Siblings: Fighting With Them, Fighting For Them

Everyone loves a good dose of sibling rivalry.

Mary and Martha are among the most famous sibling rivals in the Bible, and Christians for generations have wondered what to do with them.

Many of us identify more strongly with one or the other of them, and then feel slightly guilty about it.

Team Martha feels like she gets a raw deal, being gently corrected by Jesus when she complains about Mary not helping her. “Where’s the love for Martha?” we ask. “Marthas make the world go around, especially at church!”

Others of us know we’re Mary. We love being spiritual and contemplative, thinking deep thoughts and feeling very religious, but sometimes we’re hard to be found when it’s time to get down to real work. Oops.

As often as I’ve wrestled with this text and its clear call away from busywork and into the peace of God’s presence, I heard it differently this time as I thought about it in the context of the whole Bible.

And what I realized is the Bible is all about sibling relationships, and most of those relationships are troubled at best.

The first crime in the Bible is Cain murdering Abel—brother slaying brother.

Think about Jacob and Esau—eternal rivals, with Jacob tricking Esau into selling his birthright.

Think about Rachel and Leah, fighting over Jacob and stealing him from each other.

Joseph and his brothers were a total mess—the brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery.

Siblings are all over the New Testament too.

There were at least 2 pairs of of brothers in the 12 Apostles, James and John and Peter and Andrew, and they all fought over who was the greatest.

And the older brother and the younger brother in the story of the Prodigal Son are legendary.

I think the reason this jumped out at me is because I am a professional big sister.

I have three little sisters who are very dear to me.

Those of you who are older siblings know that you had a hand in raising your little sisters and brothers, and that creates a special bond between you.

They still love and trust me to be their “big sister,” the one with knowledge and advice and perspective who can help and support them.

But one of the things I love most about my relationship with my sisters as adults is that even though they’re younger than I am, now sometimes they’re the “big sister” when I need help and advice and guidance.

Sibling relationships are really unique in many ways, and they have a deep intimacy due entirely to circumstances.

Think about what being a sibling and having a sibling is like.

They grew up with you. They have known you basically from day 1 of your life, which essentially means that, especially once your parents are gone, they are the last people on earth who you can never, ever b.s.

They will see right through you to the day you die. It’s immensely irritating, and immensely valuable.

They remember the good times and the bad with you.

They walk through the pain of burying parents with you.

They’ve seen every heartbreak and triumph you’ve been through, from your first tearful breakup in junior high to your graduation and wedding and the birth of your children.

Sometimes they’re sullen and distant participants under duress, and sometimes they’re even more jazzed about your life than you are, lifting you up and cheering you on.

Now, some of you in this room are only children, so you’ve been listening to this with only half an ear.

But I hate to break it to you—you are not getting out of this sibling relationship deal.

Siblings are the dominant metaphor for relationships between members of the church in the New Testament. Paul uses it all the time.

Even Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew says, “”Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Jesus chooses to identify people who are serving God as his siblings.

So whether or not you have biological or adopted siblings in your family of origin, you have siblings in faith, Jesus himself included.

This places the story of Mary and Martha in even starker relief for me.

And when I tried to encapsulate for myself what the sibling relationship is like in a nutshell, I came to this: “Siblings are the people you fight the hardest with, and the people you fight the hardest for.”

They drive you up a wall, but God help anyone who comes after them because they’ll live to regret it.

What does this mean for our church relationships? Two important things.

You know that feeling of animus against anyone who hurts your sibling?

That’s church unity.

That’s caring for and supporting your church siblings when they’re struggling.

That’s also another way of thinking about justice work.

All oppressed people are our brothers and sisters, and we owe them our allegiance, our solidarity, and our committed work for change.

Sometimes our siblings undergoing oppression need us to raise our voices, and a good deal of the time they need us to shut our mouths and let their voices and their desires and their plans take the lead.

You know that feeling of your siblings driving you crazy? When your sister stole your clothes or shoes for the hundredth time, or your brother didn’t pick you up so you had to walk home from the baseball diamond in the rain, or you really, really meant to not punch him or her in the backseat of the car but you truly and sincerely could not hold it back?

When we think about this in terms of church relationships it’s called “mutual accountability.”

We are so hard on our siblings because we love them so much, know the good they’re capable of, and know what our parents’ standards were in raising us.

In church, we know that God our Parent wants us to live lives of abundance and joy and grace.

So we hold each other mutually accountable in love.

As adults this hopefully involves less punching and whining and more strategic firmness mixed with gentle encouragement and humility, knowing that true holy accountability is a two-way street, both giving and receiving.

Jesus describes himself as our sibling, and he clearly understands the tensions in sibling relationships as he demonstrates with Mary and Martha.

And Mary and Martha are stuck somewhere on the road to loving mutual accountability, they just haven’t gotten there yet.

They haven’t figured out how to make room for the differences between them while both placing their focus on Jesus.

And no doubt it feels like that to us sometimes with our Christian siblings, both inside this church and across the denominational range.

As we search for how to live as healthy siblings, I do want to point out the very use of that word, “siblings” instead of “brothers and sisters.”

Bishop Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has gone from saying “brothers and sisters” to using the word “siblings” instead.

Why? Because the word “siblings” is not gender-normative and makes space for gender non-conforming folks to know and experience how vital they are to the Body of Christ without having to wear labels that chafe against their true identities.

Bishop Curry is helping model healthy “siblinghood” with that choice.

And we also have some healthy sibling relationships in the Bible along with all the dysfunctional ones.

Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are a good example.

They all had different strengths that they pooled to share leadership of the people.

Moses was the contemplative in communion with God on the mountain, Aaron was the strategic leader and preacher, and Miriam was the exuberant poet, singer, and worship leader who led the people to lift their voices in praise to God.

This trio of siblings led a people from enslavement to freedom, from the captivity of Egypt to the Promised Land.

What could we do as siblings in ministry if we followed their example?

One of my favorite sibling moments in the Bible is the reunion of Joseph and his brothers.

The last time the brothers saw Joseph, he was being carted off into slavery at their instigation.

Years later they have come to Joseph, now a powerful lord in Egypt, in need of food.

They do not recognize him, but he recognizes them.

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life… And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.”

This is a moment of healing and reconciliation between siblings in the Bible, and it comes out of a place of grief and regret.

A similar situation happens to Mary and Martha.

When their brother Lazarus dies, they are once again bound inseparably together in their grief and their wish that Jesus had been there when he died.

I think this has powerful implications for our life as siblings in church.

Joseph and his brothers and Mary and Martha walk through their pain together and find that God uses it to bind them more closely together than ever.

Their separation is healed by God’s grace and they are made the stronger for it.

We could spend some time in prayer about that as we think of our church siblings with whom we have had conflict.

And I bring this up because I know very deeply what sibling conflict is like, and how hard it hurts.

I told you I am a big sister, but once upon a time I was a little sister too.

I had an older sister, Maggie, and she and I had a relationship built on conflict.

I was estranged from her when she died of a drug overdose in 2010 at the age of 33. We never reconciled.

But Mary and Martha, sisters in the Bible who fought, are my inspiration.

Because not only were Mary and Martha united in grief, they were united in faith that Jesus would raise their brother up.

Whatever divides us in the church, as siblings we grieve together, and we believe in and witness resurrection together.

My sister died, and I mourn the life we didn’t have together.

But I give thanks for the resurrection we will see together in the fullness of God’s time and unending love.

So, dear siblings, let us go forward together in hope and love.

Sometimes we’ll fight so hard that we may hear God say, “I will turn this car around right now.”

But I hope more often we find ourselves growing ever closer to one another in grace and mutual call to service.

Jesus our sibling is beckoning us forward into resurrection.

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