Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sermon: 3 Epiphany (27 Jan 2008)

3 Epiphany: 27 January 2008
(Isaiah 9:1-4/Psalm 27:1, 4-9/1 Corinthians 1:10-18/Matthew 4:12-23)
Family Values and Mini-gods

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This sermon is for a resident of Smalltown, South Carolina, a woman whose name I don’t recall (if I ever heard it) and whose likelihood of ever hearing or reading it is essentially zero. Still, it’s for her. But, it’s for you, too, and for all who have ears to hear the Gospel.

I “met” this woman through National Public Radio. An interviewer was conducting a straw poll among the locals just before the recent South Carolina Republican Primary. I don’t recall her exact words during the interview, so I’ll have to paraphrase; still I think I can accurately capture the essence of the woman’s thoughts.

“I’m a Christian,” she said, “and it’s important to me to have a Christian president. So, Mike Huckabee’s my candidate. As a Christian, family values are important to him. He puts family first.”

You know how sometimes the subcontext of what someone says just shines clearly through the spoken word? When this woman said family values I knew just what she really meant. She wanted a candidate and president who would protect her image of family: a bread-winner husband, a stay-at-home wife and mother, 2.5 above average children, a two story brick mini-mansion in a gated community, an SUV or minivan in which to drive her children to their school whose day starts with prayer and whose rooms each contain a prominently displayed framed print of the 10 Commandments. I hope I’m not misreading her, or maybe I hope I am. Regardless, I’d truly like to know whatever gave this woman the notion that Jesus endorses her family values, that he cares one whit about protecting her image of family. What church has she attended all these years that has told her that the nuclear family is most important to Jesus? What gospel has she read in which Jesus says, “Put family first?” Because the church has another gospel. We’ve heard it once this morning, but I think we could stand to hear it again.

12Now when he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:15 "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned."
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people (Mt 4:12-23, ESV).

This is the word of the Lord. And in this word, our Lord blows to smithereens our normal concepts of family values. Did you notice how in this short passage Jesus treated three or four different families with ambivalence if not disregard? First he leaves Nazareth and moves his headquarters to Capernaum. Jesus leaves home, leaves behind his responsibilities as firstborn son to provide for his family. Is Joseph still around? We hear nothing of him and presume him dead by this time. What’s Mary to do now with Jesus also gone? Will the burden of her care – not to mention responsibility for her daughters – fall on James or Joses or Simon or Judas, Jesus’s brothers? Does this explain their disdain for him over the next few months and years? Then, having established himself in Capernaum, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, notices a couple of fishermen plying their trade – Simon Peter and his brother Andrew – and says, “Leave it all to follow me.” And they do. Drop your profession and leave behind your families. We know Simon Peter was married. I wonder what Mrs. Simon Peter said when Mr. Simon Peter told her later that afternoon that he had quit his job and was going to travel about the countryside with a carpenter-rabbi fishing for men? If she was practical in the way that women usually are and men seldom are she had a thousand questions – basic ones like “What are we going to eat?” and “How will we live?” and “Have you totally lost your mind?” At best she had to hope that this was some kind of quickly passing midlife crisis. Did Jesus care about this turmoil? If so, it didn’t stop him from causing it. And still walking, just down the coast a bit, Jesus “happens” upon brothers James and John hard at work mending nets with their father, taking care of family business. “Leave Dad with the nets. You come follow me,” he says, and once again the fishermen leave. And there’s Dad left alone wondering what just happened, watching his family and his security walk away down the beach. It’s a parent’s nightmare: their beloved child getting involved in some strange cult, separating from family, and giving up all financial resources just to be held in thrall by some charismatic, religious fanatic. Three families shot with no indication that Jesus cares one bit for the challenge he’s just issued to good, Jewish family values. You want a modern day example? Talk to Shane Claiborne’s mother. Shane is an only child and an only male grandchild on both sides of his family. Needless to say the family had invested much preparation and hope in him, and they expected a payoff: good education, prestigious career, and a stable marriage with children to carry on the family name. Then Jesus walked by and called, “Come, follow me.” And Shane got up and left. Now he lives with the poor – as one of the poor – in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia, lists his occupation as “professional lover,” and has elected, thus far, a life of celibacy. Talk about upending family values in the name of Jesus. “I met Jesus and he ruined my life,” is the way Shane puts it in his book Irresistible Revolution. Whatever would the woman in South Carolina think?

Am I making a theological mountain out of a molehill? Well, you be the judge as you hear Jesus speak for himself.

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father,and a daughter against her mother,and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:34-39, NRSV).

Or, on another ocassion.

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ 20And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 21Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 22But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’ (Mt 8:18-22, NRSV).

And this story, the most important of all.

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mt 12:46-50, NRSV).

So, where is all this headed? The family values that the good woman in South Carolina so cherishes is nothing more than an idol – something that has replaced Jesus as the most important thing in her system of values. Oh, she would never say that. But, wait a minute – I guess she did, didn’t she?

“I’m a Christian,” she said, “and it’s important to me to have a Christian president. So, Mike Huckabee’s my candidate. As a Christian, family values are important to him. He puts family first.”

An idol is a mini-god, small enough to be carried around in purse or pocket and stroked throughout the days and years for comfort and security. It can be an idea as easily as a golden statue; nowadays in the West it generally is. But it offers only false comfort and false security. It is powerless to save. It is far too small a repository for human hopes and dreams and lives. Family values – at least as I understand the phrase in common political and fundamental evangelical use – is an idol, an especially powerful one. And idols can’t be rehabilitated and retained; they must be destroyed. This is essential for us to understand. Jesus didn’t come to endorse and bless the highest values and aspirations of our culture – even our nominally Christian culture in the United States. He came to destroy them and to rebuild them and us from the ground up.

This explains Jesus’s ambivalence toward the human family and especially his behavior in this last account of the visit of his mother and brothers. Jesus’s family came to him on the basis of special privilege as his family. Everyone in the room fully expected Jesus to suspend his parables, delay his healing, cease his exorcisms and respond immediately to his family; that’s what family values would dictate, then and now. But instead, Jesus drops a bombshell: human family is too small to be of first importance. It is a mini-god, an idol. True family is determined not by blood, but by the Spirit. True family is not isolated to homes and communities, but abounds fully throughout the Kingdom of God. “Who is family?” Jesus asks not quite rhetorically. “Family is all those gathered around me, all those who do the will of our Father in heaven.” There is one Father – the Lord God, the Almighty. There is one family – those who are in Christ Jesus. This is the true family. Faith, love, obedience: these are the true family values. Anything less is an idol. Jesus didn’t come to bless our families and endorse our values, but to deconstruct them and to reform them around himself. Our normal concept of family is just too small.

What does this mean for us and for our sister in South Carolina? It means that the undocumented Hispanic couple attending mass down the street and praying for protection from the INS is family. It means that the old black woman with the Bible worn out from years of use – the old black woman shivering in the cold because she can’t afford food, medicine and heat – is family. It means that the children in the projects at the church daycare – the ones who duck when cars squeal their tires for fear of being shot in a drive-by – are family. It means that the secret Muslim disciple and the underground Chinese pastor and the imprisoned North Korean Christian are all family. It means for us that the woman in South Carolina whose concept of family values is so small as to be idolatrous is also family. Jesus didn’t come to destroy family values, just our understanding of family values. Jesus didn’t come to make us love our family less, but more. Or, to paraphrase his words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think I came to abolish the family. I came not to abolish it, but to fulfill it.” Jesus came to enlarge and enrich our family almost beyond comprehension. He said so to Peter, to one whose family he disrupted.

27 Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ 28Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:27-30, NRSV).

I’m always impressed during the political season at how many idols we truly have and at how little we truly recognize them. And I’m not exempt; I have as many as the next guy. For some “It’s the economy, Stupid.” For others, immigration or national security. For still others, a woman’s right to choose. And yes, for many, it’s family values. I wonder: in the Kingdom will all these first things be last and the things we generally put last – love and faith and obedience – be first? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a candidate say, “My goal is to help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?” These are Jesus’s family values.

One last idea that’s implicit in all this. Men, your wife, if she is in Christ, is first and foremost your sister. And women, your husband is your brother. Your children? Also brothers and sisters in Christ; younger siblings, yes, who need nurture and instruction, but siblings nonetheless. We are responsible to our one Father for the care we show our brothers and sisters – even those in our human families. Whatever rights my wife might relinquish by virtue of the marriage bond she gains all the more through our common bond in Christ. Whatever rights she gains through marriage she lays aside at the foot of the cross. Jesus’s family values must reconstruct our marriages and our parenting. We dare not make idols of our husbands, our wives, our children. But also we dare not look upon them as just our wives or our husbands or our children. They are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and all are one family in the Spirit. These also are Jesus’s family values.

The bad news is idols, like false family values, abound. And not just out there; in here, too. The good news is Jesus is still in the business of smashing idols and rebuilding us from the ground up. Amen.

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