Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
October 3, 2021
Created to Love
Poet Miller Williams wrote a poem called compassion. It goes something like this:
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on,
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Yes. Lovely isn’t it. Difficult task. But if Williams is right, and I think he is, what is Jesus doing here? Why does he say this?
Because I’m fairly confident that whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you can probably find something wrong with this text. Something provocative or offensive. If you’ve lived through a divorce, or love someone who has – you know Jesus is off the mark here. If you believe in a spectrum of gender expression and identity, and believe that two people who love each other should have the right to marry whatever their gender identity, because love is love is love is love is love, and God is love, then you probably cringed a bit to hear this scripture refer to marriage between a man and a woman.
Why, you may be wondering, would I choose to preach this text at all? Paula Burger, in Bible study this week, suggested we consider starting the reading at verse 13 – people were bringing children to Jesus so he could bless them, that part, because surely we can all agree on welcoming children.
But you know what?
I reckon this passage has done some damage over the years. Damage to people who were trapped in loveless or abusive marriages because the church would not permit them to divorce.
Damage to people who escaped broken marriages but carried the weight of guilt or shame with them, in part because of this verse.
Damage to people who didn’t think they could ever marry the person they loved because they couldn’t imagine a day when their family, their community, their church would not just allow it, but bless it.
Damage to far too many. And I believe God calls us to attend to pain where we find it. To pay attention. To listen, to learn. To share love, to speak life. At the very least, to do no harm.
I had a theology professor who suggested that our task as students was to mine the tradition in search of gold – those truths that are timeless. Sometimes, though, that meant we had to blow up tradition completely, if there was nothing useful or true in it anymore. And I believe this is a passage still worth mining – though some of you may want to borrow some dynamite later on, or a pair of scissors to cut it out of your NRSV.
We have a few mining tools at our disposal. We can examine the literary context in which the story itself is told. We can look at the socio-historical context in which Christ was speaking. So to find some good news in this passage, we must first remember the time when Jesus was teaching. In the ancient world, women and children had virtually no rights outside of the household. They were considered property, belonging to the man who was the head of their family, and therefore they were completely reliant upon him for their livelihood. In our own country, women could not hold a credit card until the 1970’s, some people still don’t trust women to make decisions about our bodies and our health even today. Still, it’s hard to comprehend just how vulnerable women were in the ancient world – how vulnerable they still are in certain patriarchal cultures today.
Divorce was practiced in the Roman Empire and in Jewish communities in occupied Israel. But clearly, it was a disputed practice… the Pharisees are trying to trap him with this question. There is no good answer. People didn’t agree if it was okay to do or not, or what grounds were sufficient reason for divorce. There was no “conscious uncoupling.” Wives could not divorce their husbands – that right belonged only to men. And in many cases, if the husband found his wife displeasing in some way – if he no longer liked the look of her, or she burned his toast – he could divorce her. Turn her and her children out on the street, leaving them destitute. This is the practice that Jesus is opposing. That cruelty is what he’s condemning.
The passage comes in a series of teachings about serving all people, where he says the last is first in the Kindom of God. This is just another example of Christ’s concern for vulnerable people! He also flips the script, shifting the conversation from divorce to marriage. The Pharisees try to trap him with narrow legalism, asking what the law permits – he responds by uplifting God’s gift of love in creation, and marriage as an expression of that love. Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly! So a marriage that creates more harm than good is rightly ended!
He also talks about divorce in egalitarian terms – something that both partners can initiate. So maybe he’s being subversive here, suggesting that the more vulnerable partner, the wife in this case, should have a voice.
There was a family in a church that I served, two moms, several high-school aged kids from their previous marriages. These women and their former spouses and kids had survived much heartache and pain as they came to themselves and to each other. They had not walked an easy road – their courage, and love for themselves and each other was a thing to behold. They had been married for several years when a younger cousin had a child that she couldn’t care for. And so these women opened their hearts and their home to him. When they agreed to be his foster family, they thought it would just be for a few months. It soon became clear that they would adopt him, and so they did.
The boy was precious, precocious, he wore his mamas out with his constant questions and won everyone over with his antics and hilarious commentary on the world. When he was about three, we baptized him. He was wearing a little sailor suit that had belonged to his big brother. When I proclaimed that he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he shouted out, YEAH!!! Then he leaned over the font, and splashed in the water, and scooping some up, he baptized himself, and then he baptized me, too. As the water dripped down my cheeks, and dried on his forehead, we were both blessed: blessed with the knowledge that we are children of God. Blessed to belong to a community of loving welcome, blessed to be part of God’s family. The church was blessed with joy and laughter.
The second part of this passage, where Jesus rebukes the disciples for turning away children who come seeking his blessing, and tells his disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to children… that story isn’t separate from his comments about divorce. And it isn’t telling us to have a simple faith, a faith that accepts things without question. I mean, have you ever known a child who didn’t ask a thousand questions, who didn’t go through a phase of wondering why, and how, and when, and why again?
No, I believe he is telling us something about God’s presence with and in the least, the lost, and the last. When we open our arms to care for and protect the vulnerable -children, women in this case – and when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable – to rely on one another, to be honest about our own troubles, what we think and feel and wonder – when we do that, we draw near to the holy within and around us. So children, in their honesty, their openness, their reliance on others, their vulnerability – children being children, splashing in the baptismal font and shouting with joy when they receive a blessing, children help all of us find our way into the kindom of God.
Which leads me to the PRAYground.
A lot of research has been done by church folks to determine what experiences enable young people build a durable faith, faith that lasts a lifetime and can bear up under the weight of the questions that come from grief, injustice, the pain and wonder of living.
One of the things that makes a difference is regular presence in a worshipping community that not only welcomes them, but also supports their participation and leadership. By creating a space in our sanctuary especially for children… for kids who might be a little wiggly and need to move around, with chairs and a table that’s just their size, with quiet activities to keep hands busy while ears listen, in a space right up front where little ones can see and hear and be close to what’s happening – we’re saying that children and their grownups are welcome here. They are not an afterthought. They are a central part of who we are as a family of Faith!
I know this is going to be a learning process. We’ll find that some activities work better here than others. Some kids will be more comfortable here than others – and some parents will too. There might be a little more movement and noise than we’re used to. But I trust that the Spirit will be present here, breathing life into this space – as older children mentor younger ones. As kids feel more welcome in our church. As we glimpse the kingdom here, breaking forth, right here on Loch Raven.
So will you join me in blessing this space?
Three responses when I raise my hand – please repeat and respond Bless this space, O God; Bless our children, O God; Bless our church, O God.
Bless this space: May it be a place of welcome for our children, where wiggles and giggles are at home and the pencils are always sharp and the crayons exactly the right color. May it inspire deep faith and help us glimpse your kindom. Bless this space, Bless this space O God.
Bless our children: may they know they are loved, and may they always find welcome here. Keep them safe, and healthy, enable them to grow in wisdom and stature and joy. Bless our children: bless our children, O God.
Bless our church: may we be a vibrant witness to the good news of your love to all we meet, and may all people find welcome and be welcome here. Bless this church, bless this church, O God.
And let all God’s people say: Amen, and amen.
 Williams, Miller, “Compassion” in Some Jazz a While, University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1999, p. 254.
 Meyer-Boulton, Matthew, “One Flesh: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for the Nineteenth Week After Pentecost” The Salt Project blog, 9/28/21, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/10/3/one-flesh-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twentieth-week-after-pentecost.