Sermon - 17th February 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
One of the ways in which we try to connect with the teachings of Jesus in this congregation is to consider parts of the gospel message which reflect our own experiences. Perhaps this story of Jesus and his relationship with his family and the immediate community is one we don’t immediately think of.
But over the past couple of weeks I have had more conversations than usual about family rejection, about being disowned and disinherited, and about threats of violence, from family and community, if someone were to go back to their original country.
I have spoken to people to have been told that they are mad, or that they are evil, or that they are possessed by demons. And in today’s reading, Mark tells us that Jesus was accused of all the same things. In this, as in many other aspects of the gospel story, Jesus has walked in our shoes, and we walk in his.
Much of the power of Jesus’s teaching comes from the way in which he could turn the accepted values of his day on their heads, and reveal a powerful truth about our understanding of God.
Well, we hear that power today when he challenges his listeners to think about the meaning of family alongside our calling to bring about the Kingdom of God.
It’s not always comfortable for us to realise that the person whom we Christians hold up as the model for our faith moved massively beyond the limits of his traditional family and created around him a community which affirmed him, not for his family connections, but for the values he shared and the vision he offered.
There is nothing in the gospel accounts which affirms the typical feature of a family which says you are either inside the family or outside it. Within the community that Jesus built up around him, there was no automatic right of belonging by birth or by line of descent: you belonged in the Jesus family if you showed the love of God and did the will of God.
Today’s reading can sometimes be seen as a snub by Jesus to his closest relations - not least, his mother. But there is a deeper significance behind what Jesus is trying to say to his followers in this episode and in the chapters which follow it in Mark’s Gospel.
We can sense an impatience - an urgency - in Jesus’s attempts to make people understand that the Kingdom of God is breaking in upon them and requires a hugely different response compared with the rules, customs and traditions within which they presently live their lives.
Boundaries have got to come down, barriers have got to fall, privilege has got to give way to justice, and prejudices have got to be washed away if God’s Kingdom is to become a reality.
And in that context, Jesus illustrates his message that, sometimes, God’s work takes priority over even family demands. The community of those who are working for the coming of God’s Kingdom is where we are sometimes called to be, not necessarily in the safe and familiar territory of our close family unit.
There was no insult intended towards Jesus’s mother or his other relatives; there was just a question left hanging in the air: “Is there life, is there a calling, is there a more authentic identity for us, beyond the family unit into which a random accident of birth has placed us?”
There are many lgbt people who know only too well that they have only survived because they found the courage to create an identity for themselves beyond the limits of their family. The rejection of lgbt people by their families is still a reality for many people. Today, in this church, I will greet people for whom that is a painful and living reality.
Sometimes the response of family to one of their number coming out as gay may fall short of outright rejection, but it often results in a rather grudging toleration instead of affirmation and celebration of a person’s true self.
Although this congregation first started to form in 1992, it was in 1968 that a Pentecostal minister called Troy Perry first formed a church which is part of our own history.
Troy’s church, the Metropolitan Community Church soon spread beyond its original foundation in the USA and some UK congregations joined Troy’s church. We were one of them. And at the heart of what the Metropolitan Community Churches were trying to do was to affirm Christian community, and Christian spirituality, and Christian social action for LGBT people who were being rejected and excluded by their families, by other churches, and by their communities.
When Troy Perry first defined Christian Community as one of the three features of the church movement, he was founding, he said that his Churches will be a family “for those who have no families who care about them, or who find themselves alone or friendless...”
For Troy, it was clear that God’s love for all people worked above and beyond the boundaries of traditional family life, and God’s Kingdom on earth would be well served by a church which embraced those people for whom a traditional family meant rejection, grief, loss or even physical danger.
I wonder if Troy realised just how biblical - and authentically Christian - his approach to the family actually was, because in today’s reading Jesus effectively says that our lives of faith need to expand beyond our usual limits, beyond our traditional loyalties, and even when justified - beyond our family ties.
Being true to who we really are, and standing up for our own identity can be extremely costly, particularly when our family’s morality is either judgmental or ill-informed. It was a costly experience in Jesus’s own day.
In the first few decades after Jesus’s death - you risked family rejection by coming out as a follower of the teacher from Nazareth. See if this sounds familiar:
- The family was a powerful and religiously-supported institution in society. Familiar?
- Families were often split by members who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Familiar?
- Such a belief immediately placed you in a minority and made you vulnerable to abuse. Familiar?
- You could well be judged to be crazy or demon-possessed for holding to such a belief and might be deliberately isolated from your family. Familiar?
So, quite naturally, the Christian community became the ‘family’ for those who were rejected or cast out by their blood relations - the community became a family of whoever does the will of God. Christians effectively became sisters and brothers to each other in the faith, as a way of accepting their inclusion in the Christian family.
And ‘inclusion’ is a key idea here, because Mark reinforces the theme time and time again. In the four chapters which follow today’s reading, Jesus spends his time travelling from place to place around Galilee and the cities of the North, sharing his message, healing diseases, being seen, being heard, and getting known. But when you look at the cultures and faiths of the places he visits, you see that he spends as much time in gentile or pagan towns as he does in Jewish ones.
He cris-crosses Lake Galilee a number of times; but only the western side of Lake Galilee was Jewish: the eastern side was gentile. And everything he taught and did and accomplished in those eastern towns of Gerasa, Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi was among gentile communities; just as everything he did in Capernaum, Magdala and Nazareth was among Jewish communities.
These were not the actions of a good, upright Jewish son, brother, nephew or cousin from a family which observed Jewish religious law. There were no boundaries, or barriers, or prejudices about how Jesus created his community of those who would work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. His good news was for whoever would listen, whoever would follow, and whoever would pay the price for doing so.
Come forward to those early years of Troy Perry’s churches and look at the Christian credentials for what Troy recognised as the community element of his three-pronged gospel:
- People were being rejected and excluded by their families and friends because of what they believed about equality, about the diversity of gifts, or who they truly were in their deepest selves;
- Look at the Jesus of the gospels and how he challenged and broke all the social boundaries and prejudices which were separating people - both insiders and outsiders - from his message of God’s love;
- So let’s return, said Troy, to Christian congregations becoming families for those who are rejected because of of the truth about who they are and what God is calling them to be.
Troy Perry declared a vision of church which was aligned remarkably closely with how the early Christian communities dealt with people who needed to know that God loves them. And the spiritual DNA of that vision is still in the bloodstream of this congregation here today.
Western society has changed a lot since Troy first unmasked and challenged the degree of rejection, fear, persecution and isolation which a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans identity brought with it a few decades ago. Our approach in this country to sexual and gender diversity is steadily becoming more enlightened.
And increasingly we do not simply accept such diversity, we positively celebrate it, encourage it to blossom and delight in its particular gifts.
But it is not so everywhere. Listen to the charities and volunteer groups who deal every week with cases of bigotry, prejudice, exclusion and rejection in this country and elsewhere. Read about their work, and a different picture emerges. Listen to LGBT voices from other parts of the world and a hugely different picture emerges
But listen to the gospel and perhaps we have cause for hope - not least from the inclusive values of the faith which Jesus demonstrated in person when boundaries, barriers and prejudices were pushed aside for the sake of God’s love for all people.
For lgbt people, the kingdom has come closer: we are called to keep bringing it closer still. And who are we? We are a Christian Community with values which are deeply biblical, and authentically Christlike, and we are called to make a reality of what inclusion really means. In fact, the model was there to see from the days when our faith was first formed but, like much of what Jesus taught, it might still be too revolutionary for some people to hear.
Will you pray with me:
that we, like Jesus, might be sisters and brothers with all your people,
give us ears to hear the gospel
as good news for an inclusive community
beyond the boundaries that restrict our love.
(Elizabeth Struthers Malbon in “Hearing Mark”)