A Family of Choice

Scripture can be found here...

Family. It’s such a beautiful word. It speaks of love, and tenderness, and connection, and responsibility. It speaks of milestones like the first step and the last day of school senior year. It is seen in pictures of smiling people leaning together and also in inside-jokes that leave those in the know in stitches. It’s a beautiful thing—or, it can be.

Family. It’s such a loaded word. Whose family? Yours or mine? A family in which the parents are married or not? In which the parents are of the same sex or opposite sexes? A family with children or without? A family in which the primary caregivers for children are parents, or one in which they are grandparents, or aunts, or uncles, or folks in the foster system?

Here’s a family story. When I was in my late 30’s I started taking serious steps towards going to seminary, which means I was doing research, and making visits to places like Cambridge, and New Haven, and New York City for special weekend programs for people like me, prospective students. Everyone in my family was so excited! Everyone except my mother. Mom was not excited. With each new visit, and my effusive descriptions of the programs I’d explored and the people I’d met and the beautiful and creative chapel services I’d attended, my mom grew more and more anxious and upset. One day in the spring of 2000 I called her to tell her I’d finally made my choice: I was going to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and I would be a full time student, but commuting from Binghamton, so that I would only be physically on campus for only about half of each week.

My mom exploded.

“You cannot do this. You cannot leave your children. I will not allow it. They are too young.” (They were young; Ned was 13 and Joan was 8, and I had anguished over the decision to go back to school at precisely that time. But they had a great dad, who was more than up to the task of being there for them. And I was acutely aware of my age, and the fact that this call had been on my heart for more than ten years at that point. I was not willing to wait any longer.) Mom continued. “I am going call that seminary, and I am going to demand to speak to the president, and I will tell them your situation, and tell them not to let you in.”

And that is exactly what she did.

I think my mother thought I had gone out of my mind. And she didn’t mind saying so.

Family. It’s complicated. Even for Jesus, it turns out.

It’s early days, still, in the ministry of Jesus… or, at least, the early months. Once again we are privy to a scene of chaos in which people are trying to gain access to Jesus, as if he were the star of an HBO prestige series. And there’s something about these events that triggers something in Jesus’ family… they went out to restrain him, our passage tells us, because they thought he had gone out of his mind. And then… the passage moves away from Jesus’ biological family and focuses for a time on the leaders of his faith community, and their reaction. And it wasn’t much better. “He has Beelzebul,” they said. The ruler of demons, they decided, had taken over Jesus. He was possessed.

Why would they think these things? Both Jesus’ family of origin and the family that had nurtured his faith? Why would they think he had lost his mind, or even, that he was possessed?

Earlier in chapter three, three things happen. First, Jesus cures a man with a withered hand… and because he does this on the Sabbath, it causes some consternation among the religious leaders. There’s a lot of misunderstanding among Christians about the Sabbath requirements, which can be boiled down to “remember” and “observe.” Jews don’t consider Sabbath a time of annoying restrictions. Rather, it’s a blessed time of freedom during which the memory of God’s beautiful creation is combined with the observance of God’s gift of a time of leisure and enjoyment. On the Sabbath it’s forbidden to do anything that falls in the category of “creative” work—the kind of work God rested from after creation. The time is spent, yes, in prayer, but also in lovely, long meals, playing games, conversations you don’t have time for the rest of the week. And, it’s important to remember, the commandment to observe the Sabbath may be broken in order to save a life. However, Jesus’ healing of the man’s hand does indeed violate the Sabbath command to refrain from the kind of work God does. So, that was the first thing.

The second thing Jesus does is to go to the sea, where, once again, he finds himself pursued by people who are eager to be healed by him. In fact, they press in on him so closely that he is in danger of being crushed, and hops in one of his disciples’ boats to go out to sea. Add to all this: spirits that possessed some people were crying out “You are the son of God!” and Jesus was telling them to quiet down. This chaotic event is the second thing.

Third, Jesus goes up a mountain, and there he draws to him all those he wants in his inner circle—a group of twelve, whom he calls “apostles,” that is, people whose job it is to go and do all the things Jesus has been going and doing—proclaiming his message, and casting out those noisy demons. This is the third thing.

An impulse to heal that results in Jesus violating the Sabbath. Being pursued by those who want healing to the point where Jesus is in some bodily danger. And then, drawing together a core group to do this work—teaching and healing. There’s something about all this, combined with the chaotic scene at his house in Capernaum, that alarms both Jesus’ family and the religious establishment.

I think it’s not a stretch to say that it all boils down to one thing, really. Jesus scares people. I think he scares his family—they can see the magnitude of the impact he is having, not only on his own community, but on whole regions… Galilee, Judea, Idumea, the Jordan, and beyond And this is frightening for at least two reasons. For one thing, these actions are bound to attract the attention of people who didn’t like to see unknown peasant-class individuals becoming too celebrated, because it threatens them. Think: the local Roman political and military classes. And where Jesus’ family is concerned, their alarm is pretty understandable. Jesus’ life is unfolding in adulthood in a way that doesn’t make sense to those who know and love him best. Don’t our families sometimes fear for us when they don’t understand what’s happening to us? When we step outside the parameters of who they’ve always understood us to be? When we suddenly show interests or abilities no one in our family has ever demonstrated before? Or when we gravitate to people they don’t think are the right sort? And depending on the way families manage these anxieties, the consequences for their children can be profound.

About 1.6 million young people run away from home every year, and about 40% of these self-identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. About 46% of these young people run away because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 43% were forced out by parents; and 32% experienced physical, or emotional, or sexual abuse at home.[i] LGBTQ youth are an extremely vulnerable population if it turns out their families are frightened, or appalled, or angered by who their own children turn out to be as they grow up. Imagine sharing the deepest truth of who you are with the people who have always loved you, only to be told, “We don’t want you any more. Get out.”

If they are lucky enough to make it to adulthood, these young people often end up finding for themselves another family, what we might call “families of choice.” These would be made up of accepting and affirming friends, parents of friends… those who offer them a welcome their own families of origin were not able to manage.

And… this is exactly what Jesus does, in our passage. After he talks sternly with the religious leaders about their messed up logic (that Jesus has the power to cast out demons because he himself is demon-possessed), his mother and siblings appear again outside Jesus’ home, sending for him, even calling to him. Jesus is inside, and a crowd is sitting around him… probably older people and younger people, definitely men and women (maybe boys and girls). And Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “Who is my mother? Who are my siblings?” And after gazing around the room, perhaps looking each one in the eyes as he does so, Jesus says, “Here is my mother. Here are my siblings. Each person who does what God calls him or her to do, they are my mother, and my sister, and my brother.”

In the middle of an estrangement from his biological family, Jesus establishes for himself a family of choice. Other gospels stories indicate that this was not a permanent situation. But here, in this moment, in this story, Jesus knows what it is like to have your family so far from understanding you that they don’t really feel like family any more. Instead, it is those people who, to borrow language from one of our 2018 high school graduates, share your values who begin to feel like family, indeed, who become our family.

So is that what is going on in church? Are we all here because this is our family of choice? Yes, and no. There is a strong doctrine in Reformed theology—which would be a way to describe Presbyterians, we of the Reformed tradition—known as election. The idea of election strongly suggests that, even though we may have the impression we are here by our choice, the mysterious truth is that we have been drawn here by God. In fact, in every way in which we seek to express or live out our faith, we are responding to something God has already done. The parents who bring their child to be baptized. The minister who looks at a church’s Ministry Information Form and says, “I think I’ll throw my hat in the ring.” The student who feels encouraged or welcomed by a prayer or a passage of scripture.

In her extraordinary book Take This Bread, Episcopal priest Sara Miles talks of the circuitous route by which God led her to faith and a life in ministry. She had been a photographer working with and among the poorest of the poor around the world, from the war torn streets of Nicaragua and El Salvador to those of the Philippines, and she was absolutely struck by the generosity of all these people as they welcomed her to their humble tables. Miles’ experience of eating at the tables of the poor took a radical turn when, on an impulse, she walked into a church on a Sunday morning, took communion, and had a vivid and physical experience of the presence of Jesus. Now that Miles was hungry for Jesus as well as for food, she began to understand the church as a place where people feed and people are fed. This understanding changed, not only her own life, but the lives of others as she led that church in establishing a food ministry for the poor and struggling in its community.

The man who rushes through dinner to get to a meeting about a new food pantry. The young girl who finds out there is a camp for disabled children and decides she wants to volunteer there. The woman who wanders into a church for the first time on an impulse. The man who surrounds himself with those who share his values and vision of healing and proclaiming God’s love. All of these and more are responding to God’s action, whether that is visible to them or not. In a way a church is a family of choice. But it turns out to be God’s choice. And because of that, the church includes both people who feel like absolute kindred souls and people who leave us shaking our heads. When bringing us together, God will often include both the people we’d most like to have coffee with and the people who think we’re out of our minds. And God is in all of it, and it is God who makes it all work.

Family. It’s beautiful. And it’s complicated. Even church family. But the power that draws us together is the greatest power of all, the power of God’s love working in and through us. It is a power that will not fail. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Jaimie Seaton, “Homeless Rates for LGBTQ Youth Are Alarming, But Parents Can Make a Difference,” The Washington Post, March 29, 2017,