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Sermon for 19th Sunday after Pentecost 2021

Job 1:1-2, 2:1-10 Psalms 26 Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16

A farmer in northern California was known for his rich and delicious tomatoes. He was getting older and wrote his son Vinnie, who was in prison. He wrote about his sadness in not being able to till the soil to plant the tomato seeds. He missed his son’s help with the tomatoes. Two days later, he received Vinnie’s letter which said, “Don’t dig up the garden, that’s where I buried the body.” The next day the farm was swarming with FBI agents digging up all of the garden. After digging all day, they found nothing and left. The next day, the farmer received a letter from his son saying, “I did the best I could under the circumstances.”

I couldn’t catch a break with the readings for this Sunday. In the reading from Job, we face the question of why there is suffering in the world, and how the goodness of God can be vindicated in the face of the various evils in the world to which innocent people are subjected.

In today’s Hebrews passage, we hear that God used many approaches to send his messages to the Old Testament peoples. He spoke to Isaiah in visions (Isaiah 6), to Jacob in a dream (Genesis 28:10-22), and to Abraham and Moses personally (Genesis 18, Exodus 31:18). Jewish people familiar with these stories would not have found it hard to believe that God was still revealing his will, but it was astonishing for them to think that God had revealed himself by speaking through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment and culmination of God’s revelation through the centuries.

Then, in the Gospel of Mark, a divorced woman, me, is forced to ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. I just couldn’t catch a break. I don’t know about you, but this passage from Mark on divorce is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. It has been hard to find meaning in the passage, but I got some new insight.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” some Pharisees ask Jesus, trying to trip him up. Moses allows it, they say. In his response, Jesus considers both a man divorcing his wife and a wife divorcing her husband. That sounds good, right? It is a step forward in empowering women and making them more than property. But if we keep reading…for either a man or a woman, divorce leads to adultery. So it ought not to be done. What’s the good news in this?

But in reading it recently, Rachael Keefe, offers a subtext of help and hope that I haven’t heard before. While this passage has been used to condemn those who are divorced, she doesn’t think this is what Jesus means. She says, and I firmly agree that if something is not loving, then it isn’t what Jesus would have us do. In Jesus’ day, women and children had limited rights. If a man grew tired of his wife, he could divorce her in favor of another, and she had little to say about it. When Jesus suggests that a woman is an equal partner in marriage, there are theological implications. She becomes more than “an object in the transaction between men.” By emphasizing a woman’s place in the relationship, Jesus challenges the idea that a man can simply set aside his wife. Marriage creates a union in which two people participate and are changed, a sacred relationship with mutual responsibility. One person can’t just set the other aside.

By bringing this element of the sacred into his understanding of marriage and divorce, Jesus offers the woman some protection. She can’t be easily discarded by one who claims to be living by the religious laws, not as Jesus interprets those laws. Like the man, the woman has value in God’s eyes – so she should be treated with value.

Jesus goes on to include children, too. Children have so much value that they are the ones to show us how to receive the Kingdom of God. Jesus challenges those with power and authority to recognize that God’s love isn’t just for men - women and children are also loved by God for who and what they are. More than 2,000 years later, we still have a hard time with this. The truth of divine love continues to threaten those who hold power in this world.

God’s love is a love that liberates. If Jesus sought to protect women and children, then this passage isn’t really about divorce as much as it is about recognizing the image of God in everyone, particularly the people society tends to give no power, no voice. What God brings together, nothing can separate. We can’t simply discard that to which we are bound by the Holy Spirit.

This passage brings to light the Body of Christ, the Church. Jesus was often criticized for spending too much time with the wrong people – children, tax collectors, and sinners, among them. Some, including the disciples thought Jesus should be spending more time with important leaders and the devout, because this was the way to improve his position and avoid criticism. But Jesus didn’t need to improve his position. He was God and he wanted to speak to those who needed him most. Isn’t that what the church is – for those seeking, loving, hurting, healing together – all important in the eyes of God.

Adults are not as trusting as little children. To feel secure, all children need a loving look, words of encouragement and a gentle touch from someone who cares. They don’t need to understand everything. They believe us if they trust us. Jesus said that people should believe in him with this kind of childlike faith. We should not have to understand all the mysteries of the God; we should not have to make sense of it all; it should be enough to know that God loves us and provides forgiveness for our sin. This doesn’t mean that we should be childish or immature but we should trust God with a child’s simplicity and receptivity.

Jesus used a child to help his self-centered disciples get the point. We are not to be childish, like the disciples arguing over petty issues about who is the greatest, but rather childlike, with humble and sincere hearts. Children trust adults and through that trust their capacity to trust God grows. God holds parents, teachers, and other adults accountable for how they affect these little one’s ability to trust. Jesus warned that anyone who turns little ones away from faith will suffer for it.

Jesus reminds the disciples that one enters the kingdom only by receiving it in complete dependence on God. We don’t enter the kingdom through the fulfillment of some abstract legal principles, including those related to divorce and remarriage. Jesus teaches that obedience is what is needed for entering into God’s reign.

At the heart of this text is the disruptive work of God in Jesus Christ, it overturns patriarchal relationships about marriage and elevates those at the bottom of the social ladder (children) into models for entering the kingdom. Far from simply affirming traditional notions of marriage, Jesus’ words actually turn the conventional assumptions about marriage upside down. The Pharisees question Jesus about whether it is lawful for a “man to divorce his wife,” reflecting an established framework in which only the man could seek a divorce. In the course of his answer, Jesus notes that a man leaves his father and mother to become one flesh with his wife.

And by the end, he also affirms the woman’s right to divorce her husband. Women are given precisely the same rights and responsibilities as men. Similarly, children, who are the least valued and most vulnerable members of society, are welcomed by Jesus, blessed by him, and offered as models for receiving God’s kingdom. Jesus’ teachings and actions here are revolutionary, upending both cultural and legal notions about women and children. The text compels us toward greater equality for radical hospitality toward those who are most oppressed. We should seek answers, we should ask what social structures and assumptions that oppress people, particularly women and children, need to be disrupted and challenged today. This will enable us to proclaim the unsettling reign of God that animates Jesus’ words and deeds. And it will transform us. I did the best I could under the circumstances!

With striking unity all the readings today focus on primary human relationships. They do so by affirming God’s purpose in creation. It may seem surprising that the same disciples who were taught about the kingdom by Jesus as he held a child before them would here rebuke those bringing children to Jesus. But these are the men who argued over greatness and who had keen appetites for power. Thinking of the kingdom in terms of place and power, they had no time for children. After all, children could not march, organize, plan, lead, or provide financial support. But that, Jesus says, is just the point. A child can receive the kingdom without suffering, without claim, without calculation - and a little child shall lead us. Amen.

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