Enough people on Twitter told me they’d like to read my sermon that I decided I would in fact post it here. Last Sunday was a challenging one for preachers of the revised common lectionary, with a doozy of a Gospel text in which Jesus says things like:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Recently a thirteen-year-old came to me for help on a school assignment for a paper analyzing a religious theme in literature. She said, “I want to write about the religious theme of family values.”
“Hm,” I said. “Can you think of places in the Bible that show family values?”
“No, that’s what I’m struggling with.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “Because the Bible doesn’t actually talk about the kind of family values you’re thinking of.”
She frowned, perplexed. For many children her age, and many people I know, family is a kind of religion.
Loyalty, love, duty between parents and children–these family values are the most sacred thing in our society. However, they are not Jesus’s religion. When a man offers to follow Jesus but only after he goes home to bury his father, Jesus tells him to let the dead bury the dead. In other words, if you really care about the Kingdom of God, stop worrying about your duty to family, your observance of all the old customs. Instead, join Jesus’s work, which is so much bigger, and more important, than your individual family.
Jesus says this on his way toward Jerusalem, when it has become clear that the worldly forces of violence and oppression are mounting against him, clear that the world is not yet ready to hear that loving one’s neighbor is as important as loving oneself, and one’s family or tribe.
It’s a tough message to hear. And, let’s be honest. Having a tribe can be fun, having a family can be comforting and make us feel secure. But they can also divide–as we draw closer within the lines we’ve drawn, we inevitably leave others outside the lines.
If you’ve tried to get free from an abusive family, or you’ve ever felt ostracized from a tribe, you know this well. Walling off borders, stereotyping a particular race or religion as dangerous–these are acts of retreat into the safety of tribalism. But it’s not safe for everybody–only the ones inside the walls, willing to conform to the rules of the tribe–and this is not loving our neighbor as ourselves.
From its beginning, Christianity refused tribalism.* Jesus held up the despised tribe of Samaritans as good neighbors and rebuked his disciples for wanting to harm them. The strict Jew Paul became a servant to the Gentiles. In his letters, he refers to his fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. It’s language so familiar to us from hearing his letters that we think nothing of it, but in Paul’s world this is not a small thing. Once, he drew his boundaries around his tribe of Jews and declared God had chosen them alone, but when he meets Jesus, he begins to understand God’s family includes everyone, its bonds are formed by adoption, not blood, and every man is his brother, every woman his sister.
This universal family is a nice idea, right? It makes us Christians feel all warm and fuzzy. But when the rubber hits the road, we’re just making dinner for our own spouse, our own children or parents, not the whole human family. We can’t afford to pay the utility bill for all the tribes of the world, only our own household.
I’m a mom of five-year-old twins who are constantly calling out “mommy” at the same time with competing demands. If everyone gets fed, the house tidied and the dishwasher run, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. This is my number one duty. Little people depend on me. It’s a sacred duty, one that brings me joy alongside exhaustion. In fact, I will even go so far as to say being a mother has brought me closer to God by teaching me what God’s love for us might be like.
But by itself, my family is not the kingdom of God. Concern for, service to others outside our household is what God calls us to. And no matter how many bowls of mac and cheese I serve, how much laundry I fold, or how much love I pour into my children, the world is not yet that kingdom of peace, of justice, of abundance that Jesus proclaimed and God created us to enjoy. Taking care of my own little tribe will not transform the world, what WILL change it is actions that benefit others rather than myself, embracing those “others” as brothers and sisters, and extending compassion, care, support to them even when it costs me, even when it carries risks.
When I was fresh out of seminary more than ten years ago, my boss was a woman rector of a nearby church. She was an amazing mentor. George W. Bush had recently declared the second war in Iraq accomplished, but the Iraqis struggled under their tribal conflicts and teetered on the edge of civil war. One of my mentor’s daughters, a few years younger than me, was a journalist, and she was being sent to Iraq to report there. My rector was so proud of her, and I remember studying her face over lunch one day and looking for the signs of maternal panic I would expect for her daughter heading off into danger. Heck, even I was afraid for the young woman.
When those signs didn’t appear, I said, “Aren’t you worried for her safety?”
“Sure.” She nodded. “But we’ve always taught our children that personal safety isn’t the highest good. Sometimes you have to take risks for the things you believe in.”
Those words surprised and moved me, and they have forever shaped my parenting. My five-year-olds aren’t headed off to report in war zones anytime soon, but I do try to think about how to raise them with a sense of mission, of duty to those beyond our household, to the whole human family. At bedtime we practice loving kindness meditation to cultivate compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, and then all the people of the world. More times than not, one of the twins makes a potty joke or burps during the meditation, but I hold out hope that its forming them as compassionate people who will strive to serve the world and transform it with love.
But sometimes, as a member of a family, it’s hard to face up to this duty, to keep focused on loving the whole world instead of my narrow, personal and private concerns.
Two weeks ago today, my beloved cat Pietro died. I’m just going to say, I’m sure you all have great cats, but my cat was THE best cat in the world—patient with my kids, good natured, spirited and fun. In the last picture I ever took of him, he was next to my daughter wearing Mr. Potato head’s tiny glasses while she sported the matching toothy grin like the Cheshire cat. When our friends heard he’d died, I received a flurry of text messages officially declaring him the best feline ever. That day, out of the blue, he came home severely maimed and my husband rushed him to the emergency vet, but he didn’t make it.
Later that day, I learned about the terrible shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. My heart was already broken over Pietro, and for several days I couldn’t face the news or social media about that tragedy because my private grief was so huge and I had to firmly control it to function with the kids.
Then, added to the mix of my grief, I felt an awful shame over my silent retreat from the public lament and outrage over the shooting. I’m proud to be a priest in an inclusive denomination–the Episcopal Church. I aspire to be a genuine ally to my GLBTQ brothers and sisters. But I had no words of solidarity or comfort for them. After all, Pietro was just a cat and 49 men and women died in that bar. It was selfish of me to be so absorbed by my private sadness for a lost pet.
I kept thinking Jesus would be disappointed in me, would tell me to let the dead bury the dead, to focus on the living, to focus on actions that will make a difference, the words that will help end hatred and violence. But I couldn’t do it. I could only tread water above my grief and focus on daily, mundane tasks.
Finally, I told my friend and colleague Will about this shame. Will is a hospital chaplain and grief expert. He shook his head in astonishment to let me know I’d gotten it wrong. “First off,” he said, “No gay man would ever say your cat is ‘just an animal,’ he was a part of your family just like my dogs have always been my children.” And he said personal grief, close to home, the holes in the fabric of life that a death leaves, the furry spot in my closet where Pietro slept on all my workout shirts—of course that would come first and hit hardest, before my grief for Orlando.
But now, I am beginning to ache less, to contemplate letting my kids pick out a pair of kittens later this summer, lifting up my head to see the larger world. As I wrote this sermon, I read an article that named every victim and shared a little of his or her story. It mentioned the loved ones grieving too, facing those same holes in their lives. And I wept, my own loss finally melding with the larger, corporate grief for those women and men.
Jesus doesn’t ask us not to love our family, he asks us to reach deep into our well of private, personal love and share it with neighbors and strangers, with those beyond our family and tribe.
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus was rejected, homeless, unwelcome when he marched toward Jerusalem and told one man to let the dead bury the dead, told another not to look backward or say farewell to his household. He was headed for a showdown with the powers of violence and oppression, and he WON.
Yet those forces persist. Our world is full of refugees running for their lives and unwelcome in those places they hope to find safety. It’s full of people whose sexual orientation makes them a target for violence, even in the sanctuary of a gay bar.
What does Jesus want us to do about it?
He wants us to re-draw our lines of family and tribe to include all people, to pour out the kind of love we feel for our closest relatives and dearest friends onto outcasts and strangers, refugees and victims of violence. He wants us to do something that already happens in this church–welcome strangers and make them family.
He wants us to do what thousands of people in San Francisco are doing at the Pride Parade right now–marching together as a family of GLBTQ folks and allies who refuse to let violence win, just as the first Christians did.
They will hold up their signs that read LOVE WINS, because they know, like we followers of Jesus know, that love gives life. When people join together across boundaries of family, tribe, sexuality, and all divisions–to proclaim God’s love of all people, to declare God’s complete and total rejection of violence–then love will truly win.
I’ll admit I was nervous about preaching this–in my congregation, the acceptance of GLBTQ folks has been a sticky point for a few folks, a matter of silence for others, even though the majority of members has been readily welcoming GLBTQ folks for many years. As is so often the case, a sermon I thought sounded radical seems in hindsight almost tame.
However, it was very well received. People were especially grateful for a way to make sense of that tricky Gospel passage and to join together in public lament. I wasn’t the only one getting weepy that day.
*Of course, now that I'm posting this online I feel the need to note that in the history of Christianity, there have been many tragic counter examples, where we ignored these anti-tribal roots and descended into hatred and violence.