Sunday, October 3, 2021

Children Know


October 3, 2021 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 24:30.

Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does that mean? What does it mean to receive God’s kingdom like a little child? I want to be a part of God’s reign. I want to live in the kingdom of God. Don’t you? Don’t all of us? Today, Jesus challenges those of us who want to be a part of God’s great and glorious reign to receive it as if we were little children. Today, we ask what little children can teach us about belonging to God and God’s kingdom.

How does a child receive the kingdom of God? Eagerly. Whole-heartedly. With clarity. Without compromise. A child knows instinctively what is of God and what is not. A child knows that you cannot come to church and promise to love your neighbor as yourself and then get in your car and yell obscenities at the driver who cuts you off on the way home. A child knows that you cannot boast of putting a big check in the alms basin and then grumble about the blight that “street people” have become on this town. A child knows that you cannot promise to love your spouse for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until you are parted by death and then wake up one morning and decide you don’t love them anymore. 

Preachers like me are rightly cautioned not to oversimplify Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus, for one, never knew what it meant to balance the demands of work, children, and marriage. And surely the church can do better than to shame couples who are trapped in lifeless unions or, worse, yoked to abusive partners. There is nothing holy or godly about clinging to a relationship in which your safety or dignity is threatened. But, by appealing to the perspective of children, Jesus applies a standard for marriage as an image of God’s love for the world that is remarkably simple and effective. A child knows the difference between a marriage that unravels because their parents just don’t want to try anymore and one that was over and gone long before anyone said a word to them. And part of what it means for us to receive the kingdom of God is to recognize the difference for ourselves.

This gospel passage isn’t actually about divorce. This isn’t Jesus’s way of defining under what circumstances a marriage is justifiably terminated, which, if it were, is basically never. Instead, this is yet another piece of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of God’s kingdom, and, in this case, Jesus appeals to the institution of marriage as a way to explain what it means to prioritize our place in the reign of God. In short, Jesus shows us that getting our hearts right about marriage helps us understand what it means to get our hearts right about God.

Admittedly, this isn’t a straightforward theological argument that Jesus makes. He uses an unusual approach that takes some careful consideration. Before we break it down, though, it may help to remember what he did back in Mark 7, when he was refuting the religious authorities, who questioned why he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands. Do you remember how that argument went? The Pharisees asked why Jesus ignored all the traditions about handwashing and the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles, and he turned their accusation back upon them, quoting not the relevant passages from Leviticus but the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Instead of appealing to a direct discussion of the legal texts, Jesus proposed a sideways move, effectively dismissing the norms for ritual purity by prioritizing the content of one’s heart over the content of one’s actions.

Again, the Pharisees come to test Jesus, this time asking whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. That they would ask about divorce reveals to us that this was as challenging a topic in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. As before, Jesus chooses not to engage in a straight exploration of the relevant text, which would be Deuteronomy 24—a passage about divorce—but instead he appeals to Genesis 2—a passage that conveys not the limitations of marriage but its unfathomable power: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What happens when we start not with the circumstances under which a marriage can be dissolved but with the beautiful, unbreakable bond that exists between two persons who have committed themselves to a holy, lifelong, monogamous union? For starters, it challenges gender stereotypes, even back in Jesus’s day. When Jesus explained to his disciples that a man who remarries after divorcing his wife commits adultery against her, he was again challenging the theological assumptions of his time. Back then, rabbinical teaching held that men couldn’t commit adultery against women. Instead, only a man, whose honor and claim upon his wife were besmirched by infidelity, could be the victim. Because a man was allowed to divorce his wife for practically any reason, including disappointment in their love life, it made no sense to hold a man responsible for his actions as long as his indiscretion did not threaten another man’s marriage. But that isn’t true if we understand that marriage isn’t simply a contractual arrangement between two people but a mutual, mystical, spiritual union as fundamental to our identity as our personhood. 

Jesus wants people to remember that marriage, as an institution that embodies the power of unconditional, indissoluble love, is such an overwhelming and important good that human beings cannot approach it as something that can be unraveled or dismissed but as something that must be embraced even in the face of adversity—just like the kingdom of God. When we commit to love like that, even and especially when staying committed is hard, we give ourselves over to something that has the power to change us—even to soften the hardheartedness within us that otherwise might pull us apart. When we are immersed in unconditional love, we are set free from all the insecurities that cause us to tighten up and close down and shut ourselves off. 

But love like that isn’t easy. It draws out and quells our self-interestedness. In order to take hold within us, it exposes our vulnerabilities and anxieties so that they might be healed. Sometimes the process of dying to self is too much for us to bear. Sometimes the change we face is so painful that we would rather fold up and quit. But those who want to enter the kingdom of God must receive it like a little child. And the little child within us knows that having something that good is worth giving up everything else we have. 

Lots of marriages have been under incredible strain because of the pandemic. Although the last nineteen months have made being together especially difficult, the pandemic has brought to the surface the reasons why marriage is always hard. It is hard to give up ourselves for the sake of another. It is hard to let go of our own needs and wants in order to be a part of something bigger. It is hard to be vulnerable especially when it scares us to death. But the life-giving power of marriage isn’t realized when everything is going well but when love rescues us even when things are falling apart. Isn’t that also what it means to belong to the kingdom of God?

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