Suffering, Divorce, and World Peace 10/4/09

Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Mark 10:2-16

The bulletin today stands a warning to me against choosing a sermon title before you’ve fully developed and written the sermon. Our two main topics from the lectionary are not the light-hearted kind of topics one might hope for in order to feel better after church on Sunday.  We have Job (1:1; 2:1-10) on the topic suffering and Jesus (Mark 10:2-16) on the topic of divorce and remarriage.  Neither are easy topics, and one is much easier for me to talk on than the other.  As a relative newlywed, I don’t feel that I am all that qualified to give marital advice, but I promised to be faithful in my job as a minister and a pastor and that is the topic that seemed the most important and relevant this week.  If I were feeling comedic, I might make an off-hand comment about how suffering and marriage go together so well, but that is often the sad truth so it would not be very funny.

  • The question and refrain that continually plays through my head when bad things happen is why?  Why does suffering happen?  Why does God allow it?  Why doesn’t God do something?  When will it get better?  These are all questions surrounding the problem of human life — where is God in suffering?  Does God cause suffering, alleviate suffering, commiserate with us in suffering?  Many theologians have tackled these concerns and all of them have different answers.  There is no hard and fast truth to this question.  It is frustratingly relative, because our experiences of suffering vary so much.
  • Speaking from my own experience and observations:  God does not cause suffering.  I do not know why God allows suffering.  Some theologians might say that it is a result of sin; this is the reality of living in a broken world.  Then, we get into the miry, mucky mess of personal sin causing personal suffering, which simply isn’t helpful or true.  I can’t believe that God rejoices in our suffering or uses it to teach us, but sometimes there are positives that come from negatives.  Sometimes, we find a way closer to God and we get stronger in our vulnerability and weakness.  This is part of the illogical logic of grace.  Some people understand this instinctively and embrace difficult times like Job did.  Others of us are more like Job’s wife and we fight against suffering and wrestle with God until we receive God’s blessing – like Jacob.  It always struck me as funny in an ironic kind of funny that the verb “blesser” in French means to hurt … and it’s almost always reflexive.  “I myself am hurt.”  There is a way in which our hurts can shake us up and give us new life.

 I really did not want to talk about divorce today.  Too many people have been hurt by this or have very strong opinions about this to make it something that is easy or helpful to preach.  Yet, just as I talked about hurts and sufferings above, surely the fact that people are hurt by divorce means that this is a place that Jesus would go and sit with those in pain.

  • Nobody enters into marriage planning on getting a divorce.  Clearly, it is something that people would like to avoid.  Maybe we have a culture that is more accepting of mixed families and so divorce may happen more readily, and this might not be a good thing.  However, consider if those people were to continue to struggle on in a broken marriage, unable to heal their relationship or themselves … what kind of life would that be and what kind of wounds would they inflict on one another and those around them? Would God really ask that of us?
  • Jesus makes it clear that the letter of the law allows us to divorce, but that this is not the intent of marriage.  What we need to hear in this passage, is Jesus’ subversion of what the Pharisees expected to hear.  They expected to kind of trap him into a talk about the law, and once again Jesus expands that to talk about the meaning behind the law and why it is important.
  • The Pharisees only asked if a man had the right to divorce a woman.  In his answer, Jesus claims the equality of the persons involved.  Not only is a man who remarries he committing adultery, a woman who remarries does the same thing … This is not what the Pharisees expected.  Jesus is saying that the woman has that same right and responsibility in the the marital relationship.  Why does he push this particular agenda?  As usual, Jesus is concerned with the powerless individuals in society.  Women whose husbands divorced them often found themselves destitute without any means for survival and no support network.  This led to poverty and even prostitution.  There was no safety net, no alimony, and no legal recourse for a woman who was ‘discarded’ by her husband.
  • Jesus speaks to our need to honor each person as a child of God and this is the intent behind creating marriage.  What is marriage, after all, if it is not an example of how we are to treat fellow disciples of Christ?  Marriage is not the assumed destination for every person, but it can be a metaphor for God’s love for us and how we are to share that with one another.  We are called to love, cherish and respect not just our spouse and significant other … but we are also called to help create a society in which the mutuality of relationships is protected, and it is this mutuality that we live out in Christian community.

The Mark passage ends with the story of Jesus saying to the disciples “let the little ones come to me.”  and admonishes us to not put stumbling blocks in front of one another.  Jesus’ concern for the children, for the “least of these” helps us to ask who are “the least” in our society?

  • What are the stumbling blocks that we put in front of single parents?  In front of parents with children and stepchildren to care for?  What are the stumbling blocks that we put in front of new couples?  Or in front of those who choose to remain single?  Are these stumbling blocks public policies or commonly held attitudes?  Are they expectations?  Are they the failure to talk about our own trials and difficulties?
  • One of my close friends called me a month or so after she had her first child (which was just shortly after I had my second) and was crying and asking why it was so hard and why she wasn’t happier.  I talked with her about what I call the “Mommy myth.”  Somehow we assume looking at our mothers and what they accomplished that they were stupendously happy, and naturally maternal.  But when I’ve talked with my mother and mother-in-law, they admit that they were happy, but that it was really hard. 
  • There is a similar myth about all of life – married or single, divorced or remarried, parent or not, life is hard!  We are constantly surprised at our continual need to work at life and love, but the truth that Job teaches us is that we are human.  We have weaknesses and doubts, low moments and times when we give in to sin and temptation.  The good news of both Job and Mark is that we have a God that loved us so much that he took on human form experienced all of these weaknesses of being human with us.  Jesus stands with us in our pain, and he proclaims that we are not accepted into the kingdom of God because of our ability to abide by all of the legal principles set out for us in our tradition.  We are accepted and called into the kingdom of God because we are children of God, created and loved by God.  Perhaps, we are not always able to fulfill our promises … Like a child, we find ourselves completely dependent on God.  And God is not limited by our failings; God can fulfill all of God’s promises, and God can do so richly.

This is the good news that we proclaim and share with the world.  The God of grace wants us to work for a world where mutuality, interdependence, nurture, and care are celebrated as models for how to live together in the world.  It’s always strange to me that it takes catastrophes like those that happened this week in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Samoa to pull people together and actually live into this mutual interdependence and care.  Something about the feeling of absolute need and extraordinary circumstance makes it easier for us to prioritize and place ourselves lower on the list of what needs attention.  Today we celebrate World Communion with the other churches of the world.  This is the 73rd year that World Communion has been celebrated together in this way.  Some of the churches that join us in the sharing of the Lord’s Feast do so in different ways.  For this reason, we’ve incorporated many different kinds of music and bread into our service today as a way to represent the many different ways that we celebrate and praise the Lord.  The church is often referred to as the bride of Christ, and we are continually trying to prepare ourselves for the bridegroom’s appearance.  One of the ways that we prepare for the coming kingdom of heaven is to proclaim the kingdom’s presence in there here and now.  By working toward justice and mercy, we proclaim Christ’s grace to the world.  By praising God even while we suffer, we proclaim our trust in a faithful God.  By working toward the ending of poverty and seeking out those in need, we proclaim God’s generous love and acknowledge that we are all part of God’s family and there are many rooms in the Father’s house.  As we take communion together today, I invite you to remember all those individuals far and wide who are taking communion as your brother and sister in Christ.  May we stand unified in our witness to God’s glory.

Let us pray: Lord, your words sometimes are hard to swallow and ever harder to understand, but we believe in your love and we rely on your grace.  Thank you for standing with us in pain.  May we take pride in standing up with all the Christians in this world as we proclaim your message of peace for the world.  Amen.

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