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Are You My Mother?

Matthew 12:46-49
David A. Davis
November 14, 2021
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Jesus was speaking to the crowds. He had been teaching and healing all around Capernaum, that fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He was on a roll and had his listeners in the palm of his hand, The crowd was a mix of disciples, followers, interested bystanders, scribes, and Pharisees. They had seen him heal the man with the withered hand on the sabbath. They were listening as Jesus kept saying a lot that was just hard to understand. “No city or house divided against itself will stand…Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters…whoever speaks against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come…For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”

While he was still speaking his mother and brothers were standing outside. They had come all the way from Nazareth to see their brother, her son. It had been too long. When someone told Jesus that his family was at the door, he replied “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And he reached out his arms toward the disciples, the twelve, the ones he had called and invited to follow him. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus stopped speaking and allowed the dramatic silence to hang in the room. Without saying another word, he turned and headed for the door. The people who had been all crammed in close so they could listen, amid the silence, they parted like the Red Sea as Jesus took the steps toward the door. And before he could make it outside, his mother Mary, ran through the entryway and threw her arms around him, kissed his neck, and they both wept. The brothers were right behind her and joined in the group hug. Even in the silence no one could hear what Mary whispered to her son, but some probably could guess. Mary said, “I am so worried about you”. And as the silence in the crowds lingered, that moment of embrace, that moment of emotion, that moment of reunion, the family members weren’t the only ones in tears.

Well, at least that’s how these reunion stories are supposed to work in the bible. You can’t blame a preacher for trying; for trying to make a bit of sense out of a tough passage. Of course, I wasn’t just trying to make sense, I was just making stuff up. The gospel gives no such nod to an imaginative, rosy conclusion to the scene. No, Matthew pretty much leaves Jesus’ mother and brothers out on the front stoop. It’s not just a stop at “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” It’s a hard stop. The narrative moves on. Most editors of translations put a break on the page. The bible does not allow for a rosy denouement.

This rather unexamined and not often preached text from Matthew is repeated both in Mark and Luke. In all three gospels it is an equally straightforward, almost unadorned text. In all three gospels the account ends abruptly with that hard stop. In Luke, the story comes in the middle of a chapter rather than at the end but the editors still put in that extra space afterward and the narrative shifts.  Mark gives a bit of context earlier in the chapter before the puzzling exchange. Mark writes that Jesus’ family ‘went out to restrain him, for people we resaying ‘he has gone out of his mind.’”  Yikes! In Luke Jesus’ last words have a bit of finer point: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Just do it. Snap, Jesus!

A very good friend and colleague of mine in ministry retired early on in the pandemic. Together with a few other clergy friends we have been in a prayer group for more then thirty years. In that group Bill had so many memorable sayings and responses we took to calling them “Bill-isms”. Some of them I could not repeat here but one particular expression of Bill’s seems appropriate to this morning’s topic. Bill was known to say and knowing him he probably said this in a sermon or two in front of God and everybody. “Families, hum, maybe not God’s best idea!!” It is certainly possible that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include this reunion that wasn’t to make us all feel a bit better about our own complicated families. Part of the wonder of the biblical witness and its portrayal of the people of God is how utterly unvarnished it is when it comes to the feeble crew of broken vessels. How utterly unvarnished they…we all are. You. Me. Family.

As I once again read this week of Jesus’ reply to the person who told him his mother and brothers were waiting at the door, Jesus and “Who is my mother?”,  I remembered the children’s book that we used to read to our children. The book is titled “Are you my mother?” It’s a story about a newborn baby bird whose mother goes off to get some food just before the baby breaks out of the egg. The baby bird then goes off trying to find its mother. The bird goes around asking everyone and everything “Are you my mother?” The bird asks animal after animal and then a car, a boat, and plane. Finally, a front steam shovel comes long and the bird know that’s not its mother but the shovel picks up the bird and puts it back in the nest for yes, a reunion of biblical proportions. I read the children’s book again this week, and maybe because I am grandfather now, I said to myself, “this is horrifying! Why did I ever read it to my children?” The whole premise, the fretful newborn bird searching and searching for its mother, it’s a whole lot more unsettling to me now that I stop and think about it.

And to be honest, the more I think about Jesus and “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? the more unsettling it is. It’s not horrifying but it is unsettling. A bit confusing, and even disappointing if you’re in Mary’s shoes. My own understanding of the passage has always hovered around how the primary unit of life together for Jesus is the disciples, those who know themselves to be his followers, the body of Christ. The group referred to in the Book of Acts as the people of the Way. Not just Jesus but the witness of scripture. The Apostle Paul’s “Love is patient, love is kind…” was not intended for marriage it was intended for the community. But when you read Matthew 12:46-50 amid a preaching series entitled “Biblical Stories of Reunion and Restoration”, you can’t ignore the lack of an ending full of embrace here. In Matthew, Jesus family has not been mentioned since they returned from Egypt  in chapter two. Mary the mother of Jesus doesn’t come back until she stands at the foot of the cross at the end of John’s gospel. So yes, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother… those who hear the word of God and do it”, its unsettling and just seems so unlike the Jesus I cuddle up to in my prayers.

Yes, the twelfth chapter of Matthew is full of teaching from Jesus that is hard to understand: sabbath law, demons, exorcists, the so-called unforgivable sin, Beelzebub, judgement, passion prediction, and a wisdom Jesus describes as “something greater than Solomon.” It is just a hard chapter and with “the reunion that wasn’t” exclamation point at the end, my takeaway is that its not just the teaching of Jesus that is hard. The gospel itself is hard. To hear the Word of God and do it. To live and work for the world as God intends and Jesus envisions. To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. To be a servant of all. To love your neighbor as yourself. To serve God and not mammon. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. To take up your cross and follow Jesus. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers”.  It is an unsettling exchange there in front of the crowd and in front of the church and in front of you and me. An unsettling exchange that screams off the page a reminder that this living life as a disciple was never intended to be all that easy.

A text came in this week from a pastor a whole lot younger than me. A former student who was ordained just before the pandemic began. The text thread started this way “The rule of death coming in threes is out the window. We at seven and counting.” To which I responded, “in a week?” “No, in a month and half that feels like just about a week in COVID time.” The thread went on. Then I read “this job is not for the faint of heart.” “Nope” I texted back, “but I don’t’ think I ever told you it was.”

You and I have been claimed, immersed, surrounded by a gospel defined by the grace, the mercy and love of God made known in Jesus Christ. We are recipients of an unwavering, unfaltering, never-failing gift of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. We are heirs to the very promise of God, a promise of abundant and eternal life. You and I, we know that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!

And with “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother… those who hear the word of God and do it”.  With that once and always unsettling response from Jesus, it must be Jesus letting you and me know that it all, this all, this life of faith, this walk with Christ, this call to discipleship, it won’t all be easy. It’s can’t all be easy. Jesus never said it would be easy.

It’s not terrifying but it is unsettling because I know it won’t be too long before I again say to Jesus in prayer, “Why does it have to be this hard?”  And he’s going to say, “Did I ever tell you it would be easy?