(In which I take on Caitlyn Jenner, the Duggars, Jesus, church discernment and God’s will, all in conversation with Mark 3:20-35.)
Her picture is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and no matter how little we know about transgender issues, or how little attention we pay to celebrity news, we probably know that the absolutely gorgeous woman photographed by Annie Leibovitz is someone we *used* to know for winning a gold medal in the Olympic Decathlon, and smiling at us from a box of Wheaties. Caitlyn Jenner has also been a parent to a famous reality TV family, the Kardashian-Jenners, a family about which I knew next to nothing for quite a long time. I would see them on magazines at the supermarket checkout, those striking young women whose names all started with “K,” but I could not place them. Finally I asked someone why they were famous.
That’s when I learned they had a reality show, so they were mostly famous for being famous, and even later than that, I learned that the mother, former wife of OJ attorney Robert Kardashian, had married Olympian Bruce Jenner. I was not and really have never been up-to-date on their family, until I watched a few minutes of Bruce’s interview with Diane Sawyer in April. Watching reality TV is not in tune with what I like to call my highbrow family values, which run more to Downton Abbey. I had to look up the family tree to sort out whose kids were whose, and one click on the Internet led to another, as I read about how the second wife knew, and now we think they all did, and suddenly I was privy to more information than I really wanted about a family that, honestly, puts itself out there for a lot of examination on purpose.
Now the examination has gone beyond celebrity news and is eliciting responses from political and religious commentators. Depending on who you listen to, the world is either going to hell in a handbag and this is like the fall of Rome, or Ms. Jenner is embodying an image of femininity that sets the women’s movement back, or this is yet another example of various Jenners and Kardashians drawing attention to themselves for financial gain, or … or we are seeing amazing support offered to a courageous person who is becoming her real self. I’ll admit, I find the whole reality TV thing so weird that I am inclined to call their family’s values immediately into question, so I was surprised to read that they helped found a church in their California community and that of all of them, Caitlyn Jenner was the most likely to be found at worship on a Sunday morning. Maybe I shouldn’t have been; in the Sawyer interview she called herself a conservative Republican Christian.
Another Christian family answered questions on a news network this past week, the parents of the Duggar clan and their two married daughters. The story of the actions of the oldest son when he was still a teen has been in the news for weeks now. People at every point on the theological and political spectrums have offered opinions about sex education, healing from abuse, forgiveness and family values.
I will confess that I already knew a lot more about the Duggars than I did about the Kardashian-Jenners, because a version of their lives played out on a channel I sometimes watched, TLC, instead of E! I remember them back when they had fifteen kids, a time when the family crisis now unfolded before us had already occurred, and I wonder why they thought it was a good idea to be a TV family with that darkness so close to the surface. Whether they are naive or attention-driven or actually think they are evangelizing for their family values and their way of following God I cannot know. Is a family that made itself public allowed to complain about more publicity, just because this time it’s negative?
I sympathize with the victims and understand why the family has done its best to present a positive and united face to the world. I know how protective any parents feel of their children, not only the ones who are hurt, but also the ones who have done things that are wrong or simply gotten out of line. I know how fiercely any parents will try to defend their children or try to keep them out of harm’s way. But I suspect it was inevitable this would be made public when the rest of their lives became fodder for celebrity magazines and social media.
We don’t know exactly what motivated Jesus’ family when they came looking for him in Mark, Chapter 3. We do know he was stirring up trouble and attracting the wrong kind of attention, healing people who weren’t supposed to get better, raising old women up off their sick beds to serve, getting crippled people to walk and, most worrisome of all, casting out the demons afflicting people no one ever expected to be in their right minds again. The communications network of his time spread the word around fast, even without the help of Instagram or Twitter or people.com.
When something really exciting happens, people talk about it.
So the word spread back to Nazareth, maybe someone passing through and saying, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but your son – the oldest – the one, well, we always wondered about the timing, if you know what I mean” – or, “your son, the one who never married? we always wondered why?” – or, “Don’t tell his mother, but I heard that Jesus is in *trouble* with the authorities for claiming he can cast out demons…”
Yes, the word spread, and when the family heard he was back in his hometown, they wanted to get a hold of him and take him home. We don’t know if they were embarrassed to hear people say he was crazy, or if they were trying to get him to safety, away from the religious authorities who thought he needed an exorcism himself, or if they were worried that both those things were true. And I wonder how they would have answered if reporters joined them on the path outside the place where he was staying, if ABC or Fox showed up with lights and cameras and asked whether he had a history of these incidents, whether they knew there was something different about him when he was a child, and whether they were planning to help him or stop him or maybe even join him and the group of disciples he had gathered.
I think of his mother, and how she knew all along he was different, but maybe the way his difference had started to show was not exactly what she expected. I think of his siblings, and wonder how much of the story of his unusual birth they had heard, being younger, after all.
As a mother, I hear this story and I hurt for her, on the outside looking in. As a sibling, I know we don’t always understand our brothers and sisters. As a pastor, I know I say and do some things people wish I would not – maybe even preaching this sermon – because that’s where the Holy Spirit pushes me. And then I think of the disciples, sitting there and listening to him when he said, “Those people are not my real family. You people are. And anyone who does the will of God is in my family.”
Those were some screwed-up sounding family values for their time and place, outside the usual expectations and understandings, when family ties meant everything and most people stayed home and lived close to family all their lives.
We live in a different time, and a more mobile society, but despite that this church is a family of families. Many of you are related to each other and most of you have known each other long enough to watch not just young people but middle-aged people grow up in this church and have children of their own. You have a history together. You know each other’s quirks and challenges and probably a fair number of secrets I’ll never know you well enough to learn, your disappointments, your scandals, your realizations that some things and some people were not really what or who you thought they were. But we are living in a moment together that is testing your values, and mine, about what it means to be both a church family and God’s church.
And I’m afraid the word we get from Jesus is neither sugarcoated nor comforting. The people who do God’s will are his family, he says, without quite saying what that will might be.
I know the Duggars believe they are following God’s will, and I say that even though I wish I could give them a lecture on all the ways I think their Biblical interpretation is wrong and their ultra-conservative parenting is a mess, especially the lack of information they give their daughters.
I feel pretty certain that Caitlyn Jenner is doing the best she can to live what she understands to be God’s will, and I say that even though I also find the focus on glamour and excess at the center of her family’s life to be another uncomfortable extreme on the human spectrum.
And I confess that I find it dangerously easy to categorize what I find right and wrong about both those families. I have to stop myself to realize I am in no position to judge whether they belong where I hope to be, sitting around the table with Jesus, as part of his family. It’s what I hope for Faith Church, too, to find the way forward that serves Christ by doing God’s will.
We can’t know what happened in the hearts of the Duggars, the Jenners or the Kardashians. We can concern ourselves with what will happen right here. We began with our town meetings, in study of our situation and conversation with one another. Now it’s a matter of considering possibilities and looking outside our walls, with the help of advisors we trust, something that is happening in the discernment process with Chapel Hill. And ultimately, I believe it’s letting go of our own certainties long enough to let God get a word in edgewise, something that can only happen with contemplation and prayer.
Whatever form Faith’s future takes, it probably won’t make the news or be debated by total strangers on Facebook or draw the attention of paparazzi. The risk of publicity is small. But the risk of change in life is 100%. Whatever we discern, the future will look different. May it be a future that does not leave us on the outside, looking in.
In the name of the One who laid down his own Biblical family values, Jesus Christ. Amen.