“This Brave New World” Sermon Series Continues

Date:  January 14, 2018

Title:  “Nuclear (Family) Explosions”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture:  Matthew 10:27-39


Today we continue the January sermon series “This Brave New World”.  And our focus is on the family…and to get us started, consider for a moment what comes up for you when you hear the word “family”.  Then think about what you might say if you were asked, like random Londoners on the street, to tell what “family” means to you with just one word.  It is interesting, the range of responses that come.  “Family”, as it turns out, is a big word, with many associations and lots of different meanings.  In that YouTube clip of folks on London’s streets, everything came up, from “love”, to “problems”, from “friendship” to “overbearing, conflict, and oppression”!

If there is a wide range of emotional response tied to the notion of “family”, there is an equally wide variation in just what constitutes a “family” in any given culture, at any given time.  Unfortunately, many discussions about families – especially in the church – and much of our public policy wants to assume a very narrow definition of a “normal” family.  Here’s where you might begin to hum the theme song from the old “Leave it to Beaver” television series as you recognize that, for most of the past century in this nation, a “normal” family consisted of a care-taking mother, a bread-winning father, and one or more minor children.  But, my friends, it is a brave new world!

  • Although nearly 75% of US citizens still live in family based households
  • Only 9% of those households fit that old definition of the “normal” family… just 9% of them look like Ward, June, Wally & the Beav!
  • A majority of families in this country have no children under age 18
  • 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or the primary source of income for the family
  • Two-thirds of these “breadwinner moms” are single mothers
  • 8% of all children born in the US last year were born out of wedlock
  • There are currently more grandparents in the US than there are grandchildren – and many of those grandparents are now parenting the next generation

So while Norman Rockwell’s famous “Freedom from Want” painting may be an iconic image of the American family that many of us grew up with, it is no longer reality.  Our families now look much more diverse.  Families today come in all shapes and sizes.  They come with a wide range of gender roles, gender identities and composition, and with a beauty and richness of ethnic diversity which breaks down barriers and expands our notion of family.

Maybe it is about time we took note of the “Nuclear Family Explosions” in our midst, and stop trying to hang onto a “norm” which was never all that absolute.  In the Gospel passage from Matthew today, Jesus puts a pretty fine point on it…

            Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.

            I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

            I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,

            a daughter in law against her mother in law

Tom Fuerst suggests:

If Jesus intends to reinforce the centrality of the nuclear family, he’s doing a terrible job of it.  But these words communicate rather clearly that his intention is quite the opposite.  Jesus has no interest in protecting the nuclear family as the so-called foundation of society. 

He has a different family with a different society he’s interested in creating.  Those who love and obey him are his new family…

 He did not come to centralize the family as the foundation of society…

 These are tough words, intended to broaden our perspective and expand our priorities

Now, like any good preacher, Matthew is also aiming these words at his own congregation.  They are living under constant threat from their former faith community, the synagogue just down the street or across town.  They are also dealing with social, economic and political pressures which make it hard to be a follower of Christ.  Following Jesus in Matthew’s day could ruin your reputation, it could land you in prison, it could even get you killed.  So at least a part of this is Jesus warning his would-be disciples, along with giving them encouragement to get out there and live in his upside-down, paradoxical way of being.

Barbara Brown Taylor, looking at this warning, says this about the Gospel’s intrusion into the family:

There they are, sitting around the dining room table one night, minding their own business, when the gospel falls like a sword across their table and quivers there, with half the roast on one side and half on the other, green beans everywhere.  Some sitting around the table want to pull the sword out and run straight into the street with it, swinging it above their heads and making perfect strangers listen to what just happened to them.  Others want to clean up the mess and get on with supper.  Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it.  There is absolutely no reason to make a spectacle of yourself.  And then there is always the family member who does not see a thing, who does not believe in swords and who goes right on eating as if nothing ever happened, muttering about how everyone in this house is stark raving mad.

 In Mark’s Gospel, early on in Jesus’ ministry, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth, where all hell breaks loose.  The very people who should have most joyfully welcomed him home just don’t get his message.  Even Jesus’ own family think he has gone out of his mind.  So Jesus’ mother and brothers try to take him away, settle him down, straighten him out.  But instead of leaving the synagogue with them, Jesus says. … Who are my mother and my brothers?  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!

 These are disconcerting words.  They are troubling words if you are trying your best to hang onto that old nuclear family as the only way to envision a family.  Yet these also are liberating words for this brave new world.  They are liberating words for a world where we are called to a radical inclusivity in Christ.  They are liberating words for a world where what matters is a person’s faith, a person’s desire to follow God’s will, a person’s openness to God’s mercy.  They are liberating words for a world where faith is more important than family ties, ethnicity, inherited pedigree; more important than documentation, more important than economic standing or educational level, more important than sexual orientation or gender identity, even more important than political affiliation!

This is a brave new world, where “family” can never be limited by gender, race, class, age, orientation, or any other form of discrimination.  Again, in Fuerst’s words:

            Traditional families won’t save us. 

            There is no soteriology of the family in Scripture.

            The family didn’t die for us.  The family didn’t resurrect for us.

            The family won’t even exist in the new heavens ad the new earth

 So maybe it is time to cut the family a little slack.  Maybe it is high time to blow up and to celebrate the nuclear family explosions which broaden our perspective, and expand our priorities to match God’s unconditional, radically inclusive love, a love which sees beyond “normal” all the way to “real”.  It’s a Brave New World…   for all God’s family!  Amen.

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