"Who Are My Mother and Brothers?: Sermon for the Third Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

"Who Are My Mother and Brothers?: Sermon for the Third Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

Jun 10, 2018

Passage:Mark 3:20-35

Preacher: The Rev. E. Courtney Jones

Series: Pentecost

Category: Love, Faithfulness

Keywords: discipleship, faithfulness, hope, love


In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells those around him that "whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother?" This sermon takes a look at what doing the will of God looks like. How do we live like Jesus' brother or sister?


As a teenager, Ruth Coker Burks received a bizarre inheritance.  Ruth's mother had gotten into a huge argument with her own brother and vowed that she would never see him again.  Ruth's mother didn't even want to be buried in the same cemetery as her brother, so she quietly bought 262 plots in the cemetery where the rest of the family was buried.  I repeat:  Ruth's mother bought an entire cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas so that -- even in death -- she would never again have to claim familial ties to her brother.  

 Ruth's mother took her to the cemetery and sarcastically joked, "Ruth, someday all of this will be yours."  Teenage Ruth thought to herself "Great.   What the hell am I going to do with a cemetery?"  

 In our Gospel story today, Jesus and his newly called disciples have been going from town to town healing the sick.   Crowds have begun to follow them wherever they go -- sometimes even making it impossible for Jesus and the disciples to grab a bite to eat.  What's more:   Jesus' recent Sabbath-healings have attracted the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who have sent scribes nearly 100 miles to question Jesus and his motivations. 

 Jesus' family is concerned.  There are murmurings around town about what Jesus is doing and saying.  Some folks are saying Jesus has a demon.  Some think he's lost his mind.

 Jesus' family comes to him to "restrain him."  Don't hear me saying that Jesus' mother and brothers are bad.  I think they are probably afraid.  Afraid of how people are talking.  Afraid of what might happen to Jesus.  

 Jesus is teaching in a house when his mother and brothers arrive.  The house is packed and they can't get in, so they get some people to tell some people to tell Jesus that they are there.  

 These messengers say to Jesus:   “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 

 And Jesus replies:   “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

 Now:  depending on your family background, you may hear Jesus' answer here as super cold and dismissive.  Not gentle.  Not good news.  

 But I don't think Jesus offers this statement as a condemnation of his blood family.  I think Jesus is a good teacher, and he realizes he’s sitting in a teachable moment.  Jesus, as rabbi, takes the opportunity to redefine family. 

 To make the idea of family less tribal.

Less tied to blood.  

More expansive. 

More reflective of the vastness of God.   

 In her mid-20s, with young children, Ruth Coker Burks found out that her friend had cancer.  Over the course of the weeks following her friend's diagnosis, Ruth spent a LOT of time in the hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.  To get to her friend's hospital room, Ruth had to pass a room with a red bag fully enclosing the door.  The door had a giant "DO NOT ENTER" warning on it.  Ruth passed the door almost daily.  For some reason, Ruth was drawn to that red door.   It haunted her.  She began to watch the medical professionals deal with room with the red door.  Doctors would bargain with each other not to go in, trading cash, trading on-call hours.  Nurses drew straws to for who would "have to" go in.  The losing nurse would beg for a "best two out of three."  The room would often get "accidentally skipped" on rounds.  This all seemed bizarre to Ruth, but it was the early 1980s.  The patient inside the room had a terrifying disease, known at the time as "Gay Related Immune Disorder."  The disease would in short time be renamed Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome -- AIDS.

 Author Jennifer Wright, in her ironically named book Get Well Soon says that plagues, are a "solvent for relationships” -- which is to say, people's deep fear of incurable diseases can dissolve even the closest relationships.  

 Fear is a solvent for courage.  

It's a solvent for our bond to other people.  

Fear is a solvent for love -- 

Fear makes us unable to see the image of God in each other. 

 Perhaps, in addition to inheriting a cemetery, Ruth inherited her mother's stubbornness    The red door finally got the best of her.   Despite the warnings, despite the palpable fear in the hospital, she just knew she had to go in.  Inside was a very sick, shadow of a young man.  His name was Jimmy.   Jimmy was crying out for his mother.     

 When Ruth came out of the room, the nurses were beside themselves with fear:  "You didn't go into that room did you?!?  You can't be in there!"

Ruth calmly replied, "Well. Yeah.  I did.  And he wants his mother."  

The nurses laughed.  "Honey, his mother isn't coming.   He's been here 6 weeks and no one has come."  

 Stubborn Ruth persisted until the nurses gave her the phone number for Jimmy's mother.  She called his mother, and as soon as Ruth said the dying man's name, the mother hung up the phone.   Ruth called back and said, "Look, if you hang up on me again, I'll run his obituary in your hometown paper.  I will list the cause of death."  

 That kept the mother on the phone.   Her son was a sinner, the woman explained to Ruth.  She wouldn't come.  She wouldn't collect the body.  As far as the woman was concerned, she had no son.  

 Ruth hung up the phone and  braced herself for having to break the painful news to the young man.

 When she walked back into Jimmy's room, he looked up and said "Oh mama!  Mama!  I knew you would come."  He stretched out his hand to Ruth.

 Ruth knew what to do.  She took his hand, and said "I'm here, honey.  I'm here."  She sat with him for the next 13 hours until he passed away.  

 “Who are my mother and my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

 God loved Jimmy in that red room, so God sent Ruth.

God loved Ruth sitting in that hallway, and God drew her to Jimmy.

See, this is what Jesus is talking about.  God's expansive love can't be contained in just biological bonds.  That was good news for Jimmy.  Good news for Ruth.  Good news for a whole bunch of us in here.

 Ruth provided him a mother,

Jimmy provided her a son.  

 And not only a son, but a vocation.  Jimmy didn’t just die . . . his death opened Ruth’s eyes to what God was calling her to do.

 When Ruth inherited the family cemetery, she never imagined that there'd be a time when parents refused to bury their children.  No one would transport Jimmy's body.  Ruth called every crematorium within a hundred mile radius before one finally agreed to cremate Jimmy.  No pastor or priest in town would perform the funeral.  She dug the grave herself with posthole diggers, and said a prayer.   She buried Jimmy's ashes with her family -- in fact, she buried him right on top of her father's grave so that he would always have a family.

 Over the next decade, Ruth Coker Burks ministered to over 1,000 people dying of AIDS.   Ruth provided many of them with hospice care in her home.  She shuttled her kids to school and shuttled dying men to their appointments.  She ran her own underground pharmacy in her basement.   When a young man had wasted away to 55 pounds and was too weak to walk, Ruth carried him.    Ruth ended up burying 43 AIDS patients in her family cemetery.  

 Who are my mother and brothers?  Here they are.  My mothers and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.  

 Ruth Coker Burks is a living saint.   Her brave life shows us the Good News that even in our darkest hour, God will make provision for us.  Her stubborn love shows us a glimpse of the stubborn and radically expansive love of God.  And her willingness to be family to the family-less shows us how to be the Church – how to be the family of God. 

 But, before you go putting Ruth on a pedestal – before you go thinking that she was some sort of exception, and you will never do something so weighty as she’s done . . .

 Ruth Coker Burks didn't go to the hospital that day to be a mother to 1,000 AIDS patients.  

She went to the hospital to visit a sick friend.  

It was a small act of love.

 Ruth didn't walk into that room with the red door thinking that someday people would call her "a living saint".  She just went in because it seemed like the right thing to do.

 May we have the grace to see family when others are being it.

May we have the grace to be family when others are needing it.

 Who are my mother and brothers?  Here they are.  My mothers and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.  


 Outmagazine. “Meet the Woman Who Cared for Hundreds of Abandoned Gay Men Dying of AIDS.” OUT, Out Magazine, 30 Aug. 2017,

 Leonard, Bill J.  “Mark 3:31-35: Theological Perspective.” Feasting on the Gospels: a Feasting on the Word Commentary. Mark., by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Johnson, Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Kindle ed.

 Wright, Jennifer Ashley. Get Well Soon History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. Henry Holt and Company, 2017. Audible ed.