Sunday, October 4, 2009

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Mark 10: 2-16 (RCL Proper 22B)

Grace and peace to you this morning, as we enter into October and begin--ever so gradually as we move on into the months of the fall--to sense the end of things. The cycle of the year. The lengthening of the night darkness.

(I attended our diocesan clergy conference this past week, held just outside Wheeling at the Sandscrest Center, and those beautiful West Virginia mountains were just begin to show fall colors.)

Step by step in the pattern of our lectionary we move into the last season of the Church year as well. A long slow glide beginning toward Advent and the turn of the year. In Mark, these heavy times of encounter and confrontation in the story of the grand procession toward Jerusalem.

The words of Jesus to his disciples now more challenging--as we’ve seen already in these past weeks. The Master pushing at his disciples, making them work harder, to stretch in their minds and in their hearts. It’s all hard for them to digest, but they’ll have days and weeks and years to think back and remember and understand. But this is his time to plant the seeds. To test their courage. To help them face their weaknesses and to look with honesty at their pride, their ambition, their self-centeredness. To turn their attention in mind and heart to Last Things, and to things that will last. What is really important and of value. To turn their attention to the coming reality of the Kingdom. The coming of God’s Kingdom, God’s reign, his power, his judgment, his righteousness, his peace.

Which is good news, and terrifying news. Which turns things upside down. Which is good news for the poor, and so good news for us in those parts of our lives where we are poor, weak, vulnerable. But perhaps not good news for us in the places where we aren’t so poor. Where we feel strong, self-sufficient. How Mary says it: “He has put down the mighty from their seat . . . and the rich he has sent, empty, away.” Good news, and challenging news. Some parts of our lives getting fixed up and healed, other parts shaken up and torn down, on this walk to Jerusalem.

Certainly the lessons appointed for this Sunday not the easiest for the preacher. It actually was something folks talked about at clergy conference this week. Requiring a high degree of trust, and a willingness to share in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and understanding. Even wondering whether fifteen years of pastoral tenure quite enough.

The preacher senses that even to tread a few steps into this forest may find hidden quicksand of misunderstanding. It would be true in any time, in any generation. But perhaps we would acknowledge that the risk is especially high in a society and a season when cultural and theological understandings of marriage and family are deeply contested, with great integrity and sincerity on all sides. And not an abstract issue, an argument about some obscure bit of ancient doctrine, but something that touches real lives in real ways. In the context of a late night talk show host or the governors of South Carolina and New York. But not just among the celebrities—although we certainly see enough of that. In the midst of our confusing lives. And so, again, any conversation in the pulpit or over coffee in the parish hall requiring for any conversation a high degree of trust, mutual forgiveness, understanding.

Last week the gospel reading having two sections as well, as we would remember. The first section Jesus talking to his disciples about the generous openness of this coming Kingdom. “Even if someone just gives a glass of water to one of these little ones.” And then the second, something of an about-face: about how it would be better to tie a millstone around the neck and be thrown into the sea than to make even one false step in the evangelical enterprise. Better to lose an eye or a hand then to suffer the eternal consequences of even one sinful thought or deed.

And here again this morning, two sections. The first on marriage and divorce, and then the second part, Jesus blessing the children—the lovely and familiar story and topic of the Tiffany window over our High Altar. Tempting of course to dwell on the second part of the passage—as it would have been tempting to stay with the glass of water last week, and to ignore the millstone. But these things come as package deals. It’s not a buffet table. And we’re not going to get where we want to go if we will only walk on the sunny side of the street.

So the point of this first part, what Jesus is saying is at least this, to this challenge from the questioning Pharisees. As they try to trip him up, force him to say something that will discredit his ministry. Like tabloid journalists. But Jesus doesn’t back down. He says that divorce is an example of the broken and sinful human inclination to put ourselves into God’s place, to prefer the world we create for ourselves to the one that he has created and intends for us.

Marriage isn’t something that we create, something we establish with a code of civil law and contracts and all the rest. As we hear in the Book of Common Prayer, the covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.

Marriage is a part of the order of Genesis, something that God himself created in Eden, as a part of his gift, and something into which he has impressed his image, something he presented to the human family for care and safekeeping and good stewardship. Entering into marriage in a way that doesn’t honor God’s image, grace, gift, and intention, or the breaking of that sacred covenant—that, says Jesus, is like strip-mining Yosemite Valley for a quick profit, like dumping poison into the ocean to save a few dollars on careful disposal. It’s almost a kind of murder. If none of us in the end can claim to have lived lives of perfect stewardship, that is, in ways great and small, a reflection of our hardness of heart. Sin. Self-imposed alienation from God.

So hear me carefully: this isn’t about judgment and condemnation for the failures and brokenness of our lives. Jesus isn’t being asked about pastoral care for divorced persons or about the design of canon law about remarriage after a divorce. We all have many failures, and much brokenness—and as we say in that prayer Sunday by Sunday, it is his property always to have mercy. Always to have mercy. And I’m very glad that, to the extent that we can as a Church, we are able at once to affirm and lift up the graciousness of God’s act of beautiful creation in the sacrament of marriage, and at the same time respond with compassion and forgiveness and hope for renewal when things have fallen apart, when we have fallen short.

This isn’t about condemnation. Nothing here to take away hope and intention for new life and renewal and recovery of meaning. But it is about seeing and being honest about that hardness of heart which is within each of us. Not about putting those divorced on the hook and letting those who by God’s grace are not divorced to have a pat on the back and to feel self-satisfied. But all of that in front of us, says Jesus, it is this tendency to make ourselves the gods of our lives, to place ourselves at the center of the universe, to prefer our way to God’s way. That’s what we need to face, that’s what we need to deal with, as God’s new morning and new Kingdom dawns in our midst.

And the passage turns, and suddenly we are into our Tiffany Window, and this fullness of the sign of God’s blessing and hope, his mercy, his tenderness. As Jesus takes the children into his arms. The disciples get a word of rebuke again, for again their hardness of heart, thinking about what makes them comfortable, not turning to give themselves to what God is creating right in front of them. Jesus just five minutes ago picked up that little child and told them that to receive that child was to receive the Father himself. Jesus just said, whoever gives one of these little ones even a glass of water in my name will not lose the reward of the Kingdom. Jesus just said, whoever harms one of these little ones even in the smallest way will be accountable for eternity. Five minutes ago. And here, the mothers bring their children to see Jesus, and the disciples begin to send them away. Talk about not paying attention. What are these guys thinking? And of course then: what are we thinking?

As we come to the Table this morning, could our prayer be that the hardness of our heart in every way would be remade with the tenderness and mercy and forgiveness and grace and generosity of the Father’s love. The mystery of Christ’s gift on the Cross, his death for our sake. His rising again. His presence with us. Not about judgment, about sending away, separating, breaking apart. But about a love for God and what he has made, and about the commitment of our minds and our hearts today to live not for the world of our making, but in the hope and beauty of the world he has made for us. That we would be good and faithful stewards, honoring him with our lives, to live in his covenant and to aspire in every way now to be the people he created us to be. That by the overflowing of his love and his faithfulness in us, it will be the first morning of his Kingdom.

Bruce Robison

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