You Are Kin to Me
There is a priest in this diocese who was once a regular on the supply circuit, and I could always count on him to get along well with the members of whatever congregation he was serving. Whenever I would call him up and ask him to preside at Sunday services in Stuttgart, Helena, Marianna, or any number of congregations across the diocese, his response was almost always something like, “Sure! I’d love to. It’ll be good to see them. You know, they’re all my kin.” And he wasn’t lying. When I visit these congregations I will inevitably get pulled aside and asked how this particular priest is doing, because, “you know, he’s my cousin.” And when I ask about how, exactly, they’re related, I’ll get some drawn out–kind of fuzzy–explanation of the family tree. What I’ve learned, though, is that those specifics don’t really matter. It’s simply the fact that they’re “kin” to one another that sets their relationship apart. Because of this kinship, they care for one another in a certain way, or more specifically, they have a responsibility to care for one another. And they live that responsibility out by asking me, a mutual acquaintance, how their kin is doing. It’s also a way for them to connect with me. If I’m friends with their kin then that makes us kin too, in a way, right?
It’s kind of like the “who-do-you-know” game we all play when we first meet someone. “Oh, you’re from Conway? Well, you know I went to Hendrix. You did too? And you also lived in Hardin Hall? Did you ever have Dr. Farthing for Latin? Remember how he would always hold his glasses like this when he was trying to make a point?” You know how the conversation goes. And after a few minutes swapping stories, your “level of kinship” has increased. If you liked Dr. Farthing and I liked Dr. Farthing (maybe Latin not so much), then that says something about who we are, as people. And now, our responsibility to one another has increased by way of this proxy relationship. When I see you in the parking lot, I owe you a handshake or a fist bump, or at least a nod, because you mean something to me now. We’re “kin,” in a way.
A story about kinship is what we get in today’s lesson from Mark. After Jesus characteristically spars with the scribes a bit, members of the gathered crowd tell Jesus that his mother, brothers, and sisters are looking for him. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus famously replies. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Thus, the true kindred of Jesus are not defined as such biologically, but rather spiritually. This was actually a pretty bold idea. The Bible is rife with genealogies. The foundation of the Jewish culture was largely build upon blood relationships. Families had ties to specific tribes in Israel, and loyalty and obedience to that lineage was essential to maintain social order.
This is actually one of the sayings of Jesus that has maintained its emotional impact through time. Hereditary connection is still important in our society today. Who we are kin to matters.
My dad is a genealogy buff and is always emailing newfound information about distant family ties. Last Christmas he gifted my two sisters and me Ancestry.com subscriptions accompanied by those saliva collection cotton swabs so you can sample your DNA and mail it off for evaluation. If you’re lucky, the results might reveal a long lost relative or two. A couple of years ago he thought he had determined that we were a “Mayflower Family,” that is, some of our ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. But after some more digging–and disappointment–he’s not so sure anymore. Interesting? Yes. Relevant? I don’t know. I do think that the excitement we tend to experience about possibly being part of a famous ancestral line does reveal something about human nature. Our mythology is practically based on the unassuming-commoner-discovers-royal-heritage trope. Think King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, or more recently, the young adult Percy Jackson novels. For that matter, even the authors of the gospels go out of their way to tie Jesus to King David, legitimizing his place of importance within the Jewish culture.
So, Jesus’s seemingly dismissive words about his mother, brothers, and sisters unsettle us just as much as they did those in the crowd that day. But the key to understanding here involves turning the story around a bit so as to see it from another angle. Jesus isn’t disowning his blood relatives at all, rather he is asking the crowd (he’s asking us) to imagine that our blood relatives are one another–everyone here gathered in his name. Jesus is asking us to apply this same love, attention, and loyalty to those relationships as we would any that turn up after a DNA swab.
The implications of this perspective are truly mind-boggling, particularly in the context of today’s divisive social climate. When a relative is in pain we respond. We attend to their needs. If we are at odds with a relative we try to reconcile, as difficult as it may be. Sometimes this means making an effort to change our own behavior. Failing to care for these relationships ultimately causes us pain–any psychologist will tell you as much. Now, extend that same sense of responsibility across racial, socio-economic, and political borders. If we actually did that, we’d have a changed world.
Jesus’s words in today’s gospel are so emotionally striking not because he is dismissive of family, but because he’s asking us to expand our family, and that means redefining kinship as we know it. Like those parishioners in Marianna, Stuttgart, and Helena, I doubt that Jesus is all that interested in the specifics of family trees or what a search on Ancestry.com might turn up. It’s enough simply to know that we are “kin.”
I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and I’m reminded of a tradition our congregation had. After the pastor said the blessing at the end of the service, we would join hands across the isle with our nearest neighbor–blood relative or not–and sing the first verse of a hymn: “Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love; / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above.”
Proper 5, Year B