerns for his safety. We going out into the darkness, he said, and we are dragging people into the light. They are my family. You are my family. We are family.”

Sisters and brothers, we have begun the process of going out into the darkness and bringing people into the light. We have once again flung our doors wide open for people who need someone, anyone to care about them, and we have said, come here and find shelter. But let’s not stop there. Let’s be like Jesus, saying we are starting with the folks gathered here, but we aren’t stopping there. We are going out into the neighborhoods surrounding the church and we are proclaiming the love of God for all people. We are going out into the streets of our town and we are going to be a beacon of light for all those who feel trapped in the darkness. We are going out into the world carrying the love of God, making disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of God, teaching them to obey everything that God commands and knowing that Christ goes with us everywhere, in every time, even unto the end of the age. Glory be to God and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, Alleluia, Amen.

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