SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD,
FRED’S PASS (NT)
Sunday, October 7th, 2012
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 27/NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF PENTECOST)
Job 1.1, 2.1-10
Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12
Every now and again the lectionary’s cycles throw together such a disconnected collection of readings that it’s hard to believe we stand in one heritage at all. It’s a useful reminder that our scriptures are a glorious collection of the Godward thoughts of those who like us strive godwardly through a darkened glass, drawing on wisdom that the Church with time came to recognize as Spirit-filled, yet incomplete, disparate, as all life and all thought this side of the eschaton will be. I will not pretend to draw together strands from Mark, Job, Hebrews and the most excruciatingly self-righteous of the psalms and pretend they share great themes of faith!
The scriptures, even the gospel-readings for which we stand as a mark of respect for the Christ who becomes Incarnate in our midst, are flawed, no matter what the more extreme Protestants may tell us. Yet they are in-filled with divine Spirit in a way no others are: we trivialize them at risk – every preacher should walk in fear between those temptations. The Bible is not the Incarnation, as the bibliolatrists suggest. Nor is it merely some old book or collection of books as relativists suggest. We must approach the text in fear and trembling: this is one of the great loci of the encounter with the Risen Lord. And when Mark records Jesus issuing what appear to be some stern words, words by which I for one, and who knows how many others in this gathering, stand challenged if not condemned, we should be cautious indeed. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. There’s not a lot of wriggle-room there.
On the other hand nor is there wriggle-room when Paul and others demand that women wear their hair long but covered (1 Cor. 11.6, apparently so not as to disturb the angels – 1 Cor.11.10) and not braided (1 Pet. 3.3) .There is no wriggle room when women are told they must not wear ‘gold, pearls, or expensive clothes’ (1 Tim. 2.9 - I will ask the wardens to check later!), or when the scriptures condemn men with long hair (1 Cor. 11.14, suggesting, if most Christian iconography is accurate, that Jesus was condemned as a sinner not only for ‘hanging on a tree’ - and I don't know if any of you have seen puictures of the new Bishop of Wellington!). Nor is there wriggle room when Paul sternly demands that Christians do not bring law suits before civil courts (1 Cor. 6). There were all sorts of fiscal justice elements underlying that issue, but it is an injunction that is often ignored by the very church institutions who claim to be bible-believing.
We could of course begin to play a game of pitting Paul’s words against those of Jesus, or Peter’s or James’ against Paul’s against Jesus, but then, if we are doing that, we are generating the dangerous game of creating a canon within the canon. No person can stand before God claiming they have the authority to do that. In any case, can any of us claim to have lived up to the stern commands of Jesus that Anne addressed last week, to pluck out our eyes and carve off our sin-filled hands?
So the dangers of scripture are at least two fold. One danger is to give the words of scripture a timeless authority they were never designed to have, the bibliolatrous option. The other is to trivialize them as an old book, to say they have no claim on us at all. Is what they say about sin, about integrity and justice just an old and so two thousand years ago tale? Was Jesus’ teaching on divorce to be taken as if it were eternal-Torah (as Paul saw Torah), as letter not spirit, as condemning the divorced to the outer echelons of Christianity for all time? For that matter what about his teachings about children? For years we cheerfully added our amen to the words of Jesus about children as icons of faith, but glared at them if they dared to breathe, much less speak, in church.
Is there a rule of thumb? I will of course always say context is everything – and say too that narrative context, the place in which the author placed a scene in his narrative of faith, is every bit as important as the context in which the events occurred. Is Jesus, who had some stern things to say about burdens and millstones and self-righteous wearers of phylacteries really saying ‘no way, never, forget it, suck it up princess, suffer’ to those who are trapped in marriages that are insufferable hellholes? Is he telling those who have emerged from cess pits of abuse that they can never again experience married love? One might ask the same about the imposition of laws that deny homosexual people the experience of edifying love, based on a verse here and a verse there. God forbid a long-haired man or a pearl-wearing woman enter a church!
Let’s not throw the book away. I make no secret of my deep sorrow at those who so denude our scriptures of meaning that they are no more significant for us than the Buddhist Scriptures, Holy Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, Wordsworth’s poetry, or the Agony Aunt column of a women’s magazine. When in liturgy I solemnly intone ‘for the word of the Lord’ I am not trivialising the scriptures of our faith. When the scriptures speak of justice and righteousness and resurrection and eternity I do not trivialize these proclamations. These, though, are the great ur-themes of faith: is there an ur-theme of faith present as Jesus addresses divorce or the rights of children?
Indeed there is. For here Jesus is voicing the wrath of God and the judgement of God at institutions that disempower and destroy human lives. This is not a benevolent conversation about ordinary marriage and divorce – the Pharisees and scribes have already demonstrated by their knowledge of Deuteronomy that they are not interested really in the Old Testament Torah, but are intent on trapping the Jesus who is interested in spirit, not letter of Torah. This is a life-and-death risk conversation about the abusive and exploitative attitudes of the family of Herod, instruments of the Imperium of Rome, of the Caesars who manipulated women and marriage in the interests of power only: this is not about Mr and Mrs Smith whose love ran cold, but about the Mephistophelian Herods and Caesars who have kept women powerless, as instruments of their exploitative greed. John the Baptist was executed for answering this question dangerously: so too will Jesus be, as it is added to the evidence of his insubordination, his disrespect for a corrupt state.
So let us get away from the demonic text wars so beloved in some quarters; wars that pit a text about Corinthian or Roman rent boys against the longings of gay people for edifying love. Texts that tell women to remain silent in church, or not to wear pearls, or how to wear their hair, because of the peculiarities of a context that a biblical author was once addressing. Let us get away from text wars that use these references to silence or oppress women for all time. Let us get away – or perhaps not! – from texts that tell us not to go to court (one text I believe we have cynically failed to uphold, to the benefit not of the gospel but of lawyers).
A woman in a hell hole of abuse, or a man in a hell hole of lovelessness is not condemned for ever to singleness – though nor is marriage the only possible state of human enrichment, and nor is it either to be entered or exited lightly. A gay person is not condemned forever to singleness – though sexuality is not the sole realm of human fulfilment, and no gay person should enter life-long commitment trivially. In both cases celibacy is one, but not the only possible alternative option.
If we are to look for the ur-narrative, let us ask that glorious clichéd question, what would Jesus do? His ur-narrative here is about empowering the disempowered, protecting the unprotected, and breathing resurrection hope into the darkest hellholes of powerlessness – the place where, he will remind us horrifyingly on Good Friday, the encounter with God begins. Jesus is not saying divorce is always wrong or never right, but is in his ur-narrative telling us that exploitation and oppression and the cynical using of other human beings is never, ever right. The exploitation and oppression of children, utterly without rights in first century Israel, is never ever right. The exploitation of rent boys or child prostitutes, as we have seen so disturbingly in news out of Sydney this week, is never ever right.
Paradoxically, it is only when we become so devoid of pretensions to power that we truly become like a child, and are rendered fit to enter the eternities of God. For many of us, I fear, that will only be in that moment when we truly turn to the God of judgement and say at last, no longer through a darkened glass but face to face, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”.