1 Sam. 8:4-15; Ps 138; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1; Mk 3:20-35
A Sermon Given at Episcopal Divinity School
June 11, 2012
I recently made the mistake of downloading for my two and a half year old one of my very favorite records from my own childhood, The Sesame Street Monsters: A Musical Monster-osity. I say it was a mistake because its catchy tunes are now liable to pop into my head at any given moment, since we have to listen to it every time we drive together in the car. His favorite song at the moment, “Five Monsters in My Family,” dramatizes the asymptotic growth of an ever-expanding, multi-generational clan: “five is such a scary number, I’m awfully glad that I’ve five...” but then “make it six, counting uncle Fred…” and counting “Jerry and Aunt Mary…Better make it, eight instead.” It goes on from there, fading out with the shouted question “eleven?!” and a raucous give and take over further untold members. I find it oddly, hilariously profound to hear “the lovable monsters of Sesame Street” openly singing to their audience about their “scariness,” about their expansiveness, and about the tensions in negotiating their belonging. How common that dynamic can be in families of all kinds, including (hello?!) our churches. How do we expand and transform our churches, our notions of family, our experiences of belonging? In this amazing and anxious time, how might we both acknowledge whatever—whomever – might represent “such a scary number” and yet be willing to dive in and grow?
Our readings this morning underscore the power and challenge of this process. Here we are just over a week removed from celebrating the Mystery of the Triune God, two weeks removed from the Feast of Pentecost. We enter now the “long green season” of the Spirit, sighing with relief at the onset of summer (even if it is not yet technically upon us). We open our thirsting hearts to the refreshing stream of God’s outpouring Spirit. And what does God offer us but to be transformed. It sounds so wonderful—and truly, to me, the centrality of transformation is one of the most inspiring features of our faith. But believe me, I know —particularly as a trans man— that as empowering as transformation can be, it is also unspeakably difficult. It is the kind of challenge that we cannot undertake alone. Indeed, it is a vocation that is ultimately accomplished by God working within in us, among us, in our midst.
The challenging character of transformation comes front and center in our gospel passage from Mark. In the verses just prior to our reading, Jesus has retreated onto a mountain from the thronging crowds and appointed his twelve apostles. Now he has come “home” only to be assailed by the masses once more; so closely and massively do they press upon him that he is unable even to eat. (Insert line from Monsters song: “family dinners are really great, we eat the food and then the plate!”) His apparently alarming behavior in this context alerts his family, who come to restrain him, as well as the Scribes. Has he “gone out of his mind”? Does he cast out demons by the authority of “Beelzebul?” No, Jesus parabolically suggests. To read his actions through a demonic lens is to blaspheme against the Spirit itself. For the work of the Spirit is to cleanse, to re-configure, to re-create. The Spirit drives us into territories we cannot comprehend, to wilderness terrain we may not wish to travel.
It is in this same Spirit that Jesus challenges even the very notion of family. Just as the people had communicated Jesus’ apparent insanity to his family at the beginning of our reading, now the crowd plays telephone for Jesus’ mother and brothers. But Jesus’ reply confounds all: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” In one sense, the question might come across as offensive—particularly to his family of origins. It’s hard not to wonder what it was like to be the sibling or parent of such a person. And to have him turn around and respond to their concern in such a way? Not exactly sensitive. But, as usual, Jesus is after something deeper. Some scholars of early Christianity (particularly Elizabeth Clark) have termed Jesus’ words here “anti-familial.” It is far from the only such instance in the synoptic gospels – there is the statement about Jesus bringing a sword that will cleave families (Mt 10:34-39); the especially harsh statement in Luke, “unless one hate one's” father, mother, sister, brother, one cannot be a disciple (Lk 14:26); phrases about neither marrying nor being married in the kingdom (Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:35) and more (e.g. Mt 19:10-12). In fact, as Clark notes, such statements form part of an important, ascetic thread that has been particularly confounding to Protestant Christian communities that place ideas of family in a central position. But perhaps we might look at it this way: Jesus takes this pressing moment as teachable, asking us to consider in what ways our very definitions of family might be constraining the work of the Spirit. In other words, the point is not finally to erase but to transform our understandings of family. It is to refuse to be held captive to rigid definitions of it. It is to ask, how are we connected to one another? How might we deepen that connection? And how might that interconnectivity facilitate our greater growth into the heart of God?
We can, in fact, engage that transformation-- albeit with a strangely paradoxical agency. We can seek to cooperate with it, to participate in it rather than the two extremes of either resisting it completely or accomplishing it all on our own. Paul speaks of this process with beautiful, multiple images-- language of putting on and taking off clothing; of our “outer nature” “wasting away” while our “inner nature” is “renewed;” of “this earthly tent,” sacred yet ultimately provisional. God accomplishes our transformation—the divine outpouring of grace multiplies our thanksgiving, and in turn our heartfelt response helps spread that good news beyond the bounds of our wildest imaginings. Earlier in this same letter (or collection of letters, as 2 Corinthians may ultimately be), Paul speaks of this transformation in positive terms— “all of us,” he says, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” are “being changed from one degree of glory into another” (2 Cor 3:18). This process is a mark of the freedom that the Spirit gives us (2 Cor 3:17). But as unfathomably wondrous as this process is, Paul wants us to remember its difficulty. The last sentence of today’s passage, which begins the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians—one of my very favorite passages in all of Scripture—points to that challenge. Paul evokes how we “groan” in “this earthly tent.” That groaning points to the birth-like quality of transformation. Paul uses this same language in his letter to the Romans where he speaks of how “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” He sets this redemption, this adoption, within the wider context of the re-birth of creation itself (Romans 8:22-23). And in this context the Spirit intercedes for us with (again, one of my favorite passages) “sighs”—actually groans—“too deep for words” (8:26).
Ultimately God draws us forward into a birth that changes us beyond what we can imagine, a transformation that calls us into deeper communion with one another, and with the God who draws us home. We are and will in some sense always be, family to one another. And even as we come to know this, our conceptions of the familial will transform. An image from yesterday’s Pride parade cannot but rise to my mind. Walking in downtown Boston with a large contingent from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, such joy was mirrored from our ranks to the gathered community on the sidewalks, and back again. The sun shone down upon us and confetti silhouetted the resplendent dome of the State House. How many people walking and watching were intimately familiar with the complexity of the familial— how many of us call our communities “chosen family”? And yet even that insight, often gained through deep pain, is just the lip of the cup that we are called to drink together. Who are my siblings? Who is my parent or grandparent? (How many monsters are in my family?...) What new frontiers of community and family does God invite me, invite all of us, to explore together? We know it will not be easy. Indeed, we know we may groan in its labor. Hopefully we will laugh along the way. Yet whatever happens, however much we struggle, ultimately we know that there is no wilderness into which the Spirit does not accompany us. We know that always, that Spirit will intercede for us with groans more profound than words.
 Elizabeth Clark, Reading Renunciation (Princeton University Press, 1999), 177-178.
- The Rev'd Dr. Cameron Partridge