20th Sunday after pentecost
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
There’s an awful lot to talk about this morning and not a lot of time. Today is Communion Sunday for one. We’ve also begun our 2019 Stewardship Campaign, and we’re accepting donations for the Neighbours in Need fund of the United Church of Christ.
Obviously, we can’t do all of this justice in the few moments of today’s sermon. But let’s try to hit some of the main points, and let me begin by sharing a recent Blondie cartoon from the newspaper.
Blondie’s husband Dagwood walks into a phone store and asks if there is anyone who can help him with his new cell phone. The guy behind the counter is the same age as Dagwood and he says that their tech support supervisor will be arriving any minute. In the last box of the cartoon strip the guy behind the counter tells Dagwood: “His mom drops him off here every afternoon after school.”
I lived that cartoon a couple of weekends ago. Sharon and I had gone out to Boston and we left our car in a parking garage. As you drive in you pick up a ticket and then the gate rises. Many hours later we returned to the parking garage. It’s supposed to be straight forward and simple. You’re supposed to enter your ticket, an amount shows up on the screen, and you pay by credit card. I thought I did all of that.
Instead, the pay and receipt buttons both lit-up and started blinking, but nothing was coming out. I had to push the “call for help” button.
When I got down to the exit gate, there was finally a human being, a very nice, polite young man. I explained to him what happened. He went into the booth, spoke with someone on the phone and the gate lifted up. I told him I was too old to figure out how to work the automated pay machine. With a very polite smile he said, “No, no you’re not sir,” but I knew on the inside he was saying, “Yes, yes you are.” It was easy enough to get in, but I was finding it almost impossible to get out.
Now I definitely do not want to treat marriage lightly. It is a sacred covenant. It is to be treated with the utmost respect. It should never be entered into lightly, but even when two people are sincerely in love, it can happen that they can fall out of love.
We need to be reasonable and serious both about getting into marriage and getting out too. We can’t let people in and then strand them inside like I was stranded inside the parking garage.
When marriages become troubled, it serves neither party nor the sanctity of marriage to force the couple to stay together in such a relationship.
And we can’t get around Jesus’ words that we hear in today’s Gospel by concocting some fantasy that the marriage never existed in the first place and can be annulled, make it disappear like it never existed. Instead, we have to be realistic enough to recognize that sometimes marriage unions need to end.
But Jesus is saying something else with his words about divorce that we often overlook because the topic of divorce is so divisive that we shy away from it. But that “something else” puts the whole matter of divorce into its proper context as it says something fundamental about Jesus.
In Jesus’ day, it was simple for a man to divorce a woman. He could divorce her for not being as pretty as she was twenty years ago or for not obeying all of his commands, but the woman couldn’t divorce the man for any reason whatsoever.
And when she was divorced she was left homeless and penniless. They didn’t split their assets. He got everything. This would obviously force the woman to condescend to whatever the man said or did, or live in poverty.
Jesus looked at this as another example of institutional bias and even though it was backed by the religious leaders of His day, Jesus said “No!” You’re not going to use your religious laws to trample someone under foot, in this case the easily divorced wife, but by extension everyone who is powerless.
Jesus said “no” to divorce because He was saying a louder “yes” to equality and respect, especially in those cases where God’s name was being abused.
The powerful were using religion not to glorify God, but to protect their own self-interests in marriage, and the weak had nowhere to turn, until Jesus said “No!”
The discussion of divorce has to be considered within this context of equality and respect reaching down to the ones who had neither. Jesus’ strict words on divorce only make sense in this context and must be read, interpreted and applied so that this context is protected.
If you’re proud of Jesus’ “No!” and want to keep protecting it, if you appreciate it when Jesus stands-up for the powerless against the pompous, then support this church of ours, and a part of that support has to be our financial stewardship. Hatfield Congregational is a part of the United Church of Christ. This church has stood up to the abuses of power since it was created in 1957. We were right there and stood-up for racial justice with Martin Luther King Jr. We stood-up for women’s rights long before the Me-Too Movement. We were open-and-affirming long before the nation found it acceptable.
Our stewardship campaign is what allows us to gather here as church and to keep alive this spirit and this work of Jesus. If this is important, keep it in mind as we make our pledges.
Our donations to Neighbours in Need help Native Americans because they have been treated horribly by the more powerful. It also supports ministries of justice and compassion throughout the United States, ministries that fight against systematic injustice just like Jesus did when He said “No!” to the male-only divorce of His day.
All of this is told in the context of today’s Gospel, but the reading from the Old Testament Book of Job is extremely interesting. It’s too bad that we don’t have time to go into it now, but I will remind you that our Bible study group is meeting again on Tuesday evening.
In the meantime, let me close with this story that also includes Satan, this time not up in heaven, but inside a small, country church:
Satan appeared before a small town congregation. Everyone started screaming and running for the front church door, trampling each other in a frantic effort to get away.
Soon everyone was gone except for an elderly gentleman who sat calmly.
Satan walked up to him and said, "Don't you know who I am?"
The man replied, "Yep, sure do."
Satan asked, "Aren't you going to run?"
"Nope, sure ain't," said the man.
Satan asked, "Why aren't you afraid of me?"
The man replied, "Been married to your sister for over 48 years."
Well, there you go, the topics of marriage, Satan and church all in one. But in all seriousness, may we be as generous as we can as we strive to fund the work of Christ and His church, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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