Sunday, June 07, 2015

Family Matters

Mark 3: 20-35

This is pretty strong stuff.  Jesus is accused of being nuts.  His family is embarrassed by him.  He seems to disown his own kin.  This man who forgives sins right and left says that a sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable.  What is going on?

Let’s tease the various strands and questions apart a little bit.  Start with family.  An enormous number of people prize family as the chief value in their lives.  Because our kinships are so important, even sacred, to us, many of us tend to think that family must be pretty high up on God’s value scale as well.  It took me awhile to appreciate the family I was born into.  There were times in my early life when I would gladly have bolted out of my family and never looked back.  Or so I thought.  Anne, my younger daughter, once said to her parents and sister, “You know how it is with the high school band?  Kids sign up for band and stay in it until the band takes its trip to Europe and then they are out of the band.  Well, I’m in this family until we take a Caribbean vacation, then I’m outta here.” 

Truth be told, many of us have conflicting feelings about our families.  That is no surprise.  Not only do families support us, nurture us, shape us, and sustain us; they also hold us back.  Even the most liberal families are seedbeds of conformity.  How do I know?  Show me a liberal family and I will show you a family that will go bonkers if one of the children becomes a member of the Tea Party, a racist, a fundamentalist Christian.  They may deal with it reasonably well, but it will be a challenge.  Someone once said to me when I was in the process of coming out as a gay man, “If you choose a path that is counter to what your relatives approve, don’t expect, no matter how polite you are, for those relatives to stand up and applaud you.  They will feel betrayed, perhaps embarrassed, maybe defensive, and they will likely do everything in their power to pull you back into the old familiar orbit.” 

            That is what is going on with Jesus, his mother, and his siblings.  He has become someone different.  He is doing things that people think are crazy.  And they are embarrassed and ashamed of him and for him.  Now, of course, not all families react the same way to nearly anything.  The point here is not to bad-mouth families, but to see how family relationships fare in the larger scheme of things.  For Jesus, that “larger scheme” was what he called the Kingdom of God.  Life in the Kingdom, which I call by its Greek word, βασιλεια, is lived by a significantly different set of standards from “ordinary life.”  And, quite frankly, life in the βασιλεια can seem, as it appeared to Jesus’ contemporaries, whacky.  If there is one basic thing that the βασιλεια entails it is to be real, to be authentically oneself.  How do we know?  Because that was what Jesus modeled above all.  Bear in mind that he spoke his truth, he lived his truth, he embodied truth.  He reinvented the whole notion of Messiah and became its incarnation.  One cannot do any of those things very effectively while asking, “Will mom approve of this?”

            And that leads us to the second strand of this story, this improbable and mysterious statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit.  What is that all about?  Well, it is the conundrum that one cannot simultaneously embrace and disdain the reality of spirit.  To shut oneself off from the possibility that the βασιλεια is real, that God’s power is palpably present in the world, is the gut meaning of “sin,” which, remember, is not a moral goof-up, but an act of separation from the Divine Will.  As long as we stay in a state of negation, refusing to accept the life and power of God, we are impervious to the very transformation that the βασιλεια involves.  There is nothing very mysterious about that.  Steal yourself against love and you won’t experience it. 

            The continual problem is that we want to have our cake and eat it too.  That is to say, we want—or say we want—transformation and the accompanying passion, peace, joy, maybe even ecstasy, or who knows, enlightenment— but we want to have it in a way that doesn’t disturb too much of our world.  That is not true for everyone, to be sure, but it is true for a huge slice of the population who have never quite differentiated themselves from family, tribe, society.  The sad part about it all is that the Church itself often puts a damper on life in the βασιλεια, preferring instead that we conform to the norms and expectations that will keep us moored to familiar behaviors and attitudes. 

            Who are my mother and my brother and my sister?  asks Jesus.  “Looking around the room, he says, “These are my mother and brothers and sisters.  Those who do the will of my Abba are my mother and brothers and sisters.”  You could read this gospel today and ask, “Where is the good news in that?”  If you catch on to the truth that the will of God in creating a community called the βασιλεια is that we be whole persons, free, honest, rooted and grounded in love; that we be merciful, forgiving, and kind; that we respect own dignity in body, soul, and spirit as well as that we respect the dignity of every human being and the integrity of all creation—then it is a tall order, but one that inspires rather than depresses us, wouldn’t you say? 

            All those things we have been celebrating about Jesus between Advent through Pentecost—his incarnation, his baptism, his own transfiguration, all the way to his  resurrection, his glorious ascension, and all the suffering, death and grief in between—are not about him only, but about every last one of us.  They are the story of becoming, being, and living your real life, come what may, cost what it might.  You do not have to throw mud all over your family and loved ones in order to ask seriously if conforming to roles and expectations that others lay upon you are really what you want your life to be about.  Who are you anyway?  In the end, all you have to be is yourself, as they told me in the third grade, “your best self,” your truest self, and you will indeed be right in line with what God wills for you—you who are Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015