Family Values*

In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them.
Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)
Mighty to Save
When You Call My Name

Matthew 10:24-39
© Stacey Steck

What a great text for Father’s Day! “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.” Nice, Jesus, very nice. Good recruiting strategy. You’ll gain a lot of followers with that message. Yes, it’s a wonder Christianity ever became as popular as it did with passages like this in its Scriptures. Think about it. The leader of its movement dies a horrible death by public execution. And that is after he has proclaimed hardship for his followers, basically promising them the same kind of persecution he has received, after telling them they must love their enemies, give away everything they own, leave father and mother behind, forgive seventy times seven times, and become the servant of others, just to name a few of the countercultural challenges Jesus has outlined for those who would become his followers. Why are we here? What kind of insane is this religious system?

Well, yes, it does have something to do with that little old thing called the resurrection, which showed that if God had the power to raise the dead, imagine what could be done with the living. But still, it does boggle the mind that people will follow when called to an arduous task. Maybe it is just something about the human spirit. We want to climb mountains even if it means risking death. We are willing to fall in love and get married even if it means risking heartbreak. We follow our sports teams every year knowing that the odds are slim of a championship. We buy Powerball tickets really believing we might actually win! Yes, we can be convinced to do almost anything if the conditions are right, even give up our lives for our friends, the very definition Jesus offered of love.

Or maybe it is that we human beings are just so resistant and stubborn that you can’t tell us what not to do. Are you telling me I can’t climb that mountain? That it’s too tough? Well, I’ll show you! Where’s my Sherpa? Maybe Jesus knows we’ll rise to the challenge because we want to prove him wrong, or prove ourselves capable, or because we respond best when expectations are set high. I don’t know. What I do know is that faith the way Jesus described it is no easy task. It demands a lot for an ambiguous reward. It forces us to place our trust in others and relinquish control. If we are doing it right, that is.

So it’s Father’s Day in these United States, a day we celebrate those people in our lives who have helped positively shape us into who we have become. It is one of those days that has helped define the idea of “family values,” the ideology that the nuclear family – Mom, Dad, 2.3 kids and pets – forms the core of human existence and must be protected at all costs from any threat. On this day, we remember the nurture we have received, the lessons we have learned, and the sacrifices we have benefitted from. We celebrate the hard work of fathers, the wisdom of fathers, and the compassion of fathers. We applaud the faith of our fathers and give thanks for the impact they have had upon us. Many of us owe everything we have and everything we are to our fathers. Fathers are so important, aren’t they? Yes, it’s true.

And the Bible tells us how important fathers are. The Ten Commandments tell us to honor mother and father. The book of Proverbs is filled with a father’s wisdom that children should heed in order to become successful. King David weeps for his son Absalom, wishing he could have taken his place in death. Noah guides his children to safety from the flood. A Roman Centurion begs Jesus for the life of his son. Joseph is willing to risk humiliation to claim Jesus as his son. Fathers are so important, aren’t they? Yes, it’s true.

It’s also true, however that few families fully conform to the ideal picture of the American family that gives rise to the idea of family values. Father’s die sometimes. Fathers are cruel sometimes. Fathers drink too much sometimes and work too hard sometimes and make mistakes and disappoint their children. Fathers stray from the faith sometimes and lack integrity sometimes and just plain fail sometimes. And that’s hard. It’s hard on children. It’s hard on those children’s mothers. It’s hard on our society. It’s hard on the grieving hearts of fathers who wanted to do better. It’s hard on God too, I imagine.

And here, I imagine, is part of what made Christianity flourish despite how demanding Jesus makes it out to be. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value that many sparrows.” Yes, it’s the reminder that although earthly fathers fail sometimes, our heavenly father never does. The people who followed Jesus didn’t all come from nuclear families of Mom, Dad, 2.3 kids and the dog. In fact, probably none of them did, for a great variety of reasons, beginning with the fact that they came from a society that was barely holding its own against an occupying force that kept them in poverty and subject to regular brutality. These were people who didn’t have as much to give up as we might imagine in order to follow Jesus. These weren’t the wealthy and the educated and the enlightened. These were, to borrow the phrase from Lady Liberty, “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” These were the fatherless and the friendless, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised. These were people who had little left to lose, because they had already lost a lot, or never had it to begin with. And so the sacrifice was deemed not so great, and the payoff worth the risk. Following Jesus was better than the alternative.

Is that true for us too? Is following Jesus, through all the hardships he describes, better than the alternative? Don’t answer before hearing again the cost on this Father’s Day. “Don not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” How’s that for “family values?” “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If Jesus’ words were hard back then, how much harder are they in our own time, in a community such as this? I don’t think Jesus is talking here about some purely metaphorical understanding of finding or losing one’s life. I think he is saying that there are real, life-altering consequences for making the choice to follow, and betraying an ideology as deeply rooted as family values.

On Trinity Sunday a couple of weeks I ago, when talking about the fulness and completeness of God’s creation, I added an asterisk to the statement “All Lives Matter” in light of the Biblical reminders of God’s special care for certain groups according to the context and according to their need. So, yes, all lives matter, and black lives matter. Today, I want to suggest that God puts an asterisk on both Father’s Day, and the idea of “family values” in this passage in which Jesus is getting the disciples ready to go out on their mission of sharing the good news. Yes, family is important for our well-being, vitally important. Yes, it’s important for the development of minds, bodies, and spirits. Yes, it’s important for the attachment and security of children. Yes, it’s important for economic stability. Yes, it’s important for all the reasons that are reasons for each one of you. Yes, families are truly important. But they are not more important than the fulfillment of God’s mission of shalom, for fulness and completeness for the whole world. If they were, Jesus would have said something like, “Whoever defends their family without question will receive their reward in heaven.” But he didn’t say that. He said “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Those are tough words to hear. They mean that sometimes we must turn our backs on that vital institution if it is at odds with God’s plan. They mean that the ideology of family values cannot be an altar at which we sacrifice all other forms of human community. Because the truth is that not all families are created alike, and not all families are made up of blood relations, and not all families are allowed to thrive, and indeed, not too long ago in our historical past, certain families were not even allowed to exist because of laws certain other families erected to preserve so-called family values that they had decided were the only ones worth having.

Perhaps you saw the movie a few years back called “Loving,” a beautiful film that detailed the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who challenged the law of the state of Virginia that prohibited the marriage of whites and blacks. For hundreds of years, and until the 1960s mind you, the majority of this country believed that mixed race families were an abomination before God, or at least not worth losing a father or mother, son or daughter, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law over to challenge an unjust system. What they were really saying was that a black man could not be a good father to a child with even a drop of white blood, and that this kind of family purity was more important than the purity of faith. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

The plain fact of this difficult passage is that we read it from a social location that makes it even harder to follow Jesus than it was for those who heard him speak those words to their faces. We are so much more like the rich young ruler who turned away sorrowful because he was rich than we are the man called Legion who sat at Jesus’ feet once the demons had been driven from his mind. We have so much more to lose than the rabble who followed Jesus. But we also have everything to gain, just like them. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my father in heaven.” Acknowledging Jesus, and the demands he makes, means being constantly willing to question every notion we have about ourselves, about our faith tradition, about our values, and even our families. And maybe that makes following Jesus even crazier than back in the first century. But do not be afraid. “You are of more value than many sparrows.” Amen.