October 7, 2018

20th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

Of all weeks, Jesus? When tempers are inflamed and hearts are weary, when relationships are strained anyway, and everybody is feeling defensive and betrayed, this is the time you want us to talk about marriage and divorce, and power relationships between men and women[i]? Really?

Throughout the country, and in every news source we look at, victims of sexual violence are expressing outrage as once again, their stories may elicit concern, but cannot change the outcome of long, systemic silencing and disregard.

More personally, my brother and his wife of 25 years are going through a divorce, and it’s been pretty awful for them. I love them both. I’m honestly worried about how either of them will respond to a sermon on these texts this morning. Truth be told, their marriage has been strained for such a long time, that maybe they’ve already endured these texts and struggled with them countless times. As is so often the case for couples ending marriages, it’s not a new brokenness, but a realization that after all the years of brokenness the marriage has not survived.

But even so, is this the right time to address all of this stuff straight on?

It’s remarkable how the scriptures, written in such a vastly different context, and for such different purposes, can touch way too close to home so much of the time. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Because we are so familiar with what they seem to say, we can sometimes believe these verses can only offer us messages they’ve told us before.

And because some of them have so often been used to silence and condemn us, we may miss the life they come to bring, especially in times of outrage and despair, strain and discouragement.

Moreover, we may hope that scripture will help us condemn others, while justifying ourselves. We may want to point the finger at the faults of those with whom we differ.

That’s what the Pharisees were doing in today’s text. They come trying to test Jesus, not to find out what he really thinks, but to trick him somehow. The only other time divorce is mentioned in Mark’s gospel is the divorce of Philip and Herodias. John the Baptist criticizes their divorce, and he loses his life because of it. The leaders here are wondering if Jesus will be blunt enough to condemn Herod too, and if so, if he’ll face the same fate as John.

But Jesus won’t let them point fingers at Herod, or Philip or Herodias, or anyone else. Instead, he turns the direction of the accusation back on his interrogators. “What did Moses command you?” Jesus asks[ii].

Maybe this isn’t about Herod’s marriage. Maybe it’s not about the Senate hearings, or the climate of discourse in our country, or my brother’s marriage, or anything like that after all. Maybe this has to do with my own “hardness of heart.” How have I been shaped by the brokenness of this world? How is God responding to the pain that each one of us causes to ourselves, to our neighbor, and to creation itself?

“It is not good that the man should be alone,” God says. It’s the first time God has said that anything is “not good.” You remember that day after day in the first creation story, God saw that everything created was good. God saw that it was very good, and seemed to take delight in this world.

But we start chapter 2 with a new reaction from God. It is not good for humans to live without others. It is not good for us to be alone. In God’s design, we need each other. We need community and companionship and interactions with others to be fully human.

This text has traditionally been used as justification for a whole lot of bad theology: the subjection of women, the dominance of humanity over the rest of the created order, and the abnormality of anything but heterosexual relationships. It is humanity’s hard-heartedness that interprets the scriptures this way. We miss the goodness of God’s intentions in doing so.

The word for man used here was not originally gendered. Adam simply means earthling, a creature formed from the dust of the ground, a human one. If it’s not good for the earth-creature to be alone, then it’s not good for any other to be set apart as less than, as subordinate or inferior, either.

Adam rejoices when finally, one human is formed from another, when he meets an actual person, a reflection of him, made of him, equal to, the same as him. “This at last is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.”

This text isn’t implying that one of the humans is somehow superior to the other, but that every human is real and full and important and valued. Rather than allowing our hardness of heart to pretend that one of us is more significant, or created more perfectly than the other, Genesis reminds us that all of life is created by God for the good of one another[iii].

Humanity, made in the image of God, is made for relationship, bone of bone, flesh of flesh. It is not good for us to be alone because we need each other. All others are shaped as I am, from the dust of the earth and from the body of other humans, as helpers and caregivers with me, and for me, with all others and for all creation. What God has joined together from the beginning, let no one separate.

It is to this text that Jesus refers when the Pharisees test him. Jesus tries to remind them that from the beginning humans are made for relationships and community, and we are to care for all others.

In Jesus’ time, divorce could be even more destructive than it is for us today. If it feels that women today are regularly silenced or undervalued, remember that in the first century, a divorced woman had little chance even to survive. She may have been shunned by her family, and unable to earn an income. What’s interesting is that even in that context, Jesus grants women the same responsibilities as men in divorce. He evens up the rules for both parties[iv].

And what’s especially telling is how Jesus (as he so often does), recognizes the most vulnerable person in the situation, the one who is left without a partner or community. It is for our hard-heartedness that God reminds us to care for that part of creation that has been most neglected or disregarded by our abuse. In the case of divorce, the partner who was abandoned. We know that because of societal norms and pressures, divorce still too often harms women and children who are left behind.

How fitting that by the close of the text, Jesus allows the conversation to be interrupted by little children who were coming for a blessing. As Pastor Ann pointed out in her sermon a few weeks ago, children were often the most overlooked and poorest of his society[v]. Rather than count them out, or forbidding them to be present, Jesus invites them into his embrace.

Our hard-heartedness wants Jesus to continue railing at the Pharisees, or to chastise the disciples, or to condemn those in power who have killed the prophets. Instead, Jesus takes in his arms those who are most vulnerable and disregarded, and offers them the compassion of God’s blessing. He reminds us that it is to such that God’s reign belongs.

It is not good for these children to be kept away from Jesus. It is not good for anyone to be left outside of the circle of compassion. The children’s openness, their neediness, and their lack of hard-heartedness allow them to receive the goodness all creation is meant to enjoy.

Children are the best example of God’s gift of community, because they never suppose they can make it on their own. They know that they need the care and support of loving adults. They depend on a community to protect them. As we grow, our hearts can become so hard, that we lose that vulnerability.

God knows better. God knows that we are meant to be in relationship with others. God creates us to care for one another, to delight in each other, and to find in others our true humanity. What God has put together, let no one separate. Already, God’s grace is melting our hardened hearts and restoring us as the soft-hearted, loving people we were meant to be.

Perhaps it is still the most vulnerable who show us what it means to be truly human: children; people grieving broken relationships; people who have endured bad relationships for too long; people who are trying to make things work, and those who have realized their marriages can’t survive; those with broken hearts; all of them, bone of my bone.

Maybe in our culture it’s trans-gendered people, and African-Americans caught in the prison system. Maybe it’s persons who are differently-abled, those with disfigured bodies, those suffering with PTSD, combat veterans, trauma survivors. Maybe it’s people who have faced oppression, people who have been victimized, people who have little access to justice in this broken society. Maybe they are at last my helpers, my partners, fit for me.

Maybe today it’s the children separated from their parents at the border, and the people who feel threatened by immigrants. Maybe it’s people on the other side of political disputes, Republicans and Democrats, and all of us who are struggling to understand how to move forward in times such as these, flesh of my flesh.

It is for our hard-heartedness that Jesus comes to say, “You, my child, are a marvelous part of my good creation. You were made to be loved and cherished and held in respect. In your bare-naked beauty, you are whole and worthy. Do not be ashamed, but live in the relationships of mutual care and respect for which you were formed.[vi]

“What I have joined together, let no one separate.”

[i] Genesis 2:18-24, and Mark 10:2-16

[ii] Philip Ruge-Jones, Commentary on Mark 10:2-16, Working Preacher: Preach This Week, for October 7, 2018, Luther Seminary. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3789

[iii]   Julianna Claassens, Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24,  Working Preacher: Preach This Week,  for October 7, 2018, Luther Seminary.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3792

[iv] Bradley Schmeling, Currents in Theology and Mission, Issue 45: Vol 3. Barbara Lundblad, ed., Preaching Helps, October 7, 2018. http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/140/161

[v] https://www.gloriadeistpaul.org/mediacast/18th-sunday-after-pentecost-pastor-ann-bergstrom/

[vi] Our text ended with Genesis 2:24, but verse 25 is so beautiful, too: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”