Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Before I dive into our texts this morning, let’s try a quick word association. What comes to mind when I say the word family? … [Thank you. We’ll circle back to this in a few minutes.]
Meanwhile, welcome to the New Year and to a new sermon series. Each year I try to approach the gospels from a slightly different angle, and this year I thought it would be interesting to consider how a variety of different characters would have seen Jesus. In other words, we’ll be spending the next several weeks trying to see Jesus again through their eyes, particularly in the gospel of Mark.
Mark opens his story with Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s boy, we just read about him on Christmas Eve over in the gospel of Luke. There he was said to be leaping around in utero, excited by the news of Aunt Mary’s pregnancy, and the birth of the promised Savior Jesus. I’d love to know if the two boys saw anything of each other later on during their childhood years, given that they were relatives and quite close in age (Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus having overlapped with Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John). We’re not given that part of their story. And here in Mark, we only meet John as an adult.
But perhaps this makes sense, given that Mark’s is a cut-to-the-chase kind of story. The shortest of the gospels, things move along here at a brisk clip. I remember learning in seminary how fond this gospel author is of the word “immediately,” and once that’s pointed out to you, you do start to notice it everywhere as you read through Mark.
One of the things this means is that Mark’s gospel opens differently from the other three. It’s no accident that we read from Matthew, Luke, and John on Christmas Eve, and not from Mark, because Mark doesn’t bother with Jesus’ birth at all. He dives right into his adult ministry, with just this brief story of John the Baptist by way of introduction. John’s “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” out there in the wilderness, wearing clothing distinctive enough to rate a mention (not many wardrobe choices are going to make the cut in Mark’s gospel, at the narrative pace he keeps). And apparently he’s got quite a following. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” are turning up to hear John, and to be baptized.
But who is Jesus, through John’s eyes? We don’t have a whole lot to go on, but John tells us this much: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8) So John knew, at the very least, that he was only the opening act; Jesus would be the main event. He also knew Jesus was more powerful than he, better connected somehow to God’s Holy Spirit, and that he was so worthy, so impressive, that in comparison John himself was but a servant, someone who should bow in Jesus’ presence. As introductions go, that sets the bar pretty high, doesn’t it? We haven’t even met Jesus yet, and John’s already prepared us for greatness.
This is confirmed by the baptism scene that – yes, immediately - follows in verses 9-11. Fairly sparse in detail, we’re simply told Jesus came, too, to be baptized in the wilderness by John, and while Mark doesn’t tell us what Johnwas thinking at that moment, we do get a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus and John. Whether the two boys ever got to play together or connect at family reunions growing up, we’ll never know. From Luke we know they were related and that their moms had been friends since before they were born. But here in Mark? Mostly we find John’s conviction that cousin Jesus is a far greater man than he, that he is well worth waiting for, that he is deeply in touch with God’s Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the main event.
Sticking with family perceptions in Mark today, it’s just two chapters later that we meet Jesus’ mother and brothers. Since his baptism, Jesus has been busily preaching the good news God’s kingdom all over Galilee, and calling the first disciples to follow him, and healing a great many people. Word’s getting around, so perhaps it’s not surprising that when his family turns up to see him one day, they find a crowd. Mom and brothers can’t even get into the house easily there are so many people there; instead they send word to Jesus through the crowd that they have arrived.
As I read this text again this week, I thought back on all the sermons I’ve heard over the years about Jesus dissing his family here: ignoring, dismissing, or outright rejecting them. Whether preachers highlight this (see how much more important his mission was even than his family), or lament it (can’t his mom have even a minute of his time?); either way, the assumption seems to be that in identifying others gathered around asfamily, Jesus entirely discounted his nuclear family. As if it were a zero-sum game: “they’re in” means “you’re out.”
Admittedly, there’s a gap in the narrative here. It would help if Mark answered our burning question: did Jesus invite his mother and brothers into the house or not, after making this statement about all those other folks being his family? Because surely if anyone had a right to cut in line to see this famous Jesus of Nazareth it should be the woman who carried and swaddled and fed the boy!
But notice, the text doesn’t actually say he dismissed his mother and brothers without letting them in to say hello. It leaves that detail out entirely. Which leads me to think this wasn’t the point Mark was trying to make.
Maybe it’s because we spent so much time with Jesus’ parables last year, but I read the story this time as an example of Jesus using every object lesson at his disposal to convey what the kingdom of God is like. He’d be walking along and see a farmer sowing seed, or a fisherman casting a net, or a woman baking bread, and right on the spot he’d come up with these little lessons for his disciples. To what can I compare the kingdom of God? It’s like the seeds that farmer is scattering… it’s like that net bursting with fish… it’s like the yeast in that bread.
What if that’s all that’s happening here too? Jesus is already teaching about God’s kingdom, and someone gets word to him through the crowd that his mom and brothers have just arrived. Why wouldn’t he seize the opportunity to teach them yet another significant truth about the kingdom of God? Why not say: “See my mother? See my brothers? You too are my mother and my brothers and sisters, if you stick close to God and try to do his will; we’re all one family in God’s eyes.” I don’t think we need to conclude he dismissed his own family members. He may simply have wanted to make clear that “family” is something far bigger than the nuclear unit of the Josephsons, if you will, from Nazareth.
We certainly like to invoke that broader definition of family around here. I can’t tell you the number of times, when I invite church members to describe this congregation to newcomers, that the word “family” comes up. Naturally we value our own smaller family units too. But I’m so pleased that the children of this church know you all are part of their extended family, and I know how much you enjoy having them as part of yours. Our Magnolia Presbyterian family includes friendships many decades long, and brotherhoods and sisterhoods that have begun quite recently but are no less meaningful for their newness. We celebrate regularly the tremendous gift it is to broaden the term “family” to include our whole congregation, not just those in our respective households, or those with whom we shared Christmas dinner this year.
This is why it surprised me to hear from a fellow pastor awhile back that she steered well clear of the word “family” in talking about her congregation, and strongly discouraged others from using the term too. Why, I wondered, did she feel “family” was such a dangerous word?
I suppose it depends on what the term “family” calls to mind. If it’s an exclusive, inhospitable, we-only-have-so-many-chairs-around-the-table sentiment, or an only-a-certain-type-of-person-need-apply kind of thing, then certainly we wouldn’t want the church to be that.
But let’s return to your word associations you shared at the beginning. When you speak of family, you use words like:
and ‘tree,’ as in those wonderful intergenerational connections through the years in a family tree, which we have here in a sense at church as well
I think about the way I was raised by my own parents, too. They were forever inviting people to join us for lunch after church, inviting international students into our home, keeping their eyes peeled for newcomers to their workplaces and their neighborhood so they could help them feel welcome. If “family” means “just us and no one else,” then my colleague was right and we have no business using that term about the church of Jesus Christ. But if “family” means “the more, the merrier, and let’s be sure everyone we meetfeels equally important and included” … if we keep on widening our understanding of “us” and making sure everyone feels welcome around the table, then it seems to me we can use the term freely. We just can’t get complacent about it, for we’ll find Jesus pushes us to extend our understanding of brothers and sisters well beyond this congregational comfort zone.
Returning to our text, in the absence of evidence one way or the other, I suppose we could argue all day about whether or not Jesus invited his mom and his brothers into the house at the end of this episode in Mark 3, and spent time catching up with them. I’d like to think he did. What does seem clear is that as a lover of object lessons, Jesus seized upon a teachable moment to say something about the breadth and width of God’s family. That family visit provided a perfect opportunity to tell those crowding around him – including, no doubt, many who were hungry and poor, many with diseased bodies or broken bones or broken spirits who wouldn’t be welcomed into other families – that they were absolutely included in the family of God.
Meanwhile, I guess I want to give Jesus some credit for respecting his mama. And while we’re at it, I want to give his mama far more credit than she’s given in some interpretations too. Who are we to assume she was disappointed in Jesus’ remark here? After all, some of us heard Mary’s own words here on Christmas Eve, that amazing song she sang in Luke 1 when she’d just learned she was carrying the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told her nothing was impossible for God, and what did she sing about in response? She sang about God reversing completely the way humans tend to value one another. No longer will the rich and powerful have it made, she sang. Instead, God is busy lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things. I wonder if her song became a family favorite. If so, what a beautiful vision of God’s kingdom this eloquent prophet may have taught her young son Jesus as he grew.
Even if Mary found it hard at times to share her remarkable boy with the crowds that followed him, I like to believe that when turned up for a visit and found him offering this lesson about the family of God, she recognized echoes of a song she’d been singing him since before he was born.
If Jesus through cousin John’s eyes was great and powerful and holy, we have every reason to expect that Jesus through his mother Mary’s eyes was her pride and joy. Throughout his ministry, she would watch him widening the circle, eliminating the margins, redefining who was welcome and included in God’s family.
We don’t know if Mary heard with her own ears Jesus saying his family included every hungry, broken, or unloved person crowding around him: “here are my mother and my brothers.” I suspect the crowd at least got that word back to her. And sure, it requires a bit of holy imagination to see her facial expression in that moment, or otherwise to catch her reaction, since the text doesn’t record it for us.
But rather than causing her to worry Jesus didn’t love her anymore (let’s give them both more credit than that), when I think about seeing Jesus here through Mary’s eyes, I imagine her smiling as he referred to all those others as family too. I even wonder if she said to herself with a bit of pride, “He remembered our song! Well said, son. Well said.”