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No Dismissals Allowed

REV. JENNIFER ADAMS – October 7, 2012 – Proper 22, Year B: Mark 10:2-16

One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that each text has approximately one million ways in which you can approach it.  This is wonderful for preachers anyway, maybe not so wonderful if you’re trying to agree with someone on one particular interpretation of a passage. But the reality that several different themes tend to be tucked into every passage is why the lectionary we go by (our three year cycle of readings) is never limiting. People ask me every now and then how I can preach on the same text, over and over again whenever it comes up. But it never feels like that because the passages speak to me in different ways every time.

Except for the gospel text we just heard – where I think there is only one angle to take in preaching which is directly at it, and right on the theme of divorce. This isn’t the kind of text that I can proclaim from the aisle and then not touch in terms of preaching – because you need to know how I and our church approach divorce even if you hear only a slight variation on the theme every three years that it comes around. This passage raises a subject that’s close to almost all of our hearts and so it’s a pastoral concern for all of us as individuals and as a community of faith. We need to hit it directly every time because whether we’ve been divorced ourselves, or lived through our own parents divorcing, or watched a child of our own or a close friend get divorced, or even if it’s simply because we’ve done all that we can not to get divorced and by the grace of God have maintained a marriage … whatever the reason, this subject touches us all and so it’s good that every three years Mark speaks to us on this subject and we get a chance to go at it directly while gathered here through the gospel.

So first I need you let you know (or for some of you, remind you) where I have come from. My story includes having lived through divorce as a child. My parents were good church-going people (who are still good, church-going people by the way) and they did everything they could at the time to save their marriage, but that healing didn’t happen for them then. Which doesn’t mean that my family didn’t heal — each of us did heal over time and now while we know family differently we also know that love and redemption come in many different shapes and sizes. I also know of divorce from walking with friends through their own painful experience and as a priest and pastor for families who have experienced or are experiencing divorce. And one thing we can probably agree on from whatever experiences we’ve had that divorce is brokenness. I don’t think that anyone here would argue that point. Divorce hurts and upsets and disrupts and confuses pretty much everyone involved – at least for awhile. And since brokenness is not what God wants for any of us, divorce is not God’s hope for us; divorce is not God’s will in the big picture of who God wants us to be. And that’s part of what this Scripture tells us.

But (and this is an important but because it expands how we approach the text and our own lives as well) we need to also acknowledge that life is complex and people are too.  Sometimes for some people being in a particular marriage is brokenness, and that brokenness is not what God hopes or wants for any of us either. And so this text takes us to a very challenging, uncomfortable place that is impossible to completely resolve. While some divorces should never happen, some divorces really need to happen, and between those extremes are the many that fall in-between the extremes.

Nobody I’ve ever met has entered into their marriage hoping that it breaks beyond repair. And nobody ever celebrates that a marriage has gotten to that point. So while part of our calling as church is celebrating, strengthening and doing whatever we can to nurture marriage, caring for those in our midst who are experiencing or healing from divorce is also all part of what it means to be a loving community of faith.

It’s also important for us to remember the culture in which this gospel was written, because there are some important differences between then and now. In the culture in which Jesus lived, only a husband could seek a divorce. You heard that in the passage today. The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was OK if a man could divorce his wife because in those days, upon marriage, a woman became the property of the man. So while it undoubtedly often included a great deal of love, marriage was a societal contract, and in the making of that contract, the woman’s home shifted from that of her parents to that of her husband and her entire identity did too.

And that arrangement could only be broken by the male who could initiate a “certificate of dismissal”. At the point of dismissal, he no longer had responsibility for the woman. And after divorce, the woman was not only no longer “wife,” she lost it all – she was no longer daughter, sister or mother either – the only roles that were available to her – after divorce, the woman had no place in society at all. And that’s some of what Jesus was speaking to in this passage. When the contract was dismissed, the woman’s place in the family was gone and she was literally cast out to fend for herself. To be divorced in that culture was literally to be dismissed, to be cast out from family, from any community at all, and to be utterly alone.

And so when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees if that was OK, he said, “No. That’s not what we do.” And frankly that answer makes good gospel sense. That’s not how the kingdom of God works. Dismissal is sort of anti-good news. And it’s especially not what we do as those who have been called to live as one. And so this passage is actually about much more than marriage and divorce. It’s about caring for one another and holding fast and hard to the bottom line of the covenant we have made – the covenant that Jesus established which says that in the family of God, no one is ever dismissed. No matter what. It’s not what we do. Period.

Which is why when the disciples tried to turn away the children who were coming to him, Jesus reacted immediately. You think it’s a change of subject until we broaden our approach a bit — “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “don’t stop them.”  In other words, “Don’t dismiss them.”  And right there in front of everyone, in the midst of this intense theological and legal conversation, Jesus scooped the children up in his arms. He hugged them and blessed them and said that in all of this the kingdom of God was made manifest.

And so this whole passage is sort of a weird combination of things until you see that it’s not.  It actually does make good gospel sense that these pieces are together.  “Divorce is not like the kingdom,” Jesus told them.  “But embracing the children is.”

And so maybe the best way to hear this passage is as the little ones that we all truly are.  Children of God each of us:  Still growing.  Still learning.  Imperfect. We are made to love and be loved.  But we are also prone to make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and this side of heaven, we are bound to break in whatever ways are our particular ways of getting broken.  But because of how God works, we are still and forever one, continually invited into the holy, wide-scooping embrace and blessing of God.  Never to be dismissed any of us.

And so one of our gifts to this world is our proclamation that we are in this together whether it be as husband and wife, or more fundamentally as those who have been baptized into one-ness, as the Body of Christ.  The good news in this place is that even when brokenness happens, rather than dismissal, we offer invitation and we offer embrace . . both of which contain the power to heal and show us something important about the Kingdom of God.