Preacher’s Note About Context: This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Newport, Vermont where for several weeks a variety of contemporary prophets have been raised up as part of the liturgical theme, “Wild Things.”
Lectionary Texts: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost/BProp22_RCL.html
Before getting into the thorny brambles
of Jesus and divorce,
I want to pause on today’s “Wild Thing” –
our weekly selection of a prophet
harvested from among the many heroes of faith
commemorated in The Episcopal calendar
of saints and holy people.
Take a look at that description in your insert
of Walter Rauschenbusch.
Not a household name for many people
but he changed the course of Christianity
in the United States – literally, turned the course of the river.
“Rauschenbusch’s view of Christianity was that its purpose was to spread a Kingdom of God, not through a fire and brimstone style of preaching but by leading a Christ-like life. Rauschenbusch did not view Jesus’ death as an act of substitutionary atonement but in his words, he died “to substitute love for selfishness as the basis of human society.” *
In other words, he did not accept the notion
that Jesus died for our sins
so that we could go to heaven,
rather, that Jesus lived to show us how to love.
“He wrote that, ‘Christianity is in its nature revolutionary’ and tried to remind society of that. He explained that the Kingdom of God “is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”
In Rauschenbusch’s early adulthood, mainline Protestant churches were largely allied with the social and political establishment, in effect supporting the domination by robber barons, income disparity, and the use of child labor. Most church leaders did not see a connection between these issues and their ministries, so did nothing to address the suffering. But Rauschenbusch saw it as his duty as a minister and student of Christ to act with love by trying to improve social conditions.”
This seems nearly unimaginable to us:
that churches and ministers
would not see income disparity,
or the domination of our politics by billionaires
as abomination to the gospel.
In 2015 there is no way any
or other Mainline Protestant
or Roman Catholic Church
would NOT see an intimate relationship
between the teachings of Jesus
and economic justice
and the waging of peace.
That is because of Walter Rauschenbusch;
someone most people have never heard of.
We have all heard of JP Morgan
and that is who, along with his pals,
with names like Rockefeller and Pullman,
owned the Church before Rauschenbusch.
So when the news media
flattens your sense of hopefulness
with its profit-fueled mania for awfulness,
try to remember the “Wild Things”
we have been raising up these past few weeks:
and next week, Harriett Tubman.
There are thousands of these folks,
who have and are
serving the kingdom of God
here and now
and challenging us to do the same.
“Wild Things” in our midst
who do not conform to the rules of the game
or color within the lines of prescribed thought
and rattle our cages
on the way to helping us
to create and nurture
God’s best dream for us.
So let us remember the “Wild Things”
and the greatest “Wild Thing” of them all, Jesus.
Let’s begin by reflecting on why it is NOT possible
for a Fundamentalist or Literalist Christian
to have a coherent dialogue
with Mainline or Progressive Christians
Note the caveat: about theology.
We can engage in coherent dialogue
about how to live in peace and wellness
as we share community together
but we cannot have a coherent dialogue
that seeks commonality about
God, Jesus, and living out the Gospel.
Today’s reading from Mark
is a portal through which to see
this very difficult problem
that faces many of us on a very personal level
as we find ourselves in uncomfortable
and even painful circumstances
with family members, friends and co-workers
who are Fundamentalist or Biblical Literalist’s.
The first huge divide with those who believe
the Bible to be the literal word of God –
given or even written directly by God –
is that they believe whatever is said in the Bible
is absolute, just as God is absolute.
Secondly, they believe the Bible
is the sole revelation of the mind of God –
that it is the only way we have
to know for sure
God’s intention and hope for us.
But for most Mainline Protestants
and Progressive Christians,
the Bible is only one source of revelation –
and the Bible is not absolute.
Because of what Fundamentalists and Literalists
believe about the Bible,
the world is a closed system:
it is as if they live in a stone house
with each stone a dictate of the Bible
held together by the authority and fellowship
of the Christian community,
their Christian community.
Take out even one stone,
such as Jesus’ words on divorce
that we heard this morning,
and the whole house will eventually fall down.
This way of thinking about the Bible
it is truly an all-or-nothing proposition.
So we can see
that any discussion about theology
from these two perspectives
is a comparison of apples and oranges –
not even the same fruit.
In talking with people who believe
that every word of the Bible is literally fact,
we imagine we are talking about the same thing –
the same kind of fruit –
but in fact, we are talking about
wholly different things
even though we are both talking about the Bible.
How we have come to understand the Bible,
and how different it is from Fundamentalism,
is clearly seen in how we understand
Jesus’ teaching on divorce.
First of all, when we hear the words of Jesus
we must begin by listening to them in the context
of his century and his generation,
rather than begin by hearing them in our context.
Here is how we do that today.
“Some Pharisees came to test Jesus,”
which means is was a hostile question.
“They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”
The question being asked of Jesus
that you and I do not hear
because we are Christians
living in the 21st century, is this:
“Hey Jesus, do you agree with Rabbi Hillel
or are you on the side of Rabbi Shammai?”
We’ve talked about Hillel and Shammai before
because they were the elephant in the room
whenever Jesus was teaching.
They were the greatest thinkers of their day –
the leading authorities on how to interpret Torah.
Shammai was the conservative
and what we might call today a Torah Literalist.
Hillel was the liberal who believed that
interpretation of Torah was necessary
and was not absolute.
Shammai taught that Chapter 24, verse 1
in the Book of Deuteronomy
allowed a man to divorce his wife.
Hillel taught that Chapter 24, verse 1
allowed a man to divorce his wife.
But they disagreed
upon the grounds
and requirements of divorce.
Shammai taught that adultery
was the only grounds for divorce
while Hillel said that any reason was legitimate
but that the man could only divorce his wife
if done in the proper and humane way.
So that is the context
in which Jesus is asked this question.
The legality of divorce
is not in dispute
only the grounds for divorce.
Jesus does not disagree
with the legality of divorce;
he makes a theological comment
about the nature of marriage.
And by the way,
we should understand that polygamy
was still legally practiced in Jesus’ day
among many of his fellow Judeans.
Having more than one wife
was not illegal or considered irreligious
and Jesus never makes a case against it.
What Jesus says
is that Deuteronomy 24, verse 1
was written because God understood
our hardness of heart.
In other words, God got it.
God ‘gets’ human beings.
God understood that we are human
and that there is no perfection
among human beings,
and that human beings may begin a venture
with the greatest of intention
but there is no guarantee we will finish it.
God, in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus says,
was letting us off the hook –
giving us an out and a backdoor so to speak.
Now I can hear the perfectionist in me,
and those who are terribly scrupulous
and very hard on ourselves
about the slightest failure,
and that this huge backdoor
leads only to complacency.
But allow me to remind us
about the fundamental meaning
of one of the 10 Commandments
most associated with this issue:
“Thou shall not take the name of your Lord God in vain.”
We have been wrongly taught
to trivialize this commandment to mean
we are not supposed to say damn, “GD”
and other unsociable swear words.
That is not what this commandment is about.
What this commandment is telling us
is that we should never swear an oath
in the name of God.
For us, in our 21st century context,
that means always use the Civil Oath
in the legal courts for example.
Because we are human.
Any oath we take,
no matter how earnest we are in our intent,
is never a sure bet.
We may mean what we promise
but not be able to keep our promise
because of forces beyond our control
that we could not foresee.
But besides that, we are human
and we have frailties
we just don’t keep the promises we make.
So, according to this commandment,
we are not to trivialize God-the-absolute,
by making an oath in God’s name
that is anything but absolute.
In other words,
do not promise what you cannot guarantee.
Those ancients were very wise.
We need to be disabused
of the idea that when someone gets divorced
they have broken a promise to God.
In the Episcopal wedding ceremony,
we ask God to bless our promise to one another,
we do not promise God
that we will never break our marriage vows.
You see how interesting, complex, and rich
this seemingly absolute teaching about divorce
But, having said all of that,
Jesus isn’t content to let us off the hook
and leave us without some unique wisdom
on the subject.
God understood you, Jesus says,
and gave you Deuteronomy 24
but remember Genesis?
God also created us male and female,
Jesus insists that any conversation about divorce include a reminder of the purpose of marriage:
which is to enjoin us
in a union that makes us one and interdependent.
(And though the verbiage of Genesis
is male and female,
we have said that this is also true
for men who marry men
and women who marry women –
because…we do not believe the Bible is absolute).
What Jesus is pointing out
actually seems like an obvious truth:
marriage makes us one flesh
and even though we may get divorced
it will rip us apart…literally.
We know this to be true.
Whether we have been divorced
or had a deep and intimate bond broken
outside of marriage,
we know that divorce is not a separation
it is an amputation.
Jesus is simply telling the truth.
Divorce that follows the union of two people
in body, mind and spirit,
is an amputation.
It is painful and grievous
even when done for all the right reasons;
and even when the best possible healing takes place that missing limb will be with us in the next relationship
like an amputee’s phantom arm.
That is just the nature of things,
Jesus reminds us.
It is his shorthand way of saying
we bring all of who we are
into relationship with one another
so those with whom we have been intimate
will travel with us into the next relationship
whether we want them there to or not.
So you see,
Jesus does not question the legality of divorce –
it is presumed in the whole conversation.
But neither does he deny
the deep and pervasive truth of marriage,
and physical and intimate union –
that it makes us one flesh
and stays with us wherever we go
and with whomever we are with.
And there is one more thing
in these words of Jesus.
People were bringing little children to him
in order that he might touch them;
and the disciples spoke sternly to them.
But Jesus went ballistic and said:
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God
like a little child will never enter it.”
On the surface
the debate about divorce
and the little kid-thing
would seem to be totally disconnected,
but they are not.
As I pointed out recently,
in another such Gospel story,
in the ancient world children, like women,
had no rights.
They were on the bottom rungs
of a rigid hierarchy of social caste.
Children had nothing to give
and therefore they had little worth.
They were vulnerable and needy
and merely a necessary hassle.
Children were like women,
who when they were seen to have screwed up,
could be dismissed and replaced.
But Jesus says, “No.”
Jesus tells the powerful and the insiders,
just like Walter Rauschenbusch did,
that when we stand on the margin
with women and children
and all others who are marginalized,
that we will become open
to the Kingdom of God in our midst.
That translates to us this way:
When we recognize our powerlessness –
understanding that we have no dowry
or achievements to offer –
then we become open to God,
and in that openness
we can finally embrace God
who is always in our midst.
It is our presumption
of power and control,
and our very ideal of perfection,
that keeps us from knowing God’s presence
even though it is always
right here and now.
*For calendar of saints and commemorations follow this link:http://satucket.com/lectionary/Alpha_list.htm