Covenant or Legalism?

Traditional Sermon Pentecost 20

This is the look.  (RAISE SCARED FACE MASK)  Yes, this is the look every preacher gets on her or his face when they realize they have to preach on today’s Gospel Lesson from Mark.

We get that look for a couple of reasons.  First off, we recognize that the complexity of life in the first century of the Christian era around the issue of marriage is almost incomprehensible to us.  So … what did marriage mean in a culture where legally, women were property not partners, and the marrying man had almost complete power to use that property as he saw fit?  We also recognize that the complexity of life in this 21st century of the Christian era around the issue of marriage may not be any more comprehensible to us, when 40-50 percent of those who now marry, end up divorced.  So … what does it mean that we may have almost as many divorces within the Christian population as exist outside of Christian communities?  AND… we recognize that in just about every encounter Jesus had with religious leaders in the Bible, this man from Nazareth that we believe was God in human flesh, is almost never concerned with the simple black and white observance of Jewish law … or maybe any law.  So … what does it mean that connected to this story about marriage, divorce, remarriage and adultery, is an additional short encounter with children who had even less value than women in Jesus’ world?  (RAISE SCARED FACE MASK)  Yeah … what’s a preacher to do?

What do we make of this biblical, theological, cultural and interpretive mess?  We clearly need a lot more than a 12 to 14 minute sermon to make any real headway in this lesson.  Show of hands … did any of you bring a cooler with lunch and dinner in it by chance? … we could probably finish up by around 8 tonight, if we plow straight through this lesson right now … any takers?  So you miss the Eagles’ game … wouldn’t this be much more fun?  <sigh>  All right then … we’ll do what we can in the time allotted.

So let’s first broaden the playing field a bit, OK? … CAUSE ITS NOT COMPLICATED ENOUGH ALREADY IS IT?  We’ll broaden our discussion, because this lesson is not primarily about divorce.  But it may very well be about marriage.  Jesus reference to the Genesis story is the give away.  By returning to the Garden of Eden, prior to the fall of humanity, Jesus reminds the Pharisees … and the disciples … and anyone else who will listen … of the power and potency of marriage.  It is not a social contract … nor a bonding of soul mates … nor a convenient place to forge companionship … nor the finding of the person who is your destiny.  It is a process of two lives becoming one … and it takes a lifetime for that new human identity to form itself from the lives of two distinct individuals.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis uses these words, which I think get close to the heart of what Jesus teaches us:

Being “in love” – is not merely a feeling.  It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by in Christian marriages the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God.  They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself.  They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else.  “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise.  It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

Jesus’ words are a reminder that the gift of marriage is dynamite … it is explosive … and it cannot be control ed by rules and laws.  It is a quixotic promise we dare to make to another, in the face of awful odds, if our statistics on the staying power of marriage in our world are accurate.  And when through God’s grace and our openness to that grace, we actually approximate a small taste of what God intended by the words “human covenant,” we find ourselves richly blessed, indeed.  Divorce may be an unfortunate reality in a broken world … but avoiding divorce in no way insures that a marriage will blossom into even a hint of what God intended.

OK … we have now broadened the playing field.  Now, let’s also move this playing field.  Let’s move it out of the cultural swamp it has been mired in ever since shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Bridezillas” began to redefine what weddings were all about.  We have allowed ourselves to be fooled into thinking that our marriages are about “stuff” … and a “look” … and about external window-dressing … all of which will then lead to a perfect wedding day.  And more tragically, we have been duped into thinking that if we can pull off a perfect wedding day, we will have a perfect marriage.  When Jesus chose to step into today’s discussion about divorce … and when he refers to and affirms the existence of and the need for divorce laws, he pretty much says to the world … “You’re gonna mess this up.”  Jesus reminds us that laws serve a purpose in life … they protect us from ourselves.  Thus the divorce laws we read about here were never intended to create perfect marriages … because marriages are always created by the lives of two imperfect people.  No, the laws Jesus debates with the Pharisees, were intended to moderate the damage we can do to each other, when we cannot fulfill those lofty quixotic promises we make.  Jesus is being a pragmatist … not a misogynist … and our challenge is to look beyond the letter of the law, to the intent of the law … namely the goal of protecting us from the explosive power of this relational dynamite, when we mishandle it.

OK, so we’ve broadened our playing field around marriage … and we’ve moved it so safer ground, so to speak.  So, lastly, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus invites us to see this discussion around marriage and divorce as a metaphor for life.  And by that I do not mean that it proclaims to us that every person should be married … quite the contrary.  St. Paul is the champion of reminding us that marriage is a spiritual gift, and like all gifts, it is not bestowed upon everyone, nor need it be.  No … here … the metaphor Jesus presents to us, is found in these final verses of our lesson where people bring children to Jesus.  Folks, this is no Precious Moments scene in which Jesus blesses the angelic little cherubs of the world so we can all say “Ahhhhhh” together.  Remember that children in Jesus’ world had few rights and no social status.  They were seen as spoiled, foolish, and without understanding … they were more often than not hardships, especially for poor families.  No, these children weren’t brought to Jesus so that their parents could Instagram to the world this moment of blessing from the Messiah.  No … they were probably brought to Jesus because they were sick.  The word “touch” in our lesson, is a medical term in Mark’s Gospel.  Mark uses it to describe acts of healing, virtually every time he writes it into his Gospel.  These children were brought to Jesus because they had no other options … no other help available.  They … were … vulnerable.  Just like the women, who could be arbitrarily divorced … dismissed without any substantive cause.  Divorce tears open a relationship that God has blessed … and sickness tears open a life and also a family in every case of illness … but maybe especially when children are involved.  So maybe … just maybe … this story proclaims the grace and love of a God who stands with all those who are alone, or suffering, or dependent … those who are unfairly divorces spouses, or sick children, along with lots of other children of God living at the fringes of life.

You can easily make the argument that the primary theme of the New Testament is that Jesus always stands with those who are vulnerable … and we have tons of places in our world where vulnerability is in play, don’t we?  We can turn to the stories in our national news of opioid addiction, along with a string of other substances that separate people from their loved ones, their jobs, their communities, and their own sense of self.  We can look to the broader world scene, and touch down on the struggles over illegal immigrants being separated from their children and their families, playing out at the borders of most countries in our world.

Or we can consider the struggles women have in our own country, in ways that have been brought to light through the “Me, Too” Movement.  And on a broader scale, we are confronted with the compromising of basic human rights for women in a number of other lands that appear to be no better than the cultural landscape for women in 1st century Palestine.

As we think of our children, we can wrestle with issues of pre-natal life in our own country, and the balance between the life of an expectant mother and the life of a child in that mother’s womb.  And by looking at the world through a broader lens, we can stand in disbelief over children throughout the world who are used a mules and peddlers of illegal drugs, because as drug traffickers know better than anyone, laws for juveniles are often less severe than for adults.

Like the culture of Jesus day, when facing serious challenges to our lives and values, our world also gravitates to rules and laws, in an attempt to force people into places of health and safety and covenant.  We think we can legislate ourselves and our world into places of hope and peace.  And as Jesus’ words challenge that false hope, those same words of Jesus suggest that the solution is always personal … it is always lived out person to person.  The covenant of marriage that we celebrate today in Mark, chapter 10, is one example of the Kingdom of God coming near to you … the blessing of children is another.  Let’s hope that is where the healing of the world starts, instead of ending.  Amen.

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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.

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