Well, Jessie was supposed to preach today. However, her baby had other plans. I am somewhat amused that I had to preach this Gospel lesson the week I filed for divorce, and now here I am preaching it again just as I am about to get married. As I said, Jessie was supposed to preach today! Jessie is in the early stages of labor. This may go on for a few days. We will let you know when the baby arrives. I’ll have more to say at announcements about Jessie’s parental leave. But now, how is one inspired to come up with a good sermon at the last minute? Well, I found a good one online for today’s lessons written by Caitlin Trussel, a celebrated preacher. Caitlin serves at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver. She preached this sermon in 2015 on their Stewardship Sunday. I’ve taken out her thoughts on Stewardship specifically – I’ll offer my own thoughts on Stewardship on our designated Stewardship Sunday in a couple of weeks. I’ve kept the rest of her message that is helpful for us today. Here we go.
Who wants to switch places with me and preach a sermon about marriage and divorce? Actually, some of you might. There are a lot of us who probably have our well-honed elevator speech ready to go; the speech that we could give if we only had 30 seconds to explain our position on any particular topic. We could give that speech and another person would know exactly where we stood. Some of us may have listened to these Bible verses today and thought, finally, we’re going to get somewhere on the topic of marriage. Here’s a bit of a spoiler for you. We’re not. What I’m going to do is start by talking about divorce. This is what the Pharisees are talking about. It’s what the disciples are talking about. And it’s what Jesus starts by talking about.
The Pharisees’ ask the question like this: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The lawful part of the question refers to the Law of Moses. The Torah. The question is angling at a faithful response to the law. Everybody sitting there knows the answer is, “Yes.” A man could divorce his wife. Women were property. Women were property in the few millennia B.C.E., through the time of Jesus, and in too many centuries after Jesus. It was legal for a husband to divorce himself from his property, his wife. This first century cultural view gives us a stepping-stone to Jesus’ answer as we struggle now culturally with his answer.
The simple answer to the Pharisees’ question is, “Yes.” Thankfully, for me anyway, there is nothing simple about Jesus. Jesus’ response is intense. His intensity fits with other stories about Jesus in which people leave others vulnerable. First century women had few options. A divorced woman was vulnerable. Extreme poverty was the likeliest outcome. When confronted by questions like these, questions layered with marginalization, Jesus regularly ups the intensity of the answer.
Bible verses like these are called “Law” – not only because the Law of Moses is being discussed – although that can be a clue. These verses are “law” because they convict us. It’s as if the text has a finger pointed out of it, at us. If we leave them unexamined, Bible stories such as these become a way for us to see ourselves as okay or not okay, without sin or with sin. Or, even worse, to decide if someone else is okay or not okay, without sin or with sin. The danger is in declaring who is inside and who is outside of God’s mercy. Law texts often go unchallenged; as if there is no other response but to convict; as if they answer to no other verses in the Bible, but stand alone, a law unto themselves.
The Christian church over time has had the same inclination. To designate who is inside and outside of God’s mercy based on interpretation of the law. Jesus’ intense response is one of the classic ways he responds to law questions throughout the gospels. It’s as if Jesus wants to challenge the person challenging him. So, you think you’re justified by your reading of the law? Think again. There is always a way to be convicted by law – unmarried, married, or divorced. The overwhelming message is that the law cannot save you. If you attempt to leave someone outside of God’s mercy, there is always one more interpretive move someone else can make after you, that will leave you on the outside looking in.
The Gospel today ends with the disciples speaking sternly to the people who are trying to get their children close to Jesus so that he can touch them. These verses are pure gospel. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Jesus is telling us that there is no other way to receive the kingdom than as a gift. Receiving the kingdom of God is about our need and dependence, NOT about our perfection in keeping the law. Some people call this grace. Other people call this gospel. When we want to corrupt the law into the final word, the Spirit works through the gospel, convicting by the law and breathing out a word of mercy, a word of grace. This word of grace includes all of us – unmarried, married, or divorced.
The challenge as gospel people is to continue to hold the gospel as the main thing. WE don’t always get it right. But grounded in the gospel, we are a people set free in a world hungry for a shred of good news. We gather in worship hungry for this good news ourselves. We remind each other that God’s promises are for us and for the world, and then we are sent out as living, breathing, fleshy reminders that God’s good news is for all. Amen and hallelujah!