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What Is Family Anyway – Br. Robert L'Esperance

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Mark 3:31-35

Some of you might remember when, some years ago, people were expressing shock and even grief at an instructive issued by the Catholic Church.  Speaking on behalf of the magisterium, then Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to say that one must embrace the Roman Church in order to be saved.  Of course, our “shock and grief” have found their home in our own communion.  Anglicans have engaged in battle for some years now over the nature of human sexuality and what the Bible says or doesn’t say about it.  Both sides have fumed at each other.  Both sides have claimed the right.  Pronouncement has been answered with pronouncement.  In our own country, some congregations have decided that the issue is too important to remain within the Episcopal Church and have migrated to less objectionable quarters of the Anglican Communion.  There have been law suits, mostly about property rights (ah, that’s code for money).  It’s not a pretty picture.

Why should we be surprised that those outside the church looking-in grow more and more confused and turned-off by what they see?

The problem of exclusion and inclusion seems to have afflicted our species even in our pre-history.  The early biblical story of Cain and Abel reflects this problem; so do other biblical stories usually about wives and brothers locked in rivalry for the inheritance. The very story of salvation history as recorded in Hebrew scripture dwells repeatedly on the exclusive nature of God’s relationship with Israel.  There were Jews, the chosen people, and there were the Gentiles, the other.

The question of who is saved and who is not has dogged the Christian Church since its inception.  In another place in his gospel, Mark included a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syro-phoenician woman.  It’s a remarkable story because it seems to show us a less-than-perfect Jesus struggling with his own issues of inclusivity.  The woman, clearly a non-Jew and therefore an outsider, approached Jesus and asked him to cure her very sick daughter.  Now, first century Palestinian Jewish men did not speak to strange women and certainly not gentile women.  There was always danger of ritual defilement which had to be guarded against.  Obviously Jesus knew this because at first he drew back from her and basically told her to go away.  I think that Jesus had been taught to fear the other.

So, why should we be surprised at Cardinal Ratzinger or ourselves?  Even the Son of God seems to have been challenged when faced with inclusiveness.

But, with an important difference which is, I think, instructive:  Jesus never closed his heart.  In facing his own fears, he was able to offer salvation and heal the beseeching woman’s beloved daughter.

I was raised in a small town, sharply divided along ethnic lines.  Those divisions were a legacy of early twentieth century mass migrations of European and Canadian immigrants to the mill towns of New England.  The divisions were often exploited by mill owners to keep workers from organizing themselves in support of better working conditions.

I am the descendent of French and Italian immigrants and I was raised Roman Catholic.  I was taught fear and suspicion of the Poles, the Portuguese, the Ukrainians, and the Irish who lived with me in that small town.  There were no Black or Hispanic people.  I don’t think they were allowed.  But I was taught to fear them anyway just in case I came into contact with any.  I won’t say what I was taught about Protestants or Jews.  But, I was quite comfortable in the knowledge that I was saved and they were not.

Some of us remember the proliferation of American flags seen after the events of September 11.   They seemed to be everywhere.  People felt a strong need to state who they were and where their loyalties lay.  The image conjures for me the circling of the wagons portrayed in many of the television Westerns I watched in childhood.

Human beings have a long history of seeking comfort in numbers; of “circling the wagons” to protect themselves against either the real or supposed threat posed by the other.  And although sociologists never tire of telling us that we have lost our sense of shared commonality and community, we still try to find ways to belong.  I think that there are also less benign aspects to displaying flags, aspects that tap into a darker side of human nature.  While I would say that belonging is important, even very important, I think that we are sometimes confused about what this really means; how often belonging seems to be defined by excluding others.

When Jesus poses the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” I would suggest that he is asking us to look closely at that darker side.  The question’s impact on Jesus’ audience is lost on us unless we know or remember that family literally meant everything in Jesus’ world and that to be without genealogy placed an individual outside the possibility of relationship with other Jews and with the performance of temple rites necessary to ensure the integrity of one’s relationship with God.  Family was everything.  To know one’s origins ensured good standing in the community.  To have to ask the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” pushed a person into the category of bastard and that was a place that no one would wish to be.

So Jesus’ question is, I think, another one of those instances where the world of social and religious expectations gets turned upside down; like in the story of the Syro-phoenician woman.  Jesus’ audience knew that everyone who was anyone knew their parentage for at least five or six generations.  They were quite certain that they knew who were the chosen and who were not, who were saved and who were lost, who belonged and who did not.  Not unlike all those flapping flags seeming to say, “We know who we are, and the rest of you, whoever you might be, better watch out.”

I am not sure what underlies our need to do this to ourselves and to others.  I think that it has something to do with our fear of God, our fear of the Other (and here I refer to that Other spelled with a capital “O.”)  Our fear to do what Jesus has told us we must do:  to die to self so that we might live.  Dying is so scary because we have to do it alone.

Jesus’ question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” might be an invitation.  An invitation for us to look long and hard, to look and see again and again how we define ourselves; to become radically conscious of what effect our own sense of belonging has on those with whom we share this planet.  A challenge to question systems that say that blood, family, nationality, ethnicity, race, sex, sexual orientation or even religion somehow settle important questions about life and purpose.  It’s an invitation that asks us to embrace a world of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and even insecurity; a world where too much smug comfort probably means that we are dangerously out of touch with how God is calling us to be and to become.

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21 Comments

  1. Jennifer on January 28, 2017 at 09:51

    How very timely today, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day and executive orders agianst refugees. Lord, help us!

  2. Alan Rollins on January 27, 2017 at 18:19

    This is such a thoughtful, and frankly poignant essay. Robert, I thank you, and may God bless you for it.

  3. martha on January 27, 2017 at 10:12

    What a challenge. It is extremely difficult to leave one’s comfort zone. Pain and confusion often occur when one steps into newness. But this newness can become part of creating God’s kingdom.

  4. Janet on January 27, 2017 at 08:12

    Thank you for this beautiful and timeless sermon. Every word exudes compassion for a world full of people who just don’t seem to fit our current political ideology and direction. It will stay with me for a very long time. May I humbly learn to open my heart and mind to others.

  5. Marie on January 27, 2017 at 06:37

    Thank you. That’s all I have — gratitude — after reading this excellent sermon as well as all the comments from other readers. Thank you.

  6. Face | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on January 27, 2017 at 00:05

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  7. Karen on February 23, 2016 at 21:21

    Thank you. My search for who I am began in College. I had a horrible childhood and when entering high school I was terribly insecure and without any sense of confidence. When I entered college I felt free to search for who I was and back then colleges had chapels for each denomination. I always went back to the Episcopal Chapel after a new adventure. I learned that my faith kept me reasonable and shouldered my growth with confidence and a sense of comfort that the abuse and neglect of my childhood would no longer attack my soul! This is a story I share with people when I feel God wants me to.

  8. Margaret Dungan on February 2, 2016 at 15:26

    Thank you Br. Robert,
    I love the way that you Brothers open up texts with a new fresh honest light. It tells me of the depth of your meditation on these ‘Words’. It also directs me and gives me an example of how to ask fresh questions when I read texts that I know very well. I am truly grateful.
    Margaret.

  9. anders on February 2, 2016 at 15:16

    Thank you for giving me a pause in my consideration of current political events where US Christian evangelicals take what I see as anxiety-laden misogynist xenophobic reactionary positions. The question or invitation of “Who are my mother and my brothers?” becomes confused with Jesus declaration “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:51-53). I get confused and take a deep breath to feel gratitude in the invitation of continuing to become, and it is good.

  10. Bob McMath on February 2, 2016 at 14:58

    Thank you, Br. Robert. I’ve never thought about this passage from Mark 3 and others where Jesus is seemingly dismissive of his own family in just the way you framed it, but what you say makes a great deal of sense and offers food for thought in the context of our modern and fearful society.

  11. Polly Chatfield on February 2, 2016 at 09:24

    Thank you, Robert. I love the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” and feel very comforted that I, too, am included in the circumference of God’s embrace. But if we are called to be Christ in the world, then our embrace must do its best to be as wide as God’s. Not easy, but ever so rewarding.

  12. Michael on February 2, 2016 at 08:45

    When we are given choice our lives become increasingly complicated especially if we find value in both options To include or exclude others is no different To include and thus enrich our culture and knowledge vs to exclude a way to protect from unfamiliar situations, customs or peoples all have merit, but we must learn to balance. Using generalization does nothing but cheapen us and the situation we are dealing with at the moment. Our fears are meant to bring something to our attention, but that does not mean our fear decide our actions. We are responsible for our decisions and are capable of changing them if we feel we need to. Being gentle with ourselves as we work though decisions will do nothing except make us better thinkers and better people

  13. george on February 2, 2016 at 07:44

    thank you. Please reconsider your assumption about me for putting a flag out.

  14. Pam on February 4, 2015 at 21:11

    Bravo! Well said, I think. I was recently reading John Philip Newell’s “The Rebirthing of God,” and in it he makes a very good case against labeling, judgments, seeing things in black and white, and so forth. Your sermon reminds me of one comment in particular that he made. He was speaking about the issue of who’s saved and who isn’t, who’s in and who’s out, and he said that we Christians tend to keep Jesus to ourselves. We sort of hoard him rather than share him with the world. That’s an interesting way to think of it, isn’t it?

  15. Ruth West on February 4, 2015 at 16:08

    Br. Robert, this is a short, but very meaningful homily. I, too, can relate to your illustrations in so many ways. I think of the scripture, “Whosoever
    will, let him come and drink freely of the waters of life…” It is so dangerous to hang labels on others, and it is so easy to do. Whosoever means you, me, and all who WILL come. Thank you!

  16. Christina on February 4, 2015 at 10:15

    It’s a conundrum, isn’t it? It seems to me that, in the western world, we have lost some of our stability by losing those connections of family and communities.
    I was an only child, through circumstances a lonely child, and a pupil in a Roman Catholic convent. Only recently, I have looked back upon my years there and recognise the exclusion for the few non-Catholics in the class.
    I was the first child in my family to be born outside of Scotland, but I knew my grandparents, and aunts and uncles through annual visits, and those who lived in London too.
    But, as an only child, I always wanted to have four children. Why? I don’t have an answer to that. I was blessed and have four children. But, where are they? One in Oregon, another in Washington State, a third in Switzerland. So where is that family community? Christmas, for example, unlike my ordinary little childhood experiences that evoke a warmth of memories, is now an afternoon spent with a friend and some of her family who I don’t know. Nice enough, but not family and not community. We all seem to be fragmented.

    • Christina McKerrow on February 2, 2016 at 08:44

      A year later. The world is caught up in an influx of Syrian refugees. I’ve written it somewhere else, but it is imperative that we remember that on this continent, with the exception of our native brothers and sisters, we are ALL immigrants (or from immigrant stock.)

    • Margo on January 27, 2017 at 09:18

      Dear Christina,
      You are not alone in this “scattered’ family life. I give thanks for Skype and the much broader window I am given of the rest of the world and even occasional visit.
      Margo.

  17. anders on February 4, 2015 at 09:49

    Thank you. By looking deeper at your invitation I realize how liberating “family values” are. With fondness I look back as a child and being surrounded by Swedish immigrants who came prior to WW II. Forty plus years later I am bringing my sons to a local Turkish center so they too can know the generosity, humility and hospitality of immigrants, which have always been what makes the US strong. Likewise, brothers and sisters who happen to be gay have shown me the power of life out of the closet. They have taught me to read John “He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise,” and recognize that I need to come out of my own tight-fisted closet to a spirit of generosity. The answer to “Who are my mother and my brothers?” is life in the flow of grace in which I am blessed by so many brothers and sisters around me. I just need to keep showing up, and am grateful.

  18. Frank McNair, FSJ on February 4, 2015 at 09:23

    The snippet of this sermon sent out as part of “Brother, Give Us a Word” is one of the truest things I have ever read. Thanks.

  19. Elizabeth Vickers on February 4, 2015 at 07:21

    Thank you, Br. L’Esperance for this insightful homily. I grew up in one of those small New England towns and was reminded regularly that my mother was one of the “other.” She and her family had migrated from Canada. Your words are a fresh reminder for me when I am tempted to categorize people into “us” and “other.”

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