Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 3, 2021*
What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:4
Life is messy. It’s rarely as orderly, prettified, and sensible as we delude ourselves into thinking it is. The creation is both beautiful and broken, or as people sometimes say when announcing a relationship status on Facebook, “It’s complicated.” Yep, we are a complicated mess of humanity, and were it not for God’s mindfulness of us, for God-in-the-flesh showing up and walking with us, it would surely be much more complicated than we already make it. The good news is that God does love us, care for us, and refuses to give up on us.
Speaking of complicated, the gospel this week can be a tough one to tackle in a brief sermon, and the temptation may be to high-tail it to Hebrews to focus on Jesus’ suffering rather than the silent suffering in the pews. Yet even edging into the epistle lesson, the preacher or teacher is still confronted with the brokenness and complications of the human condition, albeit bathed in the light of Jesus’ triumph and the promise that we too shall overcome. But let’s page back to Mark for a minute.
This teaching about divorce is tough, and there is precious little time to unpack it and ruminate on Rabbinic debates and interpretation. Folks in the pew may find the history and contextual matter interesting, but what’s deeply at stake is the pain and suffering so many feel in the wake of broken promises, shattered dreams, and messy marriages. The intent of our Creator is for humankind to engage in relationships that are solid, edifying, just, and equal. Whether that be in marriage, in business, or even in the church, all too often our relationships turn into power struggles marred by insecurity, selfishness, judgment, and shame. Add to that the cultural pressures that tell us what our relationships should be like and could be like, as the entertainment industry feeds us fairytale versions of life between commercial breaks.
Statistically, there’s a pretty good chance that a sizeable portion of the folks reading these words are intimately acquainted with the pain of divorce or broken relationships. And I’m willing to be that precious few of us have no experience of divorce among our family members or close friends. How then, might one proceed in worship and preaching?
First of all, pray. Spend a significant time praying over this gospel lesson. Unless you do not use the Revised Common Lectionary in your context or are off lectionary for a preaching series or for World Communion Sunday, then the congregation you serve will hear this lesson and likely zero right in on verses 2-12. Even if they don’t show it or may never say anything about it, you can bet your clericals they are keen to hear you offer a word of hope or at least something to which they can hang on in the icy, judgmental sea of isolation and self-deprecation.
So, secondly, don’t gloss over it. If you can be transparent about your own struggles with the text without spilling your emotional ÏƒÏ€Î»Î¬Î³Ï‡Î½Î± (splanchna–i.e. bowels) all over the sanctuary, then by all means be real. Deal with the issue of brokenness and sin. Sin is anything that separates us from God, and broken relationships have the distinct tendency to do so. It might be helpful in this situation to insert a gentle reminder that sin is sin, and all of us are guilty; there is no hierarchy of separation or 50 shades of sinfulness. One of the beauties of confession is that God hears our cries, and the Spirit is there to help us turn from separation toward restoration. Doing so in community is a gift that offers support and strength.
Next, don’t forget to be attentive to the reality that you may have a host of different situations represented: there may single folk who have never married, members of the GLBT community who continue to struggle for recognition of their committed relationships, widows and widowers, children of divorce, abused spouses, and those unhappily yoked. Thankfully, there are also those whose strong, committed relationships bear effective witness to what God desires and intends for all relationships.
Consider lifting up the reality of justice that Jesus was interested in. The Pharisees were interested in right adherence to the law; Jesus looked through the lens of grace beyond the law to the pursuit of justice and inclusion of the vulnerable and marginalized. In this case, those on the margins without power and options would have been the women and children. How might Jesus respond to this sort of issue in today’s climate and culture? Who are the marginalized? Who among us lack power and protection under the law? What other ways might marriage be interpreted (hint hint: think bride of Christ)?
Don’t leave out verses 13-16. It is surely no accident that Jesus segues abruptly from women to children in this teaching. We dare not exclude the most marginalized in our communities. Even though children in North America and most industrialized nations enjoy an almost pampered status, they are still dependent upon the adults in their lives to see them safely through the waters of childhood and adolescence. We dare not quench their spirit and fire, and our baptismal covenant (at least in the ELCA) mandates certain responsibilities to the adults who bring children for the Sacrament and for the congregations that receive them.
Finally, how can we help others see and understand the importance of stripping away our protective adult layers and comfort zones in order to approach Jesus with the openness, trust, and yes, the faith of a child? To be insiders, we must be outsiders. To be first we must be last. We must drown our broken hearts and lives daily to rise refreshed and renewed for the journey. Most importantly, we must find ways and words to help others maintain and strengthen their relationship with God who is ever mindful of us. This week’s gospel lesson is a complicated one, and I pray the Spirit will move in and through you to provide the words and wisdom necessary to proclaim the Good News in your context. Blessings on your preaching and teaching.
Consider a dramatic monologue in which you “divorce” yourself from the church and from God. Don’t give it away at first. Make it sound like you are ending the relationship with a spouse or significant other. Then at the end make it clear “who” and “what” your character is divorcing. This could make a strong sermon entrance if done well and thoughtfully.
Youth know a thing or two about broken relationships, and they feel the pain acutely. Whether it is parents, grandparents, siblings or friends, the pain of broken promises, of not knowing, and of blame and shame are strong. How might you talk about what God desires in all relationships with your youth? Ask them to describe what an ideal life partner would be like. What traits and attributes might this person possess? Compare notes. What seems real? What seems superficial? What clues can be found in scripture? Be sensitive to those youth whose families may be in crisis. Watch closely for cues that all is not well. Pray with the group and be sure to solicit their petitions.
Jesus has a special place in his heart for children. Invite children to describe God, to imagine what Jesus looked like and acted like, or how the Holy Spirit works. If you listen well, you will get some amazing answers. Bless the children and remind them that the church is their home and they should feel comfortable being here.
What needs to be done in your context to make your facilities and worship experience more “child” and “family-friendly”? How can you harness authentically the vision and faith of a child in your preaching, teaching, and worship leadership. How might you work with other worship leaders and team members to integrate the five senses into worship?
*This reflection first appeared in the same Lectionary week in 2012.