A Sermon for 7 October 2018 – World Communion Sunday
In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell states that we all must choose. As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear: judgement or love? It seems an important question to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today. Late this week after Beebe already had run the bulletins, I wished I would have picked one of the other lectionary texts assigned for this World Communion Sunday and avoided this complicated gospel story all together! Then I remembered Newell’s question. What tune resides at the heart of the universe? What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls? What tune did Christ reveal in full? . . . If we believe the tune at the core of it all is judgement, then the story we are about to hear could lead to simple conclusions that we could pick out of scripture to hold as authoritative as we ignore the setting of this story. A story in which Jesus is being tested on the topic of divorce. Leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune want to trap him. But if we believe the tune at the center of it all – if we believe that the tune in the center of God’s own heart is 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. Jesus 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 to be a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context. The Pharisees weren’t coming 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 – we forget the context. The 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 bull’s eye of happenings in their day. King Herod and Herodias’ marriage!
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!). Remember that John lost his head because of his words against the swop-a-roo marriage of Galilee’s tetrarch King Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias. Upon hearing of John’s beheading by Herod, Jesus seeks a break – likely a time to re-strengthen his resolve to be ready to continue, no matter the consequences. Longing crowds hunt him down, 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. Obviously threatened by him, they try again and again to trip him up. This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce. The actions of King 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!” In Ancient Israel, men alone legally were allowed to seek such a certificate of dismissal. Though Roman law allowed women to initiate divorce, ancient Jewish law did not (C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 143). Which is a reminder that we are walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than we do today. The patriarchs of scripture even practiced polygamy. Marriage in antiquity had to do with the transfer of property (a young girl from her father to another man) in order, often, to secure more property (more land and large dowries). One commentator reminds that “in Jesus’ day, when a woman received a ‘certificate of divorce,’ she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property). She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.” The commentator concludes: “Clearly, Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper. (Because) in the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other” (David B. Howell, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 142). Might Jesus have been encouraging an alternate view of marriage? One radically based on mutual love?
In that spirit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2018 Book of Common Worship, for the first time in 25 years, has revised the liturgy for marriage. It now reads thus: “From the beginning, God created us for relationship and kept covenant with us. Jesus gave himself in love and taught us continually to forgive. And the Holy Spirit, given in baptism, renews God’s grace within us day by day, enabling us to grow in faith, in hope, and in love.” The new marriage liturgy continues stating: “Those who marry are called to a way of life marked by grace, fidelity, and mutual respect, as they bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. As blank and blank” – which means fill in with the names of the two standing before God and everybody in the wedding ceremony. “As blank and blank make their promises today; families are joined, friendships are strengthened, and a new community of love is formed. Let us surround blank and blank with our affection and prayer, giving thanks for their love for one another and for all the ways that God’s love is made manifest in our lives” (p. 691). The liturgy almost makes even me wanna get married! For what a beautiful reminder of what God has intended for those who marry. Spouses are to be visible reminders to the world that God designed us for love. Created us for right-relationship. And remains with us on the days when loving one another is a great joy and when it’s not.
In light of the gospel text before us today; you might understand why, as I reviewed the new Book of Common Worship this week, I let out an audible gasp. When I turned past the first liturgy in the new Marriage section, and the second which is fully in Spanish, and the third which is a “Reaffirmation of Marriage Vows;” I found the fourth. A liturgy unlike any I have seen before. It’s entitled: “Prayer at the End of a Marriage.” It reads: “Blank and Blank,” again, insert the names of the two people who have given it their all, but for whatever reason no longer can move forward in life as a married couple. The liturgy begins: “Blank and blank, we gather here today to pray for Christ’s healing, to seek the Spirit’s guidance, and to ask forgiveness from God and one another.” The pastor then reads: “Hear these words of comfort and hope from scripture. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (So, in the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew,) come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Hear also words of the Apostle Paul from Romans): the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (p. 711).
Can you imagine hearing these words from scripture in the context of marriage’s difficulties? Can you imagine the healing for all for whom a marriage regrettably comes to an end if again those divorcing would gather with their pastor, children, family, and friends to pray for God’s strength in the midst of what is one of life’s most painful moments? How might it offer healing for all if, as the liturgy encourages, those divorcing would stand together to speak these words: “Blank (fill in with the name of the soon-to-be ex-spouse) I return this ring to you, with gratitude for the blessings of our marriage . . . (the liturgy notes read: at this point) [children of the marriage may be named].” The person continues by saying: I return this ring to you with “sorrow for that which is broken between us . . . and hope for the future into which God will lead us” (p. 713). The liturgy for “Prayer at the End of a Marriage” closes with a charge to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Then the pastor raises their hands over two who’s lives will go a very different way than they once anticipated, to remind them that God does bless and keep them. Is kind and gracious to them. Looks upon them with favor. And will give them peace forever. Can you hear the tune at the heart of the universe loudly echoing in such prayers? Through such a liturgy, can you see the Divine heart aglow with Love?
One day long ago, religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus. They wanted him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other. They wanted him to align with their hard-hearts or whimsically dismiss women in the ways of their local King Herod. . . . Instead, Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning. He reminds that God so desired mutual connectedness that when God made the first helpmate, the creature declared at long last, “Finally bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25). Oh! Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD! . . . 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 to vocalize, then (by welcoming the children) enact, that Love is the tune at the heart of the universe; for Love is the heartbeat of God. . . . Will we be eternally held out if our loves 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 reminds that at the heart of the universe is Love; for God is Love. May all our relationships reflect the very same Love.
In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)