Every three years we preachers have to contend with Matthew 10:34–42. This difficult passage works its way up through the lectionary as a challenge to those of us who would dare to preach.
In this Gospel lesson, Jesus gives his disciples a “sending out speech.” I grew up on sending out speeches. My mother was especially good at it. She had a sending out speech for all of the common ventures of life. When we graduated from high school or college; when we had our first job or when we were preparing for marriage – mother always had a perfect homily to send us out.
One of the most famous sending out speeches in the whole human record is the sending out speech of Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius says in part: “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar… Give every man thine ear but few thy voice… Neither a borrower nor a lender be… This, above all, to thine own self be true; and it must follow as night follows the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”
In this passage from St. Matthew, Jesus is sending his disciples out to take up the cross and follow him. And he gives them these hard, harsh sending out words: “Don’t think I am come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and a daughter against her mother; and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
We hear these hard sending out words of Jesus and our hearts skip a beat for in this time and place of broken marriages, broken families, and broken relationships, the last thing we need is a Savior who walks into our living rooms and dining rooms and bedrooms and family rooms with a sword in his hand to break our families into pieces and chop us apart.
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Surely all of us at some point in time have known the joy of living in families. But isn’t it so that we have experienced the pain of family life too? We all feel our families are colossal failures because we are tormented with images of familial perfection. We all believe that ours is the only family which doesn’t eat every meal together – asking a table blessing, and sharing how we spent our day.
We look with envy upon the family of some coworker, or neighbor whose child has been admitted to Harvard or Yale while we’re still struggling to drag our son or daughter out of bed each weekday morning so they can get to middle school on time. We believe we’re the only parents on the block whose adolescent children talk back to us and seem to hate us and everything we say or do.
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And children present with us today, here is one for you: Isn’t it true that each of you could write a long essay on the blessing and curse of being your parents’ child? We all feel that all other families get along far better than ours. All of us have moments of tension within our families and so we consider we’ve failed.
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For the past several years, we have vacationed with my wife’s family in some exotic place, often 5,000 miles away. Each year, we come with all of our children, our husbands or wives as the case may be. And what a joy it is to be with family. But my wife has concluded that this family arrangement works best only if we live by the 5-day rule: Even if we travel 5,000 miles to be together, 5 days is about all the time we strong-hearted, strong-willed, strong-headed people can live together in harmony and peace. And so after 5 days, we bid each other adieu until we meet again the next year.
We are made to feel that our families are colossal failures because we are tormented by images of familial perfection.
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Indeed when we hear these harsh and hard words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson today, our hearts skip a beat. It is so difficult in this time and place when what it means to be family is being redefined, for us to entertain a Savior who seems to bring into our family life not peace, but a sword making us feel that whatever the struggle of making family is, we are helplessly in this enterprise alone.
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But could it be that Jesus, in these harsh sending out words is calling us to a deeper, more extended meaning of family?
I was in attendance at a conference in Columbia, Maryland not long ago. During lunch break, I went to a nice little restaurant to enjoy the pleasures of being alone. As I studied the other patrons in this small café, my mind, eyes and heart became fixed on what I determined was a gay couple. They were two handsome white men, and one of them was holding in his arms a black baby who could not have been more than 8 months old. I knew instantly that they were the parents of this child. They were so attentive to and loving with this beautiful little baby. As a special blessing, I gave them a two thumbs up from across the crowded room. When I was ready to leave, I stopped at their table, ostensibly to admire the baby. As I left their table I said to them what I really had come to say, “You are a beautiful family,” I said. They seemed blessed by my words and were obviously touched that I would affirm their nontraditional arrangement.
Could it be that Jesus who speaks to us even now is calling us to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be family in our day and time? Can’t there be families which extend beyond race and clan – beyond mother, father, two children and a dog?
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Several years ago, I was flying to Cleveland, Ohio for one of our too many meetings in the United Church of Christ. I was among the first to board the plane. I rejoiced that I had 3 seats all to myself. I had been assigned the window seat. Eventually, a lady came along and took the aisle seat. As departure time neared, I almost cheered aloud because no one had claimed the center seat. I said to myself, “I’m home free.” I’d had a hard week and the last thing I needed was to have someone occupy the center seat. As the attendants were just about to close the door and ready the plane for departure, a huge man who must have weighed at least 250 pounds entered the plane and struggled down the aisle with too much luggage and, you guessed it, his was the center seat next to mine. I was crestfallen. I made it a point to refuse eye contact with him so I would not have to talk with him. I put away all material that would identify me as a pastor so I wouldn’t have to discuss religion with this giant of a man all the way to Cleveland. I wasn’t rude to him. I just wasn’t passenger friendly. I was pleased that my strategy worked. When we were about to land in Cleveland, I began to feel very faint. I could not reach the call button and the only thing I could muster enough strength to do was to touch the shoulder of my giant seat mate whom I had purposely ignored and say to him in a very feeble voice, “Sir, please help me. I don’t feel well.”
Apparently, I totally passed out for a period of time. But when I came to myself, the first thing I became aware of was this giant of a man standing over me with a big wad of paper towels he had dampened with cold water. He was holding it to my head. He was looking at me with deep concern. And if he asked me once, he asked me ten times, in a deep southern drawl, “Mister, are you all right? Mister, are you alright?”
When the emergency service came for me, he was not satisfied that his responsibility to me had ended, so he walked with us to the ambulance, and stood there until they put me in. The last thing I heard before they closed the door was this man saying to me, “Don’t worry Mister, you’re gonna do just fine.” As they rushed me off with sirens blaring, I thought to myself how awful it was under these circumstances, for me to be far from home without family and friends. But then my soul took courage when I realized that this overweight Good Samaritan of another race and place had indeed been both family and friend.
Could it be that Jesus, who still speaks to us even now, is calling us to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be family in our day and time?
In our ministry here in the District of Columbia, we have children who are alienated from their families, or who come from dysfunctional families, who come to our church literally begging us to help them raise themselves. They literally beg us to be family for them.
One of the paradoxes of the demographics of the District of Columbia is that while we have one of the most educated populations of any city on the face of the earth, we have a larger percentage of high school dropouts than almost any city in the United States of America. While the educational motto of the United States government is “Leave no child behind,” in this nation’s capital, we seem to have left most of our children behind.
Let me assure you that we cannot be a city at peace until we claim all quarters of our diverse children—rich and poor, red and yellow, black, brown and white, the well-educated and the undereducated—as a part of one family; unless we claim all children as our own.
Perhaps then, it is the purpose of Jesus’ sending out words to his disciples, not to divide them from their blood kin, but to call them into being as a new kind of family. Jesus assured his listeners that while following him they may lose their biological families, they would be gathered into a new family, a new society, a family based not on blood kinship, but on membership in the whole family of God; membership in the Society of Jesus Christ.
In a day and time when the conservative religious have seemed to have monopolized the whole conversation and monopolized the whole ethos in regard to family values, we who are of a more forward view must be an alternative community with an alternative vision.
Church and cathedral and mosque and synagogue and shrine alike, must be in this world of broken families and broken community a counter culture whose lives embody and give witness to the whole family, to the inclusive community of God.
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When my daughter Taylor was about 8 years old, we had a group of children from another community visit our church as a part of our outreach program. What a wonderful time these wonderful children and ours had together. My daughter Taylor, who has always had a diverse circle of friends said to me as the visiting children were departing, “Dad, I wish these children were members of our church.” I said to her, “Taylor, these children are members of our church.” Meaning, “Darling, they too are God’s children. They are our kin people. They too are a part of the whole people, the whole family of God.”
Apparently that lesson was not wasted on Taylor. During the Christmas holidays of that same year, we went to a Caribbean nation and through my wife’s father’s friendship were guests in one of the beach houses of the Prime Minister of that nation.
One morning, the Prime Minister’s office called urgently to tell us that the Prime Minister of another Caribbean republic would dock his yacht at the Beach home, where we were staying, and the Prime Minster would give a party for him in his house. We could remain in the house, but we needed to be aware that the house and beach would be filled with the two Prime Ministers’ guests.
My 8-year old daughter had gotten tired of us older people and so her grandfather had arranged for her to spend her days in a nearby village with some children who were preparing for the national qualifying exams. When Taylor’s granddaddy went to pick her up in a big van that afternoon, Taylor convinced her granddaddy, who is usually wise, to bring all twelve of the village children to the Prime Minister’s grand beach party.
It just so happened when Taylor and her entourage of village children arrived, the Prime Minister was standing at the door. When he saw all these children enter, he asked with some dismay, “Whose children are these?” Whereupon Taylor, with all the arrogance of an 8-year old, told him, “These children belong to my church.” In other words, Taylor in all of her childhood innocence was saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, these children also are the children of God. They are your kin people and mine. They too are a part of the whole people, the whole family of God.”
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Indeed with these hard sayings from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is sending us out today; sending us out to form new kinships and to be in new ways the Christian community, the whole people, the whole family of God.
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Let us pray: Lord, lead us to your rock of eternity and to your salvation which knows no end. Amen.