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“This Would Be a Good Sunday to Focus on the Epistle, but…: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 3, 2021:
Mark 10:2-16

There’s a portion of the American Episcopal Church’s website where they post and archive sermons for every Sunday and festival of the year. I don’t use it too much; I sometimes read a bit for some research and inspiration. Sometimes I copy a particularly good snippet and paste it into the bulletin [as I did last week with our 8 o’clock service; there was no room in the 10 AM bulletin]. But the sermon that website posted for today was so good that — I’m not going to read it all, don’t worry — but the opening paragraph seems to name the situation we’re in right now. So here it goes:

Today may be a Sunday when the preacher and the congregation are of one heart and one mind: the preacher doesn’t want to deliver a sermon on divorce and the congregation doesn’t want to hear a sermon on divorce. Likely many preachers have looked at our Gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and said to themselves, “This would be a good Sunday to focus on the Epistle lesson.” And this could all go pretty well. Except for the fact that after the service there is always a person who says something like, “Thank you for your sermon today. I found it helpful. But I was wondering about the Gospel lesson and Jesus’ statements on divorce, because my daughter is going through this rough time…” And then you get a wrenching story of parents, spouses, children going through the heartbreak of divorce. A sermon on Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Mark’s Gospel may not be an easy thing for the preacher or the congregation. But people – especially those who are struggling with divorce and genuinely want to know how their faith connects with their lives – deserve to hear what Jesus has to say, even if it is not easy.*

The writer then goes on to present a few of the common interpretations and approaches to this story. Looks at the few spots in the New Testament where divorce is dealt with directly (and interestingly, there’s some difference between Mark and Matthew, and then Paul introduces something new entirely, but also kinda says it’s just his opinion… but it’s in the Bible, so what do we do with that…).

I’m not going to do all of that. I’ll come to a few thoughts that might be helpful. But for me it seems important to name what that author did: this is a difficult, uncomfortable passage; “a hard saying.” Avoiding it, as we avoid much conflict in our lives, is one strategy. But leaving it out there untouched doesn’t help the person who needs to hear some good news, but instead is getting the distinct impression that Jesus is casting stones at them.

Interestingly, I skipped to the bottom of that online sermon, and the writer is a guy working in the Anglican Church of Canada, out in Newfoundland. It says something, doesn’t it, that The American Episcopal Church, which is at least 5 times larger than our Church, couldn’t find anyone to write about today’s gospel… so they had to reach out to Newfoundland.

This question became a bit of a public thing recently, following the Roman Catholic church marriage of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds. Many letters to the editor were written by divorced Roman Catholics who, in some cases, for decades had experienced marginalization by their Church. While Johnson, twice-divorced, known for affairs, up until just a few days ago refused to state just how many children he had, and a few years ago was investigated for a loud altercation at home — why does the Church say that that relationship can be blessed, while so many others are stained forever?

And closer to home, I recall, at a different (Anglican) church, someone refusing to receive communion from a fellow parishioner who had been divorced and remarried. (And there I was, glad that the person was blissfully unaware of the ups and downs of my own life.)

I’m reminded of a quote in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he writes “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred.” He adds some depth to the conversation, and I think that is what Jesus does in the gospel reading, too. The context here is that “the Pharisees came to test him.” It’s similar to when someone asks Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar: they’re both tests, not honest questions coming from the heart. And so these stories are probably not here for us to devise our rock solid theological ideas around taxation, war, and the state, or marriage, divorce, and remarriage. (Though they might be part of a wider survey.)

Perhaps you know someone in your life, where every conversation feels like a test. It’s hard dealing with, as Lewis described it, people who get pleasure in putting other people in the wrong and back-biting. It can be exhausting when every question is a litmus test. The Pharisees testing Jesus are doing that here, as they’re confident that they’re right. They take pride in following the rules; they have a Biblical example as ammunition. And… so does Jesus [“the two shall become one flesh”].

So lobbing verses at each other may not be the main concern here. I think what Jesus is doing is not so much dealing with their question about the legality of divorce, but he is finding a way to challenge the people who smugly think that they are superior, because they’ve dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s of the law. They present a scenario by which the signing of a certificate gets them off scot-free. And that, maybe, is what Jesus is reacting to. The way of faith shines a light on the whole of our life, and Jesus reminds us that way have to ask deep questions rather than just deal in technicalities, or rely on a system in which some are protected and others shamed.

And while our brunch conversations might be a little easier today, had Jesus not spoken in such dramatic terms, and that instrumental moment or organ-playing after the gospel would have been more joyful and less awkward, maybe it’s important that Jesus spoke to the mystery and profundity of human relationship. So again, in the context of this story, of testing and oneupmanship, Jesus finds a way to give a deeper answer that challenges all of us, rather than just set up a new law or new system (though that was how, for many, his words were received).

This is indeed a hard reading. But completely avoiding it is probably ultimately unhelpful, just as avoiding a person or an issue within ourselves is generally unhelpful to avoid or ignore. Our faith can equip us to face these deep questions and dark places, and strengthen us to go there, trusting not in our own goodness, but in the mercy of God.
That sermon-writer out in Newfoundland concludes their sermon with this:

I’m not too sure how the preacher and the congregation will feel after such a sermon on divorce. I don’t know any rousing divorce hymns to use for the recessional. And yet maybe some important conversations will ensue between the pastor and members of the congregation or [preferably — just joking!] amongst parishioners themselves. And maybe that person whose daughter is going through a rough time in her marriage will thank you for not running away from the Gospel lesson, but rather trying to deal with it as faithfully and fairly as you could even if it was sometimes hard to hear. A person who is struggling with divorce and sincerely wants to know what Jesus and the church have to say about it deserves at least that much.*

Maybe being encouraged to stand with confidence [and an evangelical would add “under the Cross”] before hard sayings and hard stories like today’s, is something for us to take away. And realize, on the other side, that no one is without flaws, but also that no one is beyond forgiveness, and no one is beyond the scope of the Incarnation and Resurrection; the mystery of life and the renewal of life. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter