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Sunday, October 07, 2012

"Like a little child"

Agnus Day

“Like a little child” Mark 10:2-16

Pentecost 19, Proper 22B, RCL – October 7, 2012

All Saints, Rehoboth Beach – (the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

This is a sermon about mature faith.

You might not have guessed that from the lessons we just heard this morning.

The first thing I need to make certain that you know about the first reading from Job is that it’s not history. I mean, there actually wasn’t anyone named Job and all the horrible things that are described in the story did not really happen.

The book of Job is an ancient folklore that explores the depths of faith in the midst of suffering. It attempts to deal with the question that is timeless – as modern as it is ancient – for it is central to the enterprise of being human: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Job as portrayed by Bonnat
In the story of Job, we are told, all the sufferings he endured were due to a little deal Satan struck up with God to test Job’s integrity. Satan wants to know: Does Job serve God because it is profitable, because God has been good – and will continue to be good – to him? Or, does Job serve God because he loves God – no matter what might befall him? Because he is righteous and upright and blameless.

It’s just a game – a cruel game – which sets Job up for us as a model of redemptive suffering. Some of us – children and adults – have been carefully taught to emulate Job. When chided and challenged by his wife, Job said, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"

On the surface, it all seems very childlike – from the cruel game between God and Satan to the childlike faith of Job. This childlike faith is something Jesus himself seems to advocate when we hear him say to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."

What are we to make of this, especially when Jesus is heard earlier talking about a very grown up thing like divorce? What kind of God would allow Evil to inflict suffering on an innocent, good person just to ‘test’ someone – or as a ‘sport’ of sorts with Evil? Did God bestow us with intellect and an ability to reason and not expect us to use these gifts? Are we to follow blindly, without question, as little children might? Is this life only about endurance of suffering and blind obedience so that our reward will be Life Eternal in heaven?

Is that what it’s all about, Alfie? 

I don’t know about you, but I believe things differently now than, say, when I was in the fifth grade. When I was in the fifth grade, everything was pretty simple and straightforward. There were rules to follow: Obey your elders. Eat your vegetables. Eat the old fruit before the new fruit. Look both ways before crossing the street and it’s better to hold hands with someone when you do. Brush your teeth, comb your hair and put on clean underwear before you leave the house. Be home when the streetlights go on. Bring a sweater and put a quarter in your shoe for the payphone. If you are lost or in trouble, find a policeman or go to the church and find a priest and he (yes, he) will help you. Say ‘Yes, please’ and ‘No thank you.’ 'Sir' and 'Ma'am'.

And then, I grew up and everything seemed different. Rules changed – or got more complicated. Parents didn’t know everything. A sweater on your shoulders, clean underwear on your backside and a quarter in your shoe didn’t protect you from the sudden chill or the challenges a night can bring. Some policemen and even some priests did bad things. Common courtesy seemed passé.

I soon discovered that a fifth grade perspective on the world is fine – if you’re in the fifth grade. Before too long, I discovered that my fifth grade theology – my understanding of God and what it means to be faithful – was also a few sizes too small.  I had a size 7 foot I kept trying to fit into a size 3 shoe and wondered why I was limping in pain through my faith.

I want to suggest to you this morning – because I think these passages from scripture require me to – that a mature faith is one that employs our God-given gifts of intellect and reason. Indeed, I think intellect and reason are the pathways that lead to a painful awareness that our human understanding is limited and flawed; that there is a power and an intellect in the universe that is greater than our own – one that eventually leads us to our knees, gaping in a childlike sense of awe and wonder at the mystery and majesty of God.

So, let’s get to the heart of the matter. What are we to make of the things Jesus said about divorce?  I’m willing to bet a cup of Starbuck’s coffee that perhaps as much as half the members of this congregation are divorced and remarried. That’s not exactly a wild guess. I have statistics on my side. I’m thinking this is a question many of you have struggled with and wondered why the church seems silent on the matter.

This is a sermon about mature faith and I’d like to think we’re all grown up enough to at least be able to talk about divorce in church. In front of each other and God.  So, let’s do that, shall we?

Well, so, this is a sermon and not an adult education class on marriage and divorce, but I think it’s important for you to at least know that, since 1946, The Episcopal Church has allowed for divorce and remarriage. And yes, your intuition is correct: This was undoubtedly influenced by King Edward VIII and his abdication to marry the once divorced, in the process of a second divorced, Mrs. Wallace Simpson in 1936. Prior to that, the church frowned on remarriage after divorce if their former spouses were still alive.

Oh, there was, at the time, a “Divorce Court” of sorts – which was a little like the Roman Catholic Marriage Tribunal that exists today – where one had to plead one’s case before a board of prelates who determined whether or not there were grounds to declare the previous marriage null and void and allow the person to remarry in the church.

It’s a bit easier now, but there are canons in the church – initially in 1973 and finally in 1976 – which require a priest to investigate the divorce, making certain that things like alimony for the divorced spouse and child support are maintained, and that all the required paperwork is in order before requesting formal permission from the bishop to allow a divorced person to remarry in the church.

How is it that we can do that, given what we just heard Jesus say about divorce? Why isn’t remarriage after divorce considered adultery, as Jesus says? Ah, you see, that’s where the intellect and reason which shape and form a mature faith come into play.

You may remember that the Pharisees asked the question of Jesus about divorce in order to “test him” on what Scripture said about the matter. Jesus not only knew what Scripture says – specifically Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which permits a man to divorce his wife if he "finds something objectionable about her." – but then Jesus proceeded to separate the law of man from the intentions of God. His strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else, sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one's desires or ambitions.

Indeed, Jesus knew that a woman of his culture and time was particularly vulnerable after divorce. Without a man in her life, an ancient Hebrew woman was doomed to a life of poverty and despair. Some scholars point to the fact that, later in this passage of Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus elevating the status of children – also considered as vulnerable and as worthless in their day as women – in order to underscore the point.

Actually, if you look closely, Jesus isn’t so much speaking against divorce as he is speaking about the sanctity of marriage – specifically as a covenant made between two people before God and witnesses. Covenants are not just contracts. They are sacred, holy oaths. While covenants, like contracts, can be broken by humans – because humans are flawed and faulted – God never breaks a covenant with humankind.  Jesus is saying that we should consider divorce with the same respect – not ‘lightly and inadvisedly’ – as that which we consider marriage.

It takes a mature faith to “get” that point – to move beyond the one-dimensional words on the page and into exploring the context of this passage from scripture, delving deep into the history of this ancient culture while considering the audience to whom the words were address.

Jesus is always calling us beyond the obvious of our reality and into the mystery of faith.  It’s uncomfortable there, in the mysteries. It’s ever so much more safe to carve 10 Rules on a Tablet, obey them, and think you’ll be able to live “happily ever after”.

Well, as some of us who have been divorced and remarried – and even those of us who are married and never divorced – have discovered, ‘happily ever after’ is a lovely fairy tale that has no basis in reality.

Life happens. Troubles come. Money isn’t enough (it never is). Love is tested. We make it through. Or, we don’t. Life goes on. We go on. We learn that you find ‘happily ever after’ by learning to be happy one day at a time.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about a mature faith: It’s not age-dependent. I’ve known some very spiritually mature children and some adults whose spiritual maturity level is a little higher than that of a fern. Mature faith flows like sweet honey from the rocks of intellect and reason, experience and humility.

Mature faith doesn’t come from taking a lovely stroll down the garden path with Sweet Baby Jesus, Meek and Mild. It comes more from something like getting into a locked cage with a ferocious lion and wrestling until you think you can’t go on any more and find that you do. 

When you get to that place, when you’re weary and weak and still find the strength to get up in the morning and care for the children or those who are dependent upon you – whether you know it or not – you have come to mature faith.

Sometimes, this is after something happens like divorce – Or: a long, slow, painful death, or a sudden accident or an unexpected diagnosis of a disease with terminal implications.

We are, in that sense, tested – not by a god who is a maniacal, maleficent puppeteer, pulling the strings that animate our lives. 

Rather, we are tested by the randomness of life, which can carry us – without out our permission and against our will – to what Martin Smith calls “the crucifyingly obscure boundaries of faith”.

There, at those crucifyingly obscure boundaries, we find ourselves lost and then found – by amazing grace – with a deeper understanding that we are part of the mysteries at the center of life. Indeed, we discover that we, in fact, belong to the mysteries. 

It is in that sense of belonging – of knowing and being known and loved unconditionally by God – that we are changed and transformed and will never again be the same.  We discover, in the words of scientist and novelist, Diane Ackerman, “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

We grow up. We betray and hurt the ones we love. The ones we love betray and hurt us. We can hide behind the words of scripture, clinging like frightened children to every word and judge others in the hopes that others will be less apt to judge us. Or, we throw ourselves into the Incarnate Word and learn to judge not lest we be judged. We mature. And, so does our faith.

Bad things will still happen to good people and good people will still, sometimes, do bad things, but being part of and belonging to the mysteries of God leads us to stand in awe and wonder of the realization that God has made us, for a little while, a little lower than the angels.

And, in that moment – with the understanding of being fully human and with the intuition of a child – we know we belong to God and the Realm of God belongs to ones such as us.


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