Genesis 2:18-24 † Psalm 8 † Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 † Mark 10:2-16
Did you catch that little phrase at the beginning of Mark’s passage, “and to test him they asked...” I think that’s what bothered me the most about this text. And it took a while for me to get there because there was a lot that bothered me. But when I took some calm reflective time to read it well, I realized – it’s that phrase. “and to test him they asked……”
As I read this text from Mark, I realized I was looking through the centuries to see these men, these pharisees, dragging something that has intimately affect me, a divorced woman, into the public square, for their own agenda: to test Jesus – to have him, this dissident, weigh in on a hot topic of the day – to score some points against him, and hopefully discredit him. And frankly it made me mad.
And even though this story is from another time, my anger is not misplaced, because that’s how these stories work. Yes, the men from these texts, together with the women seldom mentioned, are in a different time and place. They are working with different laws and different cultural norms, but they do and say things that work to collapse our stories into each other. They speak to us of things we know about, care about, and they invite us to add our voices, to bring our experience, and to work with them, with God, and with each other to try to get to what is good and what will help us be well.
This story puts on display a dynamic still powerfully at work in our own time: a willingness on the part of people, when they are feeling threatened, to publicly wield the personal agonies, the sacred stories of others, as a way to score points, to catch each other out, to retain or gain power. In the story from Mark, it’s some pharisees and a Jewish rabbi talking about how to handle the wife during a divorce. A public legalistic discussion concerning a devastatingly personal and difficult time in a neighbor’s life. We could insert some questions from our own time. Is it lawful to allow immigrants into our country? Can people who are homeless sit on our city streets? Are we really responsible for people with pre-existing conditions? There are many others. Perhaps your own story has been touched by this type of thing. High stakes, personal stories, talked about in the abstract, and thrown around in political conversations that are more about retaining power and privilege than trusting and learning from those who are vulnerable about what they need and what they know.
Divorce at the time of Jesus was not illegal. A man could, according to the law, issue a certificate of divorce whenever he judged some indecency on the part of the woman. The public debate centered on just what counted as indecent and at what point the man is justified in cutting his woman lose. At what point has she dishonored him and his household to where he must send her on her way? But Jesus refuses to enter the fray in the way they want him to. It might make me mad that women affected by this practice could not be present to offer their perspective and a sense of what they needed, but Jesus chooses to bring their interests to the table. At what point is it acceptable to issue that certificate, they ask. Never, is Jesus response and he is acting here in the interest of women.
At that time, marriage was a form of social protection for the woman and divorce meant destitution - a need to find another husband or hope that your father or uncle or son would take you back in all your dishonor. You may not summarily dismiss your wife because she has offended you – is the response of Jesus. God built us from the same stuff and for relationship with each other – to help and take care of each other. He resists the lawmaker’s hard-heartedness, he remembers the interests of the vulnerable, and elevates the conversation over the letter of the law to one of relationship – to the fact that we are look out for each other – to love each other.
Now it is important when we hear this that we do not in turn legalize Jesus’s words. He is not, in my mind, saying divorce is never an option. It is a personal and sacred journey between two people and sometimes the best decision is to go on separately. I like the way one theologian puts it: When we accept the pronouncement “what God has put together let no man separate” we should perhaps also accept the corollary: when humans, despite all their best efforts, can no longer rightly be joined, then let God rightly separate [i] The act of divorce can also be a heartbreaking act of love. With this in mind, our job in the public square is to honor and trust the work and the journey of the people in a relationship, the work and journey of all human beings in the hardships they face, and to focus on devising laws that afford protection and respect for all parties, but that look especially to protect the vulnerable.
Now there is no use pretending we are anything but far from this state of affairs in our public square currently. The real stories of the vulnerable in our country, with all their joy and difficulties, hope and knowledge of what they need, are at best overlooked, or at worst used up by those in power for the sake of scoring points against an opponent and staying in power. And I’ll admit to feeling pretty overwhelmed by the level of partisanship that we are witnessing from lawmakers. But I refuse, I absolutely refuse, to believe that you and I are not part of the story that is about setting things right.
Jesus came for me and for you and asked us to be part of a story that sets things right. Now Jesus was a savvy individual. He knew that even he, the son of God, wasn’t going to get far taking those in power head on and that they would in fact use they substantial power to end his earthly life, just as they intended. But he also knew that enduring power, grounding hope and life-giving potential comes in our ordinary acts of deep, sacrificial love towards our neighbor. They would not ultimately be able to remove Jesus – try as they might – his death did not have the final say because a life given in love never dies and his went on to empower a movement intended to bless the world with that same love.
Jesus worked with these disciples, these ordinarily people that got discouraged and often missed the mark, and he tried to show them over and over the power of anchoring themselves in loving, healing relationship with their neighbors. It is this kind of love that has the power to overcome the worst that people can do. Our acts of love are what will last, acts of love that are directed towards our neighbor, listening and amplifying and giving ourselves to the lives that exist around us. Acts of love that make space for the stories and the vulnerabilities that need to be known. Acts of love that will ultimately affect our public action. The ways we show up in the public square and how we get involved in the political process are no good there unless we are grounded in, and have deep respect, for the sacred stores of our neighbors.
So even as we are mired in partisan division and dangerous power plays, our Compassion, Justice and Peace team want to trust in the power of ordinary love, ordinary neighborliness to get us where we need to go. They want to ask St Andrew to make an even more intentional turn towards our neighbors – our actual real neighbors – those that live in the neighborhood that this church calls home. We are not sure we really know our neighbors as well as we might or that our neighbors know us. And so we want to find ways, easy ways to just connect, without any agenda other than love. It would not surprise us if there are people who think they might be judged by the church, any church, this church; that feel they are not safe or that the church is not interested in their personal pains and loves and griefs. Who fear that the things they carry might get hauled into the public discussions that the church often gets involved in. So we want to create some spaces, some ways that the ordinary loving people in here can meet and build some connections with the ordinary loving people in our neighborhood.
In the coming year, you will start to see some ways that we are hoping to open ourselves to our neighbors. A bench out front maybe, or a welcoming sign, St Andrew folks intentionally entering by the front door and not the side so our neighbors can see ordinary life in this building, things that encourage interaction around the building. Just small simple slow ways to bridge the gap between ourselves and those who live around us. I hope you will bring your loving ordinary presence and ideas to this work as you feel called. It will be easy, and sometimes it’ll be hard. We might meet folks we don’t understand or we’ll worry too much about doing the wrong thing or we’ll find ourselves motivated by anxiety or fear. But we’ll help each other and God will help us. God will meet us at this table and remind us as who we are – a people grounded and empowered by loving self-sacrifice, a people part of a love that will not die. And we’ll find strength or maybe some comfort if we need to rest and let others take the strain for a while, and we’ll remember who we are as part of a movement that finds life by going out into the world to love, and that trusts that God’s loving and honest Spirit is ahead of us, waiting for us in the lives of our neighbors, waiting for us to see her, meet her, listen to her, believe her, learn from her and then act with justice because we love her.
[i] Hoffman, Mark G Vitalis Professor of Biblical SrudiesUnited Lutheran Seminary. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2638
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