Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
I discovered my love for communion while I was a student at Union Seminary in New York. I can remember when the worship team at Union’s chapel asked me to serve communion. I originally declined because I thought, I most definitely am not holy enough to serve communion. They assured me that serving communion wasn’t about being “holy enough” to hold the bread and cup, but about being willing to “feed God’s people” at a table that wasn’t just for the “holy,” but open to all. Being so well fed by that affirmation, I fed God’s people with the biggest smile that day.
Now I must admit, my love for communion was partly about feeding God’s people, but truthfully it was also about eating some really, really good bread! Struggling to live in Manhattan on a work-study budget, freshly baked artisanal bread was not in my budget. And let me tell you, Union would get their communion bread from a local bakery freshly made that day, a golden brown nice crust on the outside with a soft inside with just the right combination of density and air pockets. As a no-carb-left-behind kind of guy, that bread was GOOD. I finally understood Psalm 34’s command to taste and see that the Lord is good. Yes, yes, yes. And to top it off, the uneaten bread was distributed after service and I knew that with a good piece of bread, this broke grad student could go to the cafeteria and get the $3 soup and salad special and still have change left from a $5 bill to treat myself to a $2 slice of Tiramisu.
Communion service at Union was always on Thursday in the chapel, and it tended to be more traditional than the other more experimental services. However, on this one Thursday as I entered the chapel with a fellow seminarian, we both looked at each other quizzically. There were no chairs setup, there was no communion table, and most of the lights were off. Just as we stood there looking at each other, music started to pour fairly loudly out of the chapel’s speakers. Not hymns, not gospel songs … but J-Lo. Yes, J-Lo, Jennifer Lopez, Jenny from the Block. There was no opening litany or prayer of invocation, just J-Lo followed by top-10 pop & urban hits from the time.
Now having just left our systematics class dealing with German theologian Karl Barth’s 14 volume publication on church dogmatics, my friend and I enjoyed the music and eventually started to dance until we glanced to the right and there was our systematic’s professor standing there. He was not dancing. And I think he nearly fainted when someone came around holding a tray of cookies and punch and said “body and blood of Christ.”
The music did stop, and as the lights came on the looks on faces were those of confusion, disapproval, shock, and some disgust. Out walked a dear friend of mine, Mykal Slack, who was the chair of Union’s queer caucus. I thought, wow maybe he has gone too far this time. And I know what you are thinking, no it wasn’t just because there was no artisanal bread with a nice crusty outside and soft inside with a perfect combination of density and air. No, perhaps he had gone too far because we all knew that communion Thursdays were for the traditionalist. If there was any day not to be experimental, it was communion Thursday. However, discomfort was exactly what Mykal wanted people to experience. Mykal wanted those gathered to feel what many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people felt walking into churches all over this country – discomfort, unwelcomed. Mykal pointed out that for many LGBTQ youth who had been exorcised from their homes, churches, and families … the clubs in Manhattan ended up being for some of them a place of community and acceptance…a place of family... a place of communion. While I do not remember Mykal’s entire sermon, it remains one of the most impactful. What resonated with me was that to make religious spaces places where all siblings of Christ are truly welcomed, some disruption of the status quo is sometimes necessary.
Speaking of disruption, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” are the words uttered by Jesus in our text for today. To give a little more background to this text, earlier in Chapter 3 we find Jesus disrupting spaces like always. Chapter 3 starts with Jesus visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath. There he finds a man with a shriveled hand. Knowing that the law demanded no work on the Sabbath, Jesus asks: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” When people remained silent, the text states that “Jesus looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.” Jesus decides to prioritize the care and well-being of a human being in need over religious laws and traditions, so he heals the man. Jesus points out what is tradition is not always the same as what is good or life affirming.
After healing the man’s hand, Jesus continues on healing people and soon crowds follow him and his reputation spreads far and wide. Chapter 3:21 tells us that even Jesus’ family, once they heard the news, thought Jesus was out of his mind, so in verse 31, our text for today, Jesus is sitting in a crowd when his mother and brothers come to check on him… and perhaps talk some sense into him. Now let’s be clear about the composition of the crowd. Chapters 2 and 3 of Mark both give us pictures of the crowds surrounding Jesus. They are the sick, the handicapped (in a time where there were no Disability Rights Laws), and other social and thus moral outcasts. Put differently, the crowds are composed of the marginalized. Or to borrow from the words of Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, “The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.” However, it is exactly those “nobodies” that Jesus calls his brothers, his sisters, his mother … his family! It is with those at the margins of respectability, the margins of acceptance, and the margins of life that Jesus finds “A New Family.” A new family that extended beyond class, cast and blood ties.
It is often too easy for faith communities to whitewash Jesus’ subversiveness. Jesus’ acts of disruption infuriates the Pharisees whose job, as pointed out by scholar Richard Horsley, was to maintain Israel’s independence and traditions within the Roman Empire over and against both the pressures of assimilation and overt anti-Roman activity that might evoke Roman military action against Israel. Put differently, the Pharisees were all about not rocking the boat too much. But then comes Jesus, bucking both the way of the Pharisees and Roman Empire. Here Jesus comes uniting people at the margins, those expendable in the religio-political worlds of both the Pharisees and Empire. The Pharisees, fearing the growing Jesus movement, figured it was best to collaborate with Herod’s people to murder Jesus, than to allow the Jesus movement to grow into a rebellion that Roman troops would surely have to come in and put down with their military might.
It is Jesus’ bold querying, queering, and disruption of rigid life-negating religio-political norms that I want to lift up on this pride Sunday. I want to lift up Jesus’ willingness to put orthopraxis –right action – over orthodoxy – right doctrine. Jesus’ prioritizing healing, liberation, and justice for the “least-of-these” AS an expression of his spirituality and faithfulness to God. I want to lift up Jesus’ willingness to disrupt unjust ways of relating one to another for the sake of creating a new, more just loving family of God.
In an article for USA Today written a couple of days ago, the author, Ashley Wong, mentioned a guy by the name of Paul Ellis who marched in Pittsburgh’s first gay pride parade in 1973 with just 40 other people, flanked on either side by angry residents holding glass bottles and rocks with only two unhappy police officers for protection. Wong’s article focuses on the increased number of “straight” people now attending massive pride parades and its recent commercialization. Last year over one million people participated in San Francisco pride and attendance in New York’s pride topped 40,000.
Pride parades, which started in 1970 to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots, were first called Gay Liberation marches. They were controversial, radical, and employed many of the same liberationist tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. Wong notes that in the 1980s, gay liberation marches became gay pride parades, and along with it the events became more mainstream. Wong also notes the major legal victories of the 90s and 2000s, but worries the progress made in LGBTQ acceptance is perhaps dulling the importance of the movement given the ongoing issues still facing the community and cloaking the history of resistance that helped achieve that acceptance in the first place.
Another article written this past March by Shashank Rao, of the University of Michigan for Study Break Magazine, titled “What Ever Happened to Gay Pride?” asks the question, is gay pride failing the queer community? While Rao affirms the major wins of the LGBT community and the glittery celebration of modern pride parade, Rao states:
Rao notes that the turn from “gay liberation” to “gay pride” raised some tension between those who identify as LGBT and those who call themselves queer. The former see the term “queer’ as an ancient slur best left to history; the latter perceive “LGBT” spaces as only nominally inclusive when, in reality, they belong mostly to white cisgender gay men. Rao points out the sidelining of white and non-white lesbian, bisexual, and trans voices in the gay rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Roa writes, “having been marginalized inside an already marginalized group, these sidelined voices found solace in establishing queer spaces, where they could have discussions of race, class, and gender in tandem with discussion of sexuality.” Rao ultimately claims that in the new age of political instability, it will no longer suffice to glitter and be gay; it is time to persist and be queer.”
When one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness, most states still don’t offer unequivocal legal protection for LGBTQ-identified individuals and many people in the LGBTQ community bristle at the prospect of adding black and brown stripes to the pride flag to express solidarity with queer people of color, one begins to wonder what the glitter actually means.
I began this sermon talking about food, and I want to end it talking about food. For New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, the radical inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God is made evident in the parable of the Great Banquet as found in Luke 14. In the parable a wealthy man has prepared a feast, at which he then instructs his staff to go and gather the invited guest. The invited guests are too busy to come, so the man then instructs his staff to “go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” There was still room. The wealthy man then gives the instructions “go out to the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”
The Parable of the Feast, as holding some truth about the Kingdom of God, suggests that unlike the Kingdom of Caesar in which societal structures dictate who’s in and who’s out, in the Kingdom of God all are welcomed to the feast regardless of where they are from, what class they belong to, and/or what social stigmas are associated with them. In the Kingdom of God, an invitation is extended across and amidst difference. The radical inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God is made very evident when “female and male, married and unmarried, slave and free, pure and impure, and rich and poor can all be gathered together in open and indiscriminate commensality for the same meal.”
Who are my brothers, who are my sisters, and who is my mother? Here are my brothers, here are my sisters, and here are my mothers, here are my family that rainbow, hodgepodge group of misfits and outcasts – and their allies – gathered around me whose hearts are open to doing the will of God. In this space we create family. We create a space that is not just inclusive, but a space that is transgressive and transformative. Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben wrote, “the spaces, the liberties and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepare a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order.” LGBTQ bodies – or bodies of Christians of any sexual orientation – cannot afford to be complicit with being merely subsumed in the normality of state order. The continued devaluing and exploitation of Mexican families and single adults at the border reminds us of the need for some Jesus-like liberationist acting-up. It’s not enough to talk about protecting Mexican families at the border through a white, middle-class “focus on the family” hermeneutic. Instead, the Gospel of Jesus asks us to experience family beyond our nation-state and nuclear constructs. The subversive gospel of Jesus calls for a decisive rooting of God’s people with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
No I won't be afraid
No I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
Many of us know what it’s like to cry in the dark of the night. To be ousted from community because of who we love and how we love. Many of us know the dark night of trying to hide who we really are, while desiring with our whole beings to truly be seen and known. While others know the dark night of being constantly told to act like a man, or being resented for being a woman who dares to act like a man. We know the dark nights of slurs and teases. But thanks be to God, the Gospel of Jesus places God’s presence right in the midst of the dark…standing, sitting, BEING with those who have been ridiculed, rejected, and oppressed.
So Immanuel, my charge to you is to leave this place today knowing that God loves you. Dare to then let that love shine like moonlight in someone’s dark night. Dare to love and work for justice AS spiritual practice. And dare to love with a fierce, boundary breaking, justice-making, liberating love. Amen!
The Rev. Isaac Lawson is the Associate Minister at Immanuel Congregational Church UCC in Hartford, CT.This sermon was preached at on June 24, 2018. Reprinted here with permission.
The Rev. Isaac Lawson is the Associate Minister at Immanuel Congregational Church UCC in Hartford, CT.