“God’s Kingdom” Colchester Federated Church, October 7, 2018, (Mark 10:2-16) World Communion Sunday

As we turn to our text in Mark’s Gospel, we once again don’t have an easy topic this Sunday.  Jesus teaches about both divorce and blessing little children in Mark Chapter 10.  Even the word “divorce” will bring to mind different things for different people.  Some folks are against divorce for any reason with the exception of abuse.  Though there have even been cases where people have been counselled to stay in abusive marriages by clergy citing, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”[1]  That advice is misguided because it ignores Jesus’ commandment to love one another and love ourselves, the commandment on which all his teachings centered.

When it comes to divorce, that’s an extreme example.  Others may believe that people don’t grow together in an unhealthy marriage, but have irreconcilable differences.  In that case, divorce may be the best option for both people.  Sometimes one person initiates divorce out of nowhere leaving their spouse feeling devastated.  Sometimes there’s infidelity in a marriage, and does that unfaithfulness void the covenant that both people made to one another much like abuse voids the covenant?  Sometimes there’s just more arguing and unhappiness and marital strife than good days.  Divorce is a complicated topic and we’re all going to have different perspectives and experiences here.

Jesus and some of the Pharisees also had varied ideas about divorce.  If nothing else, we know that people have had differing opinions about the breakdown of marriages and that debates about divorce aren’t new.  Jesus is challenged by some Pharisees about the legality of divorce according to the Torah.  The initial question begins a fascinating argument.  With the Pharisees pointing out that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife.  Jesus responds that Moses had to write that because of their hardness of heart.  Though Jesus personalizes his words here, “Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you.”[2]  Oh and that would have felt personal.  One has to wonder if some of these men who were present and questioning Jesus had divorced their wives or were contemplating divorcing their wives and what the circumstances happened to be.

The point is that Jesus puts this question back on them in a personal way and returns to the beginning of creation in the book of Genesis.  A book that, of course, predates what Moses would have worked out about divorce.  To quote from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, “To the Pharisees’ focus on divorce as a male prerogative, Jesus insists upon the equality of marriage intended in the creation stories . . . Jesus’ formulation with both the man and the woman as active agents stands in contrast to the ancient assumption that adultery was an offense against the husband.”[3]  Remember that we’re dealing with a highly patriarchal society in our text here.  Adultery was offensive from one man to another because it went against another man’s honor and property rights.  A married man who had sexual relations with another man’s wife wronged her husband not his own wife or the other man’s wife.  That was a commonly-held viewpoint at this time.  Gross.

Within Judaism in the First Century, divorce could be initiated by a husband and not a wife.  If the couple was barren, the woman was blamed and divorce would probably follow.  Even in the Greco-Roman world, wives could rarely initiate divorce from their husbands and had to come from families of wealth and influence to be able to do so.  As a result, women being divorced meant economic insecurity.  Jesus has stricter views on divorce than the Pharisees because once again he’s thinking about and being protective of folks who are vulnerable in society.  In this case, women whose husbands divorce them and leave them with next to nothing except being ostracized by basically everybody.[4]

As Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God—men aren’t valued over women any more than adults are valued over children.  To prove how this new societal order works in Jesus’ Kingdom of God, Mark immediately turns to the disciples speaking sternly to people who were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and bless them.  Jesus sees what the disciples are doing and becomes indignant, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[5]  Then Jesus takes the children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them—actions that would have been associated with women and not a single man in his 30s like Jesus.

Teaching about divorce and blessing the little children are linked because Jesus is teaching Kingdom Ethics and looking out for peoples’ well-being.  He is embodying what he’s been preaching about for a while now.   As Jesus taught, the first will be last and the last will be first.  People shouldn’t lord power over one another because following him isn’t about being the greatest.  It’s about being the servant of all.  The Kingdom of God is about welcoming and protecting vulnerable people in Christ’s name.  It’s about examining ourselves and our words and actions, knowing that we have the capacity to cause great harm and to spread God’s extravagant love.  It’s on us which way we choose to go here because we have free will and God isn’t going to force us to love God, to love one another, and to love ourselves.  God isn’t going to force us to have a relationship with God at all, not when God desires authenticity and genuine love.

So it may seem quite odd to go from Jesus teaching about divorce to blessing little children and telling us to receive the Kingdom of God as little children.  But all of this revolves around how Jesus envisioned a just and loving world.  One way to look at this is Jesus talking about marriage and children in the Kingdom and how his views differed from the way society was operating then and even now sometimes.  Jesus shows us how it could be if we grounded ourselves in God and expanded our horizons to receive the Kingdom with the openness of children.

In addition to Jesus teaching about divorce and blessing little children, we also know that today is World Communion Sunday.  We give thanks on this day especially for our Korean Partner Church, the Hanmok Church, in Suwon, South Korea and particularly pray for our Partner Church.  For their congregation to flourish and thrive.  For Rev. Choi and the staff and lay leaders to have strength and energy to lead.  For peace to prevail on the Korean Peninsula and the possibility of reunification to be a conversation that can occur with mutual respect.  It’s a good Sunday to consider Kingdom Ethics and the kind of world that we want to be part of and the legacy we want to leave behind for our children.  Because we’re part of this world and having a Korean Partner Church reminds us that there aren’t just Christians in the United States who are doing our best to receive the Kingdom of God with humility and be co-creators of a more just and loving world.  Our Christian kin the world over are hearing this Gospel text too and also considering the implications of Jesus’ words and actions.

Thinking of global Christianity and Kingdom Ethics finally makes me consider an experience from Australia this summer.  One Sunday, I went to Mass at St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church with my friend Gaye who is a Sister of Mercy.  We went to Mass at that church because Fr. Brian is a friend of Gaye’s.  Brian spent some of his ministry in Western Australia among the Aborigines.  He has long been an advocate for Aboriginal recognition and rights.  Brian begins Mass (going off script) to say at every single worship service that the people present at St. Ambrose at that moment are worshiping in a church that sits on top of land where the Aboriginal people once stood.

What I learned and experienced in Australia is the importance of the Welcome to Country.  It’s a ceremony from Aboriginal people that helps everyone recognize Aboriginal culture and history.  It can be performed by everyone—indigenous or non-indigenous—to pay respect to the fact that one is standing on Aboriginal land.  At one time, an elder from the local region would welcome people to their land through speech or song or dance and that Welcome to Country has been part of the protocol in Australia for thousands of years.  Even before one sees a performance at the Sydney Opera House, one will usually hear a Welcome to Country.  Now this doesn’t justify the painful treatment that Aboriginal people suffered at the hands of those who came to Australia on the convict ships much later.  But the past hasn’t been erased either.  The Welcome to Country being part of the fabric of Australian society (even hearing it when worshiping God every Sunday) keeps a vulnerable group present in peoples’ hearts.  Because we’re not just individuals in this world.  We’re in this together, and we’re challenged to have the eyes to truly see each other.

At the end of the day, Jesus’ teachings and the way he embodied his teachings can still challenge us as much as those original conversations among his fellow Jews.  His words while blessing children still ring out, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never it.”[6]  Kingdom of God values are unique and expansive and challenge the status quo.  Kingdom values demand that we treat one another the way that we want to be treated, that we look out for the lost and the lonely.  Because we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ who saw the world with the loving eyes of God and acted accordingly.  May it be so with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 10:9, NRSV.
[2] Mark 10:5.
[3] Footnotes in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, 1810.
[4] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Gospel of Mark” in Women’s Bible Commentary (Third Edition), Eds. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, 487.
[5] Mark 10:14-15.
[6] Mark 10:15.