Good Company

Good Company Thia Reggio, November 10, 2011

In a couple of weeks, when families gather for Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll be in good company. Of course, I mean this literally and with gratitude for my children and my husband and my in-laws. But I also mean that I will be among the many who will not be invited to the tables of our childhood families. I’m in good company among those who have been exiled as the scapegoat in the name of “family values.” I know I’m in good company in this group because I have many friends who have been banished from their families, too. My friend Elaine was banned when she came out as a lesbian. Others I know are excluded under the guise of faith or ethics, or because of some unnamed hurt no one really remembers anymore.

I know I’m in good company, too, because on Tuesday I had the privilege of meeting Jeremiah and Ava, two of the thousands of homeless LGBTQ youth who have been rejected by their families.  The kids I met, amazing, creative kids, now by the grace of God have claimed two of the fewer than 200 shelter beds in NY available to keep them safe and alive. Thousands of others have suffered the same rejection and will find themselves on the street for Thanksgiving.

I also know I’m in good company because Jesus told us this could happen.

In these verses from Matthew, Jesus says in no uncertain terms that he did not come to preserve peace among family members. Jesus is clear that The Way he is proposing can upset the family apple cart. He is telling us that there may be times when being your true self, the one God created you to be, the person you know you are in your heart of hearts, won’t go down so well around the family table.

Jesus understands what it means when your family doesn’t get you. Just one chapter on in Matthew, Jesus, in his hometown synagogue, announces his true identity as the beloved Son of God who has come to proclaim justice and hope to the poor and oppressed. At the end that chapter, his family shows up for an intervention.

Now in the Hebrew Scriptures from which Jesus teaches, family is certainly central. Our instructions for honoring mother and father, for faithfulness to spouses, weren’t meant to set up family idols, however. Like all the commandments, they live within the context of that greatest commandment to “Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, and souls.” And the one that is like it—to love our neighbors (yes even family members) as ourselves. Which is to say love others as God loves us.

But we human beings love to complicate things. So we come up with things like “family values.” We parse God’s will; we choose up sides, and we decide who’s coming to dinner. It feels so much easier creating a checklist of behavioral criteria—like a game of moral musical chairs.

After all, loving the people around the family table can take a lot of work. When you know just what someone is going to say before they say it, or who is going to take the last spoonful of potatoes, or when you see something in that face across the table makes you remember something about yourself you’d rather forget. You might start figuring out ways to squeeze people out.

Too often the church falls into this practice as well. We pick and choose among God’s children to enhance our own experience at the table. We exclude people who make us feel threatened or remind us of our shortcomings. Even worse, we invite people to the table, but leave their cups unfilled. We leave them thirsting for the cool drink of full fellowship. Or we leave them to the streets. And this is where Jesus draws the line it seems to me.

I don’t believe Jesus was saying that mothers and daughters would be set against one another because he was introducing so many rules that no would or could measure up. I think he just knew how hard it would be to love one another and that sometimes, loving God or even respecting yourself as a beloved child of God can mean making a choice your family can’t live with. The unbreakable bond, Jesus seems to be saying is between us and God, and it must be lived out among those who choose the way he is proposing—the way of love, of integrity. That way may lead to some difficult crossroads.  It may even mean that kids find themselves out on the streets. And we who choose the way of love must come to realize that it is among the outcasts that we will find ourselves in good company.

As representatives of Christ, those of us who are Christian have a particular responsibility to live out the way of love in the world. Jesus expects his followers, his church, to show what it means to be unconditionally welcoming when we come to this table. Not just inviting, but Loving God so much that we bring everyone around the table and fill their cups to overflowing—Just as God has done for us.