Eucharist Sermon - 3 October 2021

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 1:18–24; Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12; Mark 10:2–16
The Revd Clare Hayns, College Chaplain
'Communities of the Broken and Blessed'

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

I don’t have the privilege of standing here very often, perhaps once a year, and so imagine my delight when I read the set readings. There are three approaches when faced with difficult bible texts like these ones.

  1. It’s early October – a perfect time for a Harvest Festival and to preach on the abundance of God’s provision
  2. Skip over the thorny bit about divorce and adultery and focus on the little children at the end
  3. Attempt to preach on the whole passage without emptying the church

I’m going to attempt (3) but first let’s recognise that this is a difficult passage. Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, and the accompanying reading from Genesis may trigger difficult emotional responses from many of us.

Many of us will have experienced the pain of divorce, either personally or within our families and close friendships. Some may have heard these texts used to argue that they should remain within abusive, life-destroying marriages. Others may hear these words and will have heard them used to argue that their loving, covenanted, life-affirming, same-sex relationship isn’t to be blessed by God.

It’s important to acknowledge that texts from the bible can be used to curse as well as to bless and there is much hurt and healing that needs to happen when we misuse scripture.

One of my teachers at theological training said to us at the end of our preaching course. ‘Remember, above all things, the gospel is Good News and when you preach it should also be Good News! And I believe that is absolutely true and that this passage from Mark’s gospel is indeed Good News.

I’d like to say now there are two things I don’t think this passage is about. It’s not really about divorce. It’s not really about adultery. In fact, I’m not sure it’s about individual morality at all in the way we often understand it.

Look at what Jesus is responding to: ‘Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife’?

Every generation has a different set of ethical arguments to work through. In recent years it’s What should be the age of consent? What age should young people be allowed to buy alcohol? Who is able to be married in church?

Jesus was responding to a question about the latest hot topic of the time. Divorce was widely accepted in the society Jesus lived within. The controversial issue was not whether or not divorce was allowed, but what should be the grounds for this. The text they were using is found in Deuteronomy:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house” [1]

The argument was between the various rabbinical groups and was all about what the ‘something objectionable’ might be. Is it just adultery (as the school of Shammai argued), or could this be something like she didn’t produce children, food, etc. (argued by the more liberal school of Hillel). [2]

The question of course was a trap. The pharisees knew there was no answer that Jesus could give that wasn’t going to upset a section of those listening. It was a trick question, like ‘should we pay taxes to Caesar’.

The debate wasn’t about particular individuals; it was one of those discussions theologians enjoy when they forget they are talking about actual human beings. We see this in our church today in the debates about same sex marriage where so often those arguing have clearly forgotten they are talking about actual human beings who long to enter into the kind of covenanted relationship that Jesus so clearly upholds. 

And Jesus, knowing this, shifts the focus entirely. Firstly, he includes the woman in the narrative. In those days, divorce was something that happened ‘to’ women.

Then he moves the debate away from the law and from the divisive, painful mess of the divorce court and refocuses right back to the beginning, to creation, to who human beings are and what humans were created for. Created by God to be in relationship with all creation and one another.

We are formed from the beginning to be in relationship, but relationships that are whole and holy, that enable one another to flourish. We are created to be in relationships that reflect the love that God has for each one of us.

Jesus goes even further. He takes what had turned into a legal convenience to remind his listeners that the purpose of Moses’ law was to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost everything. Home, status, stability. Women in those times were the most vulnerable, alongside children.

Whenever Jesus came into contact with debates about the law he always, always, focussed in on the spirit and not the letter. In most other cases he’s more liberal (for example when questioned about healing and eating corn on the sabbath), but in this case he’s stricter. He upholds the marriage covenant and underlines its importance and in doing so protects women, who were most likely to be harmed from being divorced for ‘something objectionable’.  

I said earlier that I don’t think this passage is about individual morality. I think it’s about community and how we live together. I wonder if Jesus is inviting us to imagine being a different kind of community: a community of the broken and blessed.

A community that acknowledges brokenness? Where we acknowledge the pain of broken human relationships, where we recognise we are often vulnerable, hurting, separated but support each other in this. A community where we don’t need to pretend we are anything other than fallible, weak, stumbling human beings in need of God’s love, forgiveness and salvation, and in need of one another.

I used to work with a homelessness organisation and we used to have to fill in Independent Living Assessment Forms to assess if our clients could live independently in the community. I actually think it was nonsense as none of us live independently. We are created for community, to live together and care for one another.

I wonder if Jesus is calling us to a kind of community where we value, truly value one another, and have real, authentic relationships, ones that are founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, where those who are weakest and most vulnerable aren’t discarded but are valued, heard and protected.

Does this seem too like Eden to be possible? I wonder if Jesus is inviting us to not just imagine this, but to begin to live this way. But where do we start?

I think we start with what is at the end of our gospel passage. With blessing.

‘Let the little children come to me. And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and he blessed them’.

Perhaps we can leave all the debates, questions and arguments to one side for now and receive Jesus’ blessing.  Can we come to Jesus now ‘as a little child’ and allow ourselves to receive this? Perhaps as we come to the altar to receive the sacrament we can also imagine Jesus himself inviting us to come.

Jesus wants to bless. And once blessed perhaps we can begin to live as a community of the broken and the blessed?

By speaking up when people use theology to harm real people. By standing up against systems that use legalism to exploit those who are vulnerable. By being a blessing to others. By valuing the relationships we’ve been given.

This is what Jesus does and what we are called to.

This passage is indeed Good News – it really is.