Words from Our Pastor

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pentecost 20, 10/7/18: All In the Family

Sermon for Pentecost 20, 10/7/18                 Mark 10: 2-16                              "All In the Family"
 I titled today’s sermon “All In the Family” for a reason—this passage is not strictly about marriage, but about the larger picture of community and family that God painted in creation. But once I decided on that title, I couldn’t erase the “All in the Family” image of Archie Bunker sitting in his recliner, beer in hand, feet up, and a game on TV. That 1970’s sitcom was a cultural hand grenade, exploding into our living rooms, flashing its light on issues that were still ‘hush-hush’ in many American families: from racism to drug-dependency to D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Part of its beauty was that Archie and Edith’s story was dysfunctional enough that most families watching could safely say, “Thank God we’re not that bad.” 

And remembering that show, you, too, can probably say with confidence, “My family is NOT that messed up.” But every family story IS messy. Every family has its scars, and for many the scar of divorce remains visible and tender years after it happens. For some, deep anger persists. Others find themselves grateful to have put the pain behind them and found joy again. But nobody wants to talk about divorce, and I can tell you no preacher is eager to tackle this Gospel story (PB might say this passage is ‘just deserts’ for me after the hard ones he’s been dealt lately—but this one takes the cake!)

I’ll start with the Pharisees. I don’t think the Pharisees are concerned one bit about the pain of divorce. Their question is a legal one: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? It’s meant to make Jesus squirm, or at the least to spark politically dangerous debate. Or, spinning it more favorably, maybe they’re hoping he’ll give them an answer that works when this tricky question comes to them. But he knows they know the story of their own people’s brokenness, and he’s not about to do their work for them. So he throws it back to them: “What did Moses command you?”

“Dang! We do know the story: Moses allowed the husband to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they say. Then Jesus pushes deeper—Moses did that because of your hardness of heart. Jesus didn’t have to explain the connection between them and the ancient Hebrews because Jewish people knew they were all part of the same big story from the time of Moses forward. Yes, YOUR hardness of heart. In Moses’ time and their own, men were indeed putting aside their wives at will, their calloused hearts making it impossible for these cast-off women to find another partner. But with that paper, women were free to marry again. Moses had made this allowance to protect vulnerable women and children.   

But Jesus doesn’t leave the matter there because concession that it was, even this had not been God’s original intent. God’s intent was community, inclusion, and peace—not only between husband and wife, but within the whole family of creation, through nurturing, respectful, lasting relationships.

Jesus’ words to his disciples, when he is alone with them, are meant to support that good story that set life in motion. Contrary to the assumption in their time that a wife is property, with no rights, Jesus wants them to remember that she is from the beginning of time part of God’s family. Both what happens to her and what she does matter. Everything is connected.

But make no mistake—for that culture, this teaching was counter-cultural, even subversive. Because God’s people still had hard hearts:
·      The Pharisees—questioning IS IT LAWFUL for a man to divorce his wife—they don’t even consider the pain behind the action. (hard hearts)
·      And the disciples—sternly scolding those who bring children to Jesus—"Get them out of here. He doesn’t want them touching HIM”—they forget the value of every living thing God made. (hard hearts)
These behaviors do not align with the way of life God intended.  When Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them, he overrules those stern hard hearts and plays by the rule of love, which affirms the abundant and good creation of God—all the creatures matter. All the creatures matter.

I think we’ve got it….until Jesus stumps the disciples and us by going just a little further: “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” From where we stand, we might think of the innocence and energy of children and their wide-eyed trust—maybe Jesus means that those qualities would teach us how to receive the kingdom. We should be like them.
(Aside: But every parent will admit that children have their sweet, innocent days and their horrid ones. Nevertheless, their innocence and wide-eyed trust captivate us.)  

But I don’t believe anyone around Jesus would have jumped to that interpretation (being like children is what gets us closer to the Kingdom). Children in that time and place, as you know, were valuable only when old enough to work. First-century families tried for multiple children mainly because they needed them to carry on the family name and contribute to its livelihood. And because the mortality rate was high: 60% of first-century children died before their 16th birthday.

Since few in that time would have even noticed the wide-eyed innocence and trust of children, receiving the kingdom of God as a little child may have referred less to being like a child and more to doing something: doing what Jesus did. And what did Jesus do? He gathered the little children to himself. He gathered those who didn’t measure up. Some were little children, but not all—throughout Jesus’ ministry they were little ones of all kinds: women and blind men, lepers and tax collectors—all God’s children, all in the family. The ones no one else honored, Jesus did.

Is this the model we are to follow? Because that’s not going to be easy. Some of God’s children make some of us very uncomfortable. I walk by them just as often as you do. Maybe we turn our eyes away when traffic forces us to stop near them, with their hand-written placards: ‘Put Me To Work’…..‘Need food’.... It feels threatening to open the door just a crack to their hopelessness and our ability to do something about it. I say NO a lot.

So does Jesus. He says NO to the throwing away of a relationship that leaves the vulnerable party penniless and alone; NO to the shunning of children who are helpless and have nothing to offer in return for love; NO to a way of life that never looks beyond the rules; And NO to the repeated choice we in this broken world made for exclusion rather than inclusion.

But Jesus also says YES! To the Gentile woman begging for her daughter’s healing and willing to grovel under his table for it. YES to the ruler whose daughter is dying. YES to the deaf man who couldn’t speak. YES to the two followers on the Road to Emmaus who needed more than talk, who needed to see him break the bread. And, thank God, YES to us, flawed and prone to poor decisions but needing so much, ourselves, to be included.
Yes, the Kingdom of God does belong to such as these.

What better news than to hear that we are now and always IN God's family! Remembering the loving community God wanted for us who were made by God’s own hand, we can even help with our hands and our soft hearts to mend the cracks in this broken world.
What better model to follow than Jesus himself for becoming, in gratitude to him, the very best we can be? I plan to work on that, and I pray that you will, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.