Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


The great thing about the Gospel of Mark is that he always gets right to it. There isn’t much flowery substance or unnecessary dialogue in Mark. The Pharisees ask a question to test Jesus. Jesus responds in a way that makes them look foolish. The disciples don’t get it and Jesus points to those who society sees as the least able to understand as being most fit for the kingdom. This happens over and over in Mark.


The problem with Mark is that the topic at hand, in this case divorce, is not the topic being discussed. Divorce is the image that is being used, but the discussion is really about hardness of hearts, human brokenness and sin, and God’s intent for creation. This is made clear by Jesus’ use of Genesis and the welcoming of little children.


Today’s first lesson and Gospel brings us face to face with the tension between the intent of creation (love and relationship) and the reality of brokenness and loss. God’s intent is that we are to live in relationship with each other. The story in Genesis is the story of human community. It is not a law about marriage. To take this reading and turn it into a constitutional amendment about marriage is an offensive use of scripture. Genesis seeks to show us that we were meant to live together in a sense of harmony rather than domination.


First off we are all of the same stuff. The essence of man is also the essence of woman and vise versa. The use of the term “rib” is one of those awkward translations. What is translated rib would best be defined as “side”. The implication is that man is divided in two. What emerges from this split is a mutual partner, a paternal twin, as it were, who is called “helper”. The relationship between these two becomes the foundation of human community. In the same way that humans carry the image of God within them, so we carry the image of each other. No mention is made of race, nationality, or the like; simply two parts of the whole – male and female – intended to live in harmony.


Now the woman is referred to as helper. There is only one other figure in the Bible who carries the title of helper and that is God; the point being that both man and woman are of divine stuff. Helper is not a subservient role. To prove that point Genesis notes that it is the man who leaves his family and clings to his wife. There is no subservience here, only community. This is God’s true intent – community that requires understanding, mutual respect, and unity. Marriage and family is a microcosmic image of what all of human community is to look like – give and take, mutual respect, common goals, the capacity for forgiveness, and love poured out for each other – faithfulness, compassion, and commitment.


Now I would ask whose family was actually like that all of the time, but the silence would be overwhelming. The harshness that life can be, our own shortcomings, sin, brokenness, illness, and the like all get in the way of life being as God intended it; which brings us to Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark. The Pharisees ask about divorce when God’s intent is community. The Pharisees ask about the rights of power, when God intends service. It is for your hardness of heart that laws are written. Following the law is not the same as God’s intent. The law is never set forth to instruct behavior, it is set forth to restrain behavior. The law is necessary because of our refusal to understand and live the nature of community. God’s intent is never brokenness, grief, or loss. It is always harmony, in others words, love and care for the neighbor.


Now to return to the image of divorce that is being used to debate the difference between God’s desire and the law. This doesn’t mean that divorce shouldn’t ever happen. There are times when one spouse or the other should run as fast and as far as possible from the other. The harsher symptoms of brokenness include things like abuse, degrading others, violent forms of control, and more subtle forms of emotional neglect, attacking another’s self-esteem and constant put-downs. We are not required by God’s intent for creation to live in those conditions. Divorce can be a very positive and life-giving step. Yet we need to remember that such things are also matters of sorrow, loss, and grief, rather than rights and privileges. Jesus makes this point when he responds to the disciples’ continued questions. Divorce ought not be an easy answer to anything. But then embodying brokenness and sin of any kind should never be easy. Excluding people, judging people, denying forgiveness, refusing to care for the stranger, denying healthcare – all these things and more – are symptoms of a hard heart. And you know what? You can find justification for all of them in scripture, just as you can with divorce.


Because sin, human brokenness does not know the boundaries of gender, Jesus gives women the right to divorce their husbands when he states: “and if she divorces her husband”. It was unheard of for a woman to have the right to divorce her husband. Divorce was solely and wholly the providence of the husband. To grant such power to women as Jesus does means two things. Women are full partners in the community of life – equal with men. This was and remains God’s intent revealed in the story from Genesis. It also means that we are partners in the breakdown of God’s intended community. Hardness of heart does not know gender. Sin, brokenness, grief and loss do not know gender.


But Jesus will not leave it there and neither will Mark. This is a text about God’s intent for creation, not a primer for divorce. And so we are shown the story of Jesus welcoming children and blessing them, which is how we know that the heartbeat of this text is not about marriage or divorce, but rather about human community. For Jesus gives power and attention not only to women, but also to children. The fabric of God’s intended community is not built upon a legal description of family or marriage (or a constitution for that matter) – God’s ways are far too radical for that – the fabric of community is constructed by weaving compassion, respect, embrace, and love for every member of the community; men, women, and children.


I say these things as one who has been through divorce. We need to hear Jesus’ direct honesty if we are going to be able to acknowledge and embrace our own brokenness and pain. Only then can we see life for what it has become, only then can we realize the true intent for creation and for ourselves, and only then can we genuinely open our hearts to the grace of God that comes on God’s terms rather than our own. For the grace of God is poured out as forgiveness upon you and me for our hardness of hearts. It is poured out in love and freely so. Because God welcomes the children you can be assured that God welcomes you too – divorced, single, married, gay, straight, adult, teenager, or child – male or female – broken or whole. God welcomes you. Amen

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 8th, 2009 at 2:52 pm and is filed under Sermons. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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