Preaching Adoption

 "Blackbird's nest", Image by Simon Blackley via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. — John 19:25-27

I read those verses — as most of us will during Holy Week — and I hear Jesus making an “adoption plan” for his mother. I understand that it’s not in the traditional direction, of parents making a plan for a child, but the action is the same. When Jesus knows he will not be able to care for Mary as she grows older and more vulnerable, he makes a decision to find someone who can. When you are a member of the adoption triad — birth parent, adopted child, adoptive parent — adoption pops up unexpectedly all the time. Even from the cross.

From family tree projects at school to many movies with independent kid heroes or heroines, we are constantly receiving messages that question the “belonging” we have so vehemently fought to establish in our adoptive families. Well-intentioned comments like: “God had a plan!” or the delight of others at how our adopted child looks like her sister (whom I birthed) leave a lasting impression. What is intended to be positive attention feels awkwardly like someone saying that God plotted to cause my daughter’s birth parents to be unable to parent. Or that looking homogenous is paramount to being a family. There was no harmful intent, but unexamined theology can be bad theology.

Do you know what might help? Talking more frequently about adoption, and the myriad of ways families are formed.

Preachers can even address some specific assumptions from the pulpit. When we assert that birth is not the only way to be a “real” family, we are including not only foster and adoptive families, but step-families, and multiple generations raising children. Scripture brings up more opportunities to do this than one might think:

  • Moses’ birth and adoption story
  • Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael — speaks to adoption, also surrogacy (Genesis 21:8-21, Revised Common Lectionary [RCL] Semi-continuous 1st Reading for June 25, 2017)
  • Hannah’s promise and adoption plan for Samuel
  • Esther — also speaks to “kinship adoption” by a relative 
  • Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus — also speaks to adoption by a “step-parent”
  • “Spirit of adoption” theology in Romans 8:12-25 (RCL 2nd Reading for July 23, 2017)

If we read certain Scriptures and do not unpack adoption themes in them, we risk letting unintended, unhelpful assumptions run rampant in our congregations. For example, hearing the story of Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael from Genesis 21 could cause one to think “Becoming parents thru adoption or surrogacy doesn’t last, or at least is not the same as becoming parents via birth,” or even, “God fulfills promises through birth children, not families made any other way.”

We ought to name those previous interpretations then say a clear NO. Then offer an alternative interpretation, perhaps unpacking the power dynamics between Sarah and Hagar, or exploring how being unclear about how we belong together can affect our capacity to love one another. The remarkable point of this story is that God chooses abundant life for each and every one of us, including Ishmael who is caught in the middle. Such thoughts would only be the beginning of unpacking that family dynamic!

Preaching on the theological framework of “simultaneously saint and sinner” may also address some of our attitudes surrounding adoption, and just about every relationship. Adoptive families hear both “You are such a saint for adopting!” and “I can’t imagine ‘giving up’ a child!” (I hear this as: “Birth parents are sinners.”) Regular emphasis that we are all both saint and sinner  — perhaps mentioning birth parents and adoptive parents in the same breath — helps us to process pieces of our identity and others to develop sensitivity to being judgmental.

Now apply all these insights to the congregation, which so many describe as “a church family.” How do we really feel about everyone who joined our “church family” via routes other than birth? What does our actual theology say about that? Do we say explicitly that every way of entering this family is valued? How often? Do newer converts ever get the keys to the church kitchen (if they even wanted them)? Do we all need to look homogenous or trace our heritage through the same lines or behave the same ways to belong to one another?

It is a sensitive move to address adoption explicitly in our church families, because in some form adoptive families are present in just about every congregation. But might the subject also get our congregation to think about its own culture of belonging?

Adoption is ultimately a choice. We can choose to claim deep kinship with people who are not our flesh and blood, or not. It is a calling: both a joy and painstaking hard work, which Jesus lays out for the future of his family in his last hours.

Be family to those who are not of you, out of mutual love for Jesus. Others may be puzzled when you claim to belong together, but you know that you are kin.