23 Jan Sermon: Epiphany 2 (Year C)
There is the saying, ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’; which expresses perhaps the mixture of emotions that family life can produce. Families can be a great blessing and joy and our families know us best or at least they see us at our most vulnerable and authentic, which in itself can be a great gift. At other times and for some very often, family life can be a great burden, even destructive. For most people there is probably a combination of all of these experiences, and certainly in film and literature we see and read the seemingly never ending ways in which family relationships evolve, rise, and fall.
In this country family life and the ways of the household are varied, and different today than they would have been even fifty years ago, and we can give thanks for the possibilities and freedoms that exist that enable family life to encompass that diversity. Whatever their shape and size families can be a source of great comfort, stability, strength and love, and for many of us they are the place of good memories of times shared together. Reading recently some Jewish commentators I was struck by the way in which the home and the family are central to the understanding and expression of Jewish faith and God’s covenant with his people, to the extent that in many ways the roles and rituals and practices that you find in a Jewish home are perhaps more important than the life of the synagogue. The commentators I read were keen to point out that this was not without struggle and occasionally things go badly wrong, but the life of the family is meant to make visible and real the hope and the life of God.
So family and home are and have always been key within Judaism which makes it more striking to read some of Jesus’ conversations with his family. There is the moment related in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus is told that his family are waiting to see him, and he replies who are my family, my brothers and sisters are those who do the will of my father in heaven. We would need to hear the sound of Jesus’ voice to know exactly how this statement was delivered, but it’s certainly making clear that the ties and bonds of family are not an end in themselves. Then this morning we hear from our reading in John, Jesus in conversation with Mary his mother. It is almost comic perhaps in its exchange. Mary, a mother who knows what her son is capable of is eager to push him forward – go on, go on, it’s your time. Be quiet, Mum, I’m old enough to know what I’m doing and now is not the time. Ok, ok, have it your way, and then in an aside to the servants because Mary knows all along what’s going to happen – just do what he tells you. Again we would need to hear the tone of Jesus and Mary’s voices to know exactly the sentiment behind the words, but it’s clear that there is some disagreement, and probably for that reason it is all the more authentic as it reflects the sort of conversations and disagreements that go on in homes or across families week by week.
Then there is the statement, again in John, with Jesus on the cross, saying to Mary and the beloved disciple, behold here is your son and here is your mother, and however stylised that speech is, it emphasises the special place of the relationship between mother and child.
It seems clear from the gospels that Jesus both treasured the bonds of family and was saying something different in how familial relationships might be lived out. As I mentioned before it would certainly have been startling to the crowd to hear Jesus question the absolute nature of family relationships and to challenge the crowd in viewing the family in the light of God’s purposes and will.
Reflecting on the gospels as a whole and Christ’s actions and conversations it is possible to argue, I think, that Jesus was doing exactly what his Jewish faith taught him, in other words, that family should express the nature of God, which for Jesus meant reaching out to include those who lived God’s kingdom whether or not they were related by ties of blood. The stories might also give us hope that even Jesus seems to have struggled at times with family life and its commitments and responsibilities. As one commentator I read this week put it, ‘there is comfort to be drawn from the attitude of Christ in the Gospels to his family…whatever goes wrong, even the worst things, in our human relationships can still be healed and put right…the wounds are not cancelled, but they can be transfigured, as God’s unbreakable love shapes us into the people he wants us to be.’
Let me finish by returning to the saying with which I began. It is taken from the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and a fuller quote runs, ‘you can choose your friends but you sure can’t choose your family, and they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge them or not.’ In speaking about family there is always the danger of holding up family life or family values as some sort of perfect ideal which is both false and dangerous. If Christ’s experience tells us anything it is that family life is often not straightforward, and maybe it is in friendship that we find the deepest expression of shared understanding and support. Nevertheless, Christ’s experience also tells us of the possibility of healing and renewal and in that we can certainly give thanks. Amen.