16 Oct The Children Show us the Way
Calvary Presbyterian Church,
October 7, 2018
Gene Kendall, Jr
I remember it like it was yesterday, the visual and emotional memories were burned into my amygdala. On Thanksgiving morning, 43 years ago, with my 4 other siblings home from college for the holiday, my mother told us to gather in the dining room….” Your father has something to tell you” she said. It was an odd instruction, and we knew something was up because when we got home from college, we noticed bedroom furniture in the basement where the family room had been. And so we gathered around the table, and my father proceeded to tell us that he was moving out, leaving my mother, that he wasn’t happy, that he hadn’t been for some time, and that he wanted to find happiness again: The words landed like a bomb, we really did not know what do or say, I don’t remember at that point if we tried to negotiate or talk him about of it…we did not see it coming, after 25 years of marriage…then the tears came, all six of us including my father were crying our eyes out together around the table. Our perfect family turned out to be an illusion, and in that instant, things would never be the same. With my heart in pieces, I helped him move out later that morning, a single mattress and box spring, a few other small pieces of furniture and his clothes, moving him into a one-bedroom apartment across town. The rest is history….
My story is just one of the many stories that could be told in this congregation on the subject of divorce…whether it was over 40 years ago or more recently, it’s still a very personal subject…. divorce is usually painful…. it has consequences, and it is a reminder in that in spite of the very best of intentions , our humanity is fragile and flawed.
The Gospel text (that Angus read this morning) comes to us via the lectionary…. I did not choose it; it chose me so to speak…. I will admit I had second thoughts about sticking with it over the past few weeks, not just because it is a difficult and sensitive subject, but also because of everything that else that has going on in the public sphere around us regarding the Senate fight to confirm Brett Kavanagh as the next Supreme Court Justice. Certainly there is another text with more relevance.
This text also brings with it a bad history of being repeatedly misinterpreted, weaponized, and taken out of context. It has been used to judge and shame and belittle, highlight failures and faults and shattered dreams, and reinforce feelings of stigma or that we are unlovable. And because of that concern, many preachers run from this text and pick a softer topic. Who would blame them?
But I will argue this morning, that the timing of this text is actually fortuitous, because what we’ve been witnessing very publically over the past two weeks with this Supreme Court nomination process is a story about power and privilege…Who has it, how is it used or abused, who is worthy of being listened to or believed? What is the truth, and does truth even matter? Once we get below the surface of this Gospel text, some of these same issues emerge. And my goal is to uncover an alternative way of thinking and being, and find a word of hope that we need to hear in the midst of so much turmoil.
This particular Gospel story found in Mark comes to us in three parts. The first is Jesus’s engagement with the Pharisees while he is teaching a crowd beside the Jordan River. The second is when he is alone with his disciples, teaching them separately. And the third part is his engagement with the children that the disciples try to shoo away. Each of these elements builds on the other, and together they provide the full meal.
In Part One, we find Jesus in a familiar context, with a crowd gathered around him, and as was his custom, where he was teaching them about the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were there in the crowd as well…if you remember, the Pharisees were the religious scholars and enforcers of their day… protectors of the religious status quo and well connected to power and privilege.
And the story says they test him… they ask a question about divorce that is not really for the purposes of learning…but rather a to set a trap. When they ask Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, they are doing so from their perch of power and privilege. Jesus knew what they were up to, and he doesn’t take the bait. Jesus turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from a legal conversation about divorce to a more personal one about God’s design and intention for marriage. As one scholar puts it, he dismisses the law found in (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as a concession to human weakness and offers a different perspective that is rooted in creation by quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24). His focus is not on what is permissible, but rather what is God’s intent, God’s dream for the marital relationship. God’s intent is one of spiritual oneness, where both parties to that marriage are seen as equals since they are both created in the image of God.
This framing by Jesus is a significant power shift from the first century view of women where wives are viewed as property and totally dependent on their identity through their family or marital relationships. They had no status apart from this identity and in those days a man could easily dismiss his spouse for even the smallest inconvenience….one historian mentions the dismissal of a wife for simply burning her husband’s toast. Jesus was certainly aware of the vulnerability of women who were dismissed by their husbands, so his inclusion of them as equals in the eyes of God was a radical departure.
In the second part of this story, the setting is a private house….where Jesus can speak with his disciples privately . They asked him again about this matter and he is clear in his reply. “ Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” But context is everything in understanding this verse. Scholars say this is a direct reference to Herod and his royally messed up family, where Herod Antipas and Herodias both divorce their spouses in order to legitimize their affair. Jesus was labeling their bad behavior for what it was, and far from the intention God has for marriage.
What is also important to note here in this conversation about divorce, is what Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus never explicitly issues an imperative not to divorce. You and I know of people who stay in a marriage way beyond its usable life, the internal relationship died years ago, but they stay together for the kids, or because of finances, or because of their fear of being alone, or fear of guilt. In hindsight, I learned that one of these was in play for my father. Yet any religion that supports dead or abusive relationships is, in my view, sick religion.
In addition to no imperative not to divorce, neither does not personally judge or condemn an adulterer. The best example of this is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, the story of the woman caught in the act and brought to Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes with another question meant as a test. And yes, while Jewish law might call for her to be stoned, he invites those without sin to throw the first stone…and no one does. He asks the woman, “ Is there no one to condemn you?. She says “no one”. His reoly…. “Then neither do I. Go and sin no more. “ He simply points to God’s intended order, God’s dream for her, the Creator’s intention…, which is that people would be in healthy, equal, partnered relationships. The implication is that Jesus accepts divorce as part of the fallen human condition, it like adultery is a manifestation of sin, missing the mark, but it is not a condition that is beyond redemption and forgiveness.
It’s only human to rank our sins with Big S and little S, we may rank Adultery and or Divorce with Capital letters, there is no such ranking found on the lips of Jesus. It’s all the same, separation from God’s dream, God’s ideal for you, for me, for us.
The third piece of this story involves the children. What we read is that the people were bringing their children to him in order that he might touch them. And yet the disciples where shooing them away. So Jesus rebukes them and invites the children to come to him. In the first century world, children had even fewer rights than women and essentially no social status. Yes Jesus blesses them, not because they conjure sweet images of cherubic innocence, but because has concern for the most vulnerable and scorned, for those ripe for exploitation. Just as he inverted the social dynamic of women when speaking about divorce, he does the same for children. “Truly I say to you, he who does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it.” What he is trying to teach his disciples is that the rule of God belongs to persons like these, the powerless, the vulnerable, and the weak, those who are often deemed a nuisance. If his disciples don’t get this central understanding, they will have missed the whole point of Jesus ministry.
As grown-ups we may have difficulty with this—being on the receiving end of this relationship, admitting our needs, even admitting our failures. The children in Mark’s gospel account don’t seem to have this hang up. Jesus blesses them and they simply receive. Nothing else matters. They show us the way.
And so in a world caught up in issues of power and privilege, Jesus beckons us, young and old, to come to him, to abandon our pretensions, our guilt over big sins or little sins, and to receive the Kingdom of God—full of grace and acceptance for all of God’s children.
And so I conclude with the sermon where I began…. with the rest of the story. My father remarried two years after he left our family to start a new chapter. That marriage lasted almost 20 years before he died. That marriage came with a 12 year old step daughter that kept him young, and I think he truly found the happy that he was looking for.
And I have to honestly admit, that after years of distance, that there is a small part of me that admires the courage it took for my father to do what he did, in spite of its impact on our family.
My mother never remarried, and she is a testament and model to all women who get past the pain and stigma of a middle age divorce and reinvent themselves. She has used her experience to help mentor hundreds of other young women through divorce recovery workshops in her churches…she was able to take care of her aging parents who came to live with her during the last years of their lives, and the same for her mothers sister, my great aunt Nancy a year later. She was able to provide free part time day care to most all of her 12 grandchildren, all of whom showed up this summer for her 90th birthday party. She learned how to receive the Kingdom of God like a child, of simply letting God love her, enabling her to let go of her own self imposed stigma of victimhood, finding her true identity as a child of God. And in doing so, this is she got her mojo back, and created her legacy.
That is the same gift that God offers you and me on this day and every day, in contrast to the adult power struggles that consume our news and our politics. The children show us the way. Friends, as we gather around the table this morning, be reminded that through the bread and wine, we are recipients of the Reign of God, no stigma, all of us made equally broken and equally redeemed, made in the image of God, and entrusted to care for the most vulnerable. That is our mission. Thanks Be to God.