Family is pretty complicated.
How do you define family?
Or for me the question today is: How do you start a multi-week series about family?
This week, I had at least three different ideas about how to start this series. I brought Jeff in to help me decide. He suggested I try all three, so here goes. You pick your favorite introduction!
Talking to the youth and their parents this week I said, “If your family is a mess, well do not despair. You are in the company of the Biblical patriarchs.” Read your Bible. Read your Old Testament. Read the story of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Cain and Able, or Noah. Read of the matriarchs: Sarah and Hagar, or Rachael and Leah, or Solomon’s wives. You will likely find a mess greater than the one at your home. So I could begin a series remembering the brokenness of Bible Families!
Or we might begin by asking a question. What do you think when you hear “Biblical Family Values”? What do you think the world hears? Do you think of welcome, redemption, love, ethics, discipline, acceptance, honor, commitment, listening, sacrifice and forgiveness? Those are the overarching family themes inside the Scripture! The Bible is a story of a loving God seeking to heal broken families.
I could begin our series by confessing that I grew up in a church that had no pastors. There was no one called “reverend.” We called no one “preacher.” No one said “Pastor Paul” or “Reverend Purdue.” No, we simply called every pastor “Brother.” That title “Brother” was how many adult men greeted each other. I never thought much about that until away from it at seminary where some greenhorn colleague made fun of the “Sister So and So and Brother Bob Church.” Cut by his words I told that colleague that Jesus tells us not to call anyone “Father” or “Teacher” (Matthew 23:8-10).
The greeting “Brothers and Sisters” is deeply Biblical. “Brothers and Sisters” reflects the first Christians’ theology and practice. “Brothers and sisters” reflects a core value of the early church. “Brothers and Sisters” means family. “Brothers and Sisters” represents the core identity of an authentic church, ancient or modern! The New Testament testifies that Christ makes us a family. Listen for the family bond as Paul closes out his letter to the church in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 16:19-20 & 24 “ The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Priscilla, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. … My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.”
Do you hear that image? There is Aunt Suzie planting a big old fat holy kiss on your cheek. There is a spiritual grandmother sharing greetings from your kinfolk who could not make the potluck! Paul’s letter to Corinth paints a picture of a potluck supper at a family reunion.
Well my final series opening idea was to ask: What first comes to mind when you say “my family”? Did you think of a hot mess or the warmest bonds of love or somewhere in-between? Did you think “My Church” when you say my family? “My Family is My church?”
A few weeks ago, I shared a long passage from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. Hear her definition of family. “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home – that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, ‘You come back now.’ ”
Sisters and Brothers do you think of church as family? Not a family church, but a place where kinship is found by a deep mutual connection to Jesus Christ! Do you think of church as Christ’s family or a place to consume programs and services?
Listen for the language of Family found in 1 John 3. “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God… Beloved, we are God’s children now. … born of God… The children of God love their brothers and sisters. Love one another. Brothers and sisters, we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”
There are larger ideas behind these passages, but today I simply want to focus on the truth that we belong to a family richer than our biological family. God is our Father, who lavishes love on us. Our deepest identity is in God’s family! Brothers and Sisters, the defining image of family in the New Testament is not the biological family but the family of God. We hear the Gospel theme over and over: “Brothers and Sisters.”
Jesus and the 12 Disciples, along with Joanna, Magdalene, Salome and Mary become a new family. Jesus calls the disciples into a new rootedness in God’s family.
“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Mark 1:15-20
What did these brothers leave behind to identify with the Jesus Family?
Brothers Peter and Andrew leave behind their nets. They leave behind their business. This leaving work is an amazing commitment that our market-driven culture often focuses on. But perhaps James and John leave behind something even greater.
James and John leave behind their father Zebebee. We moderns may not appreciate all that this implies for first century folk. We live with such freedom. We move off and unless our Fathers use the courts to change our inheritance, all the children will receive a share of the estate. Our cultural sensibilities say that each child gets an equal share. This was not the ancient arrangement. To “leave behind their father” meant that James and John may have cut themselves off from more than Christmas dinner!
In the ancient Judean world the father was the center of the family. The Father was the CEO of all the family life and business. Most families lived beside each other in family compounds, even in small cities. A father might build a home for his adult son when he married. The father was the center of education. There were no formal schools other than the synagogue. The father was considered the teacher. The Jewish father taught his son to read the Torah. A business man like Zebedee taught his sons to work a ledger, pay taxes and pay fishing guild dues. Fathers taught sons how to record important deals on clay tablets. Zebedee taught James and John how to sail a boat, navigate storms and find fish. Zebedee taught the skills of curing a catch. No doubt, Zebedee taught James and John how to treat the hired hands and where to sell salted perch for the best price. After a season of apprenticeship from childhood well into adulthood a son would inherit his father business by earning the trade with sweat equity. The eldest son took on the role of father, CEO, Family President only when the Father fell into the care of that son. One day Zebedee would step away from the business deciding to just fish from the dock and then the boys would run it, caring for him in his old age.
If your dad owned boats, employed hired hands, and used hired hands, then your dad ran a bigger fishing business. “To leave behind their father” was risky. If a son left to follow an itinerate preacher, then their father might disinherit them. A disowned son lost their home and means to make a living. The ancient family was somewhat fluid, so Zebedee might make an orphan or a hired hand the heir. If James and John walk off the dock, no state law ensures they get their dad’s property. To follow Jesus was a risky move. To leave behind their Father meant James and John might move quickly from a pretty stable middle class to well below working class.
“To leave behind their Father” is to boldly identify your identity with Jesus. Is our deepest identity the Jesus community or the family of God? Are we building together the family of God? Are we living as brothers and sisters?
Jesus calls his disciples into a new family. This was and is today deeply counter-cultural. You see the family of God is the priority for Christian folks. It is not to say that we neglect our families, but our soul’s identities are not determined by them. We are children of God before other calls upon our lives. It is a matter of priorities. Our belonging to Jesus is a radical redefining of family. Your family of origin is deeply influential, but for those who follow Christ, not defining! This is Good News for all looking for a home.
Hear Jesus’ difficult call found in Matthew10: 34-38 from The Message: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”
I have seen well-meaning parents, sisters, and children discourage a family member experiencing a deeper call of God! Jesus cannot use us to be the light, the witness, the flavor, the hope, the grace, the catalyst, the peace or the love that our families may need, if we subjugate God’s will to our families’ will! You are the light of the world. Let your light shine so that others even in your family see Christ in you. If you follow your family instead of Christ your life will not shine fully and your family may stay stuck in a sort of darkness. Who is our priority, where do we take the deepest direction, the deepest value? We must make our family ideas subject to the will of God. Sometimes, we must make a cut.
Jesus faced this. Listen for Jesus’ definition of family from Mark 3: 31-35 “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33 And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ ”
How does Jesus define his family? Our Family is made up of the people we do God’s Will with! Life’s deepest bonds will emerge not through bloodlines but sharing God’s work together. God longs to root us in a deeper spiritual soil. God calls us to live as children of God, doing the will of God with our brothers and sisters.
Do you realize that Jesus’ family discouraged him from following God? Mark 3:21 tells us that Jesus’ family “went to take charge of him, saying ‘he is out of his mind.’ ” Perhaps the family was concerned that so many people were crowding around Jesus that Jesus did not even have time to eat. Maybe Mary beckoned Jesus to come to Sabbath Dinner, to step away from the dangerous crowds. Perhaps Jesus’ brothers did not understand how Jesus could break the Sabbath laws by healing or gleaning. Perhaps they listened to the religious zealots whose stubborn hearts could not understand the new things Jesus was doing. Perhaps, Jesus’ biological family came to straighten Jesus out in keeping with their pastor’s teachings!
What if Jesus had put his Mother and Brothers’ ideas about his life before the call of God? Jesus likely would have lived a longer and easier life. There would be no cross, no grave, no blind eyes opened, no Good News preached, no sleeping in fields, no angry crowds, no plotting preachers, and no Easter redemption. If Jesus listened to his mom and brothers, Jesus would have likely built a nice carpentry business and eaten a lot better. If Jesus had subjugated the call of God and defined his mission by the will of his family, he would have never had to say to his mother from the Cross “dear woman, here is your son.” If Jesus had followed the path of his mother and brothers Jesus would have never had to entrust John, Son of Zebedee with the care of his mother saying from the cross: “Son, behold your mother.” Jesus’ family came to take him away from the will of God. They did not understand. Please know that Jesus does not call us to leave family, but to follow God. We are first called to live as Children of God. We identify with the Father who lavishes love upon us through the son. We become family as we do the will of God together.
The deepest love may not come from your family. Indeed, the deepest love cannot come from your mother or father, sister or brother, or spouse. The deepest love comes from God and we find the deepest bonds when we serve God together with our brothers and sisters.
Brothers and sisters, will you help us build the family of God in this place? Brothers and sisters, will you take your deepest sense of identity as Children of God? Will we be comforted when our families do not understand us knowing that Jesus’ family misunderstood God’s calling on his life? Will you be a Christ-like seasoning that flavors your biological family with the peace of Christ? Brothers and sisters, will you “leave your fathers” behind and follow Jesus?
My prayer is that someone may say of our church: “Brothers and Sisters, when I was at the end of my rope, the people of Tullahoma First tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home – that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, ‘You come back now.’ ”
In some ways Anne Lammot’s story is my story. Her definition of family is my definition. The church was a place of shelter, sanctuary, and refuge for me. It was my home. The members were my mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. It was God’s house. It was the place where the love of God was lavished on me.
My Fourth grade school teacher read my papers aloud to my classmates’ terror and sympathy. Why she did this, I do not know. But, I felt a deep exclusion, a profound self-doubt. Thanks be to God, I was loved by my biological family but the world was a treacherous place for my tender soul. At times, I made myself vomit in order to miss school. I hated and feared school so deeply it turned my stomach. I was angry, wounded, and afraid. On top of all that I read like a kindergartener. How do you answer the bully’s taunt that you can’t read? Years, later as a teen and young adult I often felt that same self-doubt creep over me. I would not enjoy school until college.
Brothers and sisters, thanks be to God, my church was a second family to me. The church was rooted in different soil than my school. They threw me a lifeline, they never asked me to read. They put up with my considerable ability to be unlovely. I am not saying the people were perfect or that every business meeting ended with grace and love. No, my church like every church was full of broken people, less than perfect preachers and members. However, the church truly became a shelter, sanctuary, haven and home.
When I was in sixth grade we still had all day long VBS. The sixth grade girls made a quilt that hung in our church library window for years. In those less egalitarian days, the boys needed a project. They put us to refinishing the youth director’s desk. This was a double insult: first we had to be outside in the heat; and the youth, in our estimation, should have been doing their youth director’s desk! Our taskmaster was a college student not gifted with leading sixth grade boys. We wanted to move the desk under a shade tree, he refused. Now I could not read very well, but my smart mouth worked pretty well and our taskmaster sent me to time out. Deeply aggravated and angry, I decided to lower myself out of a window and kind of walk home. Thanks be to God, our pastor’s wife, Mildred Browne, came to find her lost sheep.
A few years later, on youth Sunday I was the preacher. I can assure you it was the worst sermon preached in our sanctuary that year. As I looked out at 300 unhappy faces, my unease grew to near panic; finally God’s grace directed my eyes to Mildred Browne’s big loving smile. I preached the rest of that sermon never making eye contact again with anyone but Mildred. Her loving face threw me a lifeline and helped me hold on.
I was working as the Youth Director at my home church, when Mildred Browne came to church for the last time. No one said it but it was a farewell dinner to a beloved Pastor’s wife who was losing her second battle to cancer. I walked up the stairs with Mildred carrying cardboard boxes full of prayer cards, gifts, thank you notes and the evening’s mementoes. I just wanted to stand close to mother in the faith to me. Mildred stood at the church’s back door breathless and tired, waiting for Jerome to load the car. Gathering herself Mildred said, “Paul Purdue, Connie Jo Starnes is special. She may be the one. Paul Purdue, don’t be stupid. Don’t let her get away.” That may have been the first time I ever thought of Connie as my life mate. I know you who read this will not see my tears. Trust me that I had to use my hand as an unceremonious tissue Sunday as I shared about Mildred, “a mother to me also” (Romans 16:13).
Let us tie a rope and help people to hang on! Let us live as a family of God. Let us do the will of God together. Let us become a family to all who hurt within our world. Let us live as brothers and sisters in Christ! Amen.
Finding Shelter in God’s Family August 16, 2015
You may use with permission. Pastor Paul Purdue’s Rough Draft
On Sunday, we ask God to perfect this sermon in our hearing