Sunday 7th October 2018: Student Welcome and Harvest

Trinity 19: Gen. 2: 18-24; Heb. 1: 1-4; Mark 10: 2 – 16

(extra material in italics, which wasn’t part of the delivered sermon)

Hearing that gospel reading, it seems to me that Jesus is nothing if not challenging! In the section of Mark which we’ve been following over the last weeks, Jesus is seen in a number of situations, being questioned, having requests made of him, and responding to the people he meets. Regularly, his responses have an edge to them, as he questions, unsettles, and confronts with his replies. He’s not a comfortable person to have around. And one consistent element is the way his disciples respond, which is often with bewilderment, or misunderstanding what he says.

His saying about divorce may sounds harsh to our ears. With divorce as an acceptable concept, we understand that relationships break down. As a counsellor I recognise that divorce can be helpful, and unhelpful. For some it is a release from dreadful situations, and it can offer a new way forward. Yet in other instances people leave a relationship with problems they’ve never faced, only to take them into a new relationship which has to repeat the painful process. I wouldn’t want us to go back to a time before current divorce laws. So, it is important to remember we are hearing today’s reading from a different world, where the issues and concerns are very different to ours.

In first century Israel, men could divorce relatively easily, and the social and economic impact would often be on women. Judaism allowed divorce, but essentially as a male prerogative, marriage was less about being a relationship, and more an agreement around ownership. The woman was effectively seen as the man’s property, thus if a man committed adultery with someone else’s wife, it was an offence against that man, not against his own wife.

And remember, the Pharisees are testing Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The question they ask is deceptive. Divorce is allowed, it’s not a contentious question. So, maybe they’re trying to trap him into saying something they can condemn him for?

Jesus’ reply emphasises that marriage is not a legality which can be put aside almost at will, but is a deeper connection. In some ways he’s quite contemporary, in that he’s reflecting a concern for relationship.

And when the disciples ask more about it he goes on to use the language of adultery. Again he goes further than the Pharisees do. They are only concerned with not adulterating the property of another man. But Jesus is holding the man to account against his wife. Women matter. And, Jesus seems to indicate that women might initiate divorce. Generally, this didn’t happen in Judaism at the time, although it did in the wider Roman world. He’s seeing who counts, who has value.

[And it did happen amongst some of the Jewish elite of the time. Salome, wife of Herod the Great, sent him a bill of divorce; and Herodias left her husband to marry Herod Antipas.

So, Jesus is challenging the Pharisees, who would see themselves as strict upholders of the law. He is giving a higher ideal than them. However, we know from other sayings that Jesus is forgiving and understanding of people’s actions, he doesn’t condemn men or women.

There’s something here about the background context, maybe the Jewish elite are scandalising, putting stumbling blocks in the way of people believing?

Also, at the time of Jesus, in Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls envisaged that when God renewed Israel the laws concerning divorce would become out of date, there would be no divorce. Maybe Jesus was speaking about the imminent coming of the Kingdom. Maybe he was saying, it’s time to get to the heart of issues, not the externals.

I don’t see this as Jesus laying down a law about divorce. He’s making a statement about an ideal, a very challenging ideal, but one we need to see against its background and in the context of his challenges from the Pharisees. Jesus also seems to be presenting an arrangement which takes into account that women are as valuable and accountable as men. There’s an implied equality coming in here.]

And we see over and over again, there’s also forgiveness, none of us lives our lives perfectly. The Kingdom is demanding, but it also offers a generosity of love and acceptance.

So, Mark portrays Jesus offering challenging statements. It’s as if he wants to say, let’s cut to the chase, get back to basics, but most of all to shock us into seeing the kingdom as being counter-cultural, challenging, and we see this in the disciple’s bewildered response, over and over again in this gospel.

For a moment, put yourself in the sandals of the disciples, they are constantly bewildered by things Jesus says that turn everything upside down. It’s difficult for the rich to go to heaven, Gentiles are acceptable, pluck out your eye if it offends you, the Messiah concept is not one of power and might, but of suffering and death. And now, divorce, and a shift in the perspective of women. These are extreme statements, sayings not unlike the prophets, who often challenged and shocked.

Who is valuable? Who does God value?

And then we come to the children. This was a time when children were extremely vulnerable. Childhood mortality meant that some sixty percent of children would die before they reached the age of sixteen. And they had little social status, they were not fully adults.

Jesus turns the world of the disciples upside down again.

He’s now welcoming the children, touching them, bringing them into the centre of his presence. Children brought by their mothers, who are likely to be fearful for their children’s futures, and they might be unwell, or have long term diseases, and Jesus is the healer they have heard about. So, perhaps this Rabbi might touch them.

But Jesus does more. He includes them. He says this is how we are to be. And he’s not meaning it as we think of children, cute, adorable, innocent creatures. No, he’s meaning vulnerable, diseased, dismissed, ignored children. He blesses them, and the word suggests he does so intensely.

He’s accepting them as they are, valuing them.

That’s the message for us. Around divorce he’s saying something challenging, radical. Then he says something scandalous about children. Those poor disciples, this is a double whammy!

At Cotham, we proclaim ourselves as an inclusive church. We avoid a ‘statements of faith’ approach, that you have to believe this or that. Instead we wish to say, we accept you as you are. Our membership of Inclusive church asks us to consider issues of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race and sexuality.

But, that’s not easy, it’s a lot of things to consider, and I know I don’t always manage it, and I guess we don’t always manage it. I know I get it wrong, I’m not always as inclusive as Jesus. He challenges us constantly not to accept the norms of our society, but to question them. This is his narrow way, and it should challenge us. How much am I really like Jesus? Handling those poor, grubby, smelly, diseased children.

And then harvest. We’re not a rural parish, with fields and harvests, although I know some grow vegetable and fruits and even have some animals.

But we bring what we do to share with others. Harvest is about redistribution, recognising the need to offer the fruits of our hands, of our labour, whether we are paid for it or not, whether we grow it ourselves or not. To be there for others. In some ways, harvest asks us who do we value?

It happens here in many ways. Charities. Giving, going to places of distress, whether Belarus, or the middle east. Trying to be open, inclusive, to share generously.

The gospels are not an easy read. Jesus is not a comfortable person. He shook people up, he confronted what they believed. I pity those poor disciples; their values were constantly being turned upside down.

I think that reading the gospels should be that for us. If we are reading them and feeling comfortable, then maybe we are not reading them deeply enough. Maybe we need to look at them again. To allow Jesus to confront our comfortable beliefs, to challenge our values.

Inclusivity, openness is radical. It is not easy.

At a recent sermon the Archbishop of Canterbury said that Christians should be: “the true radicals, the extremists of love, the subversive underminers of inertia, those that turn the whole world upside down.” (Church Times, 28th Sept 2018, p. 6)

I’ve not got any easy answers as to how we do this(, or more importantly for me, how I do this).

To me the bizarre thing is that reading what Jesus says to the people he meets, he rarely says to them, go along to your local synagogue, join this or that group there, spend years on the committees, be a part of it. Or sign up to this or that set of beliefs. No, instead he says, ‘follow me’. Yes, there may be changes to make, but more importantly, follow me as you are.

So, he says follow me like children, in all your vulnerabilities, from all your smelly, diseased, weak selves, from all that is poor and famished. Come from your weakness, your bewilderment like the disciples, not your strength. Follow me.