Keeping ourselves together

Listen to this sermon draft here:

Forward to the reading
For me, marriage has been a means of Grace. I have been married for 35 years next month. I really did not know what I was getting myself into when I got married. And I often think the persistence of my marriage has had a lot to do with good luck, and much less to do with my good management!  If not for the grace of God, and the perhaps greater grace of my wife, I probably would not still be married. There has been a lot in me, and in the general muck of life which has militated against the survival of our relationship.

A colleague has written  that

Divorce is not God's intention for marriage; but, because of human sinfulness it happens, and we need divorce laws for protection.

He has a little smiley face where he says, “Divorce is probably better than murder.”

He says

Divorced (and remarried) people are sinners, but so are all of us. Jesus refused to condemn and punish the one who had been caught in adultery. I believe that that same grace and mercy is extended to all of us sinners -- even those who have been through divorce and remarriage. How much more does someone whose life has publicly been torn apart need the comfort and love and acceptance from a community?

We can smile with my colleague and his little joke, but I have also had congregational members who lived in constant fear of being tracked down by violent partners. When you have known someone living under an assumed name in another state, who is always looking over their shoulder, it is difficult not to conclude that sometimes divorce, also, is a means of grace.

The police always look first at family and friends, and especially husbands, when women are murdered.

I reckon that Jesus’ heart is saddened when a couple break apart. But often, I think, he says to one or other, or even both, “Welcome to freedom. Let’s begin life again.”

Let’s hear the reading of the Gospel:   Mark 10:2-16

He 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.

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

The Sermon
I’m really interested in the overarching theme that is happening in this part of Mark. The lectionary tempts us to look at the individual bricks like today’s reading, but it helps to look at the whole wall, too.

The great theme in these chapters is the healing of our blindness so we may see who the Messiah is and properly follow him.

It  all begins at 8:22-26 with the healing of a blind man, and you might notice that at first, he cannot see clearly.

Peter then sees Jesus is the Messiah. (8:27ff)

And all the way through to Chapter 10:46-52 where Bartimaeus is healed of his blindness, and follows Jesus on the way, we see Peter and the disciples need a healing of blindness so that they may see clearly. It’s only then that Jesus enters Jerusalem.

The disciples cannot see who Jesus really is, and what it really means to be Messiah in these passages. They do not understand the necessity of his death; indeed, Peter will not hear of it. (8:32)

They argue about who is the greatest. They need to learn that you must lose your life to save it. And that true greatness is about being servant of all.

They need to have the example of a little child put before them. Children are least of the least, the ones without power or greatness. It is in welcoming the least, the people who don’t seem to matter, the people we could ignore, that we will meet God, Jesus tells us!

All this is happening as they travel on the road, which is Mark’s way of describing following Jesus. This is a lesson for us. We are called to be on the road.

The disciples are slow to get the message. They reject a man who is actually working in Jesus name. They reject the children, in today’s reading. They argue again about who is the greatest.

All the way Jesus keeps teaching them. You need to see clearly: the first is last. The one who is great is the servant of all.

Then there is a sudden shift. He says that whoever causes one of the little ones of the church to stumble... well, it would be better for them to have a great millstone hung around their neck and that they were cast into the sea. Don’t mess with the people of God; they are precious to God.

And just when you think then... that he might suggest what else might happen to such people, or how the church might react to people who hurt it, he turns back to speak to the church about itself! What last week’s reading seemed to say to us was that we should pay attention to our own community life.

Don’t worry what the outsiders do; look to your own behaviour! If your hand causes you to sin—cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble—cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin—pluck it out! For it is better to enter the kingdom with only one eye than to miss out!

Jesus is telling us that in life with him everything is upside down; or at least, back where it should be! The last is first. The greatest is the one who serves. We meet God in the poor people and the children; the least of society. And what matters is not getting even with the outsiders, but paying attention to our own community life.

If we don’t pay attention to our community life it may prevent us entering the kingdom. We may miss out on the relationship and the joy we could be having with God.

And in this flow of teaching there are two things he singles out!

One is riches. This is in next week’s reading: ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

The other thing he highlights... is Divorce.

We’ve gotten used to divorce. We recognise how people don’t get married with divorce in mind. They have hopes and dreams. We know the stresses that come on a relationship; jobs that want you to make your spouse a doormat, perennially sick kids, lack of support from family. We know that. We’ve learned too, the horror of finding one’s self married to an abusive spouse. Slowly we are learning to be compassionate, to be gentle, and to support people whose relationship fails. This is all for the good. We are here to serve a world of hurting people.

But of all the things that Mark found threatening his local community of Christ, after the lessons about greatness and acceptance, it is divorce that he decides to mention. He clearly found it important, and destructive of his community.

Is there a lesson for us?

Jesus doesn’t talk about marriage. The definition of marriage keeps changing across culture and history.  What Jesus talks about is becoming one flesh. He recognises, as we do, that there is something completing of us in our sexual relationships...

some...  “coming together...”  that reverses the “torn apartness of human beings.”  I’m referring to the loss of the rib of Adam, the first human creature, and its return, as Adam and Eve cling to each other in Genesis. It is this story that Jesus is quoting in today’s reading. The story reflects the healing, nurturing and saving nature of good intimate relationships.

Divorce, the breaking apart of human partners, is very often a  breaking apart of our selves who were being  healed, or put back together, if you like. It is the antithesis, the complete opposite, of what being part of the community of Jesus is doing for us. Divorce tears at us, trying to drag us apart from the beginnings of the Kingdom.

In a sense, divorce is the star example of how the breaking of relationship is destructive to community.  But community relationships are also broken by gossip, by greed, by lust, by desire to be the greatest, by cliques; the list goes on... In this sense, divorce is no greater failing than anything else.

If divorce breaks us apart, we don’t seek to reject or eject the injured parties. We seek to heal. We should cut out the thing that is causing us and them to stumble, so that we may go on together on the road.

What about the children at the end of our reading?

 [Quotation loosely adapted from Brian Stoffregen, whom I have found most helpful this week. He quotes Pheme Perkins’ Mark. [p. 647]

Once again, Jesus is warning the disciples that they must give up the normal human calculations of greatness if they are to participate in the rule of God. [Instead,]  Jesus  [says] that one who does not "receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." What does he mean?

He is not talking about innocence. The innocence of children is a modern idea which it is unlikely Jesus would have recognised or understood.

 The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the [father of the household.] The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family. Technically a father could say, “Too ugly. Not one of mine! We’re not keeping it.”

Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults.

The saying "to receive the kingdom like a child," refers to the absolute dependence of a child on its father for any status, for any inheritance, and even for life itself.

Perkins says that this saying warns the disciples that they are absolutely dependent upon God's grace -- they cannot set their own conditions for entering the kingdom, no matter what they try.

Neither can they set the conditions for anyone else! We have no warrant to reject those who are divorced, or remarried, or who were any other kind of sinner.

We do not enter the kingdom based on the success of our marriage; or its failure. We do not enter the kingdom of the basis of our greatness or success at anything. God brings us in. We cannot make our entry happen otherwise. And if we try, we will damage the Community of Jesus.

Once we have joined the Community of Jesus, let us do our best, our very best, to be pure and to build one another up in love.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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