Proper 5, Year B (2018)
June 10, 2018
On Family Systems, Tribes, and the Dynamics of Belonging
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
When Laura Masterson was here last week, offering her powerful sermon on breaking down our tendency to categorize each other, she mentioned to me that she was beginning her Summer session of Clinical Pastoral Education at a local hospital there in Austin. It made me think back to my time in CPE for a Summer at Grady Hospital and for two years as a hospice chaplain. Those were interesting days.
CPE is one of those spaces where the truth of things manifests itself quite easily—as in it becomes clear pretty fast that so much of our own struggle with people and our own resistance to growth, you might say, is rooted in our family dynamics. It turns out that there is something to those “mommy issues” and “daddy issues,” and it turns out that carrying a title like “Father” makes one prone to catching a lot of flack for unresolved family issues. It also turns out that carrying a title like “Father” makes one prone to inflict a good bit of harm if one isn’t aware of oneself—or, I would say, if there isn’t some contemplative grounding to keep a careful watch on one’s ego and grasping.
One of the tools that we use in CPE is called a genogram. It is a particular type of family tree that we draw with symbols for father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc. We do these for individual people within the family system, and we link a particular person to others in the family with lines and other symbols. Three lines indicate a very strong relationship—good or bad. A jagged line indicates a dysfunctional relationship, etc.
It is amazing to draw these and then hang them up on the wall and see what you notice. You immediately see patterns in families. Why is it that there are jagged lines between every mother and her daughter? Why is it that there seems to be distance between every father and his son, carried down through generations? How could I have missed that all my life? Was I just too close to see the important patterns?
When I did my first genogram, there were so many lines with jagged pieces hither and thither that it looked like a plate glass window that someone had thrown a rock through. There was a lot to unpack in the spider web of my own family system.
It is not news to anyone that families are complex creatures, and it is not news that the yearning to belong is primal in human existence. Belonging is at the heart of what it means to be a human, and it is why “belonging” is listed as one of these three key points of our own community’s life, in the front of the bulletin: to be a community of prayer, compassion, and belonging.
Now, with families, we have no choice of where we belong—at least as children. You are born into your family. Perhaps this feels like a blessing from God for you, or perhaps it feels like you are indeed working off past sins.
It should not surprise us that Jesus addressed this complex dynamic of family belonging—or, more precisely, that he used the image of families to address the true nature of what it means to belong.
We see in today’s text Jesus facing the pressure of the crowd. There are so many that the disciples cannot even eat. People are coming from all over to be near Jesus. And then this line, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him,” for folks had begun to talk. And no family likes folks who talk about them, it seems.
I can imagine the Blessed Mother in that moment: “Jesus, a word please.” Why can’t you be a simple carpenter or fisherman like the other young men? Stop making a spectacle of yourself. It seems even the Blessed Mother got exasperated when her son acted outside what the family considered the norm.
“Ain’t no need in acting out,” I can hear someone in my family say.
Jesus first gives them a theological reflection on how he is acting coherently with the vision of God, about how his own behavior is grounded in the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit.
Then, look closely at what happened next: his family sent others to go and get him and bring him back. More lines start appearing on his genogram before our eyes, and perhaps a few jagged lines of frustration. These emissaries—no doubt friends of the family who have been sent out as neutral parties—come to Jesus and say, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” In other words, you need to cut this out now and come back “home,” back to the expected family system.
Then, Jesus speaks: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Harsh, isn’t it?
And Jesus looks around himself at this crowd who has gathered to listen, to wonder about God’s dream for their lives, to hear a message of hope, to be close to Jesus and the Incarnation of Divine Love. “Here.” Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Ah, family illustrations. But Jesus is really inviting us to reflect more deeply on what it means to belong, on how we understand belonging on a more substantial level than mere lines on a genogram and birth order. We know the truth of what Jesus is saying, don’t we. Our birth family is all we know until we meet the person of our dreams, fall in love and suddenly…our image and understanding of belonging shifts like a tectonic plate. Our understanding of belonging expands throughout life as we meet dear friends who speak to our heart and become “family.” Our biological family is always there, yet the capacity within our heart for belonging grows wider and wider.
It is not an overstatement to say that Jesus was addressing tensions, in his own time, of rampant tribalism—which is a skewed understanding of belonging that objectifies anyone outside of “the family.” As Laura named last Sunday, we love to categorize people, and in my experience our categories are not usually positive attributions. “The people” named in this text—who of course were those focused on the purity and dignity of the establishment of Jesus’ own day—tried to stir up trouble for him. “He has Beelzebul, and by the power of the demons he casts out demons,” they said. The old, “the devil made him do it,” trick that folks have used for centuries. He’s possessed. Out of his mind. Out of bounds.
We so often take our place in this tradition of categorizing and denigration: we objectify and ostracize those who are different from “us.” This is Pride Month, we remember, and that begs a careful consideration of how we have treated our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And people of color. Immigrants. Women. The environment. We struggle to connect with others, and that, I believe, is at the heart of so much of our pain today as a society.
The struggle with belonging is that it is so essential to human nature. Our creation myths themselves are grounded in belonging: the earth belonging in the universe; land and seas belonging together on the earth; animals and creatures belonging on the earth; human beings belonging with the natural world; human beings belonging together. When we look at our actual Scriptural texts, it becomes clear that things belong together. The problem comes when humans assert themselves over and against creation—and other humans.
Belonging within God’s dream becomes malformed into belonging in my tribe over and against your tribe. And make no mistake about it, some folks are geniuses at manipulating this constricting fear and taking advantage in a political system. Keep paying attention.
Jesus’ question is provoking: “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” The answer: those who seek to pattern their lives in attunement with God’s dream. “Whosoever does the will of God,” Jesus says. Those whose desires are in alignment with God’s desires. Those whose heart is in rhythm with God’s heart. This is where we belong, and this is what spiritual community looks like.
To be sure, we struggle. Jagged lines abound in our world between different tribes who are competing for resources they feel are scarce—that someone has convinced them are scarce. And we want to be comfortable. There is, within us, this urge like the Blessed Mother and others, to maintain the order of things, to return to the way things have been, to get back in line.
Richard Rohr has a wonderful image for this in his book Everything Belongs, which we will explore in our Contemplative Summer School. For those who have grasped on to a rigid and objectifying identity, he says this:
Those who firm up their own edges and identity too quickly without finding their center in God and in themselves will normally be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue. Their identity is too insecure to allow any movement in or out and their “Christ” tends to be very small, tribal, and “just like them.” If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love.
So, this is where we are left, isn’t it? Standing, always, at a point between expansive grace and constricting fear. Standing at the crossroads of Christian discipleship and listening intently for the Spirit to inspire us to grow and love, even as we struggle with the impulse to stick our fingers in our ears. Ah, human beings. We are such complex, beautiful, frustrating, and fascinating creatures! That God would continue to choose to act through us for the reconciliation of the world—that is a sermon for another day.
 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Awareness (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014), 22-23.