Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Mark 10:2-16;
Heb 1-2; Gen. 2:18-24
A HEART-WARMING TEXT
I have a long history with our Gospel Lesson this morning. Friday was the twenty-first anniversary of my ordination. Since we use a three-year cycle of assigned readings on Sundays, and because three goes into twenty-one evenly, you might be able to guess that this was the first Gospel I had to preach on as a pastor. But it goes even further back than that. Three years before ordination I was just beginning my internship at Trinity in Ann Arbor, where Pastor Lori Carey is now pastor. And, you guessed it, this was the first Gospel on which I was assigned to preach. There I was, a nervous young intern, and I was called to say a Gospel word — including, and perhaps especially, to all those divorced people in the congregation — faced with Jesus’ tough words against divorce. What does one do?
You could always ignore that first part and go directly to the closing part of the lesson, Jesus’ wonderful blessing of the children. That can make for a heart-warming sermon. And we do, generally, need a heart-warming sermon.
But perhaps not in the way that you might first think, when we picture all those adorable children, bouncing on Jesus’ knee. For I think there is a theme in this Gospel Lesson that ties both parts together. That theme is the hardness of our human hearts. So we do need a heart-warming sermon, you see, but not without first seeing the cold hardness of our hearts first, and how it is that Jesus came to warm them. We need to see ourselves in the Pharisees shoes as those who love to thump the law when it is to our advantage. Jesus tells them point blank that the commandment permitting divorce was written for their hardness of hearts. And when we picture those adorable children on Jesus’ knee, we first need to see ourselves as Jesus’ disciples, those rather hard-hearted fuddy-duds who tried to keep the children away from Jesus altogether. Jesus was too busy and too important, they thought, for such frivolity.
The Good News in all of this, of course, is that if we can risk seeing ourselves with the Pharisees and the disciples and their hardness of hearts, we also can come to see that Jesus came with the cure for such hardness of hearts. He came to live the story from God that can truly warm our hearts.
How does this work? Well, as Jesus’ disciples two thousand years later, we don’t have to look back too far to see such hard-heartedness around the issue of divorce, do we? It hasn’t been all that long ago that we in the church have been very hard on divorced people. I would submit to you that when we have used these words from Jesus to beat up people going through a divorce, we have generally suffered from the same kind of hardness of heart that Jesus is challenging in the Pharisees. It has been especially tragic when we’ve used these words against women resorting to a divorce from hard-hearted husbands who control them and abuse them. To use Jesus’ words about divorce against people who find themselves in a marriage of hard-heartedness is to commit the same kind of hard-heartedness as the Pharisees.
And notice that Jesus’ most difficult words about divorce are shared behind closed doors to disciples, not the Pharisees. This whole section in Mark’s gospel is about the hard-heartedness of the disciples. Jesus has been telling them plainly about what his Messiahship means, that he must suffer and die before being raised on the third day. This has consequences for being disciples of such a Messiah, that they would being willing to bear their own crosses. The disciples just haven’t gotten it. And, here in this story, they still don’t understand what Jesus was trying to say to the Pharisees because their hearts were hard, too — which they immediately put on display again by keeping the children away from Jesus, another hard-heartedness which Jesus needs to confront. The disciples themselves simply couldn’t understand because of their hardheartedness.
Hard-heartedness is what Jesus came to soften on the cross. He died at the hands of what we called last week our “sacrificial solution” to the problem of violence. In order to steel ourselves against the most unwanted violence we harden our hearts against what we need to do to apply a dose of sanctioned violence against the unsanctioned violence.
Think of our dilemma, for example, since 9-11 in fighting the terrifying violence of terrorism. We have steeled ourselves against the need to use our own dose of violence to stop it. It takes a certain amount of hard-heartedness, doesn’t it? Despite all our best efforts at aiming our bombs at the places to kill terrorists, there’s always going to be what we euphemistically call “collateral damage.” And the hard heartedness comes against thinking about the “collateral damage” in terms of flesh and blood people like us who are somebody’s mother or child.
But this points us to that wider story of God’s love in Jesus Christ, a love which reaches out and makes the whole world our family. Isn’t that what Jesus means at the end of today Gospel when he says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” If we receive God’s kingdom through the cross of Jesus, we become God’s children anew such that every person in this world is a child of God with us. Every person in this world is a brother or sister.
In the Catholic tradition, I think this is the wisdom of calling priests “Father.” Or in the monasteries over the ages, every other person in that monastery has been called brother or sister. There is a retreat center in Racine, WI, where our family has just moved from, called the Siena Center. It is run by a wonderful group of Catholic Sisters, who before the Iraq War began, started wearing badges that simply said, “I have a sister in Iraq.” What does that do to our plans for war if we allow ourselves to think of all the innocent civilians killed as sisters and brothers? Yet entering the kingdom of God as a child means exactly that, I think. We can no longer make our hearts hard against someone who is truly a brother or sister in Jesus Christ, the one who came into this world as our brother in order that our hard hearts might be warmed to love others as God’s children.
Now, what does this mean to seeing the reign of God’s love in the world? Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world: We are born in a geographical location that can either accustom us to unjust privilege or lock us out of privilege, preventing us from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.
How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a Risk game board? What would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother — if “family first” included them all as our own flesh and blood?
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Entering God’s kingdom as a little child means that Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare us and harden our hearts. He instead offers us the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life. Come now to the family table of fellowship and peace. Thanks be to God!
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 8, 2006