14 January | Yours is the Kin-dom

Yours is the Kin-dom 
Texts: Mark 3:1-21,31-35
Speaker: Joel Miller

Back in March of 2020 David Brooks wrote a long essay for The Atlantic called “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”  That title is only slightly misleading.  Brooks isn’t against the nuclear family – a married couple and their kids.  He acknowledges the benefits that have come with less rigid extended family structures.  But he does lay out a pretty good case for why the isolated nuclear family unit is less than ideal.  I won’t recap his whole argument, but do recommend reading the essay.  Here are a few highlights:

The nuclear family peaked around 1960, when over three quarters “of all (US) children were living with their two parents, who were married, and apart from their extended family.”  Today’s reality looks much different, and 1960 was a massive shift from a century before when “roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids” – a much more historically normal arrangement across cultures.  Brooks names the small window of 1950-65 as “a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.”  Yet that’s the ideal that stuck.   

He writes: “If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children… The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.”

The family is where we care for each other.  It’s a place where we relate in non-transactional ways – we don’t swipe our credit card every time we sit down for a meal.  Family units are safety nets.  When one member gets sick, others fill in as needed.  If a member has a disability, they can contribute in other ways without being defined by the disability.  It’s in families that children learn who they are and are given support to become who they might be.  In families, we are free to drop our public persona and, quite literally, kick off our shoes.  Families are messy places, and where we practice unconditional love. 

We need all this so much that when biological families aren’t this for us, whether nuclear or extended, we seek out ways to re-create this through chosen families – or “foraged families,” as David Brooks calls them.

For those of us living in 21st century America, perhaps with some living memories of mid-century 20th century America, reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience.  This is very much the case when it comes to issues of kinship and family.  When Mark notes that Jesus’s mother and his brothers and sisters were standing outside the house where he was staying, trying to get his attention, Mark is evoking a kinship network common to many cultures around the world, but mostly foreign to our own.       

Although we might imagine Jesus as this unattached, wandering teacher and healer, he was very much embedded in a family network, like everyone in his time.  There’s that story early in Luke where the young Jesus gets left behind in Jerusalem as his parents travel back to Nazareth after the Passover festival.  It takes Mary and Joseph a whole day’s journey before they realize Jesus isn’t with them.  This is not a commentary on their poor parenting, but on the nature of extended kinship groups.  Surely he was playing around with his second cousins 100 yards ahead, or hearing stories from his great-uncle-once-removed a hundred yards back.  Maybe helping his great-great aunt carry her load in this large caravan of interwoven kinship bonds.  When they get curious and start looking for Jesus among the relatives, sure enough, he’s not there. 

Both Matthew and Luke list long genealogies for Jesus that speak not only of bloodlines, but storylines.  Who your father is and who his father was is even part of your name.  Like James and John sons of Zebedee.  Or, more directly, Bartimaeus, which means son of Timaeus.  It tells others about your craft, your place in the community, your obligations, even your personality.  It’s not that you’re an individual who happens to be in a family, it’s that the family is made up of persons, and you’re one of them, helping keep the family going from one generation to the next.

When your father is part of your very name, it’s worth noting when the father is the one who goes missing.  Mark 3:31: “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came and, standing outside, they sent to him and called him.”  Scholars have suggested that Joseph’s absence here means he had already died.  They’ve also pointed out that, by mentioning Jesus’ siblings, Mark was apparently unaware of the later church doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.  All this gets repeated just a few chapters later when Jesus is back in Nazareth, his hometown, along with his brothers James and Joses and Judas and Simon and sisters, who don’t get named.  The townsfolk refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary.”  It was not customary – or kind – to refer to a grown man as the son of his mother.  Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience.

So what’s going on here, when Jesus’ nuclear family, minus Joseph, embedded in the larger kingship system, is standing on the outside, trying, through the crowd, to have a talk with Jesus?  Well, Mark already told us a few verses earlier:

“Then Jesus went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”   

Jesus is likely the oldest son, the firstborn, and his father is likely dead, and he has certain obligations to fulfill for his kinship group that don’t involve attracting such big crowds he can’t even eat.  But even with those likelihoods aside, we have a situation in which the entire meaning of kinship, and what it means to be embedded in such a network of relationships, is up for grabs.   

If you’ve been around this congregation for a while you’ve probably noticed that we often do a thing with the phrase kingdom of God.  When we write it, we replace the g in kingdom with a hyphen.  When we speak it, we say “Kin-dom of God.”  One reason is our evolving commitment to gender inclusive language.  Just because empires typically had kings and were called ‘kingdoms,’ doesn’t mean God’s empire is led by a male deity. 

Beyond that, kin-dom shifts the metaphor entirely, while holding true to the core message of Jesus.  Rather than use the language of empire to describe what God is up to in our world, it uses the language of family, an extended kinship network that breaks the bounds of anything previously practiced or imagined.  I think there is some loss in not holding up the kingdom of God as an alternative vision to the kingdom of Rome, and all the political implications that go with that, but we still use that language some too.

This passage in Mark 3 is one of the key foundations of the kin-dom of God.  When Jesus is told that his mothers, brothers, and sisters are asking for him, he does a pretty surprising thing.  He asks a question that seems to have an obvious answer: “Who are my mother and my brothers, and my sisters?”  Well, everyone knew the answer to that, including Jesus but of course he’s doing a Jesus thing and providing new possibilities to old questions.  Mark says he proceeded to look around the room at everyone who was sitting around him.  He’s looking at those sisters and brothers from other lineages, those fathers of other clans, those children of other mothers.  All those eager faces that had crowded in to hear a fresh word and perhaps glimpse a new reality in their lives. 

“Here they are,” Jesus says.  This is my mother.  And you are my sister.  And he is my brother.  I’m family with whoever does the will of God.  Which is to say, the family I’m giving my loyalty to is open to anyone. 

It’s not that Jesus is rejecting his family outside – he cares for his mother even in his dying breath on the cross when he asks John to care for her as if she is his own.  It’s not even that Jesus is going to write a piece for The Atlantic – The Mediterranean? – titled “The extended kinship system was a mistake.”  It’s that he believes kinship is so vital — belonging to one another, caring for one another, having an extensive network of non-transactional relationships and practicing unconditional love – that it shouldn’t be limited to who your father and the town where you were born.   The Kin-dom of God is this all-encompassing reality that effects all relationships, including our bloodlines and storylines.  Maybe Jesus is out of his mind.  Maybe he’s on to something.   

Toward the end of his essay, David Brooks makes a non-profound observation that had more profound implications than I was anticipating.  He notes, unsurprisingly, that there is a direct linkage between affluent nations and the reduction of extended family ties, not just in our biological families, but in the amount of people we share life with in family-like ways.   

Then, he drops this line: “The market wants us to live alone or with just a few people. That way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs.”

It makes me think even more that the Kin-dom of God is the right framing for our time.  Just as Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God as the alternative vision to the primary ordering power of his day – the Roman Empire, so the Kin-dom of God presents an alternative vision to the primary ordering power of our day – Consumer/Conformist Extractive Capitalism.  To be loyal to the Kin-dom of God is to take one’s cues from a different set of priorities than the system that wants to extract everything, including one’s time and energy, for its own profit. 

How dense of a global network of non-transactional relationships grounded in spirituality does it take before the current economic model destroying our planet starts to shift?

Next week Sarah Augustine, a Native American/Mennonite woman from the Pacific Northwest is going to be our preacher.  She’ll be speaking about reverence.  She’ll draw from the next chapter of Mark, chapter 4, in which Jesus speaks of the natural world, seeds and soil, as a revelation of the very thing he’s talking about.  The web of kin-ship in God’s green earth extends well-beyond the human world to everything that sustains life.  The sun, the moon, trees, and air are also our mother, and our sisters, and our brothers.  I think St. Francis had a thing or two to say about that.  What if we actually believed that and lived accordingly?

To only slightly modify Jesus’ first words in Mark: The Kin-dom of God is very, very near.  Repent, and believe the good news.