Friday, October 9, 2015

We Are Family

Sermon preached on World Communion Sunday                         October 4, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Mark 10:2-16  “We Are Family” Sister Sledge
We are family.  In Jesus we are family.  I have returned to these words of theologian Robert Neville rather frequently in recent months.  Christianity is first and foremost about being kind….  Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists….  But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases.  These include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
Family images are prominent in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but they are frankly difficult images and words, very difficult.  This was an odd choice of texts for World Communion Sunday, but they are the lectionary readings for today.  I kind of appreciate the challenge.  When you are given theological lemons, make some theological lemonade.  But did the lemons have to be this sour?
So let’s dive in.
The words of Jesus here are quite difficult and harsh in our contemporary context, where divorce is not uncommon.  Many take these words quite literally.  No divorce, period.  No matter how grim, how painful a marriage, the obligation is to stay together.
I recall a situation in another pastorate.  A woman, a member of a church where I was pastor, was considering divorcing her husband.  Her husband had seemingly given up on the relationship.  There was no closeness, no intimacy, and he had no desire to change that.  He belonged to another church, a more fundamental church, and his pastor had wanted to see the woman from my church.  She asked if I would go with her.  We went, and that pastor, a man, basically told the woman that from his view of Scripture, unless her husband was having a sexual affair, there was no Scriptural warrant for her seeking a divorce.  I told him that I thought there were different kinds of unfaithfulness and that if a person was unwilling to work on a relationship when it wasn’t working that was a kind of unfaithfulness.  He was not convinced.
I think the words of Jesus here about divorce need to be put in two contexts.  The historical context reminds us that in Jesus time divorce was the pure prerogative of the male in a relationship, and the man needed no real reason to divorce his wife.  When that happened, women were often left destitute, for there were few economic opportunities for women in that day.  Even today, divorce tends to have a more negative economic impact on women.  Jesus may have been looking out for the more vulnerable when he spoke words against divorce.  That he cares deeply about the vulnerable is clear from his words about children in today’s text.
The other context we need to consider these words in is the context of the entire Bible.  Read as a whole, the Bible is about God’s deep love, about God’s desire for abundant life and for a better world.  When marriage is deeply painful, when neither partner is growing and developing, or even worse when there is abuse, would Jesus really say, “Here’s the bottom line – whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”?  I have a difficult time imagining that.
However, from another angle, there is something special that happens when people in relationships, including marriage, work through issues and difficulties together.  We learn, we grow, we develop as we live together.  The therapist Michael Eigen shares the story of his own therapist telling him, “Marriage isn’t what you think.  It’s two people telling truth to each other, helping to mitigate the severity to yourself.” (Eigen, Faith, 55)  Overtime, we learn how to be more truthful with our partners, helping them learn and grow.  When relationships end, we lose some opportunities for growth, change, development.  We need others who know us, encourage our growth, and support us when the truth about ourselves is difficult.  That’s the possibility of marriage, all kinds of marriage.  Jesus wants those kind of marriages for us, hence his the strong words about divorce, I think.  Please hear me, there are times when divorce is the best of a difficult set of choices – the healthiest decision.  The sad part is that every marriage begins in the hope that it will become the kind of relationship that grows over time, the kind of relationship where each person grows over time.  Jesus wants those kind of relationships for us.
That kind of truth-telling, supportive relationship is also true for our relationship together as the family of faith.  You were probably wondering when I was going to get back to that.  I love how Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts this.  When she holds classes for new members, she speaks last and says: This community will disappoint them.  It’s a matter of when, not if.  We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.  I think invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens.  If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come it and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and real to miss.  (Pastrix, 54-55)
We are family.  We are there for each other on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration.  There is something special and important about staying together, even if there may also be times when separation needs to happen.  We are family, caring for each other, caring for children, helping each other grow.
But if we are family for each other, one of the things about this family is that our circle of care is never limited to this family.  It is always reaching more widely.  On Wednesday evening we are studying the Gospel of Luke, and this past week we read the birth story of Jesus.  It is filled with words about “good news of great joy for all people.”  God’s love for us is also God’s love for the world.  “We Are the World” U.S.A. for Africa
We are the world.  Our fates are inextricably intertwined with the lives of others.  Our hearts ache and break when a child washes up on a Turkish shore.  Our hearts ache and break when young people are killed in their college classroom.  Young people should be able to go to school and expect to come back from class.  In a way, all children are our children, and all children deserve to be blessed by Jesus and through the people who call upon Jesus.  Yes, we have a special connection with each other in Jesus, but we are also connected to all God’s people.
On this World Communion Sunday, remember we are family in Christ.  In Christ, we are the world.
Sending cards – you are invited to find a note card and take an address and send a note to another church.  If you wish to you can write, “Our pastor told us we should write you a word of greeting on this World Communion Sunday.  Here it is.  Hope you enjoy it!”  I would rather you say something like: “We are thinking of you and praying for you on this World Communion Sunday.” 

We are family in Christ.  In Christ, we are the world.  Amen.

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