Mark 10:2-16 (Hebrews 2:9)
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22 (Year B)
October 4, 2015
[revised and adapted, November 2015]
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
On this exact date, the fourth of October, six years ago, we heard these same scripture lessons. And on that date, your very new and somewhat nervous rector preached his first sermon in this place. Those of you who were here may remember that after hearing that gospel passage, especially the first section dealing with divorce, I remarked that it seemed an especially unapt selection with which to begin a new ministry!
And so I preached on the epistle lection, the reading from Hebrews. By now, you know that preaching on the Epistles isn’t unusual for me. On that Sunday in 2009, it may have just seemed a smart move—which it probably was, as well.
In the course of getting ready for today, I took a look at that sermon—to get a sense of how things have gone since then: How have we grown together, in shared ministry and fellowship? Just in case anyone else wants to check that out, we did print copies of that first sermon. They’re available at the entrances, if you want to take a look. It’s titled, “But We See Jesus.”
But I could not possibly preach that sermon today.
Once again, as God’s people drawn by the Spirit on the Lord’s Day—once again—we gather in the wake of an horrific act of violence: the mass shooting at the community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Once again, we gather with wounded spirits, grieving; perhaps angry, too. Yet another horrific episode. We hold in mind, especially, those who lost their loved ones. Who could have thought? Going to class; plans for “later.” We know, in usually distant theory, that any “good-bye” might be the last—but what an excruciating way to lose someone you care about.
Of course, we are again propelled into the debates that resurface—at least for a little while—after these events: Debates about gun ownership and regulation, also to a lesser extent, about how we as a society we deal with mental health issues. Many of us are thinking about both of these.
In terms of mental health, I do not believe it remotely adequate to have, as the only really operative social value, the concern for individual civil liberties. While these—individual civil liberties, that is—are certainly an important civic concern, by themselves, enshrined in isolation, they become the “ethic” of the comfortable and the healthy: the “ethic” of those who think they have a better than average chance of insulating themselves from risk. Surely, we must be concerned, as a national community, with a good deal more.
And wherever we personally come down on the issues around guns, we must also—at the very least—profoundly question if it is remotely within the bounds of responsible gun ownership to provide a deeply disturbed young man—a young man severely compromised, both emotionally and mentally—with a cache of firearms.
But I’m also thinking even more about our call, as Christians, in this particular society.
Yes, as we read in Genesis, violence has been a part of the human condition ever since the Fall. We know the story: The first episode, after the primeval humans opt to be their own gods, is murder among their offspring. We can’t merely “will” ourselves back into the Garden. Paradise is beyond our simple choosing, now—and when we try to pretend it isn’t, what we manage to “create” can be pretty horrific.
Simple appeals to “End All Violence” in the human condition “as is” are not just sentimental but are potentially destructive. The quest for utopia can only be pursued by force—and because such infatuated quests are, by nature, unselfcritical—they use force, at first not knowing it, and then brutally, without restraint. Because the “bad people”—never we ourselves—are the only ones we deem capable of our selectively re-defined violence.
Despite its use in a popular hymn, I always found the call, “Arise! And make a paradise!” to have an almost sinister feel to it. (“Now quit your care,” Hymnal 1982, 145)
And yet; and yet:
After events like that at Umpqua Community College—precisely as people of faith—we must know and feel: It’s got to be better than this. Much better. For Paradise, we must wait—on God—for the next phase of things. But even now, here and now; it’s got to be better than this. Even within the limitations of this present, suffering, and imperfect world, we must admit that the direction that we’re going in is horrific and unsustainable. We aren’t to be utopianists—but neither are we to be passive fatalists. We are to be difference-making bearers of Christ. Even now. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) What is to be our call, yours and mine, as the people of Jesus Christ in the midst of a world so desperately adrift?
We are to be Christ-bearers. In his own words:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.14 You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-15)
Salt and light: Jesus used these images to show that the presence of God’s people in the broader world is to be a means of preservation, healing, and greater insight—all of which are much needed. Yes, of course and absolutely, we are to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ—explicitly named—and to invite others into his fellowship, but in the greater human community we are also to be instruments of God’s active care.
Yes: The Great Commission, from Christ to his people, is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) Make disciples, baptize, teach. Not only, “Go, and be helpful.” The concern for the Gospel conversion of souls remains essential for the Church.
And yet: Our call can’t be reduced to “convert some, and forget the rest,” either. We are to be “the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.” And I wonder if we are not, to a large extent, abdicating that role.
If one believes the surveys, the overwhelming majority of Americans still identify as Christians. And yet the surveys also seem to show that we have a dramatically decreasing percentage of those who identify as Christians who really make a commitment to fellowship, to become active in churches—to live into their faith, purposefully and deeply. More and more, it’s the “spiritual, but not religious” approach: faith reduced to a self-indulgent, optional commodity.
I know: It’s a very distracting world. There are all sorts of “reasons.” We end up pulled away from active Christian fellowship and practice. Maybe it’s forgetfulness; maybe indulgence of rival priorities. All of us—we’re just very busy. It’s so easy to fill in the “blank” of Sunday morning with something else. It’s not my wish to make anyone feel guilty in the midst of complicated circumstances. However, I would set before us the remembrance that Sunday wasn’t really a “blank,” to begin with! And in the rest of the week, as well, it’s increasingly easy to put our Christian calling not only on a back burner, but off the stove entirely.
The call to be light and salt won’t be fulfilled within an “I’ll fit it in when I can” kind of spirituality. No, we’re not going to be able to “make a paradise,” and eliminate all heartache. But as Christians withdraw from our calling, and live as though we did not believe, there is less and less of what’s needed to have a humane society. The “best” will be not nearly as good; the worst will magnified in both extent and degree. And in a world such as this, it will always be the more vulnerable who bear the greater liabilities.
We’ve heard the reports from Roseberg. While they’re somewhat conflicting, one of the elements of the story seems especially chilling. The killer quizzed his victims on their religion, and some have said that as he was quizzing them, those who identified as Christian were shot in the head—executed on the spot—and those who did not so identify, or didn’t answer the question, were shot in the leg. I have to ask myself, had I been there, and I saw what was going on, what would I have said? Now, I know what I hope I would have said—but it’s worth pondering. I invite us all to ponder that difficult question. And you don’t have to tell me, personally, the answer you might give. But I do invite all of us to think about it.
Whatever our circumstances, and no matter how high the stakes, or how every-day the stakes, are we living in such a way that we are readily identifiable as the servants, the disciples—and friends of the Lord Jesus? Are we bearers of his presence? Are we salt and light?
We’re living in a society in which—more and more and more—the only functional ultimate “truth” is individual feeling. No greater reality, no greater truth, no greater justice, no greater beauty; a world which tells our young people, “What you see is what you get, when you’re dead you’re gone—and we slog it out, the best we can, on our own.”
We are to be the bearers of witness to a greater Truth; greater Beauty. What we now see is not all that we get. In the midst of all the feelings and complexities of life, there is the ultimate reality of God; our loving, righteous Creator God—Savior and Sustainer. We are not living an arbitrary existence. We are not our own. Other people are not merely projections of our own fears and desires—but fellow creatures made in in God’s image and likeness. Are we living our faith; living as though this is really so?
The immediate connection of what we’ve been considering so far with today’s gospel reading may not be that evident. Nevertheless, it is there, much so, and worth taking to heart. As we heard, the passage addresses divorce. However, we need to be very clear about the context—which is everything in biblical interpretation! What we heard is not, and cannot be, a simple, ready-to-go script, in all possible circumstances, about the question of divorce and remarriage.
Jesus was speaking in a very specific context. This is it: a profoundly patriarchal society. A women might ask for a divorce, but it was the men—only men—who did the divorcing. The only question at hand was under which circumstances they might exercise this unilateral private right of theirs. It was simply “understood” that men could dismiss their women; husbands their wives. It’s how it was. Jesus was being asked a trick question in a particular theological debate. Well, he stayed off that ideological dance floor and, instead, radically reframed the issue, reminding his hearers about some deeper realities—realities deeper than individual “rights,” as these were then playing out.
The trick question was based on the notion that women were projections of men’s stuff: Men living as though their individual pursuit of power or pleasure was the governing reality. Jesus said, in effect, “You have missed the point.” To paraphrase and expand: He told these men debating about when and how they could dismiss their wives, “This is not a matter of your ‘property.’ Marriage is a covenantal reality. God is involved. God says; I’m in on this deal. I called it into being. Your wife is not an extension of yourself, but Another—through whom you are accountable to me. The desperate pursuit of living at the top of the heap is a concern inappropriate to my People.”
Jesus is summoning us to—and empowering us in—God’s arrangement for human community, and “heap” is not the word to describe it. We relate to one another out of covenantal faithfulness—faithful to one another as we live out God’s faithfulness to us. No one is property, to be used and dismissed.
If we understand that context, the surprising shift to the discussion of children makes vivid sense. The disciples were nervous because people were bringing little children to be with Jesus, and—of course—it seemed essential for those they thought were the important people, the “top-of-their-heap-people,” to have priority access. The disciples didn’t want that disturbed, so, “Let’s keep it under control, folks.” Jesus had none of it. He called the “unimportant” ones to him—saying:
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
This is so contrary to our usual present inclinations: to make sure that we get our nice big slice of power and initiative, to get what we think is coming to us; to be the important people, who know it all—and have seen through everything.
Well, here’s the problem: The people who “see through everything” are the people who see nothing. I’m not advocating that we leave our brains at the door of the church. But we need to let go of the need to be sophisticated know-it-alls. Jesus, as we grow in his friendship and service, is giving us undefended hearts; which are able—more and more—to receive him and to delight in him. It will not fit into the world’s notions of power and importance, but it is how our Lord is making all things new; starting now. Not through yet merely another run of the old, tired script that has been—that the world is all-too-good at marketing as the latest thing.
God, in Jesus, through the Spirit, is telling the New Story, written before the foundation of the world.
As we read in the Letter to the Romans, Chapter Eight, verse nineteen: “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”—the Children through whom God will renew and restore all things. A great mission; a wonderful treasure. So: Hold on to the treasure; don’t abdicate the mission. Be present, even in this broken world, as dear children who are wise enough to be foolish, strong enough to be weak, and loving enough to be vulnerable.
There will certainly be terrible things to face in this present world, much that will grieve; much to break hearts—but for God’s People, not broken to despair. We have a gift, a calling; an indestructible hope. Hold fast! For a time, we will see much that is horrific. But—additionally, essentially, wonderfully, savingly—we see Something Else. We also see Jesus.