Sometimes, scripture itself is the stumbling block.
I know this Gospel trips people up, because it trips me up. Every. Time.
Because we all know several people—who have been divorced…Many of us have lived through the pain and shame of having a marriage—which we entered into with the best of intentions…fully expecting that it would last forever—nevertheless break down in a thousands of complex and troubling ways until the only way forward—the only truly faithful way forward—was to dissolve those bonds and be released from the vows that we had made. And this Gospel just brings all of that back up. I’m also sure you, like me, have also heard some super unhelpful sermons and comments from others over the years about these texts…comments that just drive that shame deeper.
My own experience with divorce was over twenty years ago…which is a long time, but every time this scripture comes up, I’m aware that those wounds are still there. And I know I’m not alone.
And not only this Gospel, but all that we have witnessed in the past several weeks, has revealed a lot of trauma…a lot of unhealed, or only partially healed wounds in many, many people. We’re traumatized and re-traumatized daily, Not only by the current news, but by the memory of things done and things left undone.
So what do we do with this text? Where’s the good news in this?
Well, honestly I wasn’t sure. And then on Wednesday, I went to our Deanery Assembly. Our deanery is a group of churches from Brookline, Newton, Natick and out to Dover, and we gather together periodically to worship and conduct business. At the Eucharist that evening my colleague Todd Miller from Trinity, Newton preached on a passage from Job. He talked about Job and his three friends, who show up and for most of the book engage in blaming the victim. God allows all of these terrible things to happen to Job, his children die, his business goes bust, his livestock disappears, he’s covered in sores, and his friends come to “comfort” him. But what they really do is just heap blame on him…”Job, you must have done something wrong…come on, just admit it.” But the whole point is that Job hasn’t done anything wrong. And sometimes bad stuff happens. And then Todd pointed out something that was really helpful to me. He reminded me that for Job’s friends, God is an answer…”something happened, there must be a reason…you’re being punished…you must have done something.” But for Job, God is not an answer…God is an experience. Job experiences the awful terror and weight of God, but also the sustaining love of God…and knows that you have to take them together… “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job experiences God as a real, living force.
And it occurred to me that the people who come to test Jesus are also expecting God to be an answer. “Is it lawful to do this?” “Are we doing the right thing? Can we be sure? Prove it to us. Give us an answer (of course if we don’t like the answer, we’ll figure out a way to get rid of you).”
But for Jesus, as for Job, God is not an answer. God is a reality…an experience. And what Jesus points out…in very direct—and what can sound pretty harsh—language is the gap between God’s dream and the reality that we live in. God’s hope, God’s dream, is for relationships that are completely mutual, totally supportive, life-giving, and lasting…but we’re not there yet. We live in a world where God’s dream is not even partially realized…in religious terms we talk of this world being fallen…and all of us being broken…and remember last week when I said, “only transformed people transform people?” We’re still in the process of being transformed…we’re not done yet…but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.
So, I admit, that because of my own history…my own brokenness…when I come across this passage I always hear Jesus as being pretty judgy. But that’s me, and my brokenness coloring the text. But, when I remember that God is not an answer, but an experience…and an experience primarily of love and support, then I hear it differently. When I remember God as an experience, that is revealed through both good and bad, then I hear compassion from Jesus…not condemnation. “Is it lawful? Tell us the answer…pleasesayyespleasesayyespleasesayyes!” Notice what he does…he doesn’t answer the question—he reframes it). “What did Moses say,” “He said it was ok.” “Yeah, he did, but, that’s because you’re still not there. You haven’t been transformed yet…you still have a long, long way to go…you have hearts of stone that need to be softened into hearts of flesh…But really here’s the way it’s supposed to be…the way God intends it…two become one..mutual…supportive…but you’re not there yet.” In other words, what Jesus says is simply a statement of truth, not of condemnation. It only sounds like condemnation if we expect it to be an answer for the fear in our heart. If we’re looking to be exonerated, or proven right. But that’s not what Jesus is about…he’s about transformation.
If we remember that God is constantly trying to love us into being transformed people…it sounds different…this is where you are now…this is where you need to be…keep going.
The same, I think, is true of this statement on remarriage…it’s a very plain statement, and it’s true…adultery is a sin, but what doesn’t get recorded, and what all of the disciples knew—or should have known—and what we all should remember is…you can atone for sin… There’s no statute of limitations on amending your life…When you sin, you can and should repent and make amends…and grow. When you fall, it’s one thing to admit it…but it’s not enough…when you fall, you still need to do the work of reconciliation and remember that it is possible to change…it is possible to grow up.
And then Mark does something that drives this point home…he jumps from these very stark statements straight to this story of the children coming to Jesus. Children are all about experience…what happens if I do this…what if I push this over…what happens if I run really fast…what does this do? And sometimes it’s really fun, and sometimes it’s really boring…and sometimes really painful…but they’re constantly learning and growing and changing. Which I think is the point. You’ve probably heard of this idea draw from Zen Buddhism called “Beginners Mind.” Being open and always learning, always practicing, and adjusting and growing and getting better at whatever it is you’re doing. Children are icons of this because they do it naturally…we expect them to grow, and change, and make mistakes and learn…it’s only when we start getting older and start insisting on knowing the answers…on being able to control things that we lose that ability…to be open, to be trusting, to be experiential, and that’s when our hearts begin to harden…
So, yes, this scripture can trip us up, because it touches something so specific that affects most of our lives in some way. The good news is that God, and the church, doesn’t ignore these hard realities of our lives. But asks us to consider how we might grow through them…And it’s sometimes hard to hear, but we need occasional reminders that the work we’re engaged in is not about answers…it’s about experience. Experiencing God in every aspect of our lives…holding us…supporting us…and challenging us…and changing us…knowing our pain…loving even our brokenness…and wanting us to grow, to thrive…We need reminders that we have grown…I’m not the same person I was in my twenties and thirties…I made a lot of mistakes…and I’ve learned, I’ve changed…I’ve grown…and I still have a lot to learn…
We know what God’s dream is…that we will be in relationships where we don’t hurt each other…and we know that we’re not there…and we know the way…we know that the path there is narrow and requires that we admit wrongs, that we practice and learn how to confess and forgive…that we actually work at amending our lives…and that we do all of this with the confidence that God is with us, supports us, sustains us, and loves us through it all.
This is a draft text of the homily and may vary significantly from the recorded version. Please excuse any typos and grammatical errors, and please do not cite or share without permission.