As we started this sermon series on Mary last Sunday, we stopped to think about how many of us packed Mary – along with Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and probably a few farm animals – into boxes and hauled them to the attic just a little more than a month ago. With another Christmas behind us, we packed them away with the rest of the Christmas decorations. And for most of us that’s where we will keep Mary, both literally and figuratively, until around the first of December and those dusty boxes are reopening for another holiday’s decorating. But Mary the mother of Jesus was more than just the mother of Jesus. She was also Mary the worried neighbor for her friends’ wedding. Mary the critic of Jesus’ work. Mary the last disciple at the cross. Mary the disciple praying for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. She, like us, is more than any one moment can capture.
During this sermon series, we’re unpacking Mary and freeing her from the confines of the manger scene. And listening to her story, maybe we can see ways in which our lives can be unpacked from the boxes they get confined to – some role, some past mistake, some success that can’t be lived up to, some category that folks use to define us.
But I should warn you – trying to live outside the box isn’t necessarily received well. Especially by those closest to you.
This past Sunday, when we first met Mary-beyond-the-manger-scene last, she was with Jesus and his disciples at a wedding in Cana. When the wine ran out, she pointed it out to Jesus insinuating he could and should do something about it. It was a conversation that seemed like a well worn mother-son script. When Jesus responded that it wasn’t his time, Mary ignored him, told the servants to do whatever Jesus said. And, even though he had protested, a little while later water was turned into wine.
I suggested that something significant happened in that interchange between Jesus and Mary. Both Jesus and Mary seemed to be stuck in old expectations and routines. When Jesus declared that it wasn’t his time – even though he went ahead and did it is anyway – it defined a new moment in their relationship. Though the old conversation played out, a new conversation had begun. In addition to defining a new moment in the mother-son relationship, by turning the water into wine, Jesus defined a new moment in his ministry. As this was the miraculous sign that revealed his glory.
Today’s gospel lesson takes us to another interchange between Jesus and Mary and includes other members of his family. Though it was written by a different author, from a different perspective, it seems to continue the dynamics we saw in the Wedding at Cana story.
Jesus had been preaching and healing in towns across Galilee and had amassed a significant following. Mark tells us, “A great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, even beyond the Jordan River. And then, he returns home – which is where we pick up the story again.
Again, a large crowd came together to see Jesus, so large that they could not even eat. And then Mark tells us, “When his family heard of it….”
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Jesus heads home and the crowd that follows him is so large that they cannot eat, presumably they don’t have any privacy, or can’t prepare the food because of the crowd. Since Jesus returned home, you would think he would be eating with his family, but apparently he is not, because when his family hears of this they head out to meet him.
Why when Jesus returned to Nazareth did he not return to Mary’s house to eat with his mother and his brothers and sisters? Who is the “they” that could not eat because of the crowd? Is it the disciples? But if so, in whose house are they guests?
Mark tells us that Jesus returned home, but he was not home, at least not at his mother’s home. Is this why Mary and his brothers first came looking for him? Were they brokenhearted as they searched for him? Mad? Disappointed? Confused? Embarrassed? Afraid for him?
We like to think of home as being a “sanctuary.” Home is supposed to be the place where you are safe, where you are loved, where you are always welcome. But we know that is not always true. And even in the best families home can become both sanctuary and prison. Home can be the place that represents being stuck. This can be the case even when parents and their growing children have the best of intentions. Growing up and becoming your own person isn’t an easy thing.
For those of you who are old enough to have done this, have you ever returned to the home of your childhood and slept in your old room and your old bed and suddenly found yourself feeling like you were 16 again? Did good memories flood back as you opened an old high school yearbook? Or when you saw your old letter jacket hanging in the closet? Or did such memories remind you of old anxieties and pressures to fit in? Did you find yourself saying as you put the framed photo of your senior class picture back on the shelf, “But I’m not that person anymore”?
Of course, sometimes parents are the ones who can get stuck. The roles of mother and father, husband and wife, become all consuming, such that the one time savvy businesswoman can no longer think of her identity outside her attachment to spouse or children. For some parents the empty nest is not just a loss of children at home. It is a loss of identity.
The same thing can be true with other identity creators in our lives. Some people keep working far past the age of retirement, not because they need the money, but because they wouldn’t know who they are if they didn’t go to work every weekday. If I’m not an engineer, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a… you name it… what am I? Who am I?
Mary has been known by the portraits, the icons, the frescoes created over the centuries as the Madonna and child – the mother of Jesus. And in real life this is who she was – until Jesus began growing up and claiming his role as Messiah. Then, it meant her role was to change as well. This is the way of parent-child relationships: As the seasons of life change so do the ways we relate to one another. Our connection with our parents and our children is not the same today as it was in the past. And it will not be the same as it is today, as we live into the future.
You can understand why Matthew and Luke, when they were copying Mark’s gospel into their own versions of the Jesus story, left out this scene. Doesn’t look too good. It doesn’t stick to the family values agenda and it certainly doesn’t portray Jesus as the devoted and caring son we might like to think of him as. Mary and his brothers come to get him and restrain him, because…. Well, because they heard people saying, “he has gone out of his mind.” And they believed it.
The verses that conclude this passage feed the fodder that Jesus has lost it. Some tell him, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he replies, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
When people try to keep us in old roles, ages, mistakes, sometimes we respond harshly. “You’re not the boss of me anymore.” “You can’t tell me what to do anymore.” “You’re not my mom and sisters and brothers; these are….”
Mark is correct. Jesus had returned home. But he returned not to the home of his family of origin, but to the home of his family of choice.
And who are these people surrounding Jesus? Who is his family of choice? Looking around him we see a crowd of misfits, outcasts and his relentlessly undiscerning disciples. Theologian Wendy Farley imagines what the crowd would look like in our own time, writing, “We might see the strange bodies of the disabled. We might see soldiers with three-fourths of their bodies burned from a firefight… We might see a group of people reeking of cigarettes and coffee at an AA meeting. We might see a (single mother) with a baby on her hip and two men holding hands or holding their adopted child. We might see scraggy members of a mining community singing old-time hymns. (We might see the glazed over eyes of an addict. We might see children playing in bare feet with runny noses.)
When we think about who is near Jesus, it is not the morally perfect. It is just the diverse mess of humanity, with all of its moral, physical, (and) spiritual beauty and imperfection. The only ones not in the picture, the ones not pressing in at the doors and windows, desperate and aching to be near Jesus, are the ones who think they know what religion and family life if supposed to look like.” “It is an odd feature of Jesus’ ministry that he is open to everybody: Gentiles, Jews, the poor, the demented, the sick, working class, women, tax collectors, sexual outcasts.” Some of the only people who provoke Jesus’ intolerance, and there are very few people who do so, are his family.
While Jesus seems to be rejecting his family of origin, he didn’t say, “I’m never coming home, again.” Instead, he seems to be saying, “I don’t need to be fixed.”
Mary brought his siblings with her to drag him home. In her eyes, something was wrong with him. She was going to fix him, set him on the right path, talk some sense into him. Can’t you hear her saying, “Just come home, Jesus, we can get everything straightened out.”
Mary wouldn’t be the last disciple to think Jesus was off on the wrong path. When Peter told Jesus that he would never suffer at the hands of his enemies and to get such ideas out of his head, Jesus looked at Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind on human things and not on the things of God.”
In this story, we are getting a front row view of Mary trying to transition from mother to disciple. She doesn’t confront Jesus with simply the concerns of a parent, but rather, she comes to him holding all the expectations of the Messiah. On that day when she told her family to follow her across the village, she did so in much the same way as Peter did when he confronted Jesus. Jesus could have easily said, “Get behind me, Mother. For you are setting your mind on human things and not on the things of God.”
Instead, he said it slightly differently – “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sisters.”
And there it is. In that one short sentence we hear the declaration of a son and a savior that he is his own person and that he will not be confined by the boxes that even his closest kin would put him in. And there Mary is too. Letting go of whatever it is she thought he would and should be to see the man and savior that he really is; to see the way to which he was, and is, calling his disciples to live. She doesn’t give up on Jesus, or turn her back on him, because he fails to meet her expectation. She doesn’t withdraw in shame or embarrassment that she didn’t already understand who he really is and what his ministry is really about. And, she doesn’t shut down because he doesn’t allow her to stay simply Jesus’ mother Mary in that box in the attic. The clarity in his identity and calling causes a shift in their relationship. No doubt, those times when we step out to be really seen, just as we are always shake up our relationships with those who think they know us best.
There are times when we all get stuck – we cling to old expectations and old rules and old routines; we define ourselves by one moment, one mistake, one success. Sometimes, we are boxed in by the expectations of others. May the autonomy of Jesus give us hope for ourselves. Might we be bold enough to grow as he did. Sometimes, we are the ones boxing others into a caricature defined by our own expectations and stuckness. May it be that faithfulness of Mary give us hope for ourselves. Might we be both enough to grow as she did. May the Spirit of God infuse each moment, phase, role, and relationship. And may the Spirit blow the dust off the boxes we are confined by so that we might follow in the footsteps of Christ. Amen.