Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Family Values

Mark 3:19b-35
Third Sunday after Pentecost

Is it me, or does Jesus not seem like a very good family member sometimes?  Some other examples: over in Luke, we read about how, back when he was twelve, he disappeared for a few days and then he’s dismissive of his frantic parents.  “Why were you searching for me?  I’m in the Temple.”  Then in John, when his mother urges him to take care of their wine problem, rather than happily helping her out, he seems irritated.  

In fact, later in Luke, Jesus says straight out: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” [Luke 12:51-53]  It’s a good thing Father’s Day is next Sunday; this isn’t a good Father’s Day text.  “Yeah Dad, I didn’t get you a card this year, because, you know, Jesus.”  

It seems strange to us that Jesus looks, not only not pro-family, but a bit down on the institution, doesn’t it?  Of course, I don’t believe that Jesus doesn’t actually love and care for his mother and his brothers and sisters.  And I believe, of course, that Jesus expects us to be faithful, supportive sons and fathers; mothers and daughters; and even faithful and supportive mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.  Jesus has strong family values (stronger than we expect).  But what confounds us is that I don’t think Jesus means the same thing by “family” that we do.  What surprises us, shocks us even, is that the family Jesus values most is not the brothers and sisters he is, I supposes, genetically related to him—not the mother who brought him into this world—but those who do the will of God.  It isn’t that Jesus is a bad family member; it’s just that, when he talks about “family,” he’s talking about you; and that, as it turns out, is good news. 

Our Scripture lesson starts off a little abruptly today.  That’s not uncommon in Mark; that’s kind of his style.  But it’s a little more so today because the folks who translated this passage seem to have changed verses in mid-sentence.  In fact, if we had just started our reading at verse 20, we wouldn’t have known that all of this happens in Jesus’ home town.  That is actually an important aspect of our reading.  

A fascinating thing is happening so far in the Gospel of Mark.  Where we left of last Sunday at the beginning of chapter three, Jesus was making religious people angry by doing so-called “work” on the Sabbath.  The “work” he was doing was bringing healing and wholeness as an expression of the love of God.  So where we left off, Jesus was intentionally aggravating and distancing himself from the religions people; the people who should have been the first to see the presence of God at work in him.  And by the way, these are some of the same people Jesus warns today about committing an “eternal sin.”  Now, that sounds pretty harsh; and it’s meant to.  But let’s be fair: people who can’t tell the difference between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of a demon, really ought to reevaluate some things in their lives.  

Since that story last week, a couple of other, related things have also happened.  The important religious people failed to see what God was doing in Jesus, but the average, regular folk got it.  Since then, multitudes have been flocking to Jesus to be healed by him and to see him heal others.  And then Jesus, right before our reading today, takes from his growing number of disciples, and appoints twelve that he calls “apostles,” or “ones who are sent.”  He takes twelve regular, unimportant people, and appoints them to go and do the kingdom work he was doing.  And then he went home.  

Going home is always something of a “mixed bag,” isn’t it?  After VBS is over, my family and I will make our annual pilgrimage to California to visit our extended families.  This, by the way, is our first trip back since my parents sold the house I grew up in.  They’re living in their motor home, so we’ll have to go and visit them wherever it’s parked.  And also, by the way, if you lived in a house on wheels and you could park it anywhere you wanted, why would you park it in Southern California?  Anyway, the visit will be different this time around in that way; but I’m certain, in most other ways it won’t be different at all.  My parents are going to fawn over me and my family; my mom is certainly going to cook; and my parents, at some point, are going to talk to me like I’m still 13.  They don’t mean to.  I know they also have a lot of respect for me, how I parent, and what I do for a living; but I also know that I’m also always going to be their little boy.  They are going to give me advice on things I know more than them about.  They’re going to tell me to drive safely even though I haven’t had any driving issues in decades.  They may even have me take out the trash.  I don’t mind: it’s what the “going home” experience is all about.  

The fact that this story happens in Jesus’ hometown, illustrates the larger direction that Jesus is going.  After rejecting the religious people and taking salvation to the ordinary folk who receive it—after empowering regular people to join him in that ministry—Jesus heads over to his home town.  Perhaps unfortunately, the multitudes come too.  

Living in a small town as we do, it’s not hard to imagine how this might play out: some local kid that you’ve seen grow up, comes home one day and there’s a mob following him around everywhere he goes.  Somehow the kid got famous, but it’s not just that: he’s also saying and doing unusual things; so unusual that people are starting to talk.  Now, imagine that kid is your kid.  No one wants to hear that their kid is doing unusual things, especially in a small town.  So his family went and tried to call a little “family meeting.”  Can you blame them?  

What Jesus says to his family today, considering they are understandably worried about him, seems especially dismissive and even mean.  Saying to your family that they’re not really your family is not a nice thing to say.  But in the context of the rest of Mark chapter three, we at least get an idea of where his words are coming from.  He says they are not his family because they are not acting like family.  

I’m going to be taking a trip for a few days in August with my brothers.  We’re going to take a day and raft the Arkansas River, up near Buena Vista (I know, they pronounce it Beuna Vista).  If you don’t know, I am the middle of three brothers, all born about a year apart from each.  Being so close in age, one might expect us to be emotionally close, and in many ways we are; but the three of us have never taken a trip like this before.  In fact, until recently, we’ve never even thought of taking a trip like this before.  In fact, the three of us have not been in the same room at the same time for about fifteen years.  In that time, my older brother has had a wife with chronic health issues, causing them to have financial issues, which forced them to move to Florida.  In that time, I have had three children, three miscarriages, and an ongoing battle with depression.  During that time my younger brother has had a troubled marriage that finally ended in divorce.  I reveal all this to you to make the point: to say we have not been there for each other is a profound understatement.  Each of us has had to make family where we could find it because our real family has not been there for each other.  For me, it wasn’t hard: I have church; I have siblings in ministry, parents and grandparents; but I don’t know how they’ve done it.  I guess I’ll find out.  

But here’s the thing: I know our story is tragically common.  That is the fact of the culture we live in.  Family isn’t family anymore.  We are not there for those related to us anymore; we don’t share the same values; we don’t have a common purpose.  This is a crisis of our culture, but it’s a crisis we are equipped to help fix.  Frankly, this is a crisis the church exists to help fix.  Jesus looks at the crowd sitting around him—those who had come to him for some sort of salvation—and he says, “Here is my family.”  Here are the ones who have come to him; here are the ones who will do his Father’s will and carry on his saving work.  Here is the family that will be there for you even if your family isn’t.  

Now, I’m not saying that we should not hold our own families as important; Jesus isn’t saying that either.  Jesus merely draws our attention to the spiritual family, made up of his followers; a family that is called to join him in bringing his salvation to the world; a family that might just show the families of the world what being a family is all about.  

And of course, we can’t possibly ignore that we have a unique opportunity to do just that this week.  This week we gather together as the family of Jesus to seek welcome in more family members.  I pray that we see all those that the Spirit leads to this place this week as members of our family.  I pray that, even more than learning fun songs and Bible verses, those children know that they belong here; they belong not just this week and not just in this place, but that they belong to the family of Jesus.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Defeating the Purpose

Mark 2:23-3:6
Second Sunday after Pentecost

Let’s start with a “full-disclosure” moment.  There is an aspect of our message this morning that involves Sabbath-keeping; and there will come a point where I will encourage you to do what the Bible tells you and keep a Sabbath.  But in full-disclosure, you should know, I am the worst at that.  It’s like having a vegetarian tell you how to cook your steak.  This is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments.  I don’t know if it’s a hazard of my profession or a hazard of someone who doesn’t know how to manage his time wisely, but I am consistently doing some sort of professional work on what ought to be my day off—my Sabbath.  In all fairness, you should also know that I’m working on it.  In fact, in anticipation of this sermon, I got great Sabbath rest… this week.  

I don’t make light of my lack of Sabbath-keeping.  I know that when I don’t, I am being disobedient to God’s Command, so I am trying to do what God’s Word tells me to do; but at the same time, my disobedience makes me acutely aware of why God made Sabbath-keeping a commandment.  It is a difficult thing to do.  It’s a bit like our Savior’s Command to love one another: if it were an easy thing to do, it wouldn’t need to be a commandment.  

In fact, in a way, I see those two commands as connected.  As Jesus reminds us today, Sabbath was made for humankind.  The Sabbath is not just a command; the Sabbath is a gift.  God loves you so much that God demands you take some time to not work.  If God loves you that much, how much do you suppose God loves the person next to you?  It turns out, if we understand why we take a day off, it might also help us remember why we love.  

In Jesus’ day, the religious people were very specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.”  I mean, really, really specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.”  It seems that it was a sort of a pastime for the religious scholars of the day to debate and argue over things like the precise moment that the Sabbath began and ended and what constituted “work.”  They took the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” and spent more time defining what that specifically meant than perhaps any other commandment.  

Historically, even the followers of Jesus have had a difficult time getting too legalistic with the Fourth Commandment, with the establishment of “blue laws” and things like that.  However, it doesn’t seem that most Christians are nearly as rigorous about it anymore.  Although I will say: every once in a while, I will get a letter in the mail.  It’s never from the same place and it’s never from the same person, but it always makes the same point: that we are wrong for having worship on Sundays and God is mad at us for it.  It’s never just that either: I’ve gotten to the place where I can tell it’s “one of those letters” just by the weight of it.  They come loaded with Scripture citations, with all caps and underlines, but they conveniently leave out the parts where Jesus condemns the legalism of Sabbath-keeping.  

But most of the rest of the followers of Jesus these days get it, right?  We hear Jesus when he says that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around.  We call Sunday our holy-day instead of Saturday because that is the day our Savior rose from the dead; that’s the day we want to remember and celebrate.  And what we mean by Sabbath can be all sorts of things: a morning of prayer, study and worship; a lunch with friends; an afternoon in the garden; an evening walk with your family.  We get it; whatever is restful for you is fine for you.  We get it; only, we don’t.  

I was talking with a friend the other day; a friend who doesn’t go to church, but takes Sabbath rest vastly more seriously than I do.  I was unloading on him about the stress in my life and my chronic depression and he said, “You need to get out more.”  He was right, of course, but he didn’t just stop there; he started spouting off all sorts of things I already knew.  He told me about how increased physical activity produces endorphins that make you feel better.  He told me about how taking time to do nothing is good for mindfulness.  He even suggested that spending quality time with my wife might actually be good for our relationship.  At a point, I wanted to stop him and say, “I know!” but I figured I only had the right to say it if I actually did any of this.  

We know that when the religious people criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think he should, they are wrong; but we forget that, to a point, they are also right.  They are wrong because they treated the Sabbath like it was just another rule to follow, but they are right because God commanded it for a purpose.  Ironically, that purpose is defeated by treating as a rule: by making rest a rule, it turns rest into work.  But also ironically, in taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we defeat the point that Jesus was making as well.  In taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we forget that, in remembering the Sabbath, we remember the priorities of God.  Since creation itself, God has ordained a rhythm to life that involves the work that gives our lives purpose, but also rest that gives deeper meaning to those lives.  Sabbath exists because God loves us and we are important to God.  Sabbath exists so that we might take care of a person God loves, namely ourselves.  But as Jesus shows us today, Sabbath also exists so that we might remember that we are not the only people God loves.  

Jesus asks his accusers, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.  They were silent because the answer was obvious.  The answer is, of course, it is always lawful to do good and save lives.  Sabbath is good for us because it is meant to remind us of this.  Sabbath is meant to reorient us to the priorities of God: namely humankind.  As we are gathered around this Table, we are reminded in a different way, the lengths that God will go to, in order to show us how important we are.  

God loves us and calls us to take a day off.  Take a day to reflect on the love that would lay down his life, that we might live.  Take a day to see that love in the eyes of those around you in this world as well: that person you’re not talking to; the waitress who serves you at lunch; your neighbor with the un-mowed lawn; the homeless man you walk past.  Take a day, not as a rule, but as a gift.  Take a day to remember the love that God has shown you, that you might remember to show it too.