Who Is Your Family?

This sermon was preached by the Rev. John Russell Stanger on May 3, 2015 at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. It is based upon the text of John 15:1-8.

"Who is your family?" I can't tell you how many times I heard this question that year? "Who is your family?" Nearly every single time I met someone new. "Who is your family?" is what Malayalees--the people of Kerala, India--ask of any new acquaintance. It's their first step in understanding who someone is, placing them in the world, the structure of things.

Americans have a similar question we wield: "What do you do?" I think that difference in first-impression-seeking says a lot about our cultures. "What do you produce or contribute?" versus "Who are your people?"

The implication isn't "Who is your family?" as in The Stangers of Brazoria County. It's "How many siblings do you have? And do they have children? Any grandparents that live with you? Do you have a spouse and children yourself?" As we'd say, "Who's in your family tree?"

"Who is your family?" asks who belongs to us and to whom do we belong.

In both India and this country the concept and importance of The Family looms large. In both, The Family is an ideal--one of smiles and hugs, babies and grandparents, supporting and celebrating each other. The Family is the foundation of society.

But it is a cracked and crumbling foundation.

I saw the disrepair every weekend during my year as a Young Adult Volunteer in India. I would travel for a couple hours by bus through some of the most lush tropical hillsides you can imagine. I cherished those quiet rides, reading a book as we bounced along before I was dropped onto the dusty road where I was covered in the cheers and tugs of dozens of boys without families. Orphans whose large Indian families had failed to catch them after the fall, had failed to live up to the ideal.

Boys like Libin and Sudeesh, whose stories of hope and loss I learned to cherish, were never brought up in polite conversation. I became skeptical of the ideal behind the question "Who is your family?" How should the lost boys of Bala Bhavan, pruned off of someone's family's tree, how should they answer that constant question?

"Who is your family?" can be an uncomfortable--if not downright triggering--question for many of us here today. Maybe the truth doesn't live up to our mighty cultural images of The Family. You know them. They're the Cosbys, the Simpsons, the Clintons, the Kardashians. Pull back the curtain and that ideal doesn't hold up though, does it? Not for the any of those families or own own. There's always something at least a little off. We always seem to miss the mark.

But we sure are invested in maintaining the image of that perfect family tree, rooted in love and blooming with laughter... even when it's a lie.

That human idol shares similarities with our Scripture passage today; the well-known image of The Vine. We creatures are the branches, all connected to Christ the Vine, and cared for by our Creator the Vinegrower. And the great news is that us branches are already perfectly cleansed of any disease that might rot or wither us. We simply have to abide in Christ the Vine as Christ abides in us and we will bear fruit.

This week that image of abiding leaps off the page to me; it connects so strongly to our ideal of The American Family: that we stick together and weather the storms as a blissful unit. And if things aren't going well in The Family, we play the role we were groomed into, often clenching our mouth shut and plastering on the smile beaming out from that family reunion photo.

But do that enough and something behind that smile begins to rot.

Think of the women in those fading family reunion photos. The 1 in 4 women who are survivors of domestic violence. The 1 in 4 women--yes, in our families too--who have been told to breathe through the pain and stay strong for the sake of the family. Those women told that if they could just love him well enough he'll come around. If they'll just wait it out, hold strong, abide by their vows, be "Christ-like" even...

It's far too easy and inexcusably common to distort this idea of abiding and turn it into acquiescence disguised as patience.

This is not the abide of which Jesus speaks.

We've done something similar, in this country and denomination, as we've had discussions about who has the right to be dignified as a family. This Tuesday, arguments were made in front of our highest court about whether same-sex couples will be recognized as families under the law.

But how many LGBTQ couples patiently waited only to watch partners die without the blessing of the state nor church? How many queer and trans people have left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because they were told to abide by the Book of Order as it was, told to give justice a little more time?

This is not the abide of which Jesus speaks. He spoke of bearing fruit, not injustice.

And what cruel words have we said of and to the people of Baltimore?

In the midst of the sensational headlines covering their outcries for justice over the past week, the Onion, of all places, spoke truth into the heart of what is happening. The satirical newspaper ran a short piece with the headline "Baltimore Residents Urged To Stay Indoors Until Social Progress Naturally Takes Its Course Over the Next Century."

That's what white supremacy in this country has communicated to Black folks over the last week and long before: "Calm down and be quiet. If you simply abide by the way things are for a little while longer we can work this all out civilly." How many times have African Americans heard this, through slavery to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs and the era of mass incarceration?

This is not the abide of which Jesus speaks. Ours is the Jesus who wept at the death of his friend and raged at injustice in the temple. This is the Jesus who weeps for Freddie Gray and rages at the state violence against Black folks in this country.

In our gospel lesson the "abide" of Christ is something much different. It is the indwelling of a branch and vine, the deep connection of support and shared existence that sustains life and bears fruit.

What fruit does the negligence of children, abuse of women, dismissal of queer relationships, and the suppression of Black anger bear? Nothing but the poisonous fruit of injustice.

In Christ, God reveals Godself to be for us, to be one of us. The Easter story is the truth of God abiding with us, sharing in our very life--all our pain and joy. The fruit it bears is that of hope and a vision of a world redeemed where all are known and celebrated as worthy.

The vine reminds us that we are so called to abide in one another. We are called to abide in each other's lives in ways that bear fruit, ways that risk growing and changing together, strengthening and sustaining each other.

It must begin by dwelling in each other.

The healing of justice begins by dwelling in Baltimore. It begins by hearing the stories and dwelling in the pain of Black American youth. We cannot dismiss or cover up the violence of economic and social inequality African Americans have survived through centuries. We must listen to and trust Black folks, follow their lead and join in their struggle for a world where Black lives matter.

It begins by dwelling in the discomfort and pain of a country that is not as it should and could be.

When I think back to that home for orphaned boys in Kanam, I also think of a strong and still, tall and slender woman, whose thick, dark braid reached all the way down her back: Mercy Auntie, the boys called her. On behalf of the Church of South India, she was Mother to those boys.

"Who is your family?" you ask Mercy Auntie? "My husband and two daughters..." I'm sure she'd begin. But also the 45 boys of Bala Bhavan. She is Christ to those boys; she abides in them and they in her. The fruit they bear is that of love and the hope of a broken cycle.

Mercy Auntie is no ideal. She is real and she gives me hope.

Who is my family? Indian orphans and saints. Survivors of violence--state and domestic. Queer people of all kinds. And we are all glorious branches on that great vine of Christ.

Who is your family? With whom will we abide?