Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
October 7, 2018
Enfolding Love Mark 10:2-16
She did not look like a Pharisee. She appeared harmless: a flowered print dress, short in stature, glasses too large for her rounded face. I thought she was going to welcome me to the church. It was the reception at my very first pastorate. I extended my hand as she approached, opened my mouth—but before I could say anything, she said, “Preacher, do divorced people goto hell?”
Almost dropping my fruit punch, I thought, “I just passed my ordination exam, what is this? Another test of some sort?”
Finally, I spoke, “Better people than me get divorced.”I think I remember her asking the question again. “Preacher, do divorced people go to Hell?” I gave her basically the same answer. I remember wondering if my attempt at cleverness had been helpful to her as she turned and walked away.
During a longer conversation in her home, she told me about her son who had recently divorced. Behind her question at the reception was a deep concern for her son, who had chosen to end a troubled marriage and was about to remarry. As a serious student of the Bible, she knew Jesus’ words to the Pharisees (who put him to the “test” with the question about divorce) and his words to the disciples (“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”). Although her faith would mature later, at that time my parishioner was a distressed mother who held rigid beliefs about sin and punishment. She believed that her son was endangering his very soul (David B. Howell, Feasting in the Word, Year B, Vol. 4).
I raced through my mind’s data bank for something I had learned in pastoral care, or even New Testament courses that I might offer her (and get myself off the spot).
So writes David Howell in his commentary on our passage from Mark 10, as he remembers back to a blunt question about divorce early in his career. Indeed, Pastor Howell’srefusal to hash out this difficult issue with his parishioner is one that rings true for me. As a divorced man serving a congregation where many of you have experienced the pain of dissolving your own marriage or among the members of your family, believe me when I say that I was sorely tempted to skip the verses about divorce completely and pass on to the passage about Jesus and the children!
What is especially challenging about our lesson for the day is Jesus’ surprisingly hard views on the subject of divorce and remarriage. So my task this morning has been likened tothe challenge of preaching on stewardship “to people who are struggling mightily withfinances” (Kathryn Matthews Huey. “Enfolding Love Broken and Blessed”).
And yet for most mainline denominations, the topic of divorce and remarriage has largely been settled. As one scholar writes: “…a generation or two ago, we would have looked to this passage for instruction about whether or under what circumstances we can welcome persons who were divorced into our congregations, while today we seek counsel about whatconstitutes marriage itself” (David Lose in Andrew Prior, “The Children and Divorce”). To be sure, however, there are still issues yet to be resolved surrounding divorce and remarriage. Pope Francis has spoken of the need to drop the ban on divorced Catholics from taking communion and the importance of speeding up the annulment process.
The occasion for this conversation with the Pharisees arises out of yet another trap set for Jesus as he is traveling in Judea beyond the Jordan. And so the test comes immediately when the religious authorities ask Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Then later in the Pericope, the Pharisees again ask Jesus about the matter. Jesus’ reply sounds uncompromising: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
To be sure, Jesus’ answer reflected a different day and time—a male-dominated culture in which a divorced woman was often condemned to a life of begging or prostitution. So divorce then is clearly not what divorce is now. Thank heavens we have largely moved on from the days when pastors routinely counseled female parishioners to stay in abusive marriages andfrequently asked the question, “What did you do to make him hit you?” I do believe that the Rev. John Allen has the right of it in his sermon on “Family Values?” When he says that “…theinstitution of marriage in the ancient world bears little resemblance to marriage in the modern world and is undertaken for largely different reasons and in a decidedly less patriarchalcontext” (Rev. John Allen, “Family Values? The Politics of Mark 10:2-16”).
What has always been true then and now is that some marriages need to end. In my case, the differences were irreconcilable even though I tried for 25 years to make the marriage work. There comes a time when both partners need to be set free to heal and become whole persons once again. At its best, marriage can be sacramental, “a means of God’s grace in ourlives,” but when the marriage bond or trust is broken or the basic needs of the partners haschanged, when mutual joy has been destroyed, the marriage needs to end.
So we come back to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus. Because I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse putting a man or woman to death (which was the standard penalty for committing adultery), I also believe Jesus would answer this question differently if he walked the earth today.
What does please me, however, is Jesus’ treatment of the children in the last portion of our Gospel lesson from Mark 10. Mark begins the discussion by saying that “people werebringing little children to him in order that he might touch them…” The interesting point ismade that every other time the word “touch” is used in Mark, it is in connection with healing. So one theologian argues that these children were indeed sick (Brian Stoffregan).
What we can see is that Jesus in these verses is speaking about marriage and the family. And while we may not like what Jesus has to say about divorce and remarriage, his views on
children, on receiving the powerless, are timelessly true. We have in the next verse the spectacle of the disciples not getting it once again when they rebuke the parents for bothering Jesus with the children, he, of course, rebukes them in turn: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Earlier in Mark, Jesus makes the famous comment that “Whoever receives a child receives me.”
One translation of our lesson that I like has Jesus saying to the disciples about thechildren, “Do not hinder them.” This is a deeply important subject for Jesus. Boys and girls arenot to be hindered“…are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless.Quite the contrary, in fact. Turn a child away—turn away those who are weak—and you arenot in the kingdom” (John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Mark 10:2-16”).
Three years ago we had the first visit by Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States. If there is anyone who embodies the spirit of Jesus with regards to children, it is surely the Holy Father. Again and again we saw images of Francis reaching out to babies, toddlers, children, and youth. They came to him in wheelchairs, or being lifted up for a blessing or hugs or kisses. The Pope seems to understand intrinsically that children are the most vulnerable in our society.
A continuing topic is the Pope’s oft-stated vow to protect children and hold bishops accountable for sexual abuse. And yet the Pope has many critics for doing too little too late. The scope of the problem seems at times overwhelming. As you have seen in the media, Pope Francis met with sex abuse survivors in Ireland during august—the first visit by a Supreme Pontiff in 40 years. The Holy Father expressed “outrage” for the cover up of abuse and metwith eight survivors. Also during August, a sweeping grand jury report in Pennsylvania exposed 301 predator priests which resulted in 1,000 victims. Most recently, a week ago, the Pope defrocked Fernando Karadima, once a prominent priest in Chile. All of the country’s 34 Bishops offered their resignations.
Again and again, Pope Francis’ message has been one of a brokenhearted spiritual leader. In his meetings with survivors, he greets them individually and listens to their stories and prays with them. When he visited with 300 Bishops at a Catholic Seminary in Philadelphia in 2015, Pope Francis first met privately with victims—three women and two men for about a half an hour. Then with the bishops, he spoke of the shame upon the church and the burden he must carry as Pope: “I am profoundly sorry,” he told them. “God weeps.” (Newsday, Jennifer Barrios, Bart Jones, Victor Manuel, and Candice Ruud). Certainly the pope encapsulates the spirit of Mark 10 as he continually lifts up the smallest among us who are supposed to be chief among us.
During this past week I thought again and again of how very appropriate our gospel verses are in reminding us of World Communion Sunday and Neighbors in Need. Our scripture today points the way to Christians around our globe. And they, in turn, remind us of the earthquake and tsunami victims in Indonesia, of all the men, women and children who are food insecure, and of all god’s people who long to join us at the table of enfolding love.
Our closing hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west,” was written in 1908 by John Oxenham, the pen name for William Arthur Dunkerly. At the turn of the last century, Dunkerly was a deacon and a teacher at his congregational church in England. He wrote this hymn for a missionary exhibition. “In Christ there is no east or west” has been recorded in a hundred waysby choirs and soloists, by gospel groups and by instrumentalists. Still its message lives on and is clearly expressed today as we break bread with our brothers and sisters around God’s world:
In Christ there is no East or West, In him no South or North,
But one great fellowship of love Throughout the whole wide earth.
Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty