Sermon: The Debate

This is the text of a sermon I gave at All Saints Episcopal Church, Sacramento on October 7, 2012. It is based on the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 22, year B. Please see my standard sermon disclaimer.

The stage is set for this morning’s debate. At one podium, in long robes and phylacteries are the Jewish elders, the Pharisees. At the other, standing by himself, is Jesus. There is no moderator, Jim Lehrer being unavailable. So the two sides square off by asking each other questions.

The Pharisees come out swinging with a hard-hitting question on Tax Policy. Jesus tells them to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and Unto God what is God’”[1]

Next, someone fires off a question about the resurrection, trying to catch Jesus in a logic trap. Jesus rebuts the point and fires back with some brilliant logic of his own. “Have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”[2]

Now it is Jesus’ turn He dishes out a theological stumper about the kinship and authority of the Messiah and leaves his opponents fumbling for an answer.[3] So they ask Jesus about his authority. Jesus turns the question back on them, asking them about the authority of John and catches them in a political no win situation.[4]

Another question: what the greatest commandment is and more importantly, “Who is my neighbor”? Jesus fills in the gaps with a parable about a Samaritan whose heart knows better than the legal position espoused by his opponents about how to treat other people. He ends with a real zinger, challenging them to “go and do likewise.”[5]

So the Pharisees are getting desperate, and decide to try a “Family Values” approach, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife”? This is not a difficult question in itself. The answer is in Duet. 24 and Jesus makes the Pharisees give it.

The Pharisees are not asking this to see if Jesus knows the law. They were hoping for a follow- up about under what circumstances divorce was justified. A question as messy and controversial then as it is today.

Jesus instead does what commentators today would call a “pivot.” He takes a question about the legal morass of divorce and answers it with a statement about the Ideal of Marriage. He speaks about what marriage ought to be like. He takes a question about the particulars of an unhappy reality and confronts them with the ideal vision that we should aim for.

I’ll be honest with you. I make it a point never to look at the readings before accepting an offer to preach to you. If I had looked this week’s, I would have declined.

I believe, and the Episcopal Church agrees, that there are times when a divorce is better than perpetuating a bad marriage.

I also believe, and the Episcopal Church agrees, that the ideal of marriage is that it be a loving, lifelong commitment that enriches the not only the lives of both people but also the life of the community.

There are people in this room who have been divorced. There are members of this congregation who are here because certain other Christian traditions with very similar liturgies could not accept the reality of a failed marriage. There are also people in this room whose marriages have endured half a century and more. There are those here who have lost a spouse to death and those who still fight for the right to marry the person they love. There are some whose marriages are just starting out and some who are not married. My call is to speak to all and sundry of you about how I can read this Gospel and come to the beliefs I just stated.

It’s really hard … and when the life of a preacher gets hard, it’s time to read Job.

I’ll come back to the Gospel, honestly.

Job is an interesting book. It is among the last of the Old Testament books to be written. It is an extended parable; Job is more of an Archetype then a historical figure. Its theology is intentionally a counterpoint to much of the Old Testament

It is this last point I want to get to.

An overriding motif of the Old Testament is that God rewards faithful and righteous people with land and wealth and happiness and victory in battle. This is most prevalent in the earliest writings, but as the lives and prosperity of the Hebrew people begin to decline, particularly during the periods of exile, a second motif enters. A theology of a God who is disappointed with Israel, a God who is vengeful and full or righteous wrath. Suffering is the just punishment for sin.

Then there is Job. We are told he is a righteous man. In fact he is the ideally righteous man. And in the beginning Job fits the model of a righteous man having lands and flocks and camels and servants. But through no fault of his own, everything goes bad for him, archetypically bad. He loses all his possessions to calamities, his children to disasters, and, in the end, even his health.

The main body of Job is a philosophical discussion between Job and his three friends trying to decide if a righteous man would be made to suffer like this.

Job is a story of trying to reconcile an ideal: that righteousness is rewarded, with a reality: even righteous people suffer.

The character of Job is not upset with God because he is suffering. He is angry instead that God will not explain to him why. He demands that God tell him what he has done to cause God to despise him so. While Job’s friends try to sort out the difference between Job’s reality and their ideals, Job wants to know if God still Loves and Cares for him

We all struggle to hold and affirm our ideals in the face of reality. We try to justify our actions and the exceptions we sometimes make to our best intentions. In this election season, it seems that there is a heightened tension between ideals and reality.

It is possible to have ideals and to work diligently for those ideals, and yet still accept that even for the best of people, reality will not always be ideal. More importantly, accepting people who have fallen short of our ideals does not in any way imply that we are not still striving towards what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”

The linchpin in reconciling this is Grace.

Job does not ask for his idyllic former life back. He really only wants to know if God still cares about him. Jesus does not offer the Woman at the Well … the one who is cheating on husband number five. He doesn’t offer her marriage advice. Instead, he assures her that in spite of everything God still loves her.[6] God loves and cares for us when we are reaching for the best of what we can be, and God loves us when reality shatters those ideals. I was once at a conference where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the keynote speaker. I will never forget what he said to us: “There is nothing you can do that can make God love you any more. There is also nothing you can do that can make God love you any less.”

The Pharisees in the Gospel today are trying to get Jesus to tell them about the minimum required to “be a good person.” Jesus responds by telling them how far they can go in doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. He asks them and us to focus on and work for our ideals, not to dwell on how little we can get away with in reality.

The larger section of Mark of which this gospel is a part, ends with Jesus telling the disciples just how hard it is to live the ideals he has put forth. Jesus tells his followers “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” One of the Disciples asks Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus tells them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible”[7]

I have fallen short of my ideals. It does not mean I have given up on them, nor that God has given up on me. Yet I have done things which I ought not to have done and left undone those things I ought to have done. I am not perfect, though I try to be closer to perfect. And even with my imperfections I hope that you, my community, will love and care for me, as I believe God loves and cares for me. In return I will try to love and care for each of you, as I believe God loves and cares for of you. And I will do this even, perhaps especially, when reality does not meet ideals. Know as well, that this is an ideal that I strive for, but do not always meet.

Remember today as we come together in the presence of God and as we go out into the presence of God’s creation that while all have fallen short of the Glory of God, God still Loves and cares for all people, and it is our call to share the Good News of that love with the world.

1. Mark 12:17

2. Mark 12:26

3. Mark 12:35-37

4. Mark 11:27-33

5. Luke 10:25-37

6. John 4:4-42

7. Mark 10:25-27