This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 3 October, 2021. (Pentecost 19B)
Job 1:1, 2:1 – 10
Hebrews 1:1 – 4, 2:5 – 12
Mark 10:2 – 16
Click here to view the readings in full at the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark 10:2
On Thursday last week, I asked those worshipping with me to pray for me as I prepared to preach on last Sunday’s rather tricky readings. I realised this week, that I should have banked those prayers to help me deal with this week’s!
Both Old and New Testament readings begin series of selections from new books — today’s selection from Job sets the scene for the arguments that follow, so I will simply ask you to remember this introduction for when we get into the meat of the book — it will help you make some sense of our readings over the next few weeks.
The beginning of the letter to the Hebrews sets out some important understandings of the person of Jesus: God has spoken through him, he is the reflection of God’s glory, and God’s agent in creation. Jesus, wonderfully superior to all other spiritual beings, has acted in a representative way in leading humanity through death, and in being made perfect through suffering. We’ll find these themes developed further over these next weeks.
Then we have reached the next stage in our pilgrimage through Mark’s gospel, and here we have two themes: marriage and care for children. It is from our consideration of this gospel that our theme “Changing world, changing Church” came to us. [I confess that we were tempted, briefly, to leave out the first section in view of the difficulties with which it bristles!]
Chris and I were leaving the Cathedral after Evensong last Sunday, holding hands as is our custom, when someone saw us and remarked how lovely it was to see — and I thought he said, “so late in the day” but it might have been something like “after so long!” My experience of nearly 60 years of marriage to the same person of course colours what I say as I reflect on this Gospel reading and our theme. I feel a bit as though I am to be asked by one of those annoying customer service surveys, “How likely are you to recommend this…” Now 60 years is only a small part of the 2000 years between the writings we read today and our present-day experience, but I would like to share some of my history with you as together we wrestle with what the word of God is for us today, spoken through this particular reading.
Our wedding service, back in 1962, and the counselling that went before it, stressed that marriage was something that we willed to do, as part of our responding to God’s call. The emphasis was not on our emotional state (fiery though that may have been!) but on our decision to take one another in love “until parted by death”. “Wilt thou…” we were asked, and each replied, “I will!” Now at the time I understood quite clearly that divorce sometimes happened to end a marriage, but I knew also that our Church set its face firmly against the idea that divorce left a person free to marry someone else “according to God’s will”: in fact marrying after divorce was the one offence for which people were excommunicated! This was very painful for both the Church body and the parties involved, but it was seen to be the clear out-working of today’s gospel passage!
At the same time, everyone recognized that some people were homosexual, but not only was the physical expression of that nature illegal, it was not a subject talked about except perhaps in making fun of their behaviours, and a dark suspicion that people’s (particularly men’s) homosexuality predisposed them to abuse of children.
Now even then, the world was changing in its attitudes to sexual maters, but the church changed rather more slowly!
It was the divorce and remarriage issue that changed first: the Church’s authorities gradually came to place more emphasis on the importance of forgiveness and on our lack of perfection, and so to recognize that some marriages were not able to continue in a way that expressed a loving, permanent goodwill towards the other — one that reflected the love of God. Rather than wanting to apportion blame for this situation, the church came to feel that it reflected God’s love more clearly if it allowed that the solemn undertakings made in marriage could not be continued, and the vows could be dispensed with. It was then conceivable that God might call these persons to new relationships which could again be recognized and blessed by the Church. Our Church said, in effect, “Clearly what the scripture records as Jesus’ words must be honoured, but within the imperfection of God’s human creatures, God recognizes that new beginnings are possible”. Our Church, then, dealt with the tension between this realization and the gospel passage by allowing the Bishop to give permission for such new beginnings to be blessed.
Second, the words “God made them male and female” cause anxiety for some: both for those who find themselves drawn to people of their own gender rather than the opposite, and also for those who identify themselves with a gender with which they were not born. The relatively recent amendment to marriage laws in Australia to include as married persons those of identical gender who commit themselves to one another in love seems to go clearly against this gospel saying. Can the Church bless such unions in the same way that they bless heterosexual marriages? This is something that our Church is wrestling with at present — and it’s not pretty fight!
I’ve recently attended the wedding of one of my daughters and of one of my granddaughters to their female spouses, and the joy that this has brought to them and their close ones has been quite evident.
Society has changed in these 60 years, and even more so since the days of Jesus, when women who had been divorced, or even widowed, were among the most vulnerable people in a society dominated by the idea that men were head and protector of their families, and women and children were appendages — appendages to be proud of; to boast about in the gate, as the Psalmist put it, but still appendages. Even the “capable wife” that we marvelled at a couple of weeks ago was praised because of the honour she brought to her husband!
And perhaps that provides a key to dealing with some of the difficulties of today’s gospel reading. In the society in which Mark’s gospel was written, a divorced woman was as vulnerable as the “little children” that were brought to Jesus that he might touch them. Jesus’ gracious action in laying hands on the children and blessing them — his refusing to allow them to be kept away from him — shows his concern for the vulnerable ones. He tells the people that they need to acknowledge their vulnerability if they are to enter into relationship with him in the Kingdom. And he warns the powerful that they are not to act in ways that cause “little ones” to lose the protection and provision that they need, and to which they have been pledged in marriage.
There are some who say that the Church has been obsessed with sex for too long — and again in my life time the significant decision to admit that women could be called to priesthood or episcopate has added to the sex-based issues that we’ve already been thinking about. There are still more issues to be resolved in this deep-rooted and life-giving area of human life: may God give grace to his Church to hear and act upon God’s call to care for the “little ones”.