As a freshly minted young pastor out of Seminary, my first major job was to help organize the annual church Homecoming. It was a huge event that always happened on the first Sunday of November.
Since most members of that congregation were interrelated, the annual Homecoming was actually one big family reunion. So, naturally, I obsessed for quite some time about how to preach a family reunion sermon. As a Christian, my first fallback was to check in with Jesus. Surely, he had some good family reunion things to say.
Well, in fact, not so much. Brian Blount goes so far as to suggest: “Jesus is probably the last person on the planet you’d want to go to in order to get some advice about preaching at a family reunion. In fact, . . . Jesus is probably the last person you’d even want to invite to a family reunion. Knowing what I know now, if I were the person in charge of making up the mailing labels, sending out the newsletters, and crafting the T-shirts and hats, I’d let Jesus’ mailing label fall accidentally into the trash. . . . Why? Because once Jesus got to the family reunion there is absolutely no telling what he would do” (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 49).
Our text from Mark today got me thinking about Homecomings and family reunions and about family in general. After making quite a name for himself, Jesus’ family pays him a visit. You expect banners to be unfurled and champagne to be uncorked and one grand celebration to begin. That is not what happens. Instead, the family call for Jesus to step outside while they wait for him on the steps.
His family has not come for a celebration, but for an intervention. His own flesh and blood refuse to go inside where he is preaching. They will not dishonor themselves by stepping into the house of a son or brother gone mad. They have come to take the crazy boy home and they will not profane themselves by associating with the kind of people collected inside around Jesus.
Surely Jesus grew up like every other good Jewish girl and boy reciting the commandment: “Honor thy father and mother.” So, when his family arrives, you expect Jesus to excuse himself, step outside and face the family music. It is the right thing to do. Instead, when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside, he asks a very odd, even disrespectful, question to those inside, gathered around him. He asks: “Who are my mother and brothers?” (3:32-3)
That should be an easy enough question to answer: “Jesus, your mother and brothers are standing outside and they are waiting for you to join them.” No, not exactly. Without waiting for their response, Jesus answers his own question: “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:34-5). As Brian says, for Mark “Jesus’ family is composed of those who choose to be with him, around him (3:32), and to follow his mandates, not those who come from his blood line.”
Jesus comes home only to mess with how people define home. He tells his hodgepodge congregation inside the house that you will never find your real family, your real home, by tracing bloodlines or subscribing to Ancestry.com. We will never be “kin” to Jesus, says Mark, by standing on the outside looking in. “Family” and “Home” are as much verbs as they are nouns for Jesus. The sole requirement of kinship with Jesus is faithful, following him: “Whoever does the will of God is my sister and mother and brothers” (3:35).
When you and I stand on the outside looking in, Jesus looks like that crazy uncle or that embarrassingly out of control cousin. From the outside looking in, Jesus dines with the wrong people. He invites people to hang out with him whose resumes are sketchy. He forgives people before they ask for it; he informs people that they are part of his family before they express any interest in being adopted. Jesus tells the keepers of family values that their values are of whack.
The Jesus we meet in this story from Mark is fond of two plural imperative verbs: listen and look. To come inside with Jesus is to stand ready to listen and to look. Listening and looking with Jesus is when we find real family values because we find our real family, our real home. In Jesus’ family, honoring Sabbath law is important, but healing the sick and standing up to the demonic is more important. Obeying your father and mother is important, but not limiting family to blood or land, nationality or ethnicity or sexual orientation, is more important.
From the inside looking out, prayer is not an act of religious desperation; it is what people do who trust in the power of God despite all the forces that line up against God. “When we pray,” contends Walter Wink, “we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House, where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged, rather, in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe” (Wink, Powers That Be, p. 83).
From the inside looking out, all sorts of family members follow Jesus. Some years ago, in another congregation I served, a man we will call Tom was elected a deacon. He was severely physically limited, lugging around a large oxygen tank at all times, able only to walk in short spurts. Though young in age, Tom’s lungs were old due to a rare degenerative disease. Now, a deacon is no honorary office in the Presbyterian Church, but from the outside looking in, Tom’s election must have looked that way. A pity vote. Aren’t we a compassionate congregation, electing such a disabled person?
That is how it looked from the outside looking in. But from the inside looking out, Tom’s election as a deacon was a no-brainer. While others slept through the night, Tom who could not sleep for more than three hours at a time would write notes to folks who were homebound and shut-in. While others spent long days at work, Tom would check in on hospital patients or call on first-time visitors, lugging his oxygen tank wherever he went. While others were too busy to express political concern, Tom made sure that his representatives always heard from at least one citizen on issues of shelter, poverty, and hunger. Tom lived as a brother of Jesus and died as a child of God.
For most of my ministry, our denomination has been engaged in an unending wrestling match over who belongs in the church and who can be the church’s leaders, especially when it comes to sexual identity. Meanwhile, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to all who will listen: “Come on home. Anyone who is ready to listen to me and to look out for the needs of others are welcome in my family.” From the inside looking out, Jesus sets the church free from obsessive gate keeping, from checking everyone’s religious bloodlines; he sets us free at last to listen and look for everyone’s love lines.
I, for one, am thrilled to be here for Cove’s 249th Homecoming celebration and I am so excited about next year’s grand 250th Homecoming celebration we are preparing for even now. I am thrilled that you are here for Homecoming today and I pray that you will mark your calendars and be here a year from this Sunday when we celebrate Cove’s 250th Homecoming.
As happy as I am to be here for this Homecoming party and as much as I look forward to the big Homecoming party next year, it is the Homecoming that awaits all who follow Jesus that is the party I plan not to miss.