27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I haven’t preached this sermon in a long time… out of fear. Last time I preached from this text, some heard me say something I didn’t say and wouldn’t ever say. So before we go any further, we need to draw up a contract, you and I. We need to be clear about what this sermon is not about. Please repeat after me: this sermon… is not… about divorce.
The truth is, I would never judge you for your marital status or history. If you have gone through a divorce, rather than my judgment, you have my compassion and sympathy. The fact that I am still married to my first wife is not only by God’s grace, it’s by a lot of hard work. Even though we’ve been married for twenty-two years, I know well that the next twenty-two are not guaranteed. I do not and will not judge anyone who has been through a divorce. And frankly, neither does Jesus.
If you were following along with the Scripture reading in your pew Bibles, you may have noticed that the section heading for verses 1-12 is titled, “Teaching about Divorce.” And the well-trained eye may also notice that Jesus, in fact, does not really teach about divorce here, at least not in front of the Pharisees. Although he is asked about divorce, his answer is about marriage. He does what I believe those in the political world call a “pivot.” It’s where you are asked a question and you then answer a different question. And this isn’t the only pivoting that’s being done in our reading this morning.
No, they ask Jesus a tricky question about divorce, but the answer Jesus gives is about wholeness; the answer he gives is about what God knows is good for us. And that’s a truth that extends way beyond marriage: that’s a truth that applies in our friendships, with our siblings, with our neighbors, and especially in our churches. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that this Scripture lesson ends with children. As I consider this story as a whole, I can’t help but think about the children: children, who have the least to do with our relationships falling apart, but who often bear the same scars. As he does elsewhere, here again Jesus raises up a child as an object lesson; and as before, it isn’t a lesson for the children. As it is whenever Jesus puts a child before us, it’s a lesson for the grownups.
An interesting thing happens in this part of the Gospel of Mark. In the chapter leading up to our text today, there is this reoccurring theme of children. But again, the point Jesus is building to isn’t for or about the kids.
This part of Mark’s Gospel begins with an argument among the disciples of which of them were the greatest. To show them what greatness means in his kingdom, he put a little child in front of them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” And then later, Jesus alludes to the child again to make a similar point: speaking of those who are not like us doing the work of Christ, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
I hope that it’s not the same kid. That would be awkward, right? Every time someone misses the point of what life in the Kingdom of God is all about, Jesus brings out the same kid. “Come here, Charlie, they need to hear it again.” Jesus uses, again and again, the image of a child to each us something; and as is often the case when we need to hear the same lesson again and again, we aren’t getting it.
But before that, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question designed to make him look bad. There is no good way to answer their question. It’s a “yes” or “no” answer that, either way, will alienate someone. But in fine Jesus-form, he pivots. He answers their question with a question. And by the way, here’s something I’ve learned in 22 years of marriage: when someone answers your question with a question, never answer that question. It is almost always a diversionary tactic. “Did you eat the rest of my sandwich?” “Where did you see it last?”
They ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce and Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?” And his use of the word “command” is interesting because they don’t really answer his question either: he asks them about commandments and they answer with what is “allowed.” Another beautiful example of a pivot. Jesus asks them about what the law commands and they cite the loophole.
Isn’t that just like us? We spent the better part of September talking about practicing good religion; about knowing the difference between a religion that’s about living out our faith to the glory of God and a religion that’s about something else. Well, it seems we’re not done talking about it yet. Bad religion is always looking for the loophole. Rather than trying to grow in our understanding of what God wants for us, bad religion looks for what we can get away with.
Again, this is not so much a question about divorce. Jesus asks a better question: what does God want for you? Understanding that not every relationship does or even should continue; still, what is God’s will for you? As Jesus points out, God has made us so that we might belong together. Taking away the legalism we might otherwise be tempted to impose on what Jesus says, he points to a simple truth: God made us to live together and commit to one another.
And then the child walks back in; actually it seems there were a bunch of them, clamoring for a blessing. The disciples do the sensible thing: they try to send them away. These kids are in the way; these kids aren’t useful to the cause; they have no influence or money or importance. The disciples don’t see any need to have these children around and so they try to send them away.
But Jesus shows us that we do need them. We need them like they need us. Or rather, we need them because they need us. Who better to illustrate the fact that people belong together – in a family or in a church family – than a child? Notice how Jesus states the parable this time: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” I think what Jesus is getting at in this parable is that we depend on one another. What he’s really pointing to here is how children remind us that we need each other. Rather than looking for loopholes for how we might separate ourselves from one another, we are to look to the child and remember that we were, from our birth, made to care for one another and depend on one another.
Today, as we gather around the Table of the Lord, we remember that today is World Communion Sunday; a day in which, many churches around the world, remember this meal that we have in common. And there’s a huge amount of irony in that. Yes, we have one faith in one Lord that is celebrated through Christ’s one table. But we’re also talking about a lot of different churches; churches that have, among many other things, divorced themselves from one another because of various understandings of the meaning of Communion! Did they have valid reasons for these separations? Sure. Did they hurt? You bet! Will we continue to have legitimate reasons to separate ourselves as individuals and churches from other followers of Christ? The odds are good.
But for us, instead of looking for those loopholes, we would do better to remember that we have been made to live together; to depend on one another and to take care of one another. We would do well to remember that God has made us to live together; and what God has joined together, let no one separate.