Sermon: Receiving a Blessing
Text: Psalm 8; Mark 10:2-16
Date: October 14, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
“Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” This is one of many profound things Rev. Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) once said. I don’t know the context, but since I have been thinking a lot about him in connection with blessing children and nurturing a sense of trust, I spent some of the week reviewing and collecting Mr. Rogers’ quotes, and ran across this one.
“Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” This speaks to the tension we discover in Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees over the question of divorce. There are a number of stories in the gospels about some subset of Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up over various issues. Behind this verbal challenge on marriage and divorce there were two rabbinical schools of thought in conflict with each other. Everyone knew that the Hebrew law had made provisions for a man to divorce his wife [Deuteronomy 24:1]. The debate in Jesus’ time was between two schools of thought based on rabbinical interpretation of the law. The more conservative Shammai school thought that the only reasons a man should divorce his wife were adulterous behavior or the wife’s extreme failure to observe Jewish law. The more liberal Hillel school allowed that any behavior that caused the husband annoyance or embarrassment was legitimate grounds for giving the wife a bill of divorcement. The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to take sides in this contemporary debate.
Rather than taking sides, Jesus cuts through the long-established Mosaic tradition on divorce in order to call attention to the true roots from which spring the marriage bond. One of the commentaries I read says, “Instead of viewing marriage as a legal contract, a mere human contrivance, Jesus locates marriage in God’s initial creative actions and intentions. Marriage joins together the male and female to complete God’s unity of creation. Jesus refuses to relegate marriage to jurisdictions of legal debates and nit-picking.” Jesus takes the debate to another level entirely; “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” He is reminding the legal nit-pickers that the marriage bond is indeed deep and simple, and the shallow, complicated rules about what a man can get away with in trying to rid himself of his wife are put into place because of people’s hardness of heart.
We should also take note of the fact that Jesus is subtly assigning women the status of human beings in this brief debate and the following explanation to the disciples. For one thing, since the divorce laws went only one way—only men could divorce, and women who were cast out of marriage were often relegated to poverty—standing up for marriage was one way of standing up for vulnerable women in that society. Furthermore, suggesting that adultery could be committed against women was radical. A commentary written by Ann Bemrose-Fetter points out that according to the Hebrew Law, if a man had a sexual relationship with a married woman, he was committing adultery not against the woman, but against the woman’s husband. However, if a divorced man marries an unmarried woman, he is not committing adultery, because no other man is harmed. Adultery in the Hebrew Law was about violating the property rights of men. The laws are about protecting men’s property, which included their land, and their wives, and ensuring children’s paternity. Under the Law, adultery is a property crime between men. But Jesus says that if a divorced man marries another woman, he commits adultery against his first wife. This is unthinkable in Jesus’ time. One could not commit adultery against a woman, because a woman, being property herself, had none to protect. In saying that re-marriage is wrong for both parties, Jesus claims that men and women are equal. Both bear the consequences of divorce.
Our ideas and practices about marriage have continued to evolve since Jesus’ day, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to take a text like this out of context and use it as a weapon to make people who have divorced for good reasons feel guilty. It’s even less appropriate, to my way of thinking, to take the even more ancient quotation from Genesis about male and female creation to bludgeon folks who are in committed same-sex marriages or who don’t fit the over-simplified male/female binary. We can make a move similar to the one Jesus makes in this interaction, to ponder the simple, deep intention of God that human beings are capable of intimate bonds that are not easily or painlessly broken, nor should they be. These bonds, grounded in trust, invite us into a more fulsome experience of being human.
I have a little book of parables about a mystic named Jacob who is a baker. People come to him for insight about life. “At the back of the bakery, a young man leaned against the loading dock. He bit on his lower lip nervously while he spoke with Jacob. ‘I am sorry to take your time, but I’m about to be married and…’ The prospective groom stammered to a stop.
“Jacob nodded but said nothing. The young man began again to unfold his fear. ‘I’m about to be married, but I’m afraid if I join with a woman, I will somehow lose part of myself.’
“Jacob moved his hand in such a way as to imply he was brushing away the fears. ‘Don’t worry about this. If you join with a woman, you will not lose part of yourself. In fact’—Jacob patted the young man’s chest—‘if you join with a woman there is a very good chance you will no longer be lost in yourself.’”
Surely that is one of the purposes of marriage, or any close, loving relationship based on trust. That one would find a way out of being lost in ourselves, isolated in ourselves; that we would reach out and be in genuine relationship with someone other than ourselves, thus becoming more fully what we were created to be. Another thing Mr. Rogers said was “When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.” These intimate relationships, at their best, inspire us to trust in the lovability of ourselves as well as our partners, so that we do not become lost in despair and disappointment over our own fallibility.
There’s something bordering on divine in this profound union. The Hebrew prophets often use the metaphor of marriage to describe Israel’s relationship to God–a sign of the depth of covenantal commitment two beings can make with one another, a sign of the richness of its fruition and the pain of its brokenness. I believe Jesus’ stern comments about divorce were intended to remind folks of the creative potential in intimate union; intended to remind people to take such union very seriously rather than just figuring out how to get out of a legal arrangement when one party no longer found it pleasing.
The gospel lesson then turns to children. We turn the corner, gospel-wise, from a scene featuring hardness of heart to a scene featuring softness of heart. The story tells us the disciples were trying to keep the children away from Jesus, because he was very busy and important, and they perceived the children as a snot-faced nuisance not worthy of his time and attention. Children, as you know, were not valued as human beings in those days; their status was even lower than the status of the women. Imagine the disciples’ surprise when he chews them out for shutting them out and then lifts up the little children as a model for how to receive the kingdom of God! “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.” [Mark 10:14-15]
What does he mean by that? What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a little child? Maybe he had in mind certain qualities of children. In Bible Study on Tuesday we talked about a sense of joy and the ability to play, curiosity, and a sense of wonder and delight as qualities often observed in kids. Writer Mary Roche calls out the contributions of children by speaking of their innocence and vulnerability, their enthusiasm, openness, energy, and their growing sense of what is right and wrong. I love what she says about paying attention to children: “To ignore children is to squander the hopefulness they have to share.”
Hans-Reudi Weber points out another possible meaning of what Jesus meant by children as models of receiving God’s kingdom: “Children are not necessarily more humble than adults; but being dependent, they look for help among adults as a matter of course. As such, they become a metaphor of confident faith. To receive God’s kingdom like a child means to beg and claim this kingdom like a child claims food and love. It means to receive with empty hands.” Children may remind us of our ultimate dependence on Creator God, and our receiving of life and all that it offers as a gracious gift of love.
I hadn’t thought of this immediately, but theologian Jin Hee Han writes about the capacity children have for forgiveness. “In the world of children who have uncanny strength, nothing is forever broken. They know how to mend the world, for somehow they have the innate capacity to forgive and accept others with all their brokenness. One place I had the privilege to live was a dormitory that had a great number of international students. We broke English, but made good friends, and the children played together effortlessly in the garden of Babel they created. Occasionally, the playground did become the battleground of a little world war waged in many languages, but it took a mere thirty seconds before they could run together again with the most innocent giggles you have ever heard. Children know how to do this.” Han points out that as we grow older we seem to lose the capacity for welcoming forgiveness. I think that’s true. As we have experience of having trust violated in ways large and small on life’s journey, we may become more reluctant to forgive and restore trust that has been broken. Children who haven’t yet had their hearts scarred by broken trust may be exemplars of forgiveness.
You will certainly have your own thoughts about what it means to receive the kingdom of God like a child. Maybe it’s as deep and simple as the giving and receiving of a blessing that we see in this brief scene with Jesus. “He took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” I had an opportunity to catch up a bit with Jessica Star Rockers this week and she was telling me about doing some ministry work with the Kitsap UU Fellowship. They had a blessing of animals recently, as many churches did around the feast day for St. Francis. She invited those who hadn’t brought a pet or picture of a pet to also come for a blessing if they wanted or needed a blessing, and she was touched by how many people came forward to be blessed. I imagine this as a little parade of inner children disguised in wrinkly flesh and grey hair coming forward like those long-ago children went to Jesus. We all want and need to be reminded we are loved, forgiven, blessed.
Mr. Rogers remembered hearing a man named Kenneth Koch say once, “You aren’t just the age you are. You are all the ages you ever have been!” Mr. Rogers had a gift, I think, for not just relating to children in an affirming way but for looking at adults who had buried their inner child under layers of injury, disappointment, and cynicism and seeing the little one who still dwelt there. He said, “Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”
If we can keep sight of that hunger for acceptance and blessing inside each one of us, at any and every age, perhaps we would build a gentler world. We would lay aside the shallow and complicated business of competitive capitalism and one-ups-manship that crowds our days. We would try to see in one another the little child of wonder and vision we once were, the little one who dwells within each of us who longs for the blessing of acceptance; we would let those little ones come forth in our imaginations. “Let the little children come to me.” We would recall the radical openness of the future, even on the small stage of intimate relationships, and remember how to forgive one another. We would feel blessed and accepted by a God of infinite love, and try again to share something akin to that love with each other, so as not to get lost in ourselves. We would seek union with God and with one another, a closeness echoing the beating of little hearts bumping up against the strong heart of Jesus as he took the little ones in his arms in a loving embrace.