June 6, 2021
‘Tis the season. The season of proms and graduations and confirmations and end-of-the-school-year milestones that flood us with memories of when the kids we know were much smaller, able to fit right in the crook of our arms. One day they’re reaching for your hand to hang on tight. You blink, and the next day they’re reaching for a diploma.
Radio host Scott Simon recently shared a piece reflecting on his daughters, for whom his family celebrated two graduations this year – one from eighth grade, the other from high school. He and his wife have been looking through photos from when the girls were much smaller, marveling at how quickly it all went. He says this:
Parents have special eyesight. We watch our children get smarter and taller and stronger, and we dream they may someday dazzle the world. But some part of our eyes and hearts will always see them as infants we once held; children whose small hands once reached up for ours; the charmers who smiled into our faces with the power of sunlight.
We dream that someday they may dazzle the world. I wonder if that’s how Mary felt as she watched Jesus go about those early months of his ministry. Her child who had been born in unusual circumstances is now all grown up and doing what he was born to do. It should come as no surprise that the kid whose earliest visitors had included both shepherds and wise men would now attract a crowd filled with all kinds of people. It should also come as no surprise that Mary is worried about the attention that Jesus is attracting. Mothers have instincts about these things. They know when trouble is on the horizon.
Notice that we’re only in chapter 3 of Mark’s gospel, but a lot has happened so far. Jesus has been baptized, spent forty days in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan, cobbled together his group of disciples, and done some preaching. But mostly what he’s done has been healing – cleansing a leper, healing a paralytic. You know, just your typical day at the office.
But Jesus has also been doing some exorcisms, casting out demons in those who had been afflicted with evil spirits. Our modern sensibilities can come up with all kinds of theories about what was going on with those who had been possessed, but the important part is that Jesus restores them to a new kind of life. And in doing so, he restores them to a new kind of relationship with their families and communities. He also earns himself a reputation as having power over evil.
Mary has shown up (with reinforcements) to persuade Jesus to tone it down a little. She’s heard the rumors. She knows that people are saying that Jesus is himself an agent of evil. How else, they wonder, could he cast out these evil spirits? Mary knows enough to understand that these situations usually don’t end well. I can only imagine how much she’s worried about what will happen to her son.
The religious leaders have arrived from Jerusalem, and they waste no time in fueling the narrative that Jesus is not just out of his mind, but a ruler of demons. There’s a little back and forth here, in which Jesus points out some flaws in their logic. It would be pretty silly for the ruler of demons to go around doing exorcisms – a house divided against itself cannot stand, after all. The back and forth ends – for now – with Jesus warning them that it is unforgivable to look at the healing work of God and call it evil.
As an aside, that verse about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit has created a lot of angst over the centuries for church people who have feared committing an unforgivable sin. I tend to believe that Jesus is exaggerating a little in this moment for persuasive effect. He wants them to see how wrong it is to try to impede this healing work that he has been sent by God to do. As so often happens, church folks have taken a verse like that and too often weaponized it against people whose behavior they didn’t like.
What always stands out to me about this story is not the back and forth with the religious leaders, although that’s important. What really hits me is what Jesus says about family. He dismisses his own family’s concerns for him. And remember: their worries are real and valid. If Jesus had listened to them and gone back home to live out a quiet life in the countryside, he would not have ended up on a cross. But he doesn’t let his family talk him into that safer life.
Instead Jesus redefines family: “’Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Whoever does the will of God is my family, Jesus says. Whoever joins in the work of healing and hope and justice and peace – those are my family. And family stands with each other in doing those things that are both necessary and hard.
Jesus introduces us here to a more expansive idea of family, one that is not just about being blood relatives or having grown up in the same household. And while the families into which we are born can be sources of love and support, for many people they can be sources of pain and rejection.
I have seen it so many times as a hospital chaplain, including my time in San Francisco, especially among those who are LGBTQ. I met people who came to the city from all over the country because their families had cast them out simply for being who they are. They show up alone and scared. And then some unfortunate event – an accident, an injury, a difficult diagnosis – lands them in the hospital. Hospitals can feel pretty lonely no matter who you are, but imagine if you are all alone in a city far from where you grew up.
Time and time again I’ve witnessed a new kind of family show up in those hospital rooms. A chosen family. Mothers whose children have grown up and moved away show up to mother folks whose own mothers won’t speak to them. Children show up with pictures they’ve drawn for their chosen aunts and uncles. Other people show up as adopted siblings, bringing a cozy blanket, a set of headphones, and some jokes that make the patient laugh and are just dirty enough to make the chaplain blush a little. Mostly people bring their presence. They sit and wait and listen so that the person in the hospital bed feels not loneliness, but love. Love all around.
This is what church is called to be… a community of God’s extravagant love in the midst of forces that fight against that love at every turn.
In a society that’s more interested in hurling insults and stirring up conflict, it’s rather revolutionary to say, “We are bound together by something stronger than all of that nonsense. We have all gone swimming in the waters of baptism because we all needed the same amount of God’s grace – and we keep needing it, again and again. We are all raised to new life in Jesus, who keeps reminding us that it’s not about creating divisions, but is instead about the One who holds us all and refuses to let us go.”
May we hold fast that promise, which makes us family. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ