November 15, 2020 Sermon
“The Forest For the Trees: Family”
Scripture Reading – Matthew 12:46-50
46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
“The Forest for the Trees: Family”
As I read today’s gospel reading in preparation for this sermon, I was reminded of a Sunday morning worship service in Nashville, TN near the conclusion of the 2011 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Back when I lived in the St. Louis area in Missouri, I had come to meet the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon a few times while he was at Eden seminary, and Susan and I had always wanted to hear Dr. Kinnamon preach, so we visited the congregation where he was preaching that Sunday morning in Nashville. And he preached a sermon about a number of sayings he hears Christians repeat and sees Christians live by as if those sayings are found in scripture…and then he explained where those sayings actually originated and provided insight into what God really communicated about the very same topics through the scriptures. Often, God’s word in scripture stood in stark CONTRAST to the wisdom of these sayings that so many Christians believe are Biblical in origin.
Like I said, my mind wandered to that sermon as I read this morning’s scripture. I’m not sure if the saying, “blood is thicker than water” is one of the sayings Dr. Kinnamon spoke about on that Sunday morning nine years ago, but it would certainly make any top 5 or top 10 list of mine. So often in my ministry, I’ve heard Christians tell me that in their hierarchy of priorities, family occupies the top spot and often various family members – children, spouse, parents, siblings, grandchildren – occupy most of the spots in the top 10, even above God. So often in my ministry, I’ve heard Christans ARGUE with me that God WANTS them to prioritize family over everyone else, maybe even over God; otherwise, God would not have told us in the scriptures that “blood is thicker than water.”
You’ve probably figured out by now that this saying, “blood is thicker than water”, is NOT found in the scriptures. (As a humorous side note, when I tried this past week to discover the origins of this saying and I typed into Google “blood is thicker than water origin”, at the very top of the section Google offers for “People also ask” is the question: “What Bible verse says the blood of the covenant is thicker than the blood of the womb?” Y’all, people really DO think this quote came from the Bible.)
This saying did NOT originate in the Christian scriptures; rather, it’s a medieval proverb. The oldest record of a variation of the saying can be traced back to 12th century Germany. It didn’t show up in its current form in English until the 17th century.
It’s meaning as it stands today – “blood is thicker than water” – is that familial bonds (what’s meant by “blood”) will always be stronger than the bonds of friendship (what’s meant by “water”) or pretty much the bonds of relationship with anyone who is not family.
Today is the seventh and final Sunday of our sermon series entitled “forest for the trees.” Throughout my ministry, it has been very easy to feel like we in Christ’s Universal Church struggle with seeing the forest for the trees. So, God has directed me to offer a sermon series to help you – help us – wrestle with this issue, to help you – help us – prayerfully seek discernment about what constitutes the forest and what constitutes the trees…at this moment in human history.
You might recall that what I’ll refer to as “the forest” during this series is what Jesus was primarily about and so what God calls Christ’s Church to primarily be about…which is communicating the gospel of God’s grace, communicating the message that God offers us life when we by our sins deserve death. And I’ve told you that another way to state Jesus’ primary purpose is in terms of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s kingdom, of course, being the place where everyone does the will of our God who is graceful.
Presently, we’re in the midst of looking at some of the trees that get in the way of our focusing on that amazing forest of God’s grace. In these sermons, we’re looking at the trees God identified in the scriptures, particularly looking at how these trees manifest themselves today, how they distract us from our primary purpose in this time and place. AND, we’ll be looking to see what we can learn from the scriptures about how to overcome the distractions, how to look past the trees and get our focus back on the forest, back on our primary purpose.
Today’s tree is the tree of family – and by “family” I want to be clear that I mean primarily “biological family”…and I’ll include an exception for people adopted into our biological families. Another way to think about what I mean by “family” is that I’m pretty much talking about the people we think of as family when we hear or use sayings like “blood is thicker than water”.
I would imagine today’s tree will be the most controversial of all the trees I’ve discussed. People will disagree with the premise that family gets in the way of living into our primary purpose as Christians. People will insist that loving their families is a primary vehicle through which they demonstrate the grace of God that is the gospel message: when we love our family members other people see and experience God’s love and grace in action and will imitate us. Further, if only we would ALL love our family members…then EVERYONE will be loved, everyone will be cared for, the earth truly WILL be transformed into the Kingdom of God here on earth. So people might wonder how family can be a tree that gets in the way of our primary purpose as Christians, as Church.
That’s a pretty good argument. It’s even biblical…to an extent. By “to an extent”, I mean it’s biblical if you only look as far as the Old Testament and, even then, if you only focus on certain aspects of the Old Testament.
In God’s law given through Moses, God gave quite a few commandments that place significant responsibility for caring for those in need to family members. One of the best examples involves something called Levirate marriage. If a married woman’s husband died, there was a process for determining which male family member held responsibility for marrying the widow to take care of her economically. I know, it sounds awfully sexist, awfully chauvinistic, today to suggest a widowed woman NEEDS to be cared for in that way…but this had less to do with biology than it had to do with the patriarchal economic and cultural systems of the time. If you want to learn more about the biblical command for Levirate marriage, you can find it in Deuteronomy 25.
So…there were most definitely commandments in the Old Testament that commanded us to take care of our family members; there are commandments that give biological family SOME of the responsibility for taking care of what the Bible would call “the least of these among us.” But, I’m sure you know that even in the Old Testament, commandments to take care of the “the least of these among us” were given more broadly to the whole community of the people of God. Consider:
- The commandment concerning gleaning in Leviticus 19: at the time of harvest, all farmers were required to leave some of their crops in the field for “the poor and the alien”. Surely, the inclusion of “the alien” reveals this wasn’t just a family responsibility.
- In Deuteronomy 26, where God commanded a tithe of first fruits, God told God’s people to allow the “Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows” to eat of the portion given to God.
- Even in the portion of the Ten Commandments having to do with how we treat other people, there’s quite a bit more about right relationship with people who are NOT your family – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness against your neighbor, don’t covet your neighbor’s wife – than there is about people who ARE your family – honor your father and mother.
- And when God sent the prophets to explain what God’s people had done that led to their expulsion from the land, God’s reason was almost exclusively about a concept that gets translated in the scriptures as “justice” – that is to say, not taking proper care of the other people in Israel who are NOT part of your family.
My point is that, even in the Old Testament in which we can find SOME commandments and urgings from God to take care of our biological family members, God issued a great many MORE commandments and urgings for us to expand our understanding of “family” to include the whole community of the people of God.
And then Jesus came along. And what did Jesus say?
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
For Jesus, family wasn’t at all about blood; family wasn’t at all about biology. Family was – family IS – about God. Anyone, EVERYONE, who seeks to do the will of God is part of the same family. For Jesus, a new community – the Christian community, what we would call the Universal Church – is supposed to REPLACE the biological family. Which also means all followers of Jesus are supposed to place the Kingdom of God – our purpose – ABOVE family loyalties.
Y’all, if Jesus told us to place the kingdom of God above family loyalties, what happens when we prioritize family above all else? Quite simply, we take our focus off our purpose. There are so many ways we can do this, so many ways we do this in practice:
- When we choose to provide help to our biological families first instead of seeking out and meeting the needs of all people as much as we seek to meet the needs of our biological family members.
- When we give what I’ll call “the benefit of the doubt” to biological family members, or really any kind of preferential treatment.
- When we choose to place any manner of family gathering over our commitment to God.
- When we place the welfare of our own biological family members over the welfare of others.
- When we choose to spend so much of our time huddled together with biological family members behind closed doors instead of getting out and spending more time in relationship with our family in Christ. While I “get” that in this present moment in history amidst the COVID pandemic, we must do this for the health and safety of all people, I want to take you back in time to before COVID struck. If you go back a thousand years, congregations of Christians spent quite a bit of time together in Christian community. Fast forward to the past five years, and we struggle to get Christians of THIS faith community to gather together for a Wednesday night of fellowship. And we’re not alone. So many Christians spend most of their non-working time with their bio families…which leads to the neglect of their Christian family and to the neglect of the PURPOSE of their Christian family.
Can you imagine the creativity for God’s kingdom, the creativity for God’s gospel of grace, that would result from us gathering together EVERY day of the week…or even HALF the days of the week? Can you imagine what would happen to our focus? Can you imagine the amazing dreams and visions God would give us and that we would act on?
Y’all, that’s what would HAPPEN if we prioritized God’s family over our biological families. How do I know…because it’s the way things were for large periods of time for the past 2,000 years.
So…what can we do?
Fortunately, as I’ve said so many times in this series, the answer is simple. It might not be easy to implement – because it will require a complete turnaround in the way we think and act – but the answer is simple to understand, at least. And it begins with what Jesus told us in our gospel reading for today.
Quite simply – we need to redefine “family”. We need to define family the way Jesus – the One we say we follow – told us to define family. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
I’m sure you know that we can’t just do this in our minds and say, “okay – done, family is redefined.” No, we’ve got to be intentional about living out of this new definition so that it will stick.
Perhaps this can start with thinking of all the ways you think about your family that are different than the ways you think about everyone else, as well as thinking of all the things you DO for your family that are different from the things you do for everyone else. Really, make a list.
Maybe your list will include things like:
- Driving family members to doctor’s appointments;
- Eating meals with family members;
- Spending time in the evening with family members;
- Engaging in deep discussions about REAL stuff with family members;
- Celebrating birthdays and other life milestones with family members;
- Providing praise and encouragement to family members;
- Listening to family members;
- Attending concerts and award ceremonies and other special events and accomplishments with family members;
- Helping family members with problems – emotional problems, physical problems, spiritual problems, even financial problems.
I’m sure it will include other things…but, really, make a list. Then, take a look at that list and commit to doing one or more of those things with people OUTSIDE your biological family but INSIDE your family of faith every single day. When you get to the point where it’s easy for you to do one such thing with your faith family, commit to adding a second…every single day. And keep going. (Oh, by the way, make sure to include new people in your activities – participating in these activities with the same small group of friends isn’t much different than limiting your expression of family to biology.) If the task seems daunting – even if the task doesn’t seem so daunting – pray for God’s strength to make this change in your life.
Pretty soon, not only will you have a MUCH larger family, but you will ALSO find yourself living into your purpose as a follower of Jesus.
I began this sermon by recalling sayings that people think are in the Bible or originated in the Bible but that are not actually found in the Christian scriptures. One I mentioned specifically was “blood is thicker than water.” Y’all, this saying, and the behaviors that accompany it, PREVENTS us from fully living into the new creations God made possible for us to become by Jesus’ death. This saying, and the behaviors that go along with it, prevents us from sharing the gospel of grace to ALL people – not just our biological families. This saying, and the behaviors that accompany it, prevents us from participating in the ushering in of God’s kingdom here on earth…because God’s kingdom is a place where family is so much BIGGER than biology. I hope you will seek and find some ways to redefine “family” in your own life, so that you may live into your amazing purpose as a follower of Jesus.