A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 3 October 2021 [Proper 22; Yr. B]:
Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 11-14; Mark 10:2-16
In the six-plus years that I have convened the “Lectionary Study Group”, I have learned a lot. That small, stalwart bunch of biblical explorers who come together each Sunday morning at 8:45 to discuss the scriptures that will be read an hour or so later in worship has demonstrated that the experience of taking scripture seriously and with respectful care is much more difficult than viewing what the Bible has to say literally or (for that matter) metaphorically. More to the point, I find that all of us are greatly tempted to hear the lections (the readings) in terms of what is most familiar to us and to our situations. We listen to the Bible to the extent that we are prepared to hear it and willing to recognize what it says.
With this group, I have specifically found that we are tempted to dive right into the most alluring or strange or threatening elements of the readings, as if to be quick to solve their meaning and to be done with them. But the truth is that the biblical witness (as with any meaningful conversation) requires careful listening and a detective’s forensic attention to the details on the page.
Especially when it comes to the Bible, a good deal of what we confront in scripture can seem strange to our ears, allowing us easily to ignore and defensively discard the inconvenient or the distasteful. Scripture can be painfully offensive to us. For some of us aspects of scripture are quite hurtful, causing us to feel as if the Word of God rakes open wounds we would rather keep tucked safely away.
In all this, what I want to say in this sermon is that I believe that today gospel reading from Mark qualifies as one of those scriptures. And because of this and because of the mere fact that so many of us muted our attention as soon
as certain words from this text were uttered, I want to dive into what the muting is about; and I also want to try to help us hear and live what all the muting misses.
First, a question: What did you hear in the gospel reading? In your mind what in it deserves to be called a “lesson”? Moreover, where in its proclamation do you find “good news”?
To start, allow me to name a few examples of what gets heard by folks like us in the wake of this gospel text.
Some hear this Marcan reading as a reaffirmation of what is called “traditional” marriage: that is, between a man and a woman. Some regard its judgment about divorce as binding at all times and in all places. Rules are rules, after all; and Jesus seems quite clear about them.
Others hear this passage with painful rage, as they have loved most fully in a committed, same-sex relationship, which up to most recent times has been regarded by church and culture as “sinful”, “unnatural”, “sick”. So it is that in many cases, having been together faithfully for decades without much (if any) public support, these folks bristle with heart-broken indignation that their relationships are immediately dismissed, when presently the average length of a “traditional” marriage is eight years, and divorce rates among this “normal” group approach 50%.
Or what of the married woman, who has taken to heart the admonition against divorce from authoritative sources, to the extent that she stays in that sanctioned relationship in spite of being the target of brutal abuse from her so-called partner?
Or what do the children and their older siblings hear in these words about the prospects for human for relationships? Perhaps they reckon it is safer and certainly much simpler to live together and not “marry” at all. It seems to be much more trouble-free to arrange being together, basing the connection on more personal, private notions, thus allowing for the possibility of a breakup when their life together no longer fits the way they expected their life together to be. On the surface, such non-marriage “marriage” seems to be cleaner. At least their functional divorce (if it occurs) leaves no legal detritus. One can pick up and leave, unless there are children involved and unless they choose to ignore the impact of the scars their disappointed and broken hearts will always bear.
So it is that the question remains: What did you hear in this sacred gospel text? Is what you hear much like the “wha-wha-wha” of Linus’s teacher addressing her class; or are we willing to work through what may seem like annoying., even painful static to ask: “Could there be more here?”
Would you be surprised if I said that I believe there is more here -- much more -- than the casual drive-by attention can note? The truth is there is a great deal more to this gospel reading than certainly meets the eye or reverberates on the ear. As with any meaningful conversation, this gospel text’s fifteen verses contain many levels of meaning. But at the core of this reading, what is Jesus’ point? And how might we hear it and live it?
Before we jump into considering our answers to what Jesus’ point is, we do well to pay attention to the details Mark provides, not the least of which is given in the very first line. The Pharisees, a strict reforming pressure group within first century Judaism, confront Jesus, not for the purpose of talking, not to learn, but [As Mark reports] to “test” him. More significantly, this encounter is a trap that groups and individuals often use to destroy opponents -- something our present-day, “social-media-ized” politics exude to toxic levels. The Pharisees’ question about whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife is the same kind of set-up question that Jesus encounters at other times in his ministry. The Pharisees’ question is a sucker punch. The thing about Jesus is that he never falls into this type of public manipulation and “gotcha” stunt.
Rather, in confronting these hypocritical situations, you will notice that Jesus consciously parries the manipulation with a question. In this case he asks, “What did Moses command you?” Like well-rehearsed schoolboys, the Pharisees’ response cites chapter and verse of the Mosaic Law; and they are correct in their legality and moralism. Yet, avoiding their trap that would make him seem not only to be weak on “law and order” but dismissive of Moses (hence, the trap), Jesus dives beyond the law to its God-given purpose.
In so doing, Jesus accomplishes two vital things. First, he raises the issue of the relationship between law and life, implicitly saying the purpose of good law is always to point to good life. Second, he faithfully refocuses the situation on what the Law of Moses (which is good law for Jews) has to do with good life (which is of God). Since legalists such as the Pharisees are only interested in being “right”, they miss Jesus’ crucial point: namely, there are some things that are more important than being right: Things such as honoring God and the life God gives.
And so it follows: Jesus attempts to teach the Pharisees about what is really at stake over the issue of divorce, and he does this by moving deeper than the Mosaic Law to what life is like on God’s terms. And here is Jesus’ point: the question about the divorce law points to the fact that the Mosaic divorce code is in place because people are hard-hearted. This is the crux of the matter, something that can easily be drowned out by our own needs to be right – right legally; right culturally; right socio-economically; right about being in” and right about who is “out”. For, as Jesus reminds us in his life and ministry, there are more important things than merely being right, such as being in “right” relationship with God and neighbor.
Whatever else Jesus says about divorce (and what Jesus says on the subject must never be ignored) – whatever the Lord does say about divorce and how this form of death must be regarded (and divorce is always a form of death), I believe his specific comments must always be seen in the context of what he himself embodies, as the Christ of God: namely, the pain and death of the cross are real; but do not define life with God.
“What God has joined together, let no one separate.” In this case, the old language of this dominical statement conveys the point with more precision: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
“Asunder” is an old-fashioned word, to the extent that it has virtually no meaning to us moderns, save that it may sound pretentiously sophisticated. But “asunder” means “to put in separate places”; more sharply put, to be “torn apart”, “ripped apart”. Jesus’ point in responding to the issue of divorce is that in our hard-heartedness, we ignore (to the point of becoming oblivious to) the fact that life on God’s terms entails recognizing the God that is always between us in all our relationships. To be so obliviously self-concerned that we define our relationships only in terms of what pleases us not only tears – rips apart our connections when we are dissatisfied; but also such “hardness of heart” rips up the God-life we need in order to have life beyond our own vain capacities.
In referring to what our relationships with one another are called to be, Jesus goes deeper than the Law to refer to the constitutional Creation Story in Genesis, where the blueprint is set for what we now in our time increasingly refer to as “the Beloved Community”. The foundational source says that we are to be “partners” with one another, but partners who reflect the partnership God is and graciously gives to us. In other words [as we have said repeatedly], the will of God is Communion, and this shared reality of union together, this oneness is the bedrock of the God-life and of our hope.
Even under the most amicable situations, divorce is still a death; and only the oblivious, the hard-hearted, move through death thinking that relationships are just another commodity, a matter of interchangeable pieces. To combat such violently destructive notions, there are laws about marriage and divorce; and there need to be. Otherwise our relationships get reduced to something we order from Amazon, when in fact our relationships are meant to reflect the presence and life of God.
So, how is it that we have stridently supported and blessed marriage between a man and a woman, while essentially ignoring that half those marriages fail? What are we missing? Is it just a matter of doing a better job of enforcing the law, the customs?
How is it that we have legally and progressively included same-sex marriages both in the law of the land and of this church, but now the incidence of divorce among this cohort is approaching that of “traditional” couples? What are we missing?
Jesus tells us what we are missing, and in him and with him and through him we are asked this question: What is the cure for our hard-heartedness? More to the point, how do our human partnerships reflect the partnership of God?
As I ponder and pray about these painfully real questions, I know that the answer in my own life begins with paying attention to the hard spots, the scarred regions of my own heart. And I regain some needed traction in taking steps along the path of following Jesus, when I recall the words of the late American poet and activist, Maya Angelou. She has written: Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Or as we have already prayed:
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lies and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.