A Meditation on Matthew 10:24-39 for St. David of Wales Episcopal Church
When I was in elementary school living in Southern California, I had to cross Pacific Coast highway to get to school. There was a bus stop at the signal where I waited for the crossing guard to usher me across when the light turned green, and on the bus stop bench was a billboard with a graphic of a four-person nuclear family: Dad, Mom, son, daughter, walking into a church and text that read, “The family that prays together stays together.”
My family didn't go to church, and we didn't pray together, and we didn't stay together. But when I felt God pour into my life in my mid-twenties, I didn’t think about the bus stop promise; instead, I was terrified that I was supposed to give up all my possessions and become a nun in response, because even someone who didn’t know anything about God knew what God required of God’s followers. But I was married. A month after my twenty-first birthday, while we were both still in college, my husband and I tied the knot. Having lived through my parent’s divorce from each other, and their divorces from their second spouses, I had vowed never to divorce, so I was going to have to figure out how to follow Jesus without jilting my husband.
Once I began going to church, I wanted the bus stop bench promise in my life. I wanted a life that was easy and perfect – which is what I thought happened when you became a believer. But I heard words like today’s gospel where Jesus says that he didn't come to bring peace, or to bring a happy little family that prayed together and stayed together. Jesus said he came to set family members against each other: parents against children and children against parents; stabbing at the heart of family relationships.
And not only did Jesus come to put a wedge between our primary relationships; he has the gall to declare that if we don't love him more than our parents, or more than our children, then there's really no hope for us. Curiously, Jesus doesn't say anything in this scripture about needing to love him more than one’s spouse. Maybe that’s because back then marriage was arranged, an exchange of property, not an endeavor of romantic love. But in our culture, romantic love is the pinnacle we all aspire to reach, a be-all and end-all that divorce does little to dissuade us of. Despite the four marriages and three divorces of my parents, I had steeped myself in the romantic ideal that finding the perfect mate would fill all the physical and emotional needs in my life. And if I had believed back then that I even had a soul, I would have said my husband was my soul mate. No matter that I was asking the superhuman from a mere human.
And later, when I became a Christian, I did not want to love Jesus more than I loved Kevin; I didn't want to give my husband some sort of sloppy seconds, leftovers of love. And I wanted the bus stop billboard to be true. Because Jesus changed my life; I wanted Jesus to change my husband’s life in exactly the same way as it had mine, so that I wouldn’t have to forge a spiritual path of my own but could, instead, follow one forged by my spouse.
But the parent child relationship is a different matter. Who knows us longer or better or loves us more fully or fiercely than our parents? And who knows our children longer or better, or loves them more fully and fiercely than we, their parents? We see in our first reading this morning just how desperately a parent can love a child, and how that love can drive them to do things that harm others in the name of protecting their children. Why would I want Jesus to become a wedge in those primary relationships?
Families these days are torn apart by so much more, and less, than faith. They're torn apart by divorce, infidelity, imprisonment, financial catastrophe, sibling rivalry, mental illness, and addiction, just to name a few. And these days we can escape our fractured families in ways that our biblical counterparts could never have dreamed up. As children our parents’ divorce, and we move with the custodial parent to a new town or state. We finish high school and get our own apartment, or move in with friends, or go away to college, or join the military. We take jobs outside the family business—if our family has a business. We seek jobs in another state, or on another continent. We go where we will and gather as a family as little or as often as we choose, and we judge those who don't strike out on their own, those who stay and live with their parents beyond a reasonable number of years, as missing out on real life. We have myriad ways to escape the tension and distress of conflicting values.
In Jesus’ time family was community, and disunity could not be ignored for long. Imagine what it must be like to have the organizing principle of your life, which is your faith and belief in God, challenged by those you love and live under your roof. Change is threatening and not often invited, especially for those who are secure in their status and their role in the community and family. How do we react when we’re under threat? Our reptile brain gives us three automatic reactions: we fight, flee, or freeze, which translates into anger, defensiveness, and fear. As long as we cling to status, position, privilege, and power, Jesus’ message is a sword.
I’m not sure how the families in Jesus’ time worked through the conflict that following stirred up – or if they resolved the tension at all. As for me, my journal was filled with prayers asking my loved ones to change, to see and do things my way, which of course, was the right way. It took me decades as a Christian to stop running and hiding from the sword that Jesus’ was waiting to wield in my life. And I only allowed that blade to strike when I was overwhelmed with all the demands and responsibilities that I had created for myself and for those I loved—demands and responsibilities that none of us could always live up to, demands and responsibilities that led to resentment. I had tried everything I could to control the world for myself and the people I cared about, no doubt in part to make up for my own childhood chaos. But my husband’s money and my worry and our problem-solving skills and our devotion to helping were not enough to make everyone inside our family circle happy, we could not keep our loved ones from pain and loss and hardship. It’s not that I thought I was as powerful as God. I thought I was being called to act on God’s behalf. Until I didn’t. Until I finally understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from their choices, not even myself, not even with God’s help.
So, after trying to do everything, what could I lose from trying nothing, from surrendering my help or my interference, and truly trusting God with the well-being of my loved ones? It turns out that being severed from all the certainties and responsibilities that defined my identity, and all the expectations and requirements I put on those I loved to support me in my chosen identity, and to live the lives I wanted for them, was not the wounding I had feared, but a healing—for me and for those I loved. Allowing Christ to cleave me from my pattern of rescuing in my family set my loved ones free from my meddling, and allowed them to find, or not, their own faith.
Letting go hasn’t been easy, and earthly life is and was full of tragedy for my dearest beloved. And I often still reach out my grubby hands, trying to take on burdens that aren’t mine as I wrestle with the distinction between caring and enabling. But then I remember that I can’t insist on outcomes, and I put my hands back in my own pockets. In letting go, and loving and trusting God more, my love for my family has increased––not diminished as I once feared.
Twelve years ago, at the height of the Great Recession my husband and I made the decision to accept a severance package from his employer, to sell our home, to leave our nearby family, and our children in college, and to relocate to Washington where we knew no one and had no work. And in that severing from all the earthly measures that defined us, in giving up my life as I knew it, and in no longer running from change and the unknown, I found what I had so desperately been seeking for myself and those I love: the boundless love of a God who is present in all circumstances, who knows me so intimately that all the shedding hairs on my head are accounted for, a God who fills the world with beauty beyond measure, a God whose eye is on the sparrow: the house sparrow, the song sparrow, the rock sparrow, the yellow-throated sparrow, and you and me with our own trembling songs.
My life doesn’t look like the bus stop billboard. My faith and my prayer, and my family relationships are messier and more complicated than that tidy domestic scene. And yet we are held together in real and deep ways that I may never fully understand. And it seems to me now that trying to love Christ more than we love our spouses, siblings, children, and parents, doesn’t mean that we love our family less, as I once feared. It means that we love them more. The more love we have for Christ, the more love we have for others. Love begets love.
Jesus’ sword isn’t meant to destroy us. It is meant to cleave us from the things we cling to that keep our lives small and fearful. He wields the sword so that we might know the promise of abundant life and the truth he came to deliver deep in our bones: We belong to God, and we are beloved not because of anything we might do to earn that love. We are beloved simply because we are.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.