Sermon for 06-06-10: “Relatively Speaking, Part 6: God’s Family”

Sermon Text: Mark 3:31-35

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The following is my original manuscript with hyperlinks and footnotes.

Here’s a remarkably good news story out of Connecticut a couple of months ago. A woman named April Capone Almon, the 35-year-old mayor of a town called East Haven, population 30,000, donated one of her kidneys to a friend—well, a Facebook friend; one of more than 1,600. And she only barely knew the recipient of her kidney. The man who needed the kidney, a 44-year-old father named Carlos Sanchez, put out a desperate plea on Facebook after none of his family proved to be a donor match. His life was in jeopardy. He didn’t expect any success. He certainly didn’t expect the mayor of his town to respond! The mayor responded, got tested, and was a match. And she gave her kidney to him.

O.K., O.K…. I know what you’re thinking. She’s a politician who was running for reelection. It’s all about winning votes and good will and sympathy. But not so fast. She was running for reelection, but she kept the whole thing secret until after the election was over. She did say that she won Sanchez’s vote! I should hope!

Everyone was surprised by the mayor’s loving and selfless action. Why did she do that? The story challenges me: Would I do it under those same circumstances? If I agreed to donate a kidney, for whom would I do it? Would I do it for a family? Yes. A good friend. Sure. Would I do it for a parishioner? If you’re really nice to me! A casual acquaintance? Hmmm… Someone I only kinda sorta know through Facebook? Um… The truth is I really, really would prefer to keep both my kidneys. What if my remaining kidney went bad? What if I needed that other kidney? What if I died? Something about what this mayor did feels… a little crazy. I think that’s the right word.

In today’s scripture, Jesus’ family thinks he’s gone crazy—as v. 21 of Mark 3 tells us. It’s hard for us to imagine why Jesus’ family felt this way. Jesus was becoming famous—and of course in our culture being famous is its own justification, as tedious celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan constantly bear witness. This wasn’t true back then. In Palestine of the first century, family was everything. Jesus should have been back home in Nazareth, living with his mother, brothers, and sisters, running his father’s carpentry shop. Not doing this… In our day, by contrast, if you’re full-grown man living with your parents, then we think something’s wrong with you.

Years ago on Saturday Night Live, William Shatner was hosting. There was a sketch in which he was speaking at a Star Trek convention. After fielding one question after another from geeky Star Trek fans about obscure and trivial things related to this or that particular episode, he finally loses it. In exasperation he says, “Would you get a life? Move out of your parents’ basement and go on a date!” Move out of your parents’ basement. I have nothing against Star Trek fans or geeks, by the way. I went to Georgia Tech! I was on the newspaper staff—and there was actually a signed photo in the office of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, the chief engineer on Star Trek. It was signed, “With love, to my fellow engineers.” I love geeks—and everyone is a geek about something! It may be golf or science fiction. I don’t know why one is more socially acceptable than the other!

All that to say, in Jesus’ day, you didn’t necessarily want to move out of your parents’ basement. You wanted to live with and work alongside your family of origin. To do otherwise was very weird, very shameful. By leaving his family, moving away from home, and acting in a way that was contrary to his good upbringing as a carpenter’s son, Jesus was doing something completely out of character. It didn’t make any sense—unless Jesus was crazy.

To make matters worse, when Jesus is told that his mother and his brothers are outside asking for him, he replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he looks at the men and women gathered around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my mother and sister and brother.” Jesus is saying, in other words, that there is something more important than the most important thing in the world.

And that something is obedience to the Father—being committed to doing the will of God our Father. And something about that seems crazy in the eyes of the world.

The Greek word that Mark uses in verse 21 that’s translated as “crazy” or “out of one’s mind” literally means “to be beside ourselves.” It means to be off-center. Jesus seemed off-center, but only because the world’s values were all messed up. The world’s values were so off-center that it seems like someone whose life is properly centered on God is the one who’s crazy!

Do you think that’s true today? Are the values of our world off-center?

I think so. Let me give you one small example. I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times this week written by the author of a book on late-life divorce—couples who divorce after decades of marriage. This article was written in response to the news that a celebrity marriage—Al and Tipper Gore’s—was coming to an end after 40 years. There’s something sort of shocking about a couple divorcing after being married so long. The writer was essentially saying, “Hey, it’s no big deal.” Couples who divorce after being married so long have few regrets about doing so. They often get divorced because they sense that it’s their time; they need to take control of their lives and be free. They need to find themselves—and they can’t do that by being chained to this person.

Now—I’m not judging the Gores’ marriage. As I said last week, I think the best Christian understanding of marriage is that divorce should be available as a gracious option of last resort. But in this article, which was about people in general, there was no mention of a marriage vow to stick together through good and bad until we are parted by death. There was no mention of the higher calling of living under a covenant made between God, the church, and ourselves. There was no mention of promises made or promises broken. These things weren’t even a consideration in this most crucial question of divorce. Why?

It’s as if the values of keeping one’s promise, being faithful and true, being patient and long-suffering, being more committed to the welfare of the other instead of being self-centered don’t even rate anymore. It’s instead about looking out for number one; it’s about getting out while the getting’s good; it’s about getting what we can while we can, because life is short and then you die. And nothing’s worse than being dead, because after all… Nothing happens after that!

Instead of being properly centered on God, our world is off-center—and I fear that we Christians often don’t even comprehend the many ways that that’s true. Before I sit too tall in the saddle of my high-horse, I fall victim to being off-center, too. I’m not saying I have it all figured out.

Last week I had dinner with two old college friends, one of whom, John, converted to Buddhism many years ago. Unlike me, my other friend Mike hadn’t seen John in several years. We used to all be in the Baptist Student Union at Georgia Tech 20 years ago. Mike said to John, “So you’re still a Buddhist.” John said, “Yeah.” Mike said, “Do you go to a temple?” John said that he hadn’t been in a while or doesn’t go very often. “But you meditate, right?” “Yeah.” “And do you have a regular time when you do this each day?” John said, “Well, I should but I don’t.” To which my friend Mike said, “Hey! You’re just like us Christians!” See, it’s good for people of different faiths to celebrate what they have in common!

We often know what we need to do to be more properly centered—daily prayer and Bible study, weekly worship at church, proper stewardship of the gifts that God gives us, service and witness to the world—but it’s hard sometimes to live it out.

We were created to live our lives centered on God. Jesus knew this. He was the most centered person who ever lived. Just before today’s scripture Jesus had a confrontation with some religious experts who accused him of being in league with the devil. So being centered on his Father meant experiencing opposition and rejection from the two groups of people that should have most eagerly embraced Jesus’ message and ministry: his family, who was supposed to understand from his birth that Jesus was going to be Messiah and Savior, and religious authorities, who were supposed to know their Bibles and expect this Messiah and Savior.

Because the gospels are not written like a modern novel, we don’t get many reports about how Jesus felt about his family and his fellow Israelites rejecting him. Do you think that this was personally painful to him? Of course it was. Jesus was every bit as human as you and me. But what’s amazing to me is that he didn’t let his feelings stand in the way of doing the right thing, what he needed to do, of doing what God wanted him to do. He didn’t second-guess himself. He wasn’t plagued by self-doubt. He didn’t say, “Hmm… If these smart people think I’m wrong, maybe I’m wrong.” Or, “I can’t stand for people to misunderstand me or not like me or not accept me. What can I do to make them happy?”

Jesus’ life wasn’t centered on pleasing other people. He never tried to make people like him. He felt no pressure to try to fit in. Jesus’ life wasn’t centered on worldly definitions of success or personal ambition. There were times when the crowds loved him and wanted to be near him, and times when the crowds abandoned him in droves, but he seemed perfectly content to let it happen. He never let other people and other people’s anxiety dictate what he chose to do. Jesus’ life wasn’t centered on security. Instead, he willingly chose a course that led him to the cross because it was the right thing to do. He could so because he trusted in his heavenly Father whose eye is on the sparrow and who numbers every hair on our head.

Jesus’ life was centered on his Father and doing his Father’s will.

On Friday the world lost someone who was better at living this centered life than most: John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach who won 10 national championships in the space of 12 years between 1964 and 1975. He had an 88-game winning streak. He coached Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among other great players. He was a deeply Christian man—and not surprisingly there was something that seemed to the world’s eyes a little bit crazy about him.

John Wooden with one of his championship teams. (From the New York Times.)
He insisted on not only teaching his players how to be more successful in basketball than anyone else, but—more importantly to him—how to be successful in life. He taught them principles based on his Christian faith called the “pyramid of success.” During halftime, instead of discussing X’s and O’s, Coach Wooden might instead talk about enthusiasm or some other principle on the pyramid that the players weren’t living out.

One former player, Marques Johnson, said that when he came to campus, he thought, “Pyramid, shmyramid.” He only cared about knowing where the next party was, and where the girls were. “I didn’t want to hear anything about principles and living a life of integrity at that time. But as you get older, and you have kids, and you try to pass on life lessons, now it becomes a great learning tool.”1

Abdul-Jabbar said that with Wooden there “was no ranting and raving, no histrionics or theatrics. To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith. He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence. Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything. Sounds a little like today’s scripture, doesn’t it? He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents. In essence,” he said, “he was preparing us for life.”

Maybe that seems a little bit crazy by today’s standards?

To me, that’s a pretty good picture of imitating Jesus, living a life centered on doing our Father’s will.

Are you centered?

1. Frank Litsky and John Branch, “John Wooden, Who Built Incomparable Dynasty at U.C.L.A., Dies at 99,” The New York Times, A26, 6 June 2010.

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