A Sermon for 4 October 2015 – World Communion Sunday
In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell poses a question. He posits that each of us must choose. As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear? Judgement or love? . . . For Celtic Christians it is love. It’s the tune they hear as they consider Christ. It’s the tune they hear as they live in the Divine’s other amazing work: creation. They believe it is the tune not of judgement but of love at the heart of the universe; for they believe love is the heartbeat of God – the Divine One who has piped the tune of love into the entire created order. It’s the tune Jesus helps us remember.
It seems an important point to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today. . . . What tune resides at the heart of the universe? What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls? . . . If it’s judgement, we’re sure to find a simple read of the story of Jesus being tested on the topic of divorce by leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune. But if it’s love . . . well, then listen.
A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:1-16. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Now, before we go jumping to any hasty conclusions – or being distracted in a stew of guilt upon the reading of this text – or worse yet: closing up shop all together in order to dismiss what at first glance may appear a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context. We miss it, as if the Pharisees come at Jesus with an off-the-wall, out-of-left-field question regarding divorce. It’s part of the problem of reading small snippets of scripture one at a time. But this question posed to Jesus, this test in which the religious leaders of his day hope to trap him is far from left-field. It’s a brilliant, though devious, fast-ball aimed right at the bulls eye of happenings in their day.
We hear of divorce and may think of ripped apart relationships – our own or those of ones we love. Who among us hasn’t felt the sting? The fact of our own marriage or that of one we love has fallen apart. And it doesn’t help that there are others out there who’ve chosen judgement at the universe’s heart. How long have they condemningly wagged such texts in our faces just to prove their outlook?
But the truth is in Jesus’ context. Here we have Jesus traveling through the region of Judea even stepping beyond the Jordan to the east bank. You may or may not know that this is supposedly the same place where John the Baptist got the axe (literally!) – finding his word against the swop-a-roo marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias severely un-welcomed! . . . Crowds re-enter the scene, so Jesus returns to public teaching. No sooner does he, than some Pharisees arrive. The gospel writer keeps telling us that they are on a quest to test him – and while some of them might have been turning to him for clarification in their own confusion, the story is written to lead us to believe that most of them are not. . . . This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce. Herod and Herodias certainly have them spinning. The convenient divorce and re-marriage at the top of the ranks is the context of this encounter. . . . It’s not a new question for the Jewish leaders. You see Moses had allowed a man to obtain a certificate to send his old honey along her merry way. The legality of divorce really wasn’t the question of the day. The circumstances under which such a certificate of dismissal could be granted was. . . . Some said, “Only if she’s caught fooling around with some other man.” The opposite end of the spectrum refuted, “Ah-uh. If she burns my toast two mornings in a row, she is outta here!”
Of course the shoe rarely made it to the other foot. We’re walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than in our own. Marriage wasn’t about sweaty palms, mushy-gushy, pitter-pattering hearts, swooning “I pledge my love forever,” and all that jazz. It wasn’t some emotional pull of heartstrings. In ancient Israel marriage was a transfer of property – from one man to another: father, or eldest male relative, to husband slash owner-to-be. A woman was literally bought for a bride’s price – plus tax which also was known as any other gifts the man could afford. But wait, we’re really not talking about women – at least not according to our standards. These were pre-teens: the approved marrying age was 12 and a half for females – 13 years one day for males. And yes, things were generally arranged by the betrothed’s families. … Before it all was said and done, good old father Abraham’s clan even decided the purchase of more than one young female was permissible – commendable even. They thought it showed the favor of God if you had enough wealth to buy and financially support more than one woman including the fruit of her loins. Additionally, marriage was the sure way property was transmitted from generation to generation. You see you bought an untouched, virgin girl to sire an heir – preferably a male or at least keep trying ‘til you get a boy – to insure your land certainly was and forever would remain in your name. It was even better if the darling little missus could cook and clean. Marriage in antiquity: it was that simple.
But you know how complicated simple things can get. Somewhere along the line the tradition of more than one wife was erased from the books. Then real trouble began. What if you find yourself a few years down the road with Rebekah discovering that if you could get Miriam next door, you may strike a better deal – be it finer lineage, the potential of becoming the sole male relative in her family (along with all the fixings of her daddy’s wealth), or whatever the gain? Some said: “Immediately, give that man the certificate. Let him send the old model packing.” Who cares that such a dismissed woman was damaged goods. Most likely destined for a dismal future in a culture that wouldn’t allow her to fend for herself. The whole thing had become rather ridiculous. Which I dare say is how many perceived what had taken place between Herod and Herodias.
The religious leaders invite Jesus to get in on the game. They want him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other. It seems they hope to trap him to speak out against Herod in a seal of his fate – and head – just like had happened with John. . . . Instead Jesus calls a scam and scam. “Hardness of heart – completely unteachable!” . . . In a way he spits in the face of a culture set on defiling the marital bed. Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning to paint a different picture. Remember God so desiring mutual connectedness – relationship – for God’s first human creature? God wanted it so much so that God makes a helpmate suitable for Adam. Genesis two goes: the creature declares, at long last, “Finally bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25). Oh! Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD! . . . “For this reason” – perhaps this flat out ‘I’ve-never-been-more-excited-in-my-life-to-receive-such-a-gift’ reason. Jesus says: “for this reason two shall become one flesh” (Mk. 10:7-8). . . .
He’s telling us that God’s heart beats love. God’s heart, which cannot be alone, wants the same for us: relationship, connection. Two parties eagerly, excitedly, intimately giving themselves to the other – not just one day glorious wedding day, but every day. The One who piped the tune love into the heart of the universe wants us to receive the gift of one other with the same “Hallelujah! At-long-last-bone-of-my-bone” attitude as the first disconnected human being received the gift. Be it a life-long marriage between a male and a female, some other committed I’m-ever-at-your-side connection, or maybe even the bond with the person down the pew. . . . We know Jesus wants us to take a peek at how we cherish connection with one another because directly after this incident with some Pharisees, his followers find themselves chastised again. This time they’re building a barricade around their beloved leader to keep out the hoarding children. It boils Jesus’ blood. He’s spoken to them a word of welcoming, a word of our need for relationship, but they still fail to get it. “Let them come,” Jesus cries. “Do not stop them; for the kingdom is for them!” (Mk. 10:14-15). . . . It’s not a set of divorce criteria Jesus is attempting to set up here in this text from the gospel of Mark. Instead, Jesus seeks here to vocalize, then enact, the intent of a Creator completely committed to relationship – receiving each other continuously as if the other is the most precious thing upon which we ever did lay our eyes. That’s love. The gift to one another that God intends for us to be. From home, to here, to out there in the world, you and I are made to receive one another ecstatically in love. . . . Will we be eternally held out if we fail? Are we guilty in God’s eyes if our relationships regrettably fall apart? I don’t think so. That would make God’s heart into a heart of stone – judgement over love, turning it all into law – the very thing the Pharisees wanted, and Jesus wanted to steer clear of: making God’s gift something other than a gift. That’s a message we can hold on to on this World Communion Sunday. A message that might bring us all further together in loving, grace-filled relationship.
May the vision of receiving one another more joyfully than getting a long-desired present . . . just like that first human being received the gift of the other — may that ideal – never fade.
In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)