Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pentecost Nineteen
Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-26

And Jehovah God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.

I am reading the first book of Ken Follett’s latest trilogy, “Fall of Giants.” Ken Follett writes thrillers and historical novels. I’m a fan of his historical novels. The particular trilogy is about the last century, the 1900’s, most particularly World War I, World War II and the Cold War. “Fall of Giants” takes place between 1911 and 1924. It looks at the lives of people from Russia, Germany, England and America and how they are impacted by the war and by the changing attitudes in society, particularly about labor and voting. The characters include people from every strata of society, from the ruling classes and the common men. They often interact, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes negatively. It has been an fascinating look at an interesting time in human history.

Early in the story, a young girl who happens to be working as a housekeeper in an earl’s house becomes pregnant by the earl. She knows she has to leave the earl’s employ, but also knows that her family will be disappointed and unwilling to care for her since she’s pregnant and unmarried. Her father was the most upset by her sinfulness and refused to forgive her. He kicked her out of the house and told her never to return. The family was active members of a local Christian church and her father had a firm attitude about what it meant to be a good Christian. Pregnant and unmarried was not acceptable.

The young girl’s brother was upset by his father’s unwavering harshness. The family attended a Christian chapel that believed that each service was guided by the Holy Spirit, so they sat and waited for someone to feel moved to speak or sing or pray. Most often the worship was begun by the church elders, with occasional movement from others. Even the children were welcome to speak, although they rarely spoke first. On the Sunday after the young girl was sent away, her brother stood, read a scripture about forgiveness and then left the church. He shocked and amazed the congregation with his bold words. It didn’t change his father’s heart, but the boy’s reading set him on a new path. The words may have even had an impact on others, who saw forgiveness in a whole new way. If God can forgive sin, why can’t we?

We have had several references to children over the past few weeks. Two weeks ago we talked about welcoming the children, because when we do, we welcome Jesus. Last week Jesus warned the disciples not to cause the children to sin; the consequences of those actions were horrific. Despite these lessons, the disciples still did not see the worth of the children. People were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus but the disciples wanted to send them away. Jesus answered, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God.”

The psalmist sings, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” As I read this passage I thought about that boy in the book and how God spoke a hard but gracious word through him. Now, the boy in the book is a character, but haven’t we all experienced the incredible grace that can come out of the mouths of babes? They are innocent and faithful in a way that we seem to lose as adults. Our hearts become hardened; our agendas become rooted. We forget that we are children of God and we think like the disciples: the children are not worthy of Jesus’ time.

But Jesus wants us to know that we are all children of the Father. He has created us, and He has created us for a purpose. That purpose is to receive the Kingdom of God and to trust in the God that created the heavens and the earth. When we trust God, He does magnificent things through us. He speaks forgiveness through our lives and changes the world.

The psalmist writes, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” The New Revised Standard Version translates this passage in the plural. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” This is a good question. What are we that God would care so much about us? After all, we are not much different than the father in the story. We also have hard hearts, trying to justify our frailty and failings. We would turn away the outcast, the oppressed, the ignored and the rejected. We break relationships as easily as we create them, turning away from the communities that are built between two, three or more. We do not keep God in the center of these things; we refuse to forgive. What are we that God is mindful of us?

The story of the children in the Gospel passage seems almost out of place in the midst of the lesson. Why would another reference to children be separated by the question of divorce and then followed by the call of God to leave everything behind that we’ll hear next week? Mark’s Gospel compares the world as it is with the world as God means it to be. God intends for people to be whole, to be in relationship and to work together.

In the story from Genesis, God says that it isn’t good for Adam to be alone and He creates a helpmate. The story is not meant to be a historic or scientific rendering of the creation of man, but to show that there is a purpose to the relationship between man and woman. Many other animals make good helpers. We know that sheep and oxen and all the beasts of the field as referenced in the psalm help man. Some animals, like goats, are called “seven M” animals by Heifer International. They provide meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. We could not live without them, and we have been given dominion over them. But that wasn’t enough for Adam; he needed something more. He needed more than a helper, he needed a helpmate. He needed someone to make him whole.

As the story goes, Eve was taken from Adam’s side, bone from his bones and flesh of his flesh. Together they become one and together they multiply. The children born do not take anything away from the union between man and wife; they become part of the family. God’s intention was for people to join together and work together. No man, or woman, can stand on their own. We need to be part of the larger community. This plan for God’s people begins with the family. But God did not intend for it to stop there. Families are part of the larger world and we join our families to work together for a common purpose, whether it is religious congregations or secular groups. We like to gather with others and with others we can accomplish God’s work in the world.

Unfortunately we often fail to keep these relationships strong. The Pharisees went to Jesus with a question. “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” Now, in those days the man was able to divorce his wife for any reason. If she displeased him in any way, even if she burned the potatoes, he could serve her with a letter for divorce. She would be left destitute. She could not marry again, and she would probably be rejected by her own family. So what would happen to her? She would probably die because she had no means of support. Where would she live? How would she eat? What value would she have to society?

Jesus told them, “It is because of your hard hearts that Moses allows you to divorce your wives.” They were selfish and following their own agendas. While it might have been allowed according to the law of the land and the Law of Moses, Jesus reminded them that God put man and woman together for a purpose. To break that bond is to reject God’s intent for man to be part of a something bigger. If a man divorces his wife and then goes on to marry another, he has committed adultery because he’s set aside a bond that God created to follow his own heart.

Now, it is interesting that Jesus says the same thing about a woman who divorces her husband. It is unlikely that it would happen in his day because women simply did not have the power to do so. However, in stating it in this way, Jesus changes the way we look at the world and the role of women. They are equal: equal even in the ability to fail and sin. Women can break relationships. They can cause others to sin. They can have hard hearts. We all fail, male or female.

Mark then interrupts the story with the visit of children. With this odd side note, Mark reminds us that when a marriage breaks, it affects more than just the man and the woman. The children have value. Divorce is not a private affair because the broken marriage means a broken family. A broken family means a broken society. A broken society means a broken world. The children, who are wholly dependent on others for everything, understand that it is important to be part of that something bigger. They trust others. They trust God. When we pursue a radical solution to our problems, we reject what God intends for His people: forgiveness.

I make is sound so easy, don’t I? It isn’t easy. Broken relationships will happen. There will be divorce. There will be fathers that send their children away because they’ve done something wrong. There will be groups of people who simply can’t get along because there are too many differences in thought and attitude. The text here does not say that it will not happen in a Christian world. Jesus reminds us that these broken relationships are not what God intends. We are sinners; this we cannot deny. We will fail. We’ll make mistakes that are unforgivable. We’ll separate from those whom God has put together because we are human. But we are reminded in these texts that God has a purpose and that we should never allow ourselves to become so hardhearted that we accept this brokenness as part of life. God wants us to be whole.

The first human relationship is one between husband and wife. This is a vital relationship, the foundation of community. This is why God has used it as a parallel to His relationship with the Church. He marries us, binds us with Him in a way that can’t be separated and that is eternal. We are His bride and will be forever. Sadly, we try to define our relationship with God in other ways. We call Him friend, teacher, Father. And while we can use these words to define our relationship with Him, they are relationships that in life are temporary. Friends can be separated. Teachers go away and students often surpass the teacher’s knowledge. Even the Father/child relationship is temporary. Eventually every child must leave home to follow their own calling. But the relationship as husband and wife has been defined from the beginning as one that will never end.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that God spoke first through the prophets and then through the Son. The Son was not simply a man, but He was the One through whom everything was created. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Man is the image of God, but Jesus was more. He is the Word of God. This passage does not just define Jesus’ divinity; it also defines His humanity. Jesus was fully divine and He was fully human. He was not only one with God, but He came to be in relationship with man as the Son of Man. He came to form a bond that cannot be broken.

The girl returns home some years later in the hope that her father will find the grace to forgive in the book by Ken Follett. She is not quite so young and the mother of an adorable child. She has followed in her father’s footsteps as an activist, a champion for justice. While she was gone, her brother signed up to serve in the local regiment of the army and many young men from the town were involved in a horrific battle. She happened to be home the day hundreds of telegrams hit their small town informing family after family of their losses. Though no telegram arrived at their home, the father realized that the battle was still raging and he could lose his son at any moment. He reconciled with his daughter and loved his grandson. His heart melted and he experienced forgiveness.

That’s what God wants for us. He has created us to be in relationship with others, with our spouse, our families and the groups to which we belong that provide opportunities for service. His purpose for us is that we help one another, live as families as part of the larger world joining together to do God’s work in the world.

It will be hard because we are imperfect. We will make mistakes. We will fail to be the people God has created us to be. We will fail to maintain the relationships that God has given to us. Some things are impossible to forgive and reconciliation seems unattainable. When we break those connections we sin against the creation and other humans, but we also sin against God. Though we can’t fix the brokenness of the world, we can trust God to forgive us, to melt our hardened hearts and make us whole. He will never put us away. Let us pray that we will hold firmly to the relationship that matters most: the one we have with our God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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