Today's Reading: Mark 10:2-16
My sermon/reflection for the day...
The first job I had out of college was one where I taught English and Social Studies to offenders detained in the juvenile detention center back in Spokane, WA.
The job was a challenge for me on several levels – one of which was dealing with the way staff were expected to deal with the youth. You see at the time Spokane didn’t have an institution to process the most hardened of juvenile offenders. Consequently, every youth in the community that had committed an offense was housed together while their case was being processed. This meant you had those accused of simple misdemeanors sharing space with those accused of rape or murder. This meant the staff had to be incredibly careful about monitoring the interactions between youth. As a consequence, the rules that governed the youth were extremely strict. The kids were told, for instance, that they could not get out of their chairs unless they had permission from a staff member to do so.
I’ll never forget the day during my first year of teaching where the rigid rules of the institution bumped up against common sense. I was working with a young man in the back of the classroom when the fire alarm unexpectedly went off. Now most of the students in the school were able to intuitively interpret the rule they had learned about not getting out of one’s chair without permission in light of an emergency. So most of the students stood up, lined up single-file facing the exit, and waited for the next set of instructions. That is - all students but one: a young man whom I’ll call Shane.
As I hurried to usher the kids out of the classroom, I saw Shane out of the corner of my eye planted in his seat, smiling like a Cheshire Cat.
“Shane, why aren’t you in line?” I asked.
“Because I followed instructions. ‘Never to get out of your chair without permission, remember?’” he said, mockingly.
While Shane’s response was correct on a literal level – he was completely unaware of the deeper principle that undergirded the rules for the youth: the deeper principle being the safety of the youth came first.
All of the other students knew what that principle was, and acted accordingly. It was Shane’s rigidity –his desire to get a rise out of the staff – that set him apart.
So why am I talking about this?
Well, there are those folks in our Christian communities who hear Jesus’ words from today’s passage from Mark and receive the words much like the way Shane received his words of instruction. They look at the surface meaning of Jesus’ words and remain oblivious to the principles underlying those words.
So what principles might those be?
Well it depends on which piece of the passage you are looking at. When Jesus said, for instance, that when a person divorces his or her spouse to marry another they are committing adultery – he was speaking to an audience where marriages were understood primarily as transactions involving a primary party (a man) and his property (a woman). When Jesus those words about divorce in verses 10-12, he was attempting to inject two radical concepts in their definition of marriage: respect and balance.
Sadly, some have used Jesus’ words to force individuals to stay in disrespectful, unbalanced relationships because they - like Shane - missed the underlying point.
Similarly, folks have taken a surface reading of Jesus’ words in verse five – the part where Jesus is quoted as saying “God made male and female to be together” – and use it as a blanket condemnation for lesbian and gay persons - all the while ignoring the fact that those words were embedded in a 2,000 year old assumption that all people were drawn to partners of the opposite gender. In holding on to that ancient assumption, they miss Jesus deeper call: be true to yourself and open yourself to the possibility of finding the one who makes you whole. Those, I believe, are words we can ALL live by.
Sadly, by taking Jesus’ words out of their cultural context and completely ignoring their underlying principles, some have taken Jesus’ timeless words of love and turned them into weapons of destruction.
Friends, on this World Communion Sunday, I would encourage you to receive Jesus’ words for what they are: an honest and passionate attempt to bring all of us into right relationship with one another. For if the pressing issues of our day – issues such as global climate change and the global economic recession - have taught us anything, it’s that our relationships matter. Whether our commitment to living in right relationship is affirmed by the way we commit ourselves to our life-partner, or whether it is affirmed through our patterns of consumption that show our concern for generations to come from around the globe, may we heed Jesus’ call to embrace the integrity of ALL our relationships.