A sermon preached at the Coventry Pride Service, Sunday 10 June, at Coventry Central Hall:
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.’ Mark 3:31-35
Christianity and ‘family values’ are sometimes seen as synonymous. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic often claim that their respect for the institution of family is borne of their deep Christian faith. By family, of course they mean the nuclear family – mother, father, 2.4 children. It doesn’t occur to them that this notion of family is really quite new and very culturally specific. The term itself was unheard of 100 years ago and yet many of these politicians claim a Biblical origin.
For too many the Church is seen as the Institute for Family Values, and the recent decision by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland does nothing to dispel that rumour. Like me, I assume you have friends who might be well disposed towards Christianity, if it weren’t for the Church. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with people who have been made to feel afraid or, worse, ashamed by the Church because they do not fit the prescribed pattern of ‘family’.
How difficult must this story from Mark’s gospel be for the ‘traditional family values‘ crew?! Not only does the Church have to contend with an unmarried Saviour, but one who refuses to conform to the cultural norms about families and relationships of his day.
For Jesus to ignore his mother and siblings wasn’t just a bit rude, it broke the 5th Commandment – you shall honour your father and your mother. To break any of the ten commandments was punishable by death and Jesus knew it. For the family in his day wasn’t just something you grew out of – it was your welfare state, old age pension, health service and place of worship. Still today, the tradition of the Jewish home as the MAIN place of worship and faith remains.
So why is Jesus openly at odds with cultural and religious expectations? Because he understood that family, culture and religion are not universal goods. As well as providing security, the family also enshrined patriarchy and maintained a structure where women could be treated as property and virtual slaves.
Those of us who are LGBTQ+, know this scenario all too well. Family is a term has been used as a stick to beat us with because we don’t fit the ‘norm’ that is designed to exclude us. I wonder who many people herehave been ostracised, penalised and victimised by strict and particular definitions of family. Thirty years ago, the Thatcher government introduced section 28 and defined our love as not even ‘pretended family relationships.’ I recognise that, for some of us, that taint on the term 'family' cannot be removed and so we cannot claim it for our own. I respect that.
Jesus is not trying to destroy the family with his words and actions – he is seeking to show how patriarchal culture and religion have weaponised family to oppress and exclude. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus ‘runs’ into women as we wanders from place to place. The truth is, they were always there, it’s just he took time to notice and honour them. The same with children and people on the margins – the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know. These people find their way into the New Testament because of Jesus. And these gospel stories become the tools by which we can pull down the walls of oppression and prejudice that still surround us, in church, in family, in workplaces, in our communities.
If we want it, we are offered in this story a redefinition of family – where kinship is replaced by friendship. If there is one quote from Jesus we might know, it is: No greater love has a person than this – that they lay down their life for their friends. In this one line, Jesus makes friendship the highest form of human relationship. And despite centuries of church and culture trying to idolise the ties of family, genetics, tribe, and nationality, we are still confronted with Jesus’ radical question: Who are my mother, my sisters and my brothers?’
For Christians, water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism create new families, new covenants, new responsibilities bound together by love. Many of us here tonight have had to create new families of our own – intentional places we might call home and be loved and protected. Our birth families could not, and cannot, provide the security and nurture that is every single child’s birth-right and so others stepped up.
For me that was both the LGBT community and the Church. In both places I found a welcome and a place to be, and become myself. I found new mother, fathers, sisters, brothers, parents, siblings who accepted me, challenged me, held me and guided me. They gave me new stories to tell and new songs to sing. Without them, I doubt I would be here today. Part of tonight’s service is to give thanks for those parents and siblings who loved us into new life.
It makes me angry, sad, frustrated, that these two communities – church and LGBT - seem so far apart today, and being part of one makes you a virtual outcast in the other. For me, Jesus is a queer icon who gives me the strength and courage and vision to live as an out gay person. Being gay – especially as one born into white, male privilege – allows me some insight into what marginalisation feels like and makes me a much better Christian (I hope).
That’s why I fight for change – it is a fight for my families. I look around this congregation tonight and I can say:
‘Here is my mother, my father, my sisters, my brothers, my parents, my siblings!
has truly loved another,
has fought for justice in the face of hate or indifference,
has found the courage to come out to live their true lives,
has provided a safe place for the victimised and alone,
that is my brother and sister and mother.