A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
In the last couple of weeks the Gospel has been showing some of the bad sides of Jesus’ followers. And that can be uncomfortable because they resemble us, more in the ways that they are annoying and problematic than in any other way. It continues today. We’re in a new scene in the Gospel, they had walked to a new region. There was this controversy, which I’ll get back to, and then the disciples decided to be Jesus’ “handlers.” They knew how annoying little kids can be, wanting attention, making noise, looking out for what they want first. So the disciples decided to clean things up and push away those kids and their parents. Jesus would have none of it. He knew how annoying adults could be, wanting his time and attention for themselves, talking over others to get their opinions in first, manipulating everything for their own self-interest. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
The only thing that really distinguishes us adult disciples from these children is that we think that we are different, grown-up, and in charge. And Jesus holds us in his arms and blesses us. It is not our in-chargeness that he holds and blesses, it is that we are his children, whether well-behaved or not.
People like to always get an advantage, to show that they are just a little ahead of everyone else. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to outsmart God, or to at least trick themselves into believing that whatever scheme or privilege they want to hold onto is God’s eternal plan. So these Pharisees come up and ask Jesus about marriage and divorce. Almost always, these confrontations have an agenda, the debates at this time were about when it was legitimate for a man to divorce his wife. Sometimes it helps to translate the Greek words literally, it shows the frame of mind and assumptions that were going on: They asked Jesus when it was permitted for a man to dismiss a woman. There was no question about how a woman could get rid of a man, just how the guy could be justified in getting rid of a woman. The implication is that the woman might become a burden to a man, so how could he get rid of her? The various rabbis had different positions on this, and your answer to this question defined where you stood as a teacher in Israel. So Jesus said, “What did Moses say?” The Pharisee’s answer was a man could write out a certificate and divorce the woman—they were waiting for Jesus to explain what exactly that meant, when and how, and for what reason. This is important, of course, because a guy has to figure out how to do what he wants and remained justified, and it’s important for lawyers and scholars and pastors to work it out so he does these things and still feels good.
Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t explain how to make the law of Moses work. Instead he says that it’s a colossal fail. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Divorce in this culture was a convenience for men. For the women it was a financial and social disaster. Their livelihood and prospects were pretty much completely cut off. The teachings of the rabbis and the certificate of divorce were intended to control this somewhat, to make the men more accountable, and to give the women who had been sent out at least the theoretical chance to re-marry and recover. But Jesus turns to the men and says: conforming with this regulation does not justify you, you don’t get your financial advantage, or comfort or your new young wife through appealing to Moses. Jesus refers to the creation—that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. A family is formed and it is not up to the arbitrary choice of a person to break that up. You can’t just make your choices holy by appealing to some provision in the law—that woman is part of you, not a possession to be discarded. But things do happen in this real world, divorces occur, families are torn apart and people are hurt. Because of our hardness of heart, provisions have to be made. Provisions are made for people to live. He took them up in his arms, and embraced them, laid his hands on them and blessed them.
Barely three months after a racist gunman claimed the lives of the martyrs of Charleston, we are mourning the deaths of innocents in Oregon. President Obama has said, about our famously lax gun laws: “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.” We are going to see the politicians and the NRA claim: it’s not the gun, it’s the person. But make no mistake about it and I am saying this as someone who grew up in the West where every family had guns: it’s the gun, guns everywhere for any idot to pick up. We need—as Christians—not to rationalize, not to justify, not to listen to professional handlers—but to ensure that the children will be safe and grow up to show us the kingdom of God.
The love of God and the grace of God is not so that we can be grown-up, dominant, have the upper hand or be rewarded for being the cleverest. We enter the Kingdom of God as a little child: loved, forgiven, given another chance. Loved; not encouraged in hurting other children, but in being cared for and learning to be a caring person. God gives his grace, and provisions for us to make it in this hard world filled with difficult choices, not to make it okay to harden our hearts, but to let us live, to experience becoming one flesh, one body in Christ. He embraces us and blesses us, not because we are the grown-ups, or the experts or the leaders, but because we are his children, partaking of his flesh, and being healed so that we can go out again into that world.