The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 4, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Sorry — I just could not resist this re-print from the last time we had this passage!

“There once was a man down in Uz,
who lived a good life, just because.
He never cursed God, though his wife sure did prod;
A just man, he, if ever there was!”

Psalm 26

How are we — human beings all too prone to wander from the path — to stay on the right way? It all depends on where we place our eyes. With God’s steadfast love fully filling our vision, it seems we are much more likely to live lives worthy of our calling.

Genesis 2:18-24

Awesome text, the basis for lots of discussion (at least in the USA) these days surrounding the idea of a “biblical marriage.” Not gonna wade into that one — and I wouldn’t advise any preacher to try to proclaim a theology of same in just one sermon!

The most captivating thought to me is that of the complementarity of the human beings in this passage. The word for “helper” here is actually a compound (and somewhat complex) construction in Hebrew. A “helper,” yes — but one who is both “in front of” (as in eyeball to eyeball, intimate) but also “opposite of” (as in toe to toe, opposing.) The two are definitely stronger together than either is apart and alone.

Psalm 8

What a vivid picture — considering the heavens, the moon, and the stars in order to comprehend something of God. Take a look at the video clip below, taken from NASA’s footage of the Andromeda Galaxy earlier this year. This gives me a sense of the wonder of the universe, and definitely hones in on the question, “What are we human beings that you even notice us, God?”

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

God never stops working!

The revelation of God’s plan of grace in the world began long ago, and has come in stages — according to the writer of Hebrews. Of course, God’s ultimate revelation of self has come in the form of Jesus, who is far superior to angels, sacrifices, priests, and all else. And yet, this One who is the heir of all things and the pioneer of our very salvation, has been perfected through suffering.

We seek to follow Jesus. Which sometimes will hurt.

Mark 10:2-16

Jesus rarely wants to diddle in trivial matters — not that divorce or other life-issues are trivial. He just doesn’t want to get too hung up in judging folks who have had to deal with difficult situations in their lives. “God knows it’s hard, guys; that’s why God has given you some space in these things.”

We are the ones who just can’t seem to let it go.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. Most mornings, as the sun comes up, a ring of fog hangs about halfway up the cliffs above the Tennessee River, with the sun shining brightly on the mountaintop above and the city below. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannon. The fighting centered in the foggy area. Between the fog and the peculiar terrain and the general confusion of war, things were a mess. The story is told that a Confederate General happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I thought I told you to get to the rear!” The private drew himself up, saluted, and said, “Begging the General’s pardon Sir, I been trying, but this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

We all know how he feels. Since 9/11, 14 years ago, it seems like there has been a continuous worsening of the state of the world and the human condition. War, terrorism, the economy, nasty politics, disease, basic human values ignored, a coarsening of our culture, families falling apart; we could go on and on about how bad things are.  Surely this is not what God intended for the world and for the children of God, the people of the world.. What went wrong? And what can we do about it? What must we, the followers and disciples of Jesus, do in response to a world that is dangerous and out of control? How did we get in this mess?

First lesson is one of the creation stories in Genesis. It is a charming little vignette about God trying to find a fit companion for Adam. It’s kind of funny as God acts like a shoe salesman trying to fit a finicky customer. God brings out animals big and small, sleek and furry, ferocious and tame, clean and nasty, everything in the store.  And Adam looks at them and says, “Well, it’s nice, it’s interesting, but, it’s, it’s . . .  it’s a raccoon. It’s just not what I’m looking for.” And God brings out another and Adam says, “Well, its , its, its BIG, very BIG, and shiny; very, very SHINY. It’s an, uh, an uh, Hippopotamus. But it’s just not for me.” And so it goes through all the animals, and still nothing seems to work. So God decides to do a custom job, just for Adam, to his particular specifications.

It’s a good story. And it’s an important story, for it reminds us of a couple of things. It reminds us that we, all of us, are God’s special and beloved creations. It also reminds us that we are all, male and female, equal partners in life, that the point of marriage is companionship and shared life journeys. That is God’s intention. Now, fast forward several thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story told in our Gospel lesson. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble with the King. King Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife. Worse than that, he had forced his brother into divorcing her so he could marry her. Worse than that, he had killed John the Baptist for preaching about it.  So they asked Jesus, in front of the crowds, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus turned it back on them, “What did Moses say?” “Well Moses allowed a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce.” And Jesus replied with what are the key words for us this morning. Verse 6, “Because of your hardness of heart.”  Another way to put it would; because of your inability to live in accordance with God’s plans and intentions.

At the time of Jesus, many men used the divorce laws as a way to escape familial responsibility. Without a husband, women were often in quite dire straits, and many men tossed aside wives for quite trivial reasons. The law said you could divorce your wife if you found anything “unseemly” in her. Most Rabbis interpreted that in terms of sexual immorality, but some said it could be anything the husband didn’t like, such as burning his dinner. For Jesus, tightening up the attitude toward divorce was a matter of justice for woman, and a call to taking God’s intentions for married life seriously. When Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” this is holding men accountable for their behavior in a very provocative way, for adultery was not a minor accusation and it carried with it the death penalty.

Now I know that Jesus’ strict words here are painful to persons who have been through divorce, and are difficult for many to hear. I have two siblings who are divorced and two who married divorced persons, so I am not insensitive to this. It is important to note that Jesus was very forgiving of divorced persons. I think particularly of the woman at the well, who had had many husbands and was living outside of marriage with another man. Jesus was not condemnatory toward her, but rather was pastoral and kind. It is not Jesus’ intent to condemn those who have suffered through a difficult marriage and decided to end it before causing more pain to themselves or others. His intent is to recall people to the purpose of committed relationships, which is the completion of our created humanity in companionship and partnership. His intent is to call us away from relationships which are hurtful and abusive and unequal.

God created human committed companionship as a good thing, but human hardness of heart turned good thing into a bent and ruptured and incomplete thing. In many other ways, humanity has taken the good things God made messed them up. That is the basic human story. Psalm 8 says that God made us little lower than the angels, and that he gave us mastery over the world. How have we done, taking care of things? Not very well, I’m afraid. And it is getting frighteningly worse, and as we are constantly reminded, that this here battle ain’t got no rear. There’s no place to hide. We must stand forth and be a part of the solution. If not, we must count ourselves as part of the problem.
What are we to do? How can we become a part of the solution? What is our calling today?

In Hebrews, the writer traces a scenario in which we are reminded that Jesus gave up privilege and power with God to come to earth as one of us, to suffer with us, and to show us what true humanity was intended to be. Jesus was God in our midst, in our presence, in our bodies and circumstances, God on our level, God with the same temptations and problems and hurts and wants and needs as any of us, and he suffered loss and rejection and fear just like we do. And he managed to stay the course of love and forgiveness to the end.

And we are called to do the same. We are called to raise our heads above the fog and confusion of daily life and look to the bright Sun of God’s love burning above us.  We are called to lift our hearts above our fear and to step forward with love and forgiveness for those who frighten us. In the end, it is the only way.

Amen and amen.

7 thoughts on “The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 4, 2015)

  1. Thanks, once again, to both of you, especially to Delmer for his treatment of the scripture readings from Mark and Hebrews. What you said about divorce made the most sense of anything I’ve heard or read! And, once again, you ended with a challenge to all of us to live up to our calling (and made it seem a bit more ‘doable’.)

  2. This is a comment on the podcast. As a lay person it’s my turn to preach this Sunday. I was planning on staying clear of divorce. Then in the podcast, the message comes thru “If the scripture is read, you need to preach on it!” I don’t remember you saying that before but I haven’t heard all your podcasts. Btw, Job, Ps 26, Hebrews and Mark will be our readings.

  3. Eva, God bless you as you navigate your way through the scriptures. It is a bit touchy sometimes, but the word of the Lord is there for the people, if we are willing to sit with the Spirit, do the work, and let that word be heard. Our prayers for you as you prepare, stand, and deliver!

  4. Eva, just to make sure we’re being absolutely clear. Since in my two traditions we read every text every Sunday, we couldn’t possibly preach on every one every time. What I meant to convey was, “if you read a text like the one on divorce, you an’t just let it lie there, you have to preach on it – because it is likely every person in the room has had some experience with divorce and without comment, Jesus’ words are a heavy word of law with no gospel relief. The sermon must provide the word of grace.” I’m sure you got that but I wanted to be clearer than I was.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Delmer. Very helpful. Yes we read all the readings every Sunday in my tradition too. I understand now the ‘gospel relief’ necessary from the sermon for this text. By God’s grace I believe I was able to ‘stand and deliver’ today. Thank you again.

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