“Can a Church Be Born Again?” 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4th 2009
Pentecost XVIII – October 4th 2009
Genesis 2: 18-24 Psalm 8 Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16
Can a Church Be Born Again?
This sermon will be about women and children but also about why Jesus features children and why we have to become like children to enter the Kingdom of heaven and you will see that goes for our church, too. Usually, however, the matter of divorce smacks people right in the face when hearing these lessons, so I do not want to fail to speak about it.
Many of us condemn ourselves, because we are divorced and we have to realize that if our hearts condemn us, Jesus is greater than our hearts and we do not live our lives under the law, but under grace. Look at the woman taken in adultery, whom Jesus comes upon as men are getting ready to stone her to death. Jesus says, “He who is without sin, throw the first stone.” And they all go away – and Jesus forgives her. He probably thought, “Where is the man? It took two to commit adultery. Why are these men stoning only the woman to death?” I realize I’m claiming to read Jesus’ mind!
When Jesus treats divorce, he speaks into the heart of our human condition. Meanwhile the Pharisees are asking abut divorce to test him. Herod had just divorced his wife, a Nabatean princess, in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. John had just gotten his head cut off because he took a stand against Herod’s divorce and the Pharisees may have been hoping that Jesus would hang himself by taking the same stand as John.
But Jesus championed the vulnerable and the oppressed of the day, the women and the children. A man could just write a letter of divorce and send his wife packing, should she offend him in any way. Now adultery would be a real reason, according to Matthew, but the offense could just be that he did not like how she cooked his dinner, that she did not obey his authority, or merely that he found someone more beautiful. Different rabbis argued that each of these issues constituted an eligible offense.
In Rome divorce was rampant, but the woman also had the right to divorce her husband. The Jews were more Patriarchal, only the man had the right to divorce, and adultery could only dishonor the man; women and children had no rights in the first place. At most, it was an insult to the wife’s father. But Jesus taught that it had to be mutual. The man, who marries another and divorces his wife in such a hard-hearted way, also commits adultery against her. He gave the woman standing, too.
Divorce is part of our human brokenness and Jesus says that it is not how God intended our creation to be. A marriage made in heaven is still a little bit of paradise on earth. Both can be naked together and they are not ashamed. What a powerful bond sexuality becomes with one another, when it issues out of love and respect and reenters love and respect, where both partners trust each other and can count on each other. There is this one person with whom you can be safe; a person with whom you can bring up anything and with whom you can share a life of love together; later even sharing your memories. You go through life together sharing everything, with this precious person at you side.
The woman does not belong to the man, but with the man, because she is taken from his side and it is not good for a man to be alone, he needs his partner at his side. Jesus also points out that the woman is more important. She is stronger than the man. Have you ever read Ashley Montegue’s, The Natural Superiority of the Woman? Jesus says, “A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one.” We would say, “A woman leaves her father and mother and cleaves to her husband.” Jesus turns it around.
Now it is not one half a person and another half person adding up to one. Men and women multiply, so you have to use multiplication. One whole person multiplied by another whole person make one whole person. That means that single people can be whole as well. But let’s not put down marriage. Marriage in Hebrew is Beulah, and Beulah-land is filled with happy marriages.
Back to the strength of women: mostly despite the greater public visibility and voice of men, in reality the man revolves around the woman, like a satellite around a planet, like the earth. She brings life into the world; the man as a warrior, is supposed to have virtue because he can take life away, unless he has learned the lesson of Jesus, to be able to give life too.
The word for virtue in those days was “manly”. Vir means “man” in Latin. To be a man meant that you had virtue and favor. To be a woman, well, it meant you had none. “Don’t be womanish! Don’t be a sissy!” “Sissy” stands for sister. They also believed that to speak to or relate with children destroyed your manliness. It weakened men and made them unfit for battle. That’s why the disciples want to protect Jesus and keep the children away.
We often want to have the sentimental pictures of children coming to a sweet Jesus with long flowing hair, like our Sunday School pictures. But you have to think they were probably sick, sniveling, whining and crying children, the ones the mothers want Jesus to heal. Jesus has to straighten out his disciples to accept the children even as men and as leaders. Jesus always turns what we consider important up-side-down. Imagine a man teaching Kindergarten! Jesus would not look down on such a man. Jesus not only touches the poor children, he takes them up into his arms. How do we knock the false values of our society in the head today, the way Jesus did back then? I ask you?
Of course, not all marriages are made in heaven. If only they were, what a safe place for children and all living things this world would be! For a marriage made in heaven Jesus has to be really present in the partners. Some couples living together, however, do not have Christ in their midst, but a devil. That gives them a marriage made in hell. Jesus did not want a man and a woman to stay together to destroy each other. Like, divorce is bad, murder is worse. You can become an accomplice to your own abuse in a marriage and Jesus did not want that. So you divorce. As Luther says, “Sin boldly, but more boldly still, believe!” Ah, children often become the victims, but that is our sorry brokenness. Where you continue to live your life in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, the past is a bucket of ashes, and Christ raises you up into a new life.
Don’t forget, however: you never have a wonderful marriage handed to you on a silver platter. You need to do the work of the soul, get over some of your selfishness, surrender to God and offer yourself and your marriage to the will of God. Couples need to push and pull each other into heaven.
But you have to get through the sticking points in your marriage to the good stuff – and no matter how many times you marry, you will have to get through those same issues. It’s like you have a honeymoon, then you go through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land, the promised marriage, which is so helpful to us human beings.
We certainly need God’s grace and forgiveness to make these breakthroughs. We truly need to forgive ourselves and each other not seven times, but seventy-times seven times, because we get to the edge of our growth and get frightened, and then we go back into our garbage can existence, like Oskar on Sesame Street, and we miss out on the wonderful life in the garden, the quality relationships filled with mutual love and concern.
Someone recently argued that polygamy in Africa was better than our monogamy. I think of the Mormon who has eight wives talking about polygamy with a reporter. Trying to quote one of his wives, the reporter wrote, “His better one eighth said….” We often say a man’s better half, but I have already explained that a man and a woman are not half persons, but need to be whole persons. What would a man think if we had polyandry, like in Hawaii in the old days, when a woman could have eight husbands! He would have to wait his turn, night after night, to have a chance at his wife’s bed, and he might discover, he was not at all her favorite! Can we walk a mile in a woman’s shoes or in our children’s shoes? Those small feet are precious!
The old words for Psalm 8 say, “Out of the mouths of infants, babes, and children, you have fashioned a bulwark, a defense against your enemies.” Children come into our world completely dependent and full of trust. The bulwark or defense against doubt, cynicism, skepticism, and faithlessness is the consummate trust that little children have. It is this trust that Jesus championed, as well as their zest for learning, their curiosity in seeing everything for the first time, and wanting to grow up. We have to be filled by trust, be tender hearted – it’s all right to be tough minded, but we have to have tender hearts and open minds of children to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
A congregation needs to become a safe place filled with these wonderful attributes of children so that we can say “Our Father” and be the children of God and then eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor any heart imagined the beautiful things that God has prepared for those who love him and are called to his purpose!
Yes, we become children, children of God. But take one more step. To become a child a church has to become a mission. Bethlehem has to start over again the way it first began for it to enter the kingdom of heaven. Ah, we have to gather everyone together breathlessly, to grow together in God’s work and to do God’s mission. An old church puts fund-raising into the forefront. Fund-raising helps a little, but it is only a band-aid. We have to become a mission again and be carried by the marvelous vision of the wonderful things that could happen to us, if this church came alive here on this street in West Oakland, if it started over again. When this church started, it did not have money and it is not about money, but about throwing ourselves completely, like children, on the resources of God’s love and mercy.
Look at the heroes of CNN, the news channel for the year 2009. They fed the homeless, they healed the sick. One fellow was a bartender, who saw so many people wasting their lives on barstools, and he thought, “We can turn wine into water!” He started a project to dig wells to bring clean water to those dying of putrid and contaminated water in the villages of Africa. And they did not have to leave the country to go to Africa. Another fellow helped homeless veterans and another opened an orphanage for 48 homeless children. We need to search for what God wants Bethlehem to do in this place. It always starts small. What about the community garden? It would give us a way to reach out to this community. This is the vision that Pastor Megan Rohr placed before us and in it I for one could see our way to real mission. If we trust in God and not in money and what not, but I mean completely depend on God, Bethlehem, like a child, could become a mission and start to grow again! Amen.
Communion Blessing: God gives us the grace to become the children, who enter the kingdom of heaven!