Sunday, November 07, 2010
Welcome to the 'Family': Sermon on Luke 20:27-38
Just how do we define ‘family’? The Random House Dictionary provides no fewer than fifteen different definitions, beginning with the one that has become a political hot potato in our day: “family: a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.” This, we are told, is the “traditional” family. But right on its heels is another definition, “family: a social unit consisting of one or more adults together with the children they care for.” For some people, these definitions are equivalent. For others, they are contradictory.
Just think of all the ways that word, ‘family,’ has been used in our culture. When I was coming of age in the 70's and 80's, it was fashionable among people who'd had a little therapy (or who'd been reading certain kinds of self-help books) to speak of the difference between the “family of origin”—that is, the family in which you grew up—versus the “family of choice”—that is, the friends with whom one surrounded oneself. ‘Family’ even took on a slightly negative tone, and was contrasted with ‘friends,’ the ones you could really depend on, the ones who promised: “I’ll be there for you.”
And then we have the other strange and sinister uses of the word. Having grown up with a vague awareness of the local mob, which was only enhanced by movies such as “The Godfather” and TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” it's hard to forget that ‘family’ is used to refer to members of the Cosa Nostra, the Mafia. And who can forget that most notorious of ‘families,’ Charles Manson and the people who were willing to kill at his bidding?
And now, think of our many, disparate experiences of ‘family.’ Yes, two parents and children. Or, one parent, stepparents. Step grandchildren. Grandparents and aunts and uncles raising children. Couples who choose to remain childless, for any number of reasons. Families that are loving or not; close or distant; right next-door or thousands of miles apart; wonderfully thriving and nurturing or horribly broken and dysfunctional. Any and all of these can describe, truly and accurately, ‘family.’
Here’s my point in deconstructing this word that probably means something pretty significant to every one of us: it’s a word we need to use carefully. And it’s a word whose use in church, particularly, needs to be informed by the gospels. Our understanding of ‘family’ needs to be informed by Jesus.
Jesus is asked a fairly loaded question revolving around a particular definition of family in our gospel reading today. The context is spelled out in verse 20, just before our reading begins, where it says, “So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said…” Some Sadducees approach Jesus, and we are told right up front that they are skeptical of at least one of the basic tenets he teaches. Here’s how to remember what the deal is with the Sadducees: The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection—so they were sad, you see? (My apologies—that was awful.)
I was intrigued by something I learned this week about the Sadducees. In this teaching, their rejection of the idea of the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees are actually holding on to the most ancient tradition of Israel, in which “eternal life” means, simply, that one lives on in children, and in the memories of the living. “For the ancient Israelites, before a belief in the resurrection of the dead, ‘eternal life’ was understood as producing heirs (sons?) who would continue the family's ownership of their land.” Therefore, it was a fundamental ethical obligation of a family member: to ensure that those you love will live on after death.
And so the story the Sadducees lay out for Jesus—one bride for seven brothers—may sound just totally implausible and absurd. But it’s based on traditional teachings that are very much about this understanding of eternal life. Here’s how it’s described in Deuteronomy:
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deut. 25:5-6
That’s the concern of the Sadducees: that no one’s name will be blotted out. It’s the concern they bring to Jesus, who is teaching another kind of eternal life. And so they ask this question. One bride, seven brothers—in the resurrection, whose wife will this woman be? Of course, the Sadducees don’t really care about the answer. Their goal is to make Jesus look and sound silly, while scoring a point for their team.
Instead, Jesus turns their argument on its head. Marriage is for this age, he says. But in that age—in the age of resurrection—there will be no marriage. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” [Luke 20:36].
Jesus is going about his normal radical business of redefining social relationships every way he knows how. At this moment he continues with his re-definition of that weighty word, ‘family.’ In eternal life the significant relationship is not marriage; it’s that we are children of God. This is the same Jesus who, when told his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside, said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” This is the same Jesus, who when a man who wanted to follow him said that he first needed to attend his father’s funeral, said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” [Luke 9:60]. And to another who wanted to just go home and say goodbye before his missionary journey, this is Jesus, who said, If you look back, you are not fit for the kingdom of God [Luke 9:62].
This is Jesus at his very hardest. This is Jesus telling us something that may feel very much like bad news, not good news, because so many of us treasure our family relationships. But this is Jesus offering the very best possible good news to the least and the lost—to those who have no family, to those who have no circle of love and goodwill holding them together. This is Jesus offering a home to the homeless, a meal to the hungry, a warm coat to the shivering, and urging us to do the very same. This is Jesus saying, yes, family is important—but why not build a family on love rather than blood, on the true desire to come together rather than social obligation? Why not build the kind of family that will truly last?
We gather this morning to welcome three new members to our church family, although it seems odd to call them “new.” They come to us, not as strangers, but as brother and sisters in Christ, nurtured in faith in many different places and contexts. They come to us out of that mysterious combination of God’s call and free will and happenstance that often forms the basis of the families in which we find ourselves. They come to us, it is our very fervent hope, in search of a home and a meal and warmth—in search of that very peculiar experience of ‘family’ that constitutes the church. And they come to us, not only looking for welcome but for work—ready, each one of them, to join in the ministry of this particular corner of Jesus’ redefined and reconstructed family unit.
The church is a family, perhaps a family that needs constantly to reexamine how it understands and defines itself so that we are sure we are in line with Jesus’ understanding of family. To be a member of Jesus’ family, we do not need the right bloodline, or to be one of a number of brothers ready to perform his obligation to keep someone’s memory alive. We do not need any particular social status or marital status or parentage or ethnicity or anything at all. We simply present ourselves, ready to hear God’s word and to strive with all we are to let it inhabit and inform our lives and actions. That’s it. Welcome to the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.