Preaching on some tough readings

Several preachers who share their thinking and sermons online mentioned that this week's readings made challenging sermon fodder.

The Very Rev. John Downey of the Cathedral in Saint Paul in Erie, asks for help with his sermons almost every week in a You Tube feature called "This Preacher needs help." Here is what he had to say this week:

Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas dealt with the readings as follows:

If we take a step back what we see is that God is constantly drawing people together. Mark's Gospel is a gospel of the new creation a recreation of drawing people together. God is drawing people who are different together and Jesus is clear that we are the ones who defile these relationships. We defile marriage relationships and we defile communal relationships. We do this by turning away from the "other". We are drawn away from the "other" into relationships that boost our power, our voice, and our authority. We engage in relationships that diminish the "other" with whom we are bound.

God is remaking a new community. God in Christ Jesus as bridegroom is recreating the world and his bride the community of "little ones" (the term Mark uses for the first followers of Jesus). So as we look and we read we must remember that the defilement of this wedding garment will take place with Peter at the cock's crow. It will be the crowd who shouts "crucify him."

The Rev. Steve Pankey, who blogs at Draughting Theology, calls our attention to one particular concept:

The keystone text for understanding Genesis and Mark this Sunday morning is a line we will hear read twice on Sunday morning. Its original context is found in Psalm 8 and it gets quoted by the author of Hebrews in his treatment of Angels in chapter 2, but I think it is the key for preaching God’s view on marriage, divorce, and the place of children.

“What is man that you should be mindful of him?” (Ps 8.5a, BCP) or for a more gender neutral reading, the NRSV translates Hebrews 2.6b as “What are human beings that you are mindful of them…?”

The answer is, of course, that human beings are the only part of God’s creation that were made in the imago dei. We bear within and upon us the image of God. We are chief stewards, the managers of creation. We are, for all intents and purposes, God’s best and most beloved handiwork, and because of this, God is mindful of us.

And because God is mindful of us, the things that happen to us matter to him. And because these things matter to God, the pain we feel is felt by God. And because God feels our pain, Jesus takes a hard line on divorce and exploitation.

God cares enough about us to bring a hard line on the choices we make.

Please add links to sermons you gave or heard int he comments.

Comments (15)

I'm following the other track (the readings are from Job for the OT during October), so I'm preaching a series on Job. One has to pretty much ignore the Gospel readings when doing so.

This is the link to the first sermon in the series:

We usually find grace in the toughest lections, and Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce is one of those. I preached on the distinction between the secular conception of marriage and the sacrament of holy marriage, the vocation of singleness, and used those as the context in which Jesus' rejection of divorce in today's lection is located. Pastoral minefields here, yet it seemed that gospel text was good news for us once again today.

Read the sermon here.

I am wondering whether there is general agreement that the gospel prohibits divorce. That wasn't what the preacher I heard had to say. She set Jesus' words in the context of his time, and said he was not establishing a universal standard.

Jesus often gives the 'hard line' answer when challenged by the Scribes and Pharisees as to what is God's real intention via the Scriptures.

Presumably they always approached him to trip him up - from the point of view of their own assumed righteousness. As with the question about whom the coinage belonged to, Jesus was challenged to answer in a way that would compromise Him.

When challenged about the 'Perfect Way', Jesus had no alternative but to answer in that vein - challenging his interlocutors as to whether they were carrying out the perfection that God had set before them.

If only they had not been so confrontational, Jesus may have show them that perfection in this world is impossible for human beings. But still, for God, all things are possible.

The best biblical treatment that I know is that of Dean Richard Hays in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Divorce was already Jewish and Roman law, so Jesus did not prohibit it but condemned its abuse. As my sermon notes, Mark's account shows Jesus condemning divorce specifically for the purpose of remarrying, not divorce in general. In Matthew's account, he also qualifies his comment, mentioning the exception of porneia. Paul also has a lot to say about how the early Church remembered Jesus' teaching.The bottom line is that Jesus did not forbid divorce, but transformed it by condemning its abuse, naming as adultery its use as a means of circumventing the covenant God created as a means of grace.

I think it is, as a general rule, a hermeneutical mistake for a preacher to set aside Jesus' teachings as not God's Word to us today on the grounds that we live in a different era. Context is important, but we have to proceed with great caution in making such moves. In this case, close attention to the text shows that the Markan account is particularly relevant in our time, as is shown in the example I give.

The sermon I heard today noted that in Jesus time, a woman who was divorced was generally abandoned to suffer poverty and live in fear. Our priest put it into the context of structure, something the modern church is working on now. And she noted that Jesus talked a lot about structures, structures that kept people in poverty and marginalized them. She noted that Jesus had much to say about that, especially the religious and societal establishment doing so. And the structure of society dangerously marginalized women who were not under the protection of a male head of household. Divorce in that context is very different than that of today, at least amongst educated women in our immediate circle. She noted that that divorce is sometimes the only life giving choice.

I buy that. What I don't buy is fundamentalists who ignore this passage but are willing to oppress LGBT people, a topic that Jesus never spoke on. I also remember hearing about the bad old days when women had no out and domestic violence was sky high. I'm not seeing the love of God or human dignity in those old days.

What was more relevant to me, is that she noted that after decades of discernment our church came to a different conclusion about divorce. And it's interesting in the context of the many discernments going on now in the larger church, and in our home parish. As we all move forward, it's a great question to ask: are we creating structures that share the love of Christ, that feed the hungry, that recognizes and ennobles each person as being created in the image of God?

I would agree that this week offered some tough readings. My sermon was focused on the need for mercy to balance justice in discerning God's will for us.

Jon White

Today we had a Blessing of the Animals at our main 10:00 service, but used the Propers of the Day. Here's how I tried to put it all together:

I spent the week thinking about how we like to exempt ourselves from Jesus' teaching in Mark on divorce. In the process we may allow ourselves to unlearn the power of the idea that all love-relationships, in a sense, are about what we do to avoid hardness of heart. But if we can allow ourselves to be trained by this discipline, we can strive to have divinely ordained relationships of maturity, mutuality, fidelity, and Christly growth.

I tried to be crystal clear that this for all of us, and shined light on the various ways that this is the case: for GLBT; for divorced persons who may be stuck in fear of forward movement; for widows and widowers; for any experiencing abuse within marriage; for those married or unmarried, male or female.

It can be read here. In putting it on my blog, I announced that it may be the most honest thing I have ever preached. I was approached by many later who heard it, and who simply said thanks for it.

Torey Lightcap

I'll second Torey's comment above. It really is a fantastically open and honest sermon. If sermons are supposed to be our shared humanity laid bare in the pulpit, this nails it.

I have noticed my own tendencies to try to dodge the bullets in this text without taking time to affirm the strength of it. I think perhaps Jesus really did mean what he said, but Jesus (as usual) is talking about the ideal of the kingdom of heaven. We're not there yet, true, but Jesus can't avoid telling us the (very, very demanding) ideal. So is divorce a sin? Yes, insofar as it is a loss, it is pain, it is the symptom or the cause of suffering, betrayal, cynicism, hopelessness, and all those other things that destroy our souls. It's another opportunity to preach a more mature theology of sin, though, and redemption, and salvation. All of that said, I chose this week to preach a sermon that didn't cover the texts at all. Maybe I chickened out, but sometimes I don't have the courage to speak the truth as I understand it.

Torey's sermon kicks butt.

I thought that Jesus was addressing the elevation of failure to the position of priority. Jesus reasserted the primordial principle, i.e., it's all about love

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A couple of thoughts. Looking at this reading as a whole, Jesus is first of all telling us that women and children are not to be thrown away, and despite the fact that women cannot file for divorce in orthodox Jewish law, he nonetheless mentions women as divorce protagonists - though perhaps this phrase is added by Mark as a reflection of the Roman law of the day. Regardless, already this is a remarkable teaching that places women and children firmly within God's kingdom and God's concern, when previously they might not be.
Secondly, the phrase "Those whom God has yoked together humans must not separate" really puts this in perspective. Any two people can fall in love, plan a ceremony, buy a house, whatever. The social pressures to do just this are enormous, as are the pressures to just not be lonely. It is also easy to talk a priest into going along with it, but in all sincerity, the discernment period on this might possibly be as serious as that of discernment to holy orders. The world is littered with failed priests and failed marriages, and that's more a consequence of our "sinful world" than sinful, deceitful people.
I have had a marriage in which the two of us had convinced ourselves and a priest that we belonged together, and we were both good people who lived uprightly and treated each other well. But as we went along - it all started less than a year after the actual ceremony - it should have been obvious that God had not yoked us together, but only we ourselves. 8 years later the house just went on the market and the final filaments joining us are merely a mortgage and a property, and the lessons learned. Meanwhile, I met the love of my life, and that's a whole different animal. If I left him for another, that would be absolutely a soul killing adulterous mortal sin for which only the blood of heaven might atone. It wasn't just a decision, nor an attraction, nor a balm for loneliness. This is grace embodied, and to walk away would be an act of disobedience (an inadequate word, really). THIS is what Jesus was talking about, not merely flower strewn "I do's".

The tricky thing is that fairly clear bit about *re*marriage resulting in adultery. It's quite simple for me to preach with (personal) integrity that Jesus allowed for divorce. But when I start to say that it's ok to have a follow-up marriage, I feel like I'm squirming around a pretty clear piece of community discipline.

Yeah, I'm sure that Jesus really meant that, if you make some bad youthful choices, you deserve to be lonely and single for the rest of your life. Yep, that has to be it.

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