Not a week after I complained I was spending too much time in the Gospels and New Testament, I found myself drawn again to the Gospel lesson for this week’s sermon. I say that as a lover of the book of Job. In fact, many of you do not know, but I did both a paper and an oral defense for my Master’s degree in Religion on the book of Job. To say that I love it when the book comes up in the lectionary might be a huge understatement. I have done tons of study. I am almost always over-prepared for sermons on readings from Job. But, even the blind could see and the deaf could hear that we needed to discuss Mark, particularly in light of our instructed Eucharists a couple weeks ago.
Jesus is on a trajectory that will end in Jerusalem and on Golgotha. The Pharisees come and test Him by means of a question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It is a question that expects a yes or no answer, thereby springing a trap that lurks dangerously in the background. If Jesus says yes, then the Pharisees can cast Him as one opposed to the teaching of the prophet John the Baptizer, who was put to death for his unwillingness to sanction Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. If Jesus is opposed to God’s prophet, then He cannot be of God Himself.
On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, then He places Himself clearly on the side opposed to Herod. Those springing the trap can simply go to Herod, report that Jesus has said the king cannot marry, and then Herod can carry out their dirty work. It is a trap worthy of Guinness Beer – Brilliant! The problem, of course, is that the one answering is far more cunning than those setting the trap.
Typical of our Lord, Jesus looks more at the attitude and assumptions of the questioner rather than the question itself. Jesus knows full well what is permissible and what is impermissible under the torah. But He also understands that what is permissible is sometimes at odds with what was intended. So He asks the questioner a question. What did Moses command you? Jesus wants them to see, and likely the gathered crowd, the presuppositions which cause such a question to be asked. We are told that the Pharisees responded that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal (called a get) and divorce her. Sorry, ladies, but the Pharisees are right. The idea of a woman divorcing her husband was simply unthinkable. In that sense, the men held all the power. But it was a decision that was not to be undertaken lightly. Once a man divorced his wife, he could never take her back. He was forbidden by Moses from re-marrying her if he ever sent her away.
Jesus then does a curious thing. Rather than saying something like He does over the coin with Caesar’s image or using the famous “You have heard it said . . . . but I say to you . . . ,” Jesus harkens back to Creation. Jesus allows that the commandment is true, but He testifies that it arises only out of the hardness of heart. He goes on to combine Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 in the explanation of His answer. We were created male and female. A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.
On the surface, the verses seem distant. We might say they are a full chapter apart. Yet Jesus yokes them together in His description of the intention of God in creation. We live in a world that settles for “good enough,” but we serve a God who offers far more than good enough. We serve a God who loves us dearly, who wants only the best for us, wants to shower us abundantly with His blessings, and we are so quick to settle for good enough. Using Eucharistic language, we fight over the crumbs on the floor when the feast in on the table above us. Even the Apostles and disciples cannot grasp the teaching of the intent. Mark relates that they had to ask Him later to explain it better. Jesus reminds them that everyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Jesus frames the divorcing in a way that would shock His hearers. He teaches that whether a man or a woman divorces, the remarriage results in adultery. The one remarrying is sinning against the prior spouse and against God.
As God’s people, we have forgotten the intent of marriage. I know some of you are a bit disappointed with me that I am not a hammerer of the age and our national church from the pulpit. I think our church has erred terribly in trying to bless what God has described a sin. But the fault of that error lies with us and has occurred for some years now. We have become a culture, a people, who shrug our shoulders at divorce. If I asked how many of you were divorced and thereby adulterers under Jesus’ own words today, how many of us would raise our hands? In taking us back to the intent of marriage, Jesus reminds each and every one of us of the sacramental nature of marriage, of the difficulty of a man and a woman leaving a family, and the strains of starting a new family. It takes a commitment, a covenant, like God has with His people, the Church. It takes forgiveness, it takes grace, it takes humility, and it takes any number of other unpopular in this age characteristics for a marriage to work. Heck, in this age we have forgotten that marriage is work. We have bought in on the idea that marriage is little more than a coming together for so long as it is convenient for us. We have bought in on the idea that marriage should always be happy for us. We have even bought in on the idea that becoming pregnant in a marriage is a failure of birth control rather than a participatory act of creation in which we share that much more of God’s power. Think of that for a second. Many in our society have turned the intent into a failure! Like the Pharisees in our story, we are far more interested in what we can get away with than we are with modeling the life God intended for each of us. And we wonder why the world rejects our narrative; why the world rejects God based on our own testimonies.
If you find yourself squirming a bit, relax. I am not here to condemn you. I am the product of a mother and father who divorced one another twice. Put differently, they violated both sides of what Moses allowed for hardness of heart. But both have asked God for forgiveness and claim Christ as Lord, so unless I really screw it up in the time I have left on this earth, I expect to see them in the world to come. But, in giving you that bit of background, I can also testify as to why Mark yokes the children to the passage of divorce.
No matter how amicable or inimical the divorce, who gets hurt? I see some more squirming. Relax and listen, I have already promised I am not here to condemn. When we ask sociologists, psychologists, and pastors who the real victims of divorce are, what do they answer? That’s right. The children. Even in so called “good divorces” the children suffer. How many times, upon hearing of an impending divorce, do we cluck “what about the children?” There is a loss of one parent or the other, even in joint custody situations. The standard of living generally falls as the mother and father have to provide two separate households. The social system of children is often interrupted by divorce. What do they do with the pictures? The gifts? The memories? The untangling of a marriage is painful process even in the best of circumstances. As the adults try and figure out who is friends with which parent, the kids lose some of their interaction with those adults and other kids. As the parents figure out which parent has the children for which holiday, the kids struggle with the knowledge that the holiday is not right. Then there is the guilt. Even in abusive situations, the children often think they are to blame for the divorce. If only I did not make daddy so angry. If only I did not cause mommy to be disappointed and drink. In “normal” marriages, children almost always blame themselves for having done something they do not understand. Maybe now you understand why Jesus is indignant when the disciples keep the kids from Him. The only ones who have no say in the dissolution of a marriage are the weakest in the family. And we all know that God loves those who are weak and who are stuck in the margins, because He called each one of us into right relationship with Him.
And for the last minute or two we have spoken of so-called “good divorces.” What are we to make of bad divorces? How do the children fare in those? Way worse. Then they are apt to be used as pawns in an adult war. I’ll show your mom by not paying for you to go to school. I’ll show your dad by gouging him on expenses. Or better yet: Let me tell you about your other parent and what an evil person they are. Carried with the latter discussion, which admittedly can be more passively aggressive than I have described, is the threat of you better agree with me! Divorce is ugly, and, as Jesus reminds us, it is a consequence of our hard hearts. But it is not the real focus of the passage.
Jesus’ focus is upon the intent of marriage. Those seeking to trap Jesus are trying to figure out the “out” clauses of what they view as little more than a social contract. Jesus demands that the evaluate marriage, and ultimately themselves, not by what God has permitted but by what God intended! In essence Jesus is teaching more here about the intended good of marriage than the experienced evil of divorce. Put a bit differently, Jesus is focusing on the intended blessing and far less on the result of a hard heart.
I do not think it is coincidental that the children come next and that the passage is yoked to the divorce question. In the next couple of weeks we will read about people, adult people, trying to figure out what they can get out of their relationship or service to Jesus. One will flatter Him, and two others will ask to sit in glory at His right and left hand. But Jesus holds up the children as the model of the behavior they should be emulating. Make no mistake, neither the ANE or Jesus likely had any false pretentions about the behavior of children. As with today children can be polite or rude, well-behaved or unruly, dependable or flighty, and any other number of traits and combinations. In fact, children in Jesus’ time were really meant not to be seen and not to be heard. They were the least of the least. In many ANE cultures, a dad had to accept the child as his. If he did not, the child was not even brought into the household. No, Jesus uses children to illustrate better His point that you and I and all those who claim Him as Lord need to be like children to claim the blessings of the Father. To become proper heirs of our Lord, we need to become insignificant. We need to realize our dependence upon our Father, who has promised us all good things. And we need to trust that those things He gives us are really what we need and not the beginning of some game of bartering.
Jesus’ question also challenges us. He clearly values children. Do we? Are they meant to be invisible and inaudible, or are they mean to be part of this family, full participating worshippers? At Advent, we claim to be an intergenerational community? Are we? More importantly, do the youth, those whom we are called not to hinder, believe that we are? You and I might think we are doing a great job ministering to and with our youth, (well, I know that I am not a trained youth pastor, so I am not that delusional) but our youth may think rightly they are forgotten, they are of tertiary importance, or that they are even unwelcome. How we and they answer that question shows whether we align our lives with the Apostles misunderstandings or our Lord’s intention.
One more question, I think, deserves some comment here in our life together at Advent, particularly in light of participating worshippers and servers and the instructed Eucharist a couple weeks ago. I am cognizant that the passage has served as a flashpoint for fights regarding the baptism of children and communing children. I do not think the passage speaks directly to the former. It does, however, highlight a hardness of heart within some of us about the role of the youth in our community. One of the repeated questions after the instructed Eucharist a couple weeks ago was the practice of children receiving communion without the rite of first communion. Next time, if there is one Father, can you remind parents not to let their children take communion? That was great, Father, can you re-introduce first Communion now? I shared with those who were bothered by the practice of the much of our wider church and, I suppose more importantly to you all, of me. For all the importance of the Eucharist, there was very little given in Scripture regarding instructions about it. Paul tells us we must be repentant toward God and at love and charity with our neighbor in the first letter to Corinth. Jesus instructs us to remember His flesh broken for us and His blood poured out for us in the Gospels. The rest, though based in good intention I think, are our own rules and thoughts. I know we believe that children should understand what they are doing in the Church. But answer me this question: What is the Eucharist for you? How well do you articulate that holy mystery? Why is a child’s understanding of what is happening necessarily any less profound than yours? Can you explain fully to our youth what is happening when you take Communion?
I know people make a big deal of the power and prestige that comes with being a clergy. I’m still looking for both. Maybe my ordaining bishop just forgot to convey those when he laid hands on me. There is a lot of garbage that goes with this work. I have been here nine full months, enough for Karen to have birthed another baby or for me to have been instituted as your rector. How many of you, do you think, have burst down my doors telling me of the wonderful blessings showered upon you by God? How many of you, do you think, have called at odd hours with a joyful thanksgiving? There have been a few more than some of you might think, but most of our conversations have been way more concerned with perceived needs, intercessions, and other problems of our lives, both individually and collectively, here at Advent. I have been cautioned that I have not been as respectful of the past tradition of first communion at Advent in my answer about this question, but I want you to understand why. Baptisms and the wonder of a child’s first Eucharist are a couple of those events that make the anguish, hurt, impotence and whatever else of those bad events in our collective and individual lives cause seem like rubbish in mine.
Those concerned about my practice need to understand a bit from where I am coming. I was raised in a southern Baptist church. I really believed in a believer’s baptism. I really thought Communion should be something special – like received only around Christmas and Easter special. But, on this side of the rail, I get to see a different perspective. We profess that children are a blessing from God. We claim that our primary responsibility as parents is to teach our children the wondrous deeds God has done and the love He has for each one of them. We are challenged to raise our children so that they never can remember a time when they did not think God was present in their life. And, yet, how often do we celebrate the conversion of a notorious sinner and ignore the child who cannot remember a time they walked apart from God? We celebrate the notorious sinner, we promote the notorious sinner’s conversion; but we “meh” the child now adult who says they always knew God was near, we ignore the “well done, good and faithful servant” we should be giving to parents of such children. And some would have us exclude children just as they begin to realize they want to be a part of something.
Parents around here and at other churches I have served will tell you that I ignore the first couple reaches, the first couple times the child holds out the hand to receive. But once I discern they are reaching to be a part of this family, I begin to offer. Most cannot speak more than 60-70 words at that point (they could never explain what they are doing), but they want to be like those around them. And, critics are right, they might not cup their hands correctly, they might fidget while they kneel, or drink their first sip of the cup while making a disgusted face or with accompanying shivers. But the face you do not see is the face of wonder, the face of belonging. It is usually a face of innocent joy. And I have seen youth break the wafer and feed mom or dad and themselves, emulating what they see the idiot in the cassock do week in and week out. I have seen children take the wafer and place it whole in mom or dad’s mouth. I have even seen a child take the wafer, gum it really well, and then decide to give it to dad (and dad’s accompanying horror that this is a slobbered piece of Jesus and that he has to eat it!). If parents are bringing their children to meet Jesus, in light of this reading, why would we ever keep them away? I’m not talking about forcing them to eat and drink. I am talking about when the child reaches for our Lord and Savior, why would we ever slap that hand away in light of His example today? We claim He is in the Sacrament; yet we would keep the children from coming to Him.
And just because experience is good does not mean that we should blindly follow it. There is an effort to create a three or four-legged stool within the Episcopal Church today, as if our ability to think and our experiences are not tainted by sin. Those who would really claim to follow Hooker and what we call Anglicanism must always look to His Word to see if what we are doing corresponds to what He calls for or what He allows. So long as the child is baptized, is there any reason in Scripture that we should keep them from the Table? Given His teaching today, is there any reason we should prevent those already baptized into His death and raised to new life in Him from touching Him, from receiving His blessing, from drawing sustenance from that well spring that He offers? I’m pretty sure not, and as a keeper and dispenser of His Holy Mysteries, I will continue to act as I think He calls. And if, in the end of this discussion with some of you or in the wider church, convince me that I have erred and in need of repentance, then I will of course repent and change my practice, trusting that His grace is sufficient even for this sin.
I get it. We love tradition. We don’t mockingly call ourselves the frozen chosen in many quarters for no reason. There was a time in our collective lives when we thought there was a good reason to keep the children from eating His flesh and drinking His blood. But maybe, lost in this call to us to be like children, maybe Jesus wanted us to approach Him and all things anew, just as a child. We spend so much time as adults driving our cynicism into the ears and hearts of the little ones of our lives. We have so much less patient with our little ones than our Lord does with us. Why? Is there a question that drives a parent more nuts? Why? At some point we just drop the effort to explain, or we realize that we cannot, and we just go with “because I said so” or some other such explanation. Who told us we cannot hear God’s voice? Who told us we cannot see His face? Who told us that the childlike joy and wonder was inappropriate behavior? Most likely it was an adult, or a group of adults, within the churches of our childhood. We were hindered just like those children in Mark’s passage today.
Brothers and sisters, we have spent a great deal of time talking about intention, tradition, and failure. In many ways, that is the milieu in which we are called to minister. In many ways, it is the Apostolic ministry we share. Like those in the story today, who did not understand the lesson at first and even acted so as to cause our Lord to respond indignantly, we make mistakes all the time. The Gospel news, the glorious news, is that our Lord’s offer of grace supersedes all those failures. We can share with those who come after, our youth, the power of such forgiveness and the glory of such grace. Better still, we can participate in the new creation, His Bride the Church. We can lay that foundation of love, mercy and invitation in such a way that those who come after might never know what it is like to stand apart. And in the end, is that not what we want for our children, our children’s children, and for those who come after?