Divorce, Justice and Vulnerability

Divorce Justice and VulnerabilityA Sermon preached for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost on October 7, 2018 on Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 at St. Luke's lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Perhaps you’ve heard the line spoken by Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, “Divorces are made in heaven.” He’s poking fun at the rules of Victorian England, and by implication, also of Christian thought, tradition, and biblical interpretation over the centuries. Our Scripture passages from Genesis and Mark today are two sources for the belief that  it's marriages that are made in heaven, and that divorce is unforgivable, creating reason enough to exclude people from Christian community.

In fact, since moving to Texas, I have met a retired pastor from another tradition who lost his entire pension because he married a divorced woman. Now at age 70, he’s considering learning how to sell cars and grappling with the fact that he’ll never be able to retire. I was appalled by this story and saddened this is practiced by those who call themselves Christian.
Is this really what the Biblical tradition promotes about marriage? That human brokenness and failure in relationships is somehow worse than other sin?

As in our Children’s Message today, one of our tasks in Biblical interpretation is to correct mis-interpretations that are culture-bound, affected by historical context, and limited by looking at the text only through the lens of patriarchal systems of power.

The Pharisees in our Mark text tried to start an abstract argument about the law with Jesus. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s like a student going to a counselor to ask advice for “a friend.” But Jesus’s response is alarmingly personal, “What did Moses command YOU?” he asks. How are YOU treating YOUR wife and family?

The Pharisees quoted Deuteronomy where the law allows a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce. The Law allowed for divorce if a man’s wife proved to have “unseemly characteristics”—usually interpreted as unfaithfulness. Many Jewish leaders believed adultery was the only legitimate reason for a divorce. Other schools of thought, however, believed a man could give his wife a certificate of divorce if she displeased him in anyway, if he found someone he liked better, or whom he deemed more beautiful. The Talmud, a post-Biblical collection of Jewish texts, says that a man can divorce his wife if she burned his soup, wore her hair loose, or talked too loudly. In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ time, a woman had no right to issue her husband a certificate of divorce and had no legal recourse if she or her children were abused or mistreated.

In his response, Jesus cited not only Genesis, but the 6th Commandment against adultery in making his argument discouraging divorce. He does this not because it’s an unforgiveable sin, not because there should be no divorce no matter what, not because divorce can’t be the best, healthiest option available, but because God’s heart is always on the side of those who are most vulnerable—those who have no rights, who are marginalized or powerless for any reason.

Women couldn’t own property, they were property. Divorce could easily leave women and their children destitute—with no means of income or support if the woman’s father or brother were dead or not able to take them in. Jesus knew human sin leads us to pursue our own self-interest at others’ expense, so by then raising divorce to the level of breaking one of the Ten Commandments, he was protecting women and children from undeserved suffering, and from being treated as disposable.

In the previous chapter, Mark repeatedly emphasized the importance of protecting the most vulnerable with stories about healing a child, welcoming children, and not causing children to stumble. In this passage, children still figure prominently when Jesus scolded the disciples for shooing them away and 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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

The writer of Mark doesn’t want us to miss the point that Jesus words about divorce are not only about personal morality, but also about society’s attitude toward those who can most easily be cast aside as disposable. God’s heart is always with those who are in need.

The universal truth behind the passage is that all of us are vulnerable and in need in some way. Most older people I know are not afraid of death itself, but of dying—the process—of losing agency and independence, of becoming dependent and increasingly vulnerable. Some are worried about taking care of someone who is losing capacity, or maybe you’ve already done that for your spouse and you wonder who will take care of you if you need it. Perhaps you have financial anxiety, and like the retired pastor I met, must keep working after age 70 and pray your body holds out, and that you can find a job or keep a job. For others, our vulnerability may be one of identity and meaning—we’re doing everything we’re supposed to--providing for our family, and we look like a success, but we wonder if that’s all there is. Maybe our vulnerability is something we hide, like many do with mental illness, chronic depression, anxiety, or addiction. Perhaps divorce is part of your story or of someone you love. Maybe it wasn’t a “divorce made in heaven” and you’d like to be free of the pain, or guilt that lingers and you just want to feel loved for who you are and where you’re at in life. Jesus’ words include you today, not exclude you.

All of us come with a vulnerability today—none of us escape the effects of human limitation and brokenness. We can’t simply issue a certificate of wholeness or healing for ourselves and change our situation to something that looks better. As harsh as Jesus sounds, he really is communicating God’s heart for those in need, and that includes all of us—single, divorced, married, partnered—no matter what our family configuration is. When we are in touch with our own vulnerability, we can enter the kingdom as Jesus calls us to—like a child, aware of our need for God and our dependence on Jesus Christ.

That’s why Jesus came, who, as Hebrews says, “is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” We may wonder as the psalmist, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” Yet God sent Jesus to communicate God’s heart of love for us, making us one with him. Through his suffering and death, Jesus grants us forgiveness and newness of life, claiming us as precious children so that we might be sanctified with the one who sanctifies.

Because God’s heart embraces, loves and forgives us in our need and vulnerability, we can follow Jesus in protecting others who are vulnerable. We don’t have to go far to identify those who need our support. Some of us help care for our vulnerable family members. Sixty percent of students in the Richardson School District are receiving free or reduced lunch. Many seniors need to work and are having a hard time finding employers who will hire anyone over the age of 50. Increasing housing costs are making difficult for more and more people to pay their bills.

It can be as simple as leaving a bigger tip for low wage workers, remembering to offer prayer to those strangers we meet during the day, or responding with love to people in need who join us on Sunday morning, which I have already witnessed many of you doing. Jesus calls us, not to a perfect life, but to a life that is saved by the unmerited gift of God’s love so that we can join Jesus in protecting the vulnerable and making sure no one is treated as disposable.

In Jesus Christ, God issues all of us a certificate of eternal love and salvation and calls us to reach out to those who need it most and share the good news!



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Be Opened to Healing

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The Supreme Court Hearings, the Corrupting Power of Sin, Jesus's Victory over Hell, and the Healing Power of Resurrection Community

The Corrupting Power of Sin and the Healing Power of CommunityA sermon preached for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 9:38-50 and James 5:13-20 on September 30, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Because this week's news has triggered many of survivors of assualt and abuse I offered this "trigger warning" after the Children's Message and before the Gospel reading:

Before we hear the Gospel lesson and sermon, I want to let you know I’ll be talking about what’s happened this week with the Supreme Court nomination. Given our Gospel reading today, we can’t avoid it. I will also share some of my own experience with misconduct. I want you to know ahead of time as a trigger warning or if, for whatever reason, it’s not something you or your child can hear today. You can slip out during the Gospel Alleluia, listen from the Gathering Area and return for Communion, or read the sermon on-line later. As always, I am available to listen to whatever issues this week’s events or today’s message brings up for you.

In the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearing this past week, we’ve certainly had a powerful reminder of the corrupting power of sin. Someone, Dr. Ford is certain that is was Judge Kavanaugh, sexually assaulted her 35 years ago. That horrific event still resonates and impacts her life. Judge Kavanaugh is appalled that he is being accused of this act. There is anger and pain and acrimony on every side. But what strikes me is that regardless of what happened and who did what, we can see the power sin has, not only in a moment in time, but for years and years to follow.

Jesus knew how severe the effects of sin can be—and to make sure his disciples and we understand this, he used extreme language and extreme symbols in our passage from the 9th chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

First, Jesus is holding a child—it doesn’t say this in our passage, but in the verses just preceding which we heard last week, Jesus took a child and put her among the disciples admonishing them that to receive a child is to receive him and indeed, to receive God, giving children an almost sacramental status. Scripture gives no indication that Jesus put the child down, so as we hear today’s verses, we do so imagining that Jesus speaks with a toddler in his lap.

The second extreme image Jesus uses in this teaching is the word, “hell.” The Greek word here is “Gehenna” or "Valley of Hinomm" in Hebrew. Gehenna is a small valley southwest of ancient Jerusalem where two kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, sacrificed their children to the Canaanite God, Moloch using fire. Such practice was forbidden in Leviticus, condemned by the prophet Jeremiah, and many believe that the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac was recorded as a polemic against child sacrifice in the ancient world. Leading up to Jesus’ time, the valley of Gehenna could have become a refuse dump with smoldering fires, explaining its later association with hell and the place that the wicked go. In the Gospels, Jesus uses this term “Gehenna” or Hell, to refer to life that is opposite from the kingdom of God, a life that is separated from God and against God’s will, as in child sacrifice.

Jesus’ first century audience would have immediately understood his vivid messages about Gehenna as he held a child, warning others against sin, and against being cast into the valley where some of Judah’s kings separated themselves from God, God’s will and God’s kingdom. This also underscores why, later in Mark 10, Jesus tells us we must become like a chld in order to enter the kingdom of God--their natural trust and belief is sacred, is a model for the rest of us, and constitutes egregious sin to break their trust in God.

Finally, Jesus drives home the corrupting power of sin and human brokenness by using violent and disturbing language about cutting off one’s hand or foot or cutting out one’s eye if they cause us to sin. I remember a psychologist I worked with at a state psychiatric hospital during seminary who commented that she really wished Jesus had not said this, because those who are not in their right mind, take these words literally.

Jesus does not intend us to self-mutilate as penance for sin; he uses hyperbole or extreme exaggeration to make clear an essential teaching about the kingdom of God and what it means to follow him. Human brokenness and sin are so corrupting and damaging, we need to take great pains to avoid hurting others, especially children and others who are the most vulnerable in society.

Jesus uses this graphic and disturbing imagery to say in no uncertain terms that choices have consequences, that our behaviors lead to outcomes and we need to pay attention to the damage to others those outcomes might create. Our sinful choices and behaviors cause others to suffer. And other people’s sin and brokenness causes us to suffer. This is the shadow side of free will that we don't talk about much. We suffer from others’ sin and others suffer from our sin. That’s hell. That’s an experience of separation from God. We don’t need to wait until after death to experience hell, we do so right now in anything that separates us from God’s love. Jesus does not want us to miss the seriousness of this aspect of human life.

This is what we’ve seen played out on the national stage between Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. No matter what your views are politically, we cannot come to worship today as Christians and avoid the truth that we suffer from the consequences of each other’s sin, and those consequences can be deep and long-lasting for everyone.

It’s only since the recent #Metoo movement began that I have begun to understand the impact of some of my own experiences. I frequently experienced sexual harassment in seminary, on internship and in my first call, especially when I was the first woman clergy many had encountered. I have never told this story publicly, but the most egregious instance took place on internship when I naively invited a colleague over for dinner. He was a married pastor with a child whose family hadn’t moved to the area yet, and I was a wide-eyed seminarian, anxious to learn from someone older and wiser than me. I had supper and learning on my mind, but he had other ideas. First he tried to get me to smoke pot which I declined, and then he propositioned me physically and explicitly. Fortunately, it did not turn into assault and he left when I asked him to.

I reported him to my supervisor the very next morning, expecting that he would be severely reprimanded for this grotesque breach of trust and professional conduct. Later I was told that I had “misunderstood his message.” The man took off his shirt, laid on my bed, and asked me to touch him; I didn’t misunderstand the message, but that was the end of it. For the rest of my internship, I was not able to make any visits to our members at the nursing home where he was a chaplain. I didn’t tell anyone else, except eventually my husband, because I learned that to do so meant I would be dismissed and belittled.

It wasn’t until this year that I realized that one of the consequences of this experience and the many other instances of sexual harassment by male clergy (whcih are too numerous to detail this morning), was that I have only pursued solo calls—I never allowed myself to try team ministry because I didn’t trust any male senior pastor to behave, or to believe me if I reported misconduct. If that wasn’t enough, just last June in spiritual direction, I uncovered that one of my struggles with losing weight and keeping it off is rooted in a decades-old fear that if I do, I will become a target for more sexual harassment. Over and over in my ministry, I have seen that extra weight and even obesity is often a form of protection for survivors of abuse, but I never once thought to apply it to myself.

I tell this story to remind myself that others’ sins who have had an impact in my life, do not define who I am. I also tell this in hope of giving courage to others here to share their story—if not with me, then with someone you trust. Sometimes we need to witness the story of someone we know in order to have the courage to come forward, and if my experience helps one person tell their story, then it’s worth both our discomfort (and believe me, I am uncomfortable) and our time. 

So where does Jesus call us from here? First, we need to give permission and courage for survivors of any abuse, male and female, to tell their story, whether it happened 5 days ago, five years ago, 35 years ago or 85 years ago—because the effects of sin remain. I know of all kinds of survivors, including male survivors of spouse abuse. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to create a safe place where incidents are not minimized but rather, taken seriously so that healing and recovery can begin. When we can offer listening and healing as part of our ministry of following Jesus, survivors do not end up dealing with recovered memories decades after the fact.

Second, we need to challenge narrow and limiting concepts of what is masculine and feminine, boxing men out of experiencing and expressing the whole range of human emotions and criticizing and shaming women who express assertive leadership. This is a gift of the LGBTQ community to the rest of us—helping us break out of binary, "either—or" thinking and accept that each of us can be a whole complex of feminine and masculine characteristics. We need to teach about power dynamics, appropriate boundaries and learn how to identify and protect our own boundaries. (Perhaps this also helps the Council understand why I have a statement at the top of every pastor's about appropriate boundaries, and why we need to get windows installed on all of the office doors).

Most importantly, God calls us to live and proclaim the Gospel that sin does not define us or anyone else. Jesus’s graphic language reminds us that it’s not enough for us to try to personally avoid sin, although that’s a start. Following Jesus and living in the kingdom of God calls us to be instruments of healing and hope, creating communities where God’s children know that they are not defined by sin or what has been done to them, but by what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.

Sin does not define you--not yours, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define Christine Blasey Ford--not hers, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define Brett Kavanaugh--not his, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define me, not mine, not someone else's—for my path has led me here, to St. Luke’s and that’s good news! In the Joseph story in Genesis, we haer that what some intended for evil, God can redeem and use for good, and I want to you to hear that being here is part of that good for me.

Jesus’s victory over sin, death, the devil, and Gehenna—or any hell that threatens to separate us from God, has been defeated on the cross and raised victorious with Christ. God calls us to live out this good news in a community of healing, forgiveness and hope—where we are defined by what Jesus has done for us—offering us grace and the power of resurrection in all of life. That's the kind of community James describes and calls us to live in and pray for, as in verse 16, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for the one another that you may be healed."

In every situation, Jesus calls us into being as a community of resurrection—a community of hearing the stories, healing the pain, and sharing the hope—that’s what defines us, and that’s a church where spirits come alive!

Image: I have not been able to find the artist for credit/permission and have only found it on the linked site.

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Renouncing Domination

Renouncing DominanceA sermon preached for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a on September 23, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.

I didn’t look at the Gospel reading when I picked this Sunday to receive new members. It’s just the best day that worked on the calendar. Had I looked at our passage from Mark and shared with our new members that this is what they’re getting into, I would have expected them to say, “no way!” or as even Christians in Texas say, “hell no!”

• “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again”
• "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
• "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

That list doesn’t have a lot to recommend being a follower of Jesus—being killed, being last, being servant all, and making children and other vulnerable of society the most important. 

The disciples are afraid and confused. If Jesus continued down this path, what would happen to the them? Would they also suffer and die? Would they also be expected to hang out with the lowest of the low and the worst of the worse?

In their fear and confusion, the disciples did what most of us do when our sense of security and identity is threatened—they jockeyed for position and power. Who was the greatest among them? Who was more important? James and John, the “sons of thunder?" Or perhaps Peter and Andrew—all strong-armed fishermen. Fighting with each other about who would dominate in their discipleship was more comfortable than dealing with the reality of what kind of Messiah Jesus really was.

This reaction to assert dominance is almost like a human reflex—when we our self-interest is threatened, we try to assert power over others or over the situation with whatever we’ve got—status, wealth, skin color, pedigree, resources, smarts, muscle, education, or communal clout.

We see this pattern repeat itself across cultures and continents throughout history: from personal relationships based on the dominance of one over the other, to whole societies that support systems of violence to keep one group on top: apartheid, slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the white supremacy movement, and the list goes on. Jesus knows that personal and social dominance has destructive and deadly consequences for those on the bottom. Our passage from James calls this “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

The irony of this passage is that the disciples exhibited the very behavior Jesus was speaking against. Jesus embodied the kingdom of God as a place that renounced dominance--where everyone has an equal place at the table.
• the tax collector received forgiveness next to the pharisee;
• the woman is healed beside the man;
• the foreigner is welcomed next to the Jew,
• the poor are empowered beside the wealthy,
• the sick and outcast are embraced beside the governor,
• the lame are loved next to the king.

True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place and reaching those society has rejected. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for the most vulnerable, such as the child that Jesus embraced and placed before his disciples.

Jesus shows that God’s love and forgiveness is completely disconnected from human values of dominance, power, wealth, status and prestige. That’s why Jesus was killed—because he threatened the dominant social position of the religious leaders who had the corner on the market for dispensing God’s goodies—a merit system of blessings according sacrifices made, offerings given, and laws followed.

Jesus wasn’t killed because God needed a human sacrifice in order to love and forgive us. Jesus was killed because he offered God’s love and forgiveness freely to all, especially to those who didn’t “deserve it.”

Radical grace and a level social and religious playing field threatened those who need to dominate others to feel security and identity. That’s why Jesus says that the only way we can see, understand and embody God’s all-embracing love, God’s radical forgiveness, God’s open table, is if we get off our high horse and serve those we think are beneath us.

But when we are used to privilege, it’s hard to willingly give it up for the well-being of someone else, or just because Jesus asks us to. When Dan and I were first married we lived in Detroit. I had served a church there for one year and when he finished seminary, he moved there to join me and look for his first church. Not many people were interested in urban ministry, so we figured he would get a call pretty quickly.

Also, Dan has pedigree out the proverbial “wazoo.” His first ancestor landed in Massachusetts in 1640—and Nathan Hale, Lucretia Mott, Herman Melville, Gerald Ford and whole catalog of other notables decorate his extensive family tree. To top that off, he’s a 6th generation Presbyterian minister and his ancestors started or served churches in more states than I can list, his grandfather served in the Philippines and China, and his father served in the highest position of the national church, equivalent to our presiding bishop. He’s wickedly smart, has a nearly photographic memory, and is tall, dark and handsome to boot (How have I lived with this guy for 28 years?! ;) ). If anybody deserved a call to a church it was Dan Little. That conversation with the disciples about who’s the greatest? Dan had all of them beat in the dominance-game, hands down!

There was one inner-city church in Detroit that was open, and the Presbytery decided that would be a good place for him to go. They offered him the job, they agreed on salary, he signed the papers, we announced at our wedding that after 4 months of looking Dan finally had a call! We flew off to our honeymoon, so relieved that we were coming back to 2 incomes because we weren’t going to make it on my salary alone.

The problem was, the Presbytery didn’t really ask what that inner-city congregation wanted—they just acted like the dominant church structure they were used to being. As soon as we got home from our honeymoon, the presbytery office called and said, “we made a mistake, you don’t actually have job. The congregation really wants an African American pastor.”

Of course, we agreed that was important in their context; we understood the need for an African American pastor, and we didn’t have trouble with that at all. We did struggle with the fact that the presbytery didn’t have the humility to really talk with the congregation before offering Dan the job. Even more difficult was to confront our own assumptions of privilege—that Dan had a “divine right” to a job—and none was forthcoming.

He had to earn some money, so he tried to become a waiter at a very fancy restaurant, but because he had no serving experience, they made him a bus boy. His pedigree, and 4-year master’s degree didn’t matter. Both the customers and the waiters treated him like dirt, and he cringed as the waiter’s mis-pronounced the French wines, resisting the urge to correct them.

Eventually Dan became an interim pastor and became ordained, but losing that job and bussing tables was a crucial learning experience for both of us. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." This was not an experience of service that Dan chose, but it has helped both of us choose service rather than domination and self-interest at other times in our life. Through this, Dan gained a necessary experience of humility, of being on a bottom rung, a willingness to learn, an awareness of his privilege, and the ability to choose against it and against his self-interest, for the sake of others.

All of this was crucial for him to serve his next call, an African American congregation on the southwest side of Kansas City, Missouri. Dan entered that setting as a student of the culture and the neighborhood, rather than marching in as the white ministry expert.

Jesus invites us with the disciples, to choose service, humility, equality, and radical grace for everyone—especially those on the margins, whom society has rejected, who live on the bottom rung, who make us uncomfortable or who seem beneath us. Following Jesus faithfully is extending his generous welcome to everyone we meet whether it’s the homeless person on the corner, a neighbor wearing a hijab, someone in the LGBTQ community, or an immigrant who speaks another language.

We can acknowledge and deal with our insecurities and fear, but not allow them to feed dominance-behavior. Rather, as followers of Jesus, God calls us to set aside whatever privilege we have —look others in the eye, and as with our children this morning, be willing to learn, humble enough to listen, interested enough to engage, and fearless enough to love. Then we are “full of mercy and good fruits,” as James says, “without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

When we as the church lead our society in these kinds of behaviors in our daily lives and in our public witness, then those who operate on dominance fueled by fear and insecurity, lose their power to frighten and divide our communities. Then we can proclaim that Jesus’ loving embrace is radical enough to include even them!

That’s the Gospel that’s easy to miss when Jesus invites everyone to the table—the wealthy and the dominant aren’t replaced by the poor and outcast, they are brought together! We are brought together as a community, whose behavior is changed by a love that none of us deserve, putting us on a level playing field where even death itself has no power!

What does St. Luke’s—old and new members alike—say to that? “Hell, yes! and Amen.”

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.