A Sermon for Sunday May 13 (Mother’s Day), Mark 3:31-35 and I John 5:1-5
(Preacher Note: After you finish reading the sermon, please take a moment to check out the links in the footnotes, especially those pertaining to Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy)
Katie’s latest obsession these days are ocean creatures—fish, sea turtles, octopus, dolphins, sting rays, whales and especially sharks! In just the last six weeks, Katie (who will turn four in less than a month) has visited the Georgia Aquarium three times to see her underwater friends; that’s how much she enjoys them!
At home, she has a stuffed stingray called Mr. Ray, a soft beluga whale dubbed Smiley, a plastic killer whale named Orca and a collection of six different kinds of rubber sharks yet to be named. These beloved toy animals accompany Katie nearly everywhere she goes: school, church, the park, the grocery store, the library and trips to see her relatives. And Katie involves them in a variety of activities and adventures like building pillow houses and painting great works of art.
When they are hungry she feeds them a bowls of Cheerios When they are tired, she puts them to bed in an open tissue box. When they are sick or hurt, she wraps them up with toilet paper, stickers, tape or bandages. When some of her toys have to be left at home, she gives instructions to Elizabeth, her Nana or me about how to take care of them until she returns. Katie often sees herself as more than a buddy to her whales and sharks. She believes deeply that she is their caretaker…their mother…their parent.
This past Friday afternoon, while visiting Elizabeth’s dad in Cleveland, Ohio, Katie—laying on her bed and playing with her whale and sharks—looked up me, sighed and said, “Daddy, I’m a little sad.” I asked her why and she replied, “Because my son, the Hammerhead shark, got a little hurt when a book fell on him.” Katie often refers to her whales and sharks as her sons or her babies. Reenacting the relationship between a parental figure and child is a common practice among preschoolers as they develop their sense of identity, make sense of human connections in their lives and learn the meaning of family.
For Katie, these concepts are nurtured through our parenting skills and values as well as one of our daughter’s much-loved movies, Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. The story, set in the tropical fish and island paradise of Hawaii, focuses on the relationship between an imaginative little Hawaiian girl, Lilo, and a notorious dog-like alien, Stitch.
An illegal genetic experiment and fugitive from intergalactic law, Stitch crash lands on Earth and into the rambunctious (but caring) arms of Lilo who is being raised by her 19-year-old sister Nani. To complicate matters, an intimidating social worker named Cobra Bubbles is threatening to split up the family to make sure Lilo is receiving proper care. Further complicating things, the six-eyed alien scientist Dr. Jumba, and Pleakley, the goofy, one-eyed worm-like science expert from the intergalactic police force, chase Stitch across the island in an attempt to recapture “the monster.”
Over the course of the movie, Stitch—who makes many attempts to live up to his design as a destructive force—learns the importance of “love” and “family” and is forever changed as a result. Early in the story, Nani, fed up with how Stitch has messed up the house, threatens to take the alien back to the pound. But Lilo pleads with her older sister to stop:
Lilo: He was an orphan and we adopted him! What about “ohana”?
Nani: He hasn’t been here that long!
Lilo: Neither have I. Dad said “ohana” means family. And family means…
Nani: …or forgotten. I know, I know. I hate it when you use “ohana” against me.
By the end of the film, everyone realizes they need one another and they all resolve to make one big happy family—Nani, Lilo, Stitch, Dr. Jumba, Pleakley and Cobra Bubbles. A picture collage of the gang enjoying holidays, celebrating Lilo’s birthday, going on ski vacations and watching movies appear in the closing credits—a wonderful reminder that families come in all sizes and shapes.
There have always been different kinds of families throughout the history of humankind:
Parents with three, five or maybe even 12 children
Parents with adopted children
A single working parent with four kids
A couple and their dog
Grandparents raising grandchildren or teens caring for younger siblings after the death of a parent.
A step-parent with the biological child of their late spouse.
A man with multiple wives and children from each one.
An uncle and aunt looking after their nieces and nephews because of a wayward parent.
An adult son providing for sick or aging parents.
Multi-ethnic relatives living under one roof
To be honest, the traditional nuclear family (mom, dad, son, daughter, dog and cat) has never actually been the norm despite long ridiculous claims to the contrary.
Even the demands by fundamentalist Christians to return to “traditional family values” held by our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1940s or by our ancestors who lived in biblical times is laughable at best. Family dysfunction was just as bad then as it is now; the only difference decades ago may be that Aunt Edna kept a heavy-duty padlock on her skeleton closet.
Families in the Bible were much less discreet about their dysfunction, they bare it for all to see! The book of Genesis alone makes today’s primetime soaps and reality show look tame in comparison. The most renowned biblical characters and their families do permanent harm to one another through acts of murder, deceit, treachery, abuse of women and children, rape and incest.
From the beginnings of humanity to the birth of the Christian church post-resurrection, the Bible and other ancient texts reveal the truth about family dynamics centuries ago: Patriarchy reigned mightily and women and children were considered nothing more than property or commodities to be used, abused and tossed away.
But we also know that Jesus (God in human flesh) shows up in the midst of the culture of the time with different notions about how folks are to live as God’s covenant family. Jesus even defines the family in spiritual terms that are to be held above biological and physical relationships and that usurp patriarchy.
Prior to Jesus’ declaration, the writer of Mark’s gospel tells us that Christ’s own un-traditional family goes out looking for the messiah “to restrain him.” Jesus’ mother Mary (who became pregnant by the Holy Spirit) and his brothers (who do not share the same biological father as Jesus) have heard rumors that Jesus (who has been healing the sick and casting out demons) is crazy and possibly demonic! So Jesus’ mother and brothers go to the house where he is teaching and they ask for him, possibly to tell Jesus that he’s acting a bit nutty and sullying the family name.
Instead of placating his mother and brothers, Jesus asks the folks gathered in the house, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Then he looks around at everyone and says enthusiastically, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
And God’s will, according to Jesus a few chapters later in Mark’s gospel, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Throughout history, there have been Christians who have sought to love God and neighbor by standing up for the rights of the oppressed. These courageous Jesus-followers risked their lives to seeks equality and justice for people who were unfairly treated by other Christians. Those men and women believed, as I do now, that when Jesus said all were his brothers and sisters, he unequivocally meant all.
Jesus never said “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” unless that person is… Asian or Jewish or black or female or gay. Jesus said all who do God’s will are his family. Time and time again, the scriptures tell us that Christ’s ministry was-is-and-always-will-be about including all people in God’s loving and just kingdom.
The apostle John’s letter to the early Christian church reminds us that:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
Of course, not every Christian takes God’s commandments literally or believes that all are included in God’s grace-filled plans. Like the periods in which the great civil rights movements for women and blacks occurred, we are living in a tumultuous time—an era in which many Christians are once again misusing Jesus and the Bible to dehumanize others, particularly those who aren’t heterosexual.
Unfortunately at this exact moment, numerous Christian pastors—in response to last week’s news headlines—are telling their congregations that those who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered are an abomination, a threat to “traditional marriage and family values,” and a sick and perverse lot. And it’s also likely that a small group of “family values” preservationists are putting their unique and hateful spin on things as they appear on various Sunday news programs. Their underlying message, regardless if it comes from the pulpit or a TV screen, is that GLBT persons are not our brother, our sister, our mother, our father or our family!
That long trodden message of cruelty, fear and hate has caused a lot of heartache and pain for scores of people. And it is counter to Jesus’ words and God’s will for us to live as a covenant family.
What may be worse, perhaps, is that most ministers who support equality for GLBT persons will avoid talking about the topic in their sermons today. It’s too uncomfortable and too risky. Best to not stir up controversy among the parishioners and be quiet.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once said of the civil rights movement for blacks in the 1960s, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
It’s no big secret that the pastoral staff and the Session of this church (believing sexual orientation is not a sin) supports equality for GLBT persons—marriage, civil, ordination and religious. This church has ordained gays and lesbian as elders, and baptized the children of gays and lesbians who were in committed relationships. But this is the first time that I as one of your pastors have addressed the issue of gay marriage and rights directly in a sermon.
I’ve often preached about how we are to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians. But I’ve hesitated from making bolder statements….until I learned a few weeks ago that Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, my alma mater, decided not to make any changes to its discriminatory housing policy. As it stands now, gay and lesbian seminary students in committed same-sex relationships (with or without children) are prohibited from living together in married and family housing on-campus.
The seminary’s housing policy, along with the North Carolina ban on gay marriage; President Obama’s public support of gay marriage and civil rights; and the looming debate in the PC(USA)’s summer General Assembly over striking the traditional definition of marriage from the denomination’s constitution has compelled me to speak out more ardently for my mothers, sisters and brothers in Christ.
No longer can I be silent about the injustice done to people whom simply seek human dignity and equality for themselves, their partners and their families. No longer can I keep quiet about spiritual brothers and sisters as well as friends of mine (some who are members of this congregation who I’ve broken bread with) that are abused because of their sexual orientation. And I can no longer suppress my cries when I witness other faithful heterosexual people (again, some who are church members) suffering because their own gay family members and friends are being mistreated and oppressed.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from a letter he wrote to the PC(USA) following the denomination’s decision last year to allow GLBT persons to be ordained as church leaders:
It is incumbent upon all of God’s children to speak out against injustice… Sadly, it is not always popular to do justice, but it is always right. … I have come to believe, through the reality shared with me by my scientist and medical friends, and confirmed to me by many who are gay, that being gay is not a choice. Like skin color or left-handedness, sexual orientation is just another feature of our diversity as a human family. How wonderful that God has made us with so much diversity, yet all in God’s image!
We are made in God’s image, each and every one of us. The loving people who sit next to us in these pews and whom we interact with in our community are the same loving people day in and day out, regardless of the faithfully committed relationship they share with another adult.
If GLBT persons are good enough to defend our nation in a time of war, rid our streets of crime, rescue us from burning buildings, cook and serve our fast-food meals, sell us clothes, teach our children, go on mission trips and do our taxes, then obviously they deserve our love and support of their rights as human beings and as families.
Surely they desire to be seen not as mistakes but as the loving creations that our almighty God has made. And certainly they long, as we all do, to be called brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers in Christ—all members of God’s family.
So let us be bound together with them and exclaim like Jesus, “Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters!”*
* This sermon was inspired by the following sources:
- “All Are God’s Children” by Desmond Tutu, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/religion-homosexuality_b_874804.html
- “How To Win A Culture War and Lose A Generation” by Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/win-culture-war-lose-generation-amendment-one-north-carolina
- “The Bible Is Not Anti-Gay” by Neely Stansell-Simpson, http://glimpsinggod.com/2012/02/19/the-bible-is-not-anti-gay/
- “Frick and Frack-A Tale of Justice” by Mary Ann McKibben-Dana, http://theblueroomblog.org/2012/04/23/frick-and-frack-a-tale-of-justice/
- “An Open Letter to My NC Kin” by Jan Edmiston, http://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/an-open-love-letter-to-my-n-c-kin/
- “Just Family Values: How Can Christians Advocate Justice for Non-Traditional Families?” by Peggy Campolo from The Justice Project, Baker Publishing Group 2009.
 The Trumpet Of Conscience, a series of lectures delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967
 CTS President Steve Hayner’s memos regarding the seminary’s housing policy, April 20 and April 23: http://rwilliamsonjr.posterous.com/columbia-seminary-housing-memo and http://rwilliamsonjr.posterous.com/steve-hayners-newest-memo
 CTS President Steve Hayner’s memo following faithful discernment, prayer and conversation with students, faculty, alumni and area ministers, May 9. There is hope that the policy will change. http://rwilliamsonjr.posterous.com/cts-announces-commission-to-change-housing-po