Poet and journalist Sara Miles, whose conversion memoir Take This Bread has just been released in paperback, preached this sermon last summer at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (San Francisco) about an all-too-common misunderstanding of Christian “family values”. Just as in Jesus’ day, “family” is not merely a sentimental tableau; it is a circle of power that defines who possesses status and purity, and who does not.
Jesus says, I’ve come to bring fire to the earth and destroy your family. Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. What’s burning up here isn’t just money, as it was in the Gospel last week. It isn’t just religion, as it was two weeks ago when poor Peter tried to make a shrine to the ancestors to protect him from the blazing fire of the transfiguration. What Jesus is burning up in this reading is the past, and the future of the world as we see it in human terms. He’s replacing it with the fire of the perpetual present: the fire of Christ, the fire of baptism through death. The fire of new creation. He is burning down the house….
In our cold postmodern capitalist world, family sometimes seems like the only place we’re safe. It’s home. It’s love. It’s a minivan full of blond children. But Jesus is not talking about a cozy, affective private household: he’s talking about a system of power.
In Jesus’ time, family ruled as much as the temple did….or the soldiers of the imperial army. Your very name, your identity, was determined by whose son or daughter you were. Your role in life was completely circumscribed by your position in the family. Your freedom as an individual was negligible in the family, and in the network of families that made up tribes and nations. The father ruled the mother, the mother-in-law ruled the daughter–in-law, the elder brother ruled the younger brother.
And central to the construction of family, of course, was who was outside it. Families existed—in fact, just as they do now—to define outsiders. Widows and orphans, illegitimate children—these people had no power, no authority, no place. They were not full humans, because they did not belong to a family.
Jesus is gonna burn that sucker down.
And, to the extent that we still think families are about private life, about controlling boundaries, about maintaining an inside and an outside, they are over. When we think they’re about knowing who isn’t family, who isn’t our brother or sister, they’re over. God wants to smash even our enlightened, modern families, and replace them with something new. Because family, to Jesus, is not just the family you’re born into. Not the family of history, but the whole human family Jesus is born into, the family he remakes in his own image. Family contains everyone who is a child of God. It is love without conditions. And that smashed-up family, the new creation, is what Jesus gives us to live in, once he’s burned down the house of exclusive, man-made families.
Visit Sara Miles’ website for more sermons, interviews, and an excerpt from her new book.