Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 22 October 07, 2018 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
This is “one of those passages” preachers dread. We would seem to be in an impossible dilemma, forced to contradict either Jesus, or basic realities of human nature, not to mention pastoral sensitivity. Although Jesus is quoted as recognizing grounds for divorce elsewhere in the Gospels, that’s not what he says in today’s passage, and I don’t want to take the easy way out. Fortunately, when we dig into this text, there’s gold beneath the ugly surface.
One thing that helps us is the structure of the passage. I know that sounds boring, but stay with me here. First Jesus forces the Pharisees to answer their own question. They answer correctly. The conversation could have been over then, and I think most preachers would be fine with that. But Jesus goes on and raises a much bigger question. He blows up the scale from petty to epic. It’s like when you’re watching a legal thriller and someone swears they’ll “put the whole system on trial!”
Jesus knew the law perfectly well. Dialogue after dialogue shows that. But Jesus brings a much bigger question into the picture. Why? Why does the law exist? The Pharisees might have answered, “It doesn’t matter, it’s not for us to question God, just to obey.” And they might have a point, albeit an unsatisfying one. For God wants more than our obedience, God wants us to be satisfied. So Jesus’s question remains salient. Why? “Because of your hardness of heart.” That is, the law is not an end in itself, but rather a gift from God meant to make our lives better.
Jesus uses this question about law and interpretation as an opportunity to remind us that God loves us so very much. He points out that while the law has provisions to deal with the limitations and flaws of human nature, God also has ideals, a best possible way of life, a plan, a dream, a vision of every person’s joy and fulfillment, every child of God living their best possible life.
In this case, individual relationships illustrate the difference. Divorce is just a reality. At weddings I quote Jesus in a slightly different translation, “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” And yet I’ll never forget my seminary professor who said that with some marriages, “If God joined them together, God was out of his mind!” And this text isn’t so far away from his view.
Our translation says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” But the Greek is passive: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another is adulterated by her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she is adulterated.” That sounds very different to me, and a lot more real. When a marriage ends, it can feel very much like the promises the people made to each other are being adulterated. The people might very well feel adulterated. In other words, divorce is necessary, not ideal.
So what if I follow Jesus’s lead and expand the scale from individual relationships to communal ones. I think the same principle applies. That is, we should strive for the ideal God has in mind for us, trusting that God’s ideal, delivered with God’s generosity, will give us our greatest joy and satisfaction.
Is St. John’s, or any church, simply a thing we use to meet our needs, like a business, or do those of us who make this church our home have a deeper relationship with this place, and with each other? Do we take what we can get at the lowest possible cost to ourselves, or does our relationship with St. John’s consist of more? If the former were true, St. John’s would have ceased to exist ages ago, or might never have come into being at all, so therefore the very existence of our church is evidence of our covenant, our decision individually and corporately to love God and to love our neighbors from this place. When we take a chiseling attitude and become determined to get what we want from them at the lowest cost to ourselves, that’s a sure sign that love, if it had ever been there, has gone. But when we love someone, we do as much as we can for them, and our generosity brings us joy and satisfaction.
By now you’ve noticed that the theme of this year’s stewardship campaign is “Renewing our Covenant.” Originally we were going to call it “Renewing the Covenant,” but that seemed a little ambitious. The New Covenant between God and Humanity in Christ’s blood will stand for all time, but the covenant we make with each other by calling ourselves members of St. John’s Church depends entirely upon our ongoing commitment. So I hope and pray you’ll join me in renewing our commitment, our covenant, in every way, with a generous pledge for next year, certainly, and also by continuing to support the church’s mission with your time and energy, your heart, mind, and strength.
What’s at stake is nothing less than the kingdom of God in the corner of the world God has entrusted to us. Day in and day out, St. John’s shows the world who God really is, shares God’s love with anyone, unconditionally. That’s what Jesus was demonstrating when he insisted that no one stop the children coming to him. In blessing them, he was showing the world that God loves everyone, even — especially — those who have the least, those whom secular society relegates to the bottom, if they even acknowledge their existence. Jesus put aside society’s hierarchy in favor of God’s ideal.
For as I said before, in Jesus’s day, children were at the very bottom. Today, society is superficially different, but still marginalizes some. In the name of Jesus, every week, St. John’s follows Jesus in offering love, hope, and community to everyone, from top to bottom and everywhere in between. This is who we are. We do our best every week, every year, to bring the world closer to God’s ideal. We have a lot to be proud of, a lot to celebrate, all because we continue renewing our covenant.