A reflection on Proper 5, Year B Mark 3:20-35 by the Rev. Margaret Rose
A week ago I participated in the funeral in Atlanta, of a long time mentor, Burgess Carr. Burgess, originally from Liberia, had been a professor of mine in seminary and later was the preacher at my ordination some thirty years ago. He was an Episcopal priest and pastor. But his real claim to fame was that he was the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in the 70’s and helped to broker an early peace agreement in Sudan. He also called on the African churches not to accept Western money but challenged them to become independent and set their own agendas. By the 80’s though, he was living in the United States where his work included not only the university setting, but parishes, and United Nations agencies where he continued to advocate for peace and reconciliation in Africa and elsewhere. All that however, is background to the funeral at the Cathedral in Atlanta where he lived at the time of his death at age 76. When I arrived I went to the parish hall where the family had been directed to gather. When I got there, I thought I must be in the wrong place. This must be where the whole congregation is meeting before the service. More than a hundred people were there. I said hello to Burgess’s wife and his five children who I knew, but as I listened, I heard the others speaking to each other, “Uncle, could you tell me where to find some water.” “Oh Auntie, let me be with you.” “Mama, brother, sister”. All were forms of address to the others in the room. I knew they were not all biologically related. But this was family. There was no doubt. And they knew it. Certainly, part of this was culture—African and Liberian culture. Part was tribal. And Burgess did have a large family--- children, sisters, brothers…
But this was also a profoundly baptismal gathering. The people gathered to say good bye to Burgess Carr knew they were bound together in Christ, by the water of baptism, a bond which no amount of dysfunction can break. The funeral indeed was a family affair, full of the celebration of accomplishment and the sadness of loss and included those who gathered in the parish hall and called one another brother and sister and uncle and aunt as well as those who came from farther afield-- his parish family and folks like me whose lives were changed because of his presence.
I tell this story because it is, I think, what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text for today, even though we have to dig a bit to get there. Let’s go back to Mark’s Gospel:
Jesus is taking the country by storm, crowds are calling him Messiah and the religious authorities fear he is inciting an insurrection. Just in the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, John, himself, already suspected of insanity with his coat of camel’s hair and eating wild locusts. Jesus has healed a leper, taught in the synagogues and fought with the Pharisees about what is proper on the Sabbath. He’d healed a man with a withered arm, chosen twelve disciples who leave families to follow him, and taken on a regular practice of sitting down with tax collectors and sinners and in what may have been the last straw, eating the bread of the Sabbath. The crowds were like a mash pit at a rock concert coming in closer to see who this man is, wondering what in the world he is about and telling the news about the country side.
The religious authorities were concerned. To give them their due, it was a time of religious confusion, one with epilepsy was often seen as possessed by a demon. There was fear everywhere that Beelzebul—or the House of Ba al would take over. Anyone drawing such a crowd was distrusted. What was authentic they wondered. What is real?
And in addition to the miraculous healing, Jesus was naming the financial corruption about the leaders, and addressing this evil head on.
Back in Nazareth, his family, when they heard about all this, were concerned that he had lost his mind. Mary of course knew that he was a little different from other folks. She and Joseph had already had that experience in the Temple when he was 12 and ran off to be teaching with the scribes and other rabbis. But this seemed a little over the edge. The Greek translation of this text suggests that Jesus’ mother and brothers set out, either to see for themselves what the heck is going on, or maybe even to do what we today would call an “intervention”. I can imagine them thinking,“ He has gone of his rocker; we know he has special talents, but what he is doing is not safe! We are going to have to get him out of there.” They arrive at the house where Jesus is and can’t even get in. So they send a messenger to say they are there, and Jesus pays no attention to them.
As a parent, you might hope that your child would realize the worry of a family and at least come to reassure you . But no. He stays put. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around, he indicates the crowd inside. “Here are my mother and my brothers as are all who do the will of God.”
I have always been a little annoyed at Jesus when I read this text. I feel bad---and not a little kinship with his mother and his brothers when they are left on the outside of the crowd. Jesus was not a family man. Those who call on Jesus to be the model of so called “family values” have not read scripture closely!
His response, in fact called the whole of Jewish culture into question. Family, bloodlines, history were formative from generation to generation. The bond of family was unbreakable and often condemned one to shame and guilt for generations past and allowed for wealth and power for the future. Jesus, steeped in and faithful to this culture, relativizes this biological bond and the choke hold it could sometimes have on relationships. Just as he exposed the corruption of laws which once created community, he questioned taboos of eating, healing and the corruption of Sabbath laws. Jesus invited the people gathered to see and know family in new ways. It was not just the mother and brother he had grown up with, but all were to be called brother and sister. Doing the will of God meant to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, beyond the bloodlines.
I still feel bad for Mary. She had suffered so much. But I suspect we would not be reading this passage, if Mark had written that Jesus went out to reassure his mother, then returned to preach the message of caring to the crowd.
I remember a children’s book I used to read to my daughters called, “Are You my Mother?” where a confused baby bird asks cows, and cats, animals and planes and even a steam shovel the big maternal question. The bird is finally reunited with the mother and his nest. For the young child, the book reassures that one’s mother is always there to claim us, as it should be. But for us, we are in a sense Mothers and Fathers and Sisters and Brothers for each other.
Which reminds me of the funeral last week, but even more to life in Christian community. It does not mean that we ignore our biological families. They are a part of our responsibility too. But it is through baptism that we claim that Water binds us in as deep a commitment as blood. That is not always easy. Christian community or “family” is often as dysfunction as those we grow up with. Yet Jesus calls us to have this broad view and care for one another as if each were a sister, a brother, a father, a mother.
And empowers us to answer Yes, to those who ask.