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Sermon for Sunday 4 October 2015

FIRST READING Genesis 2:18-25

18 Then the Lord GOD said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord GOD formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord GOD caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord GOD had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.


PSALM Psalm 128

1 Happy is the one whose quiver is full of them! Such a one will not be put to shame when contending with enemies in the gate. 2 Happy are they all who fear the Lord, and who follow in God’s ways! 3 You shall eat the fruit of your labor; happiness and prosperity shall be yours. 4 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine with- in your house, your children like olive shoots round about your table. 5 The one who fears the Lord shall thus indeed be blessed. 6 The Lord bless you from Zion, and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.

SECOND READING Hebrews 1:1-18

1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son; today I have begotten you”?
Or again,
“I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
7 Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”
8 But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”
13 But to which of the angels has he ever said,
“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
14 Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?


GOSPEL Mark 10:1-16

1 [Jesus] left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Let’s face it. Today’s readings from Genesis and Mark are ones that are either contested or ones that create a good bit of uneasiness. With the Supreme Court ruling, earlier this year (2015), against God’s intension of marriage being between one man and one woman and the wide acceptance of divorce, today’s lessons stir up emotions that leave no one alone. And while we continue to struggle with these issues and emotions, we must keep in mind that this is nothing new. Even though we like to think of these subjects as being new controversies, it seems obvious to me that the people of the first century were, to one degree or another, struggling with some of these same issues. It would also seem obvious that the religious leaders of the day wanted to use these controversial matters to their advantage.
The Pharisees came up “to trap Jesus” and they asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus in response asked them what Moses had taught, and they replied correctly that Moses had said a man could simply give his wife a certificate of divorce and that was all there was to it. Of course the religious leaders were manipulating the question in their favor because Deuteronomy 24:1-4, was designed originally to protect the wife and guarantee her a certain amount of freedom. They thought they were being clever and felt like they had Jesus between a “rock and a hard place.”
If Jesus answered “yes” to the question, He would be promoting marital irresponsibility, and if He answered “no”, He would be disagreeing with Moses, one of the greatest patriarch of Israel. However, Jesus refused to allow the question to be turned into a contest between Himself and Moses. So Jesus, affirming what was written in Genesis, sets the question in the context of God’s purpose.
God’s acts shouldn’t be placated by people’s action, even if it’s legal. As German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it right. This is true; we can see many instances, throughout history, where something was the accepted practice of the day and yet was wrong. Anytime we deviate from God’s intended purpose for us, we run the risk of disastrous results.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with or have witnessed what could easily be called the “rule book syndrome.” Here in North Carolina, as well as in other states, we have what is called a “Reasonable and Prudent clause in the Traffic code. NC statute 20-141(a) states, “No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing. For many, they see this as meaning if traffic is doing 75 in a 60 mph zone, then they can too. It could then be argued under the Reasonable and Prudent clause that driving at a slower speed would impede traffic causing a hazardous situation. A person with rule book syndrome quotes the rules that work in their favor ignoring both the intent and letter of the law. Marriage, Jesus said, had been established by God from the beginning of creation; and for this a man was to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. By the blessing of God and the miracle of love, the two should become one. (Mark 10:6-8) Jesus then took this one step further and said, “What therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Mark 10:9) But it goes beyond a simple joining of a man and woman; Paul says that marriage is a matter of mutual respect!
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (chapter 5 verses 21-31) informs us that Paul wouldn’t have fallen into the Pharisaic trap of Mark 10. Ephesians 5 is part of what is called a “household code” during the time of Jesus. Typically, these so-called “household codes” spelled out the rights and obligations of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. “Household codes” were very common kinds of writings in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time. Hence, there’s nothing uniquely Christian about this practice or instruction that wives should be submissive to their husbands. Everyone in the 1st century Jewish or Greco-Roman world would have agreed and insisted upon it! The point is that we who express ourselves in different ways shouldn’t blame the writer of Ephesians for repeating what was a common and general assumption of his time and day. To illustrate, allow me to turn the tables!
Suppose I explained to Paul that, “after church I need to hurry up and go to work at the office.” Paul would probably respond, “Work on the Sabbath! Unheard of! How uncivilized!” Just as people during Jesus’ day would not understand why most of our stores and shops are open on our Sabbath, we in turn, in our time today, have a difficult time understanding how the writer of Ephesians could possibly say, “Wives must totally submit themselves to their husbands.” As a new “follower of the way,” Paul has done something extremely new!
Paul has taken the cultural assumption of his day, “so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the church submits to Christ, so should wives submit to their husbands, in everything,” and given it a new twist. We must continue on and read more. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (5:21) “Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy.” (5:25)
In a world where husbands by law and custom had absolute power over their wives these words were revolutionary! In Jesus’ time, Hebrew culture held that wives were mere chattel, property that was owned. A wife could be given a writ of divorce for simply burning dinner or not being pretty enough. Thus, the good news of the gospel intrudes upon the conventional proper posture of Jesus’ day.
Recall Philemon who was a prominent Christian and owner of a slave named Onesimus. This slave had run away from his master, and then had come in contact with Paul, who was then in prison. Through Paul, Onesimus the slave became a Christian. Paul’s letter to Philemon is an appeal to Philemon to be reconciled to his slave, whom Paul is sending back to him, and to welcome him not only as a forgiven slave but as a Christian brother. Paul refers to Philemon as “[your] brother in Christ,” (Philemon 1:8) and then speaks of Onesimus, “who is my own son in Christ.” (Philemon 1:10) Since Philemon is a brother to Paul and Onesimus is a son to Paul, Philemon doesn’t have a choice but to take his slave back graciously with loving open arms. In other words, we can pick our friends, but we can’t choose our relatives as Christians. We have no other choice but to treat one another with love, respect and integrity. This is why Paul in Ephesians boldly asserts, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” despite the norms and order of the day!
These words are not the usual words we’re used to hearing when two people work at living their lives together in marriage. The market economy talks in terms of freedom, while the planned economy talks in terms of equality. The gospel writers, however, don’t speak in terms of the categories of freedom and equality. They instead constantly speak in terms of relationships; mutual respect and love toward one another.
One text calls husbands and wives to defer to one another and love one another out of “reverence for Christ!” The Hebrew morning prayer went something like this: “I thank you Lord that I am not a slave, that I am not a Gentile, and that I am not a woman.” Once again, we see Paul deferring to Christ in Galatians 3: “So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” Thus we are called, by God, to follow His instructions regarding marital commitment. A kindergarten teacher once shared something very profound about the meaning of Jesus’ words, “I assure you that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
The kindergarten teacher shared that when her little five-year-old children come to class in September, they come totally unfocused and undisciplined. They come not really able to receive anything because their listening skills and their ability to follow directions are as yet undeveloped and untrained. They lack proper self-discipline. She went on to give this example of how the young students’ listening skills and the discipline of following directions are developed in the life of a little five-year-old kindergarten student.
She explained that during daily snack time all of the students get a little carton of milk with a straw. At the beginning of the year she asks her students to listen and follow her directions very carefully. The teacher would tell the students, “Now boys and girls, please watch me carefully and do exactly what I tell you to do. First of all, open your milk carton like this and she shows the students how to open milk carton. Now, take the paper wrapper off of your straw, again demonstrating how to take paper wrapper off her straw. Now put the straw into your carton of milk just like I’m doing. She continues, now, boys and girls, this is very important. Close the opening in the milk carton back around your straw so that if you accidentally spill your milk you won’t lose very much on the table.”
The teacher says she repeats these instructions several times with her children to make absolutely sure that everyone understands exactly what they are supposed to do. Despite her diligence in instructing the children there are still several major milk spills until sometime around Thanksgiving. The milk is spilled because the children have listening and discipline lapses. They are, after all, only children. The point is this, Jesus doesn’t mean childlike literally.
What Jesus means is that if a leader or teacher has your best interest and welfare in mind; that is, if a leader is compassionate, like Jesus, one should follow that leader or teacher literally. One should listen to and follow the directions of that kind leader or teacher, exactly. There’s a warning here as well. It would logically follow that one should not follow or listen to a supposed leader or teacher who is out to dictate and dominate in a manipulative fashion. So when Jesus said to His followers, “You have to be like these children if you want to be nourished by the kingdom,” he was actually saying something like “If you want to be nourished by your milk snack, by not spilling and losing your milk, you’re going to have to surrender your own judgment long enough to let someone, who is totally caring, teach you the basics.” And the same holds true with marriage.
If you’re to learn about the commitment of marriage, you’re going to have to surrender your own judgment long enough to let our Lord teach you the basics. Genuine love is being committed to each other no matter how we might feel about one another at the moment. There are those days when I may not particularly like Terry, and there are many more days I’m sure when Terry doesn’t like me! It’s usually caused by something one of us said or did. But regardless of how we feel emotionally toward each other, we are committed, through Christ’s love, to love one another unconditionally. To act lovingly toward each other even when we do not like each other.
There are times in the family when there is illness, when there has been death, or when spouses have been working long hours apart from one another, when that “romantic feeling” of love disappears. But then there are those moments when spouses do spend time together, vacations, holidays, going out to dinner together, getting away for a weekend alone or spending a quiet day off together, when that “romantic feeling” of love returns once again.
Real marital love is being committed, investing in the marital relationship, knowing that the romantic feeling of love will always return. Unfortunately, many married couples invest time and money in everything but their most valuable possession; their marriage. Their life together. The most valuable gift we can give to our children is a loving and stable marriage. Marriage deserves this kind of commitment. Marriage needs the commitment of love to hold it together. And with God’s help and guidance we can be committed and loving to our spouse, “till death do us part.”.

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