Mark 3: 19b – 27; 31-35
The scene we just watched is from Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon, based on his own childhood in Baltimore. Five brothers came to America from Eastern Europe around the time of World War I and built a wallpaper business. For a while they did everything together. But as the storyline unfolds, the extended family begins to split apart. Some members move to the suburbs for more privacy and space. One leaves for a job in a different state. The big blow-up comes over something that seems trivial but isn’t: The eldest of the brothers arrives late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun the meal without him.
“You cut the turkey without me?” he cries. Family loyalty is put into serious question. The idea that they would eat before the brother arrived was a sign of disrespect. In an interview with the Atlantic, Levinson says of this scene, “That was the real crack in the family. When you violate the protocol, the whole family structure begins to collapse.”
“In my childhood,” Levinson says, “you’d gather around the grandparents and they would tell the family stories… Now individuals sit around the TV, watching other families’ stories.” The main theme of Avalon, he said, is “the decentralization of the family. And that has continued even further today. Once, families at least gathered around the television. Now each person has their own screen.”
This is a story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. Our reading from Mark reminds us that nothing much has changed when it comes to managing family dynamics and Jesus knows all too well what it means to be part of a family that struggles with misunderstandings and estrangement. Jesus’ return home was not met with joy and celebration but rather the crowds, including his own flesh and blood, were becoming increasingly suspicious and were formulating their own judgments and assessments of Jesus’ behaviour. The family in times of antiquity was not only the source of one’s status in the community; it also functioned as the primary economic, religious, educational, and social network. So to leave the family was a risky and dangerous business because it meant your livelihood going forward was in jeopardy. When someone goes against the grain of the family’s values, the group validates itself as being right and holding all the truths and the answers. And sometimes a member of the family is cast aside.
Family discord is not only a lived reality in our biological and legal family structures; it is also found in our communities and churches as we strive to live in harmony with one another. In spite of our varying opinions and diversity of experiences, belonging is never a once and for all state of being or at least I don’t think this to be true. People change. Our households, our workplaces, media outlets, houses of government are full of division and polarities that sometimes see no solution to a problem available…we agree to disagree. Jesus tells them of this Strong Man, the one who holds all the power. And when power is not shared, it leads to conflict Jesus says. A house divided will not stand… families change. And sometimes we need to talk about these hard things rather than attempt to sweep them under the carpet. There can be people in our lives who thrive on disagreement and the need to be right, to justify their position, and will put all their energy into this rather than exploring avenues for possible agreement.
This brings us to the work of reconciliation. It’s as if in order to heal and reconcile we have to disremember. This past week, some of us have struggled with the news from Kamloops of the remains of 215 Indigenous children being found in a mass grave. It is incomprehensible. We can only begin to imagine the pain of these families… but I have hope that with this work will come healing and reparation. Our work as white settlers is to learn from past mistakes in order they not be repeated and further mitigate such immense human suffering of taking children from their families and their culture. The past cannot be undone; living into right relations with our own kin and our Indigenous brothers and sisters is about acknowledging that the relationship has changed and it can never go back to the way it was before.
Sometimes we have to face our relationships and for the sake of health and wellbeing, distance and differentiate and disentangle from one another; sometimes, it is the only way for a house to remain standing. It’s not really a feel-good story this morning. This is not just a rhetorical message to have you think about who is your family….it is about having us think about how we live and whom we live out our beliefs and values with. It is hard work to live together. But Jesus asks us to confront the Strong Man…those forces and power structures that tear us away from one another, those less than life-giving things that reshape family relationships and rarely for the better. But take courage, friends. The family unit is still the building block of our society and it is constantly put under strain and is always evolving. Don’t be afraid to look around and to ask, Who is my mother, who is my brother? May we be a source of strength and encouragement to one another knowing that family is defined by many understandings. Blessings to you all as you navigate family life.