Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2012
I’ll bet that in the midst of the present election season, there are many diverse opinions in this room about the economy, jobs, health care and the various candidates running for offices. We could, no doubt, get into a far more heated debate than God and Satan did in the reading from Job or the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel. But we’re not.
I’ll also wager that when it comes to the first portion of this Gospel passage we are, regardless of gender, marital status, or political affiliation, in 100% agreement about one thing: it makes us uncomfortable on some level.
If we have been divorced or if our children or siblings or best friends are divorced or heading in that direction, it is difficult to hear. If we are a gay man or woman, especially in a same sex relationship, or a feminist or straight man who is disturbed by the inequality of women in society, the gender-based language is difficult to hear. If we are opposed to same-sex marriage, it is, at the least, uncomfortable to listen to this Gospel within a church and state that recognizes the marriage between people of the same gender. Divorce and issues around difficulties in marriage and the emotionally charged issue of DOMA can bring a lot of suffering for people—straight and gay.
Divorce is so volatile a subject that it has become the subject of humor, probably to diffuse the emotional fuse it carries and mask the pain of those affected by it. For example, the story of the woman who explained that “My husband and I divorced over religious differences. He thought he was God and I didn’t.”
This is a Gospel I’d love to avoid—what preacher wouldn’t? I’m not going to do that. Let’s delve in by first putting things in context. Modern scholars suggest that the Pharisees were really a reform movement within the first century Jewish community. Their aim was to help the common folk reclaim their Jewish identity by being more observant of the law—both oral and written Torah. Remember that the Jews were a religious minority living in an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.
The Pharisees believed that the moral law was important but that keeping strict observances was the best way to keep their faith vibrant. So while they are an easy target for criticism because of their tunnel vision and obstinate adherence to hundreds of laws that were almost an obsession, they were not necessarily evil.
They kept very high standards and they wanted to help ordinary people claim and be proud of their Jewish identity. All of that would not have been so bad if it had helped bring people into communion with one another, but the reality was that their position excluded people and kept them out—actually made their lives quite unpleasant.
The scene is these guys taking another stab trying to outsmart Jesus and box him into a theological corner. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask. They knew there were huge risks for him on either side of the coin. If Jesus approved of divorce, he would appear to have no respect for Torah. If he were against divorce, he could end up like John the Baptist—his head handed to him on a plate by King Herod.
In so many places in the Gospels, Jesus is the enemy of legalistic, literal interpretations of the Scriptures. He breaks Sabbath laws and is clearly laid-back about ritual purity and restrictions like only eating a meal with the crème de la crème. Why, then, this seemingly about face and hard line in response to their trap question?
A bit of background: There were two schools of thought in the Jewish world of the time—one that divorce was only permissible in the case of infidelity; another that it was allowed for just about any reason, including bad cooking. Jewish religious law allowed only a man to divorce; a woman did not have that right.
In ancient times, women were second class citizens, rarely owned property, and were to be seen and not heard. Marriage was a guarantee of support for the most vulnerable members of Jewish society—women and children. Without the protection of the laws against divorce, women were at the mercy of their husbands. The position Jesus takes in this debate is on the side of the less fortunate and vulnerable—the place he will always land. He knows what they are up to in their interrogation and he knows that the culture controls and suppresses women.
Now, make no mistake about it: the Pharisees did not ask Jesus about divorce because of their burning spiritual concern for clarity. They asked the question because of manipulative political calculation. And honestly, isn’t much of the debate today about marriage rooted in the hope of scoring political points in the polls?
Of course, we’re not going to find specific reference to allowing marriage after divorce or same-sex marriage in this text. We are talking about a time in history when women and children were treated like possessions and where slavery was exonerated. Women had no place in the Temple and, for centuries, did not do well in the Christian Church either. So to use the argument that, because Jesus said nothing about permitting divorce or same-sex marriage, he stood against it, is ludicrous. It makes no sense.
Now, if we did not believe that, through the Holy Spirit, God is still speaking to the Church and that we have been blessed with a brain with which to continue to understand God’s ongoing and unfolding revelation, then a person who insists on working on the Sabbath could be put to death and you could sell your daughter into slavery as the book of Exodus allows. We would still be requiring women to cover their heads and keep their mouths shut in church. We would still have an entirely male priesthood. Remarriage after a divorce would not be permitted. Women caught in adultery would be stoned in public. Our country might still practice the abomination of slavery. And you’d better not take a bite of that fried shrimp dinner you just ordered.
What we do know about Jesus is that he can’t stand barriers and obstacles that keep people out, devalue them, disenfranchise them, cast them off to the margins of life. What we see in the way Jesus lived and in what he taught is the warning that, when religion and its observance gets in the way of fulfilling the spirit, the heart of God’s law, which is love of one another, it’s no longer true religion—it’s counterfeit. We may call it “religion” but it is religion wearing a mask that obliterates the face of God.
And my guess is that’s why he segued into the last part of this Gospel and removed himself from the bickering, debating, hypocritical adult community and turned to the children. And even his disciples didn’t like that one bit. They sternly objected. Jesus’ rebuttal: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
I asked Mother Cindy this week, “So how do children receive the Kingdom of God?” This is how she answered. (Here the preacher held up several large drawings done by our “Not Sunday Sunday School” children who meet on Tuesday afternoon.) These are a few of the ways that our youngest members described it. Note the color, the creativity, the diversity, the sense of awe. That is because children have not yet lost that precious gift God has given us but that, as we grow older, gets so easily stifled: imagination.
Theologian Frank Whitehead says that, “Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way.” Our relationship with God is not just a matter of what we think or feel but a full bodied relationship in which mind and heart, spirit and flesh, are converted to a new way of experiencing and responding to the world. Children can do that. We adults struggle with that. What Jesus’ mission was all about was getting us to see God’s Kingdom through the eyes of children: to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.
I was thinking as I read these lessons on Tuesday morning how very differently this Gospel will get preached in other church communities. I cringe at what some of those sermons will sound like — how much pain they will inflict on congregations, on people struggling in their marriages and on the verge of, in the midst of, or post-divorce as well as same-sex couples. What Jesus does anytime people try to stick it to him about not obeying or upholding the law is to steer his audience to a shocking gift of new sight that grabs them by the collar, turns them around, so that when they are set back down again they see everything from a different angle—like little children.
The Pharisees—then and the Pharisees in the present day—want everything to be black or white. The more clarity about the law of Moses and the more obstacles the law put in one’s way, the better. God does not operate that way. Our kids have it right. God works in technicolor. And God is not through with us yet.
In her book, The Peaching Life, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To believe is an imaginative act…we imagine ourselves whole, imagine ourselves in love with our neighbor, imagine ourselves bathed and fed by God, imagine the creation at peace, imagine the breath of God coinciding with our own, imagine the heart of God beating at the heart of the world. It is a vision of the kingdom. The question God continues to ask us is: What is real to us, what is true, and what do we intend to do about it?