|"Broken heart" by bored-now, on Flickr|
Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "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. (Mark 10:2–16)
One week ago, I was standing in a gazebo next to Adam, a grinning groom who stood tall and didn’t fidget at all as we watched bridesmaids in deep burgundy dresses process in with their groomsmen, lining up along the steps, preparing the way for Emily, the beautiful bride, to emerge out of the doors on her father’s arm, ready to walk the aisle to meet her new husband and to exchange with him promises of love, laughter, and fidelity.
It is a harsh reality, then, to follow up last week’s perfect autumnal picture of love with today’s readings, in which the realities of human love and human brokenness clash in an uncomfortable and distressing way.
So let’s begin with the elephant in the room, and get a few things out of the way as we begin. Yes, Jesus talks about divorce today, and yes, he says things that are difficult, uncomfortable, and perhaps even impossible to reconcile with our modern world and personal experience. No, I am not going to preach you a sermon about divorce. No, I don’t think that Jesus’ words here are supposed to be a definitive teaching on either marriage or on divorce. And no, I don’t think it is at all helpful to read today’s gospel as a judgment, threat, or condemnation.
Instead, when you take both readings today together, we get a picture of God’s hope, a picture of Jesus’ lament, and then a picture of God’s mercy and our hope.
Our first reading from Genesis sets the scene, and gives us a picture of how God intended us, as humans, to relate to one another. Seeing the loneliness of the first human, God creates a second human for companionship and for love, saying “it is not good for man to be alone.” We ourselves know the very human longing to share our lives with one another and to build relationships, whether those be family relationships or friendships, romantic relationships or collegial partnerships. We want to surround ourselves with people who care for us, and people who share our interests, and people with whom we can share ourselves.
At last week’s wedding, I preached about marriage as a daily choice to love and commit to this particular person, and to orient your life around love and care for the other, no matter what. This is the same for all of our relationships: we choose to love and we choose to let ourselves be loved. We choose to surround ourselves with companions along our journey through life.
But we know the rest of Adam and Eve’s story – how it took little more than a snake and an apple to change everything, how in this time and in this place, we live far away from God’s ideal for our relationships, either human or divine.
This is where the first half of today’s gospel comes into play. The Pharisees and even the disciples, to an extent, want Jesus to explain the rules for when and how and whether you can break a relationship. But for Jesus, who knows both the divine ideal for human relationships – love your neighbor as yourself – he is not quick to indulge a conversation about legal matters. He instead grieves and laments that there exists such brokenness in our world and brokenness in our relationships with one another.
Look around our world, and you’ll find that it doesn’t take much effort to find examples of ways that that humans and our relationships with one another need a lot of healing.
If you turn on the news tonight, you may hear stories of war or violence, or campaign news of and political parties cutting one another down, or even celebrity gossip about who is in a new relationship and whose new relationship appears to be falling apart.
If you talk to a middle or high school student, I’ll promise you that they can tell you about cliques and outsiders, and about bullies who create a climate of fear through violent words or threats or actions.
Or if you look at your own life, you can remember the pain of breaking up with a girlfriend or being broken up with, or the end of a friendship, or estrangement from parents or siblings, or a time when you found yourself alone precisely when you needed someone to be there.
It is not difficult to find example after example around us of the way that humans do not always choose to love one another, or do not always succeed at loving one another.
This is where we find Jesus in today’s gospel. He knows what perfect human relationships should be. But he also knows that brokenness and fallenness and longing exist in our world as well, and he knows that we all carry pains and memories that long for healing and redemption. And Jesus knows that when he gets to Jerusalem, he too will suffer betrayal and denial, that he will be forgotten and deserted and left alone in his own deep time of need. So Jesus grieves for us and for himself. He grieves over a world that is not yet quite what it should be; a world hungry for reconciliation, a world hungry for love…love that can only be made perfect through his death.
So this brings us to the back half of today’s gospel, when we make an abrupt change in subject, from talking about broken relationships to a picture of Jesus welcoming and blessing the children. This beautiful vision of Jesus scooping up children, holding them, and loving them is a vision of hope and mercy for us, no matter what the pain we carry and no matter what the hurt we have caused others.
Children have a peculiar ability to love and to crave love with wild abandon. So also does God. And when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me,” he is not only talking to the physical children who clamor at his feet, he is also talking to you. Because each one of us is a child of God.
Now, like all children, sometimes we are wide-eyed, curious, and freely giving of our stuff and our selves. And sometimes, we are childish as well – stubborn, selfish, hard to wrangle. And sometimes, like children who have skinned their knees or suffered a moment of intense fright or frustration, we get to points in our life when we have absolutely no recourse but to weep and weep until our eyes are puffy and red.
In all of our moments of childlike joy, and in all of our moments of childlike tears, God promises to scoop us up, and to hold us close, and to smooth our hair to remind us of our blessedness. When human relationships fail or human love disappoints, God, who is love, remains by your side. Even when all other human relationships fall away, God’s relationship with you will always stand firm. Because you are his child and he loves you. Through Christ, you have a free and perfect relationship with the God who created you in his image, who loves you and shows you mercy.
Do you need to be reminded again that you, yourself, are a child of God? And that even if you are hurting or lonely or broken, God’s kingdom belongs to you? Let me remind you, then: you are a beautiful, blessed, beloved child of God. Come, touch the water in the font and touch your own forehead to remember that you are anointed and adopted and loved. And when we pass the peace later in worship, bless one another by saying “peace be with you” and “peace be in you” and “peace be between us.” And then come to the table, alongside those whom you love, those you don’t know, those you don’t understand, and even those you don’t like. Be reconciled at this table by the overflowing of God’s grace and forgiveness.
No matter what your brokenness, no matter what your fear or remorse or pain, Jesus chooses to love you again every day. And this is a love that will never fail. Jesus promises each one of us, “I will always take you into my arms. I will lay my hands on you when you need reassurance. And I will bless you. For I love you, and you are mine, now and always.”