In high school, my friend Allyson referred to her family as the Keatons, that family at the heart of the sitcom Family Ties. Near as I could tell, her family had very little in common with the Keatons: her mom was a caterer, not an architect the way the Meredith Baxter Birney character was. There were only two kids in her family, not three (and then four) like the Keatons; and my friend Allyson was the oldest, not Michael J. Fox. But, she saw the similarity, which was this: in the 1980's, her family stuck together, when so many families don't.
They say my generation was the first to experience divorce in significant rates. Now, of course, it's a much more common occurrence. Which doesn't make it any more heart rending. Like Allyson, we know that healthy families can be incredible gifts, who love and support each other unconditionally, and care for each other through thick and thin. And I don't just mean traditional, two-parent, two-point-three kid families, either. Families take on a myriad of structures today - with or without kids; with different combinations of parents, stepparents, grandparents; caring for different arrays of young people, old people, and others. When they are healthy, they are incredible blessings.
We are all too aware of the opposite - of families where abuse reigns, or addiction. Families stressed to the limits; families that cannot function, let alone nurture. In college, I had a friend who was the opposite of Allyson - Dan. His parents had stuck together through a rocky marriage, for his sake, they told him. And so they heaped up their miseries on him. We, his friends, wished he had experienced something better, wished he had had a stable, loving family.
Which makes it all the more jarring when Jesus threatens to cast them asunder. We are left wondering - where is the Good News in what Jesus is telling us? Isn't there enough division in the world? Isn't the Church supposed to be about family values?
In a word, no.
The Church is supposed to be about the Kingdom of God. Which loves and supports each other unconditionally, and cares for each other through thick and thin. It's about sharing that love with others, no matter what their circumstance. It's about helping everyone become the person God created them to be.
And yes, that can sound like a what a healthy family does. But it can provide that to anyone - care for anyone, support and encourage anyone, regardless of who they are. God's scope is wider. God wants us to care for those outside our immediate family, outside our immediate parish. God wants us to care for those who have no family to care for them. God wants us to be supported in our individual ministries, in the things God created us to do and to be. And, if a family doesn't support that, God wants us to know we are loved.
This is the Good News in today's Gospel, believe it or not. Because the world is filled with people who do God's work, despite their family's objections. People who become teachers or advocates for the poor and marginalized, despite their family's hopes that they might do something more lucrative. People who chose ways of life that isolated them from their families, because of who they loved or what they did. People who stayed single when their families wanted them to have traditional married lives with kids; people who married people whom their families did not approve. From The Jazz Singer to Billy Elliott, this is the stuff of movies, because it is true to everyday life.
This is the good news for those people: if doing what God calls you to do causes hurt, it doesn't mean God doesn't love you. Let me state that more clearly: if you are being abused - physically or emotionally - it doesn't mean that God doesn't love you. If you are in a family where you are told you are worthless, it's a lie. Because God loves you. And if you are in a family where believing that God loves you causes others to hate you - God loves you still.
Because, let's face it, God understands weird family dynamics. We need look only as far as the story of Abraham. It has all the stuff of a modern family drama, or a reality TV show: a man who had children with two women (one his wife, one his wife's slave), rivalry and jealousy between the two mothers, which gets projected onto their two children. And when Sarah asks Abraham to send her rival away, God assures Abraham that it will be okay.
So, here is the Good News in that: God looks out for us in spite of weird family dynamics. God did not hold it against Abraham, he did not hold it against Sarah, and he certainly did not hold it against Hagar and Ishmael. God provided for them, and fulfilled the promise to make them great. God gave them food and water, when things seemed at their bleakest. Even when their own family rejected them.
People sometimes refer to their church as a family. If we are, we have no end of weird family dynamics. But my hope is that if we are a family, we are the healthy kind. The kind that welcomes everyone, and loves them. The kind that forgives, and cherishes. The kind that cares for the sick and the frail. The kind that builds up. The kind that welcomes new friends to the table, and nourishes them as we are nourished. The kind that restores and strengthens all its members to do God's work in the world.
We don’t have to pretend that we are a perfect sitcom family, whose conflicts all resolve in half an hour, with time for a commercial. We are the people of God, with our own unique foibles and characteristics. Let us not deny that. Let us remember that we are loved. Let us gather at this table and be fed, and prepare to do God’s work in the world.