Preached at MCC Columbia (S.C.) August 28, 2005
Readings: Matthew 12:46-50, 1 John 3:1-3
You know you’re in a bad family when …
- The pet cat got better food than you did.
- Your parents told you about strange men giving away sweets and to go and find as many of them as possible.
- You play “hide & seek” with your Mother and she hides in another town.
- Your parents take you to an orphanage and tell you to mingle.
- Your folks threw a “going-into-the-Army” party when you were only three years old.
- You run away, and the family can’t give the Police an accurate description.
- Kidnappers send back a piece of your ear and your parents demand more proof before they pay any ransom.
- When you were born, your Father gave out old cigar butts.
- Your parents encourage you to fish in shark infested waters.
- As a baby, your Father threw you in the air and walked away.
- You find out your Mother is nursing another baby on the side.
- Your tub toys included a toaster shaped like a rubber duck.
This list really struck home with me because what my dad always told us when he got irritated with us being around was, “Hey, why don’t you go play in the traffic?”
Often our families or origin can be so awful that we long for that perfect family – that family where everyone is polite, where everyone loves one another unconditionally. But, too often our own families remind us of the Simpsons – hopelessly dysfunctional.
The Simpsons makes it clear to us that when it comes to our biological family it’s really a roll of the dice, isn’t it? We didn’t choose our parents or our brothers or our sisters. We didn’t choose how or where we grew up. We didn’t choose the beliefs we were taught or the attitudes we learned from our parents and siblings. Yet, it is these experiences – for good or ill – that make us the people we are today. Often, we must do a lot of work to heal and forgive members of our family of origin.
We hear a lot of talk these days about family values. There are some Christians who talk so much about family that you’d think Jesus’ parents were Ozzie and Harriet instead of a poor carpenter and his pregnant out of wedlock fiancée. Jesus’ family started out in a scandalous state now condemned by a good chunk of his modern day followers.
The “family values” talk of a mom a dad and 2.5 kids would be foreign to Jesus. These were obviously not his family values. By all accounts Jesus never married. It wasn’t high on his agenda – but you’d think he ran around promoting heterosexual marriage by all the talk from the conservative camp. He also didn’t hang out with his parents all that much. He even refused to see his mother and his brothers when they came to see him speak.
Instead, he took that moment to redefine family. Here is what Jesus would say are “family values” –
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus had all but abandoned his family of origin. He pointed to his disciples – his family of choice – and said, “here are my mother and my brothers.” How did he define his family? As those who do the will of the Creator. Jesus had surrounded himself with those who understood God’s will – something he had spelled out before – loving God with all you heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.
But, take a look at what kind of people Jesus had chosen as family. These weren’t politically powerful people. These weren’t rich people. These weren’t government leaders. These people had no influence on public policy. They did not command military might. In short, they were nobodies – a bunch of ragtag fishermen and women of questionable backgrounds. Jesus’ family of choice was made up of the discarded people, the people on the margins, people discriminated against, people who were shunned, hated and denied approval by those in power in government and those in power in the church. Does that sound familiar?
These people, though, were not perfect. Eventually every single one of them would betray Jesus, run away from him, or deny that they ever knew them. This family of choice certainly had its own unique problems. I’m sure there were days that even Jesus looked around and saw a saintly family that made his family of choice look like a bunch of little demons. Sometimes the disciples were thick-headed, not understanding Jesus’ teachings or questioning him when he did things they disliked, like talking with Samaritan women and healing Gentiles.
Despite their problems though, I submit that Jesus family of choice fits the profile of a strong family. According to a 1983 University of Nebraska study a strong family has six characteristics and I think Jesus’ family of choice fits them all.
The first characteristic is appreciation: “Family members gave one another compliments and sincere demonstrations of approval. They tried to make the others feel appreciated and good about themselves.”
In John 15:15 Jesus shows his appreciation for his family of choice: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Creator I have made known to you.”
A second characteristic is time together: “In all areas of their lives – meals, work, recreation – they structured their schedules to spend time together.” Jesus and the disciples traveled together, worked together and ate together.
A third characteristic is the ability to deal with crises in a positive manner. “They were willing to take a bad situation, see something positive in it and focus on that.” When Jesus is arrested and a disciple reacts by picking up a sword and cutting the ear off the servant of the high priest, Jesus admonished him. Jesus would not answer his arrest with violence, but in a positive manner. Likewise, after his crucifixion, the family survived, dealing with the crisis in positive manner, following Jesus’ instructions to go and preach and teach all over the world.
A fourth characteristic of a strong family is a high degree of commitment: “Families promoted each person’s happiness and welfare, invested time and energy in each other and made family their number one priority.” Jesus and his disciples were committed to one another, supported one another and invested their time and energy in one another. Again, they failed one another in a crucial moment, but we’re talking about strong families, not perfect families. Even strong families have weak moments.
A fifth characteristic is good communication patterns: “These families spent time talking with each other. They also listened well, which shows respect.” Jesus spent a lot of time teaching his disciples – his family of choice – the Good News that they are now children of God, adopted into the family as full heirs through Christ. It’s true that some of Jesus’ communications were cryptic and hard to understand for the disciples, but they listened well – showing their respect for Jesus.
The last characteristic of a strong family is a high degree of religious orientation. “Not all belonged to an organized church, but they considered themselves highly religious.” I think it’s clear that Jesus’ family of choice had this in spades! All they ever did was talk about religion.
All this is good news to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people because it shows that Jesus’ idea of family values doesn’t have a lot to do with what modern Christians value. It’s not the physical make up of the family that counts – it’s the strength of the character of the people involved. It’s about the strength and integrity of the relationships between the people in the family. Family is not made up of the right genital combination and the right number of children. Family is made up of love – love for God and love for self and neighbor. This is the foundation of family and Jesus understood this.
We are all part of the human family, and sometimes, as GLBT people we feel like the black sheep of the family. Society treats us like red headed step children. They toss us in the air and walk away. They encourage us to fish in shark infested waters. They encourage us to go with strangers and play in the traffic. They do not value us as members of the human family. That human family often looks like a family of demons inviting us to get on in the car – “room for one more!” But, the good news is, we can climb into the car with that perfect family because we are God’s children. The world may not realize it, but need to realize it.
Our brothers and sisters on this journey are not perfect, but our heavenly parent is perfect and loves us and provides for us even if our earthly brothers and sisters hate us, revile us and discriminate against us.
Our earthly families may never be perfect – even our own families of choice may betray us, deny us or run from us – but we are members of the only family that matters. We are children of God. Others may deny it. Others may not like it, but the fact is that we are joint heirs with Christ, children of God whose birthrights will not be denied.
Hear the Good News – you belong to the best family there could ever be. “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.