All posts by Stephen Smith

Easter Vigil Sermon 2017–The Rev. Cameron O’Riley

It was the Deacon’s first Easter post-ordination. He had pulled out his favorite blue and white seersucker suit just for the occasion. Paired with his freshly pressed clergy shirt, a collar starched to perfection, and his Oxford’s polished to a high shine, he was looking ever so stylish and smart. He got to church, donned his Alb almost white as snow, pulled his cincture tight, kissed the cross at the neck of his stole, and secured it across his chest. Lifting his arms, he slid into the dalmatic that Mary, the head of the Altar Guild, had searched out from the back of an old cedar closet and hung with care, just for him. Nervously he paced the sacristy. He didn’t want to mess this up. He went through a mental checklist of all the things he was supposed to do during the service. Where he was to stand, how the priest celebrating that day liked the table to be set, and perhaps most importantly what he was supposed to say when. It was He who was to read the Gospel lesson, and announce to all those present that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The service was soon to start, so he went to the Altar to retrieve the Gospel book for the procession.

As he walked to the back of the church, politely smiling at parishioners as he passed, he thought, “You know, I better check to see if the readings are marked.” Sure enough the ribbon was placed to the Gospel of John, but the bulletin said Matthew. So he moved the ribbon to the appropriate reading. The service started, the streamers swirled, the music swelled, stations were taken, and prayers were said. The readings began, and finally it was his turn. He walked reverently to the Altar, picked up the Gospel book and turned around to face the congregation. Pausing for the crucifer and the torch bearers to begin their descent down the stairs, he then followed them out into the midst of the people and said… “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew.” The Rector, cocked his head, surely not. The Deacon began reading… “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake.” It was at about this point that the Rector began to visibly squirm from his chair. You see, there was only one Mary, and NO earthquake in the reading he was fixing to preach on. He became increasingly fitful as the oblivious Deacon continued. “That’s not the reading!” he gritted through his teeth.

Now from where the Rector stood, the Organist was to his immediate right, and apparently, she had had quite enough of his display, because in not so much of a whisper she informed him “It’s STILL GOOD NEWS!”
The reading concluded, and those in the the Gospel procession returned to their seats. The Deacon perplexed by the glare directed at him by the Rector, who had now ascended into the pulpit, sat down, as the Assistant leaned over. “Not to worry baby,” she said, “It’s all ok” hoping to assuage his fear. “What?” he replied as the Rector began with a comment about the “Good News” not being exactly the “News” he had expected. It was the Deacon’s turn to want to crawl into the tomb, yet the stone had been rolled away and Good News had been proclaimed. God vanquished the power of death, raising Jesus, and drawing all to new life to Him.
****************************************************************
Sometimes we go into something thinking we know what the good news is, but someone tells the story a little differently. And other times, the stories don’t work out the way we think they will, and the Good News comes from unexpected places and people. So prepare yourselves to see the Good news with new eyes, even when it’s difficult to do.

Today the Good News is that the veil of death has been lifted. Christ is Risen and while there is work yet to be done, we are reminded that death has not had the last word. There is Hope in the Risen Christ. And with this Good News, we are strengthened to go forth in the name of Christ, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, spreading peace and being a reflection of God’s love to others.
And that’s the key, right there, to doing what the Angel and Jesus instruct the Mary’s to do, and by extension us, to Go and tell, to make the announcement, but to do so in Love. “Love is a matter of telling the truth, being faithful in sharing the word of God, continuing to act for those who may not be responsive, and, if need be, to give one’s life. If love is understood as acting toward one another as God has acted toward the world and as Christ has acted toward his disciples, then love is not simply a feeling. Love is a way of speaking and doing and being for one another.”

Without love, our actions gain nothing. The real proof we are Christians is visible in our actions of love towards others, especially towards those within the fellowship of faith. God first loved us, and so the initial step is to recognize and remember Jesus as the one who is with us in our deepest joys and sustains us through our times of greatest fear and loss. If as Christians we first persevere in the memory of God’s gracious love that he would lay down his life for us, then in turn can we enact that same type of love for one another.
************************************************************
The Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock once told an Easter congregation he had one job for that particular service, and it was to make an announcement. “I know it’s difficult to hear,” he said. “Announcements are always difficult to hear. Nobody pays attention to announcements. The announcements about the church’s life put in the bulletin midweek, printed on the back of the Sunday bulletin, read to you as though you couldn’t read by the worship leader or minister. And then included in the benediction, “Lord help the people to remember the fellowship dinner Wednesday night….but you will have to make of the announcement what you will…My assignment is simply to announce to you that” sometime after sunset, “God raised from among the dead, Jesus of Nazareth.”

So in a way that is what I have done today, I have made an Announcement. And now it’s up to you to go and do likewise. Having heard the good news of Jesus, delighted in the Holy Spirit which resides within each of you, and having come to this place, seen the tomb empty and encountered the Risen Lord….Go quickly, and do not be afraid, seek the unexpected Good News, for it is STILL GOOD NEWS, and Announce boldly, loudly, happily, and publicly with great exuberance and passion the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ is Risen Indeed!

Annika Russo–Dance to Isaiah 55:11ff

Stephen Smith’s sermon on the raising of Lazarus

Sermon on the Orlando Tragedy

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith

I Kings 19:1-15

Omar Mateen did horrible damage to us as a nation last Sunday.  First and foremost, he killed 49 people, all of them young, all of them in the prime of life.  We should mourn their loss.  He wounded more than fifty others; a horrific tragedy.

On another level his actions also magnified almost every issue we have been fighting over in the culture wars of recent years.

He had to be a Muslim.  And so that raises all our fears, including the fears of our moderate Muslim friends. We’re all afraid of domestic terrorism, local radicalization, and lone wolf attackers.

Never mind that he appears to be Muslim in name only.  He has lived in this country all his life. In his acts of violence, he pledged allegiance to both ISIS and Hezbollah. Like most Americans he did not even realize that these two groups are at odds with each other and would welcome killing one another. Yet his very name, Omar, instills more panic.

And it had to be a gay bar.  We are still fighting over issues of sexuality and even a small group of Christians protested at a funeral for one of the victims. I am sure most Christians would not even consider this, but it does not change the fact that conflict over issues of sexuality are still being debated in our churches.

Mateen also exhibited severe mental health issues.  He was violent, bragged of connections with terrorists when there were none, and was obviously confused about his own sexuality since patrons at Pulse recognized him as a person who previously came to the bar to meet men.

And that raises our concerns about health care and how we afford mental health care for those who need it.  As the cost goes up and up and the affordable care act does not seem to help, we wonder if only the wealthy will receive the care they need.  And it ignites that debate as well.

And he bought guns.  He was investigated twice by the FBI for links to terrorism.  There were none.  He was just shooting his mouth off.  But even with the past investigations he bought guns. And so we haul out that hot button issue and fight and fight over gun control.

Finally, it was Latino night at the Pulse. So let’s fight about immigration.

Last Sunday was an event of extreme horror, and an event which heightened all our tensions and conflicts in the midst of a culture war. It makes you want to run away and hide.

That’s exactly what Elijah did. He, too was dealing with a culture war, and one that may be even more deadly than ours. You see, Israel was supposed to be different than the nations around it. The nations around Israel all believed that might made right. The strong were supposed to lead and the weak should get out of the way or die.

But it was not supposed to be that way in Israel.  If you read through the prophets of the 8th century BCE you come to realize that Israel was not going to be judged by how many other countries it defeated in war. It would not be judged by how well it preserved its borders, or by assuring that the king’s heir would take over the kingship upon his death in a smooth transition of power. No.  The prophets kept pointing out that God wanted to be sure the king brought justice to the poor, and remembered the helpless like widows and orphans. Israel would be judged not by its might alone, but by how it cared for the least of God’s children in the kingdom.

Ahab and Jezebel did not like this idea.  They wanted to be more like the other nations. And so they threatened Elijah whenever he would remind them of God’s justice.  So Elijah ran away for his own safety.  In fact, he went as far away as he could to be still among people who worshipped Yahweh.

An angel appears to him and offers food and drink and encourages him to partake, otherwise the journey will be too hard for him.

Then, God comes to Elijah and ask, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah.”

And he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, I’ve done everything you asked. But they’ve killed your prophets, abandoned the covenant and thrown down your altars and I, I alone am left.”

I half expect God to say, “Oh Elijah, quit whining.”  But instead God appears to Elijah, not in fire, or wind, or earthquake, but in the still small sound that cannot be mistaken for anything else but the very presence of the divine.

And again God asks, “What are you doing here Elijah.”

And despite the power of God’s self-revelation, Elijah comes back with the same whining rant.

“I have been very zealous for the Lord. I’ve done everything you asked. But they’ve killed your prophets, abandoned the covenant and thrown down your altars and I, I alone am left.”

This time, God does tell him to stop whining. He informs Elijah that there are still thousands back in Israel who remain loyal to God. And he informs Elijah that Ahab and Jezebel will not last forever, but that God will bring about a change.  You might say God has always been about regime change when necessary.  And God invites Elijah to be a part of that change.

Here we need to revisit that food and drink given by the angel. The angel says it’s to empower Elijah for a hard journey.  But Hebrew can be an ambiguous language. There’s another way to translate it.  The phrase could be, “eat and drink for the journey is bigger than you are.” In other words, it’s not all about you Elijah, it’s about God and what God is doing to bring about his goodness and his purposes for humanity and the world. The journey is bigger than you are and you can come along if you want.

God says the same to us.  The journey toward God’s goodness is bigger than we are. Good is working God’s purposes out, and God invites us to come along. It’s easy to believe that God is working out God’s purposes when things are going well, but when it’s all a mess . . .

There are signs, however.  Two weeks ago David Brooks wrote a column calling for a new culture war, not one based on our positions alone, but on the moral obligation to treat each other as human beings; to treat each other with dignity and respect. Can you here the baptismal covenant? David Brooks is an Episcopalian. He called this the “new moralism.” New? We’ve had since the publication of the 1976 prayer book, so let’s live it!

And in Orlando itself there are signs of the goodness of God. Scott Simon shared the following Morning Edition. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, after witnessing the outpouring of love, support, and the people lined up to donate blood said of his community that it was “the most horrific day in the history of the city of Orlando yet I stand here prouder today of our community than ever. We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater. We will be defined by how we respond, how we treat each other, and this community has already stepped up to do that.”

Dr. Joshua Corsa, a surgeon at the Orlando Regional Medical Center helped care for 54 wounded people until his shoes were covered in blood.  He said of these shoes on his Facebook page:

“…when the last patient leaves our hospital, I will take them off, and I will keep them in my office. I want to see them in front of me every time I go to work. For on June 12, after the worst of humanity reared its evil head, I saw the best of humanity come fighting right back.”

The journey to God’s goodness is greater than us.  We come to this church to encounter God and God asks of us, “what are you going here?”

How else can we respond but to say that we are seeking God’s nourishment for a journey toward God’s goodness. Even in the midst of a world stunned by horrific tragedy and culture wars, we join the journey that is greater than us.

 

 

Easter Sermon 2016 Video

Easter Sermon 2016

Easter 2016

The Rev. Stephen Smith, St. Patrick’s, Dublin, Ohio

To borrow a phrase, I have a dream. I have a dream that this nation will live up to the truest meaning of its creed; that the differences of opinions we have, in the midst of the balance of powers in our government which our constitution has created, were not meant to divide us into factions but rather to assist us to work together that we might form a more perfect union.

I have a dream that all people will be treated with dignity and respect; that we will not need political correctness or even conceal carry permits because we will learn that violence, in any form, whether verbal or physical has no place in human interaction.  All people will respect one another, treat one another with dignity, and value one another as children of God.

I have a dream that all children will be raised by people who love them and they will be taught by schools and raised in communities that long for each and every young person to live into the fullest of his or her potential.

I have a dream that businesses will be allowed and encouraged to created jobs; and that we will begin to see work as the holy transformation of our world into a better place. I dream these jobs will pay enough to hold body and soul together, so that those who serve us our food do not have to face the irony of applying for food stamps, and those who empty our bed pans do not find themselves on Medicaid, and those who do the most basic construction jobs aren’t forced on to a waiting lists for section 8 housing.

I have a dream that war and terrorism will be seen as outmoded and useless ways of conducting foreign policy; and that people and nations will strive for mutual self determination and peace.

I have a dream that this fragile earth, our island home, will be seen as a precious gift that we have an obligation to preserve for future generations.

I have a dream that the religions of the world, rather than killing each other over disagreements of doctrine or belief, will search out what they have in common, will work together for the betterment of humanity, and will help all people reach for and discover a connection with that infinite majesty we call God.

To borrow another phrase, you may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  In fact, these dreams I have just shared I would dare say are the dream of God.  That’s what I see when I read the Old Testament prophets and what I hear when Jesus tells the parables of the kingdom. They dream about a better day when all these conditions I just described become a reality.  It is what the theologian Verna Dozier called the dream of God.

And it is into this dream that Jesus has entered. In the resurrection he woke from the slumber of death and into the reality of God’s dream.  Theologians NT Wright and Marcus Borg (one a conservative scholar and one a liberal) used to do a series of lectures together on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  They could never agree on what actually happened at the time of the resurrection (what actually took place in the tomb), but they did agree on what ultimately happened to Jesus, that he entered a new kind existence from which he calls us to newness of  life. He calls us to wake from our nightmare and dare to dream the dream of God.

But we’re afraid.  What if the dream doesn’t come true? And, after all, we’re so far from it now.  The world is a mess, with crazy people claiming the name of God in their violence, with everyone in this country angry about our political process.  Maybe it’s better to settle for what exists rather than dare dream for what might never be.

Charles M. Blow in a recent column from the New York Times hinted at this when he lamented “the End of American Idealism.” Pointing out that we have given up so much of our hopes for a better world and at our best we have settled for mere expediency, and at our worst we have given ourselves over to conflicted extremism.

Whether it’s expediency or extremism does not matter because both are empty tombs; where death dealing ideas about humanity, economics and politics think they have the final word. In response, Christian idealism says, no, not now, not ever. For we who worship the risen Christ have seen in his resurrection a glimpse of a better world. We have been given hope. We have been given strength and power. And we have glimpsed the dream of God in the risen Christ. That’s what we mean when we say Alleluia, Christ is Risen! We mean that we can see a better world, and if we can see it and dare to dream it we just might make some of it happen. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Rector’s Latest Sermon

In This Generation—the coming of the Son of Man

The Rev. Stephen Smith, November 29, 1015

            How many of you have heard of David Wilkerson? Not many hands I see. David Wilkerson was a pastor form the Midwest who had a vision that led him to go preach the Gospel in the inner city of New York.  He wound up converting a whole Latino gang led by a young man named Nicky Cruz.  The story was told in the book and movie, The Cross and the Switchblade. Ah, so now some of you remember and know the name.

Because of this amazing work Wilkerson become a noted speaker in Christian circles throughout the 1960s and 70s. In the late 1970s he started saying that the world was coming to end.  He even predicted when: sometime in the early 1990s Jesus would return and history would come to a close. And . . . we are still here.

A few years back a pastor form California actually declared the day that Jesus would return and the world would end, and . . . we’re still here.

With the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 some predicted Jesus’ return and the end of the world, and . . . we’re still here.

The delay in Jesus’ return, his second coming as it is often called, has been a source of some embarrassment for the Church since, well since our beginning and our earliest writing.

Scholars know that the letters of Paul are the earliest writings of the New Testament. The Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus’ life, where actually compiled much later than Paul’s letters. The stories of Jesus were the early oral preaching of the disciples and early church leaders, and as these leaders (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) began to die off their communities said, “Maybe we’d better write this stuff down.” And they began to assemble the Gospels. But this was later than the letters Paul wrote to those churches he founded.

We know when to date Paul’s letters based on some of the historical events he mentions and we are fairly certain that the earliest letter is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which we read from today. In it Paul talks a lot about the second coming of Jesus. In fact, the idea of the rapture, all the faithful being gathered out of the earth and into heaven at Jesus’ return comes from this letter to the Church in Thessalonica.

When we get to what scholars believe is Paul’s last letter, his letter to the Romans, he doesn’t even mention the second coming at all. The second coming, over the course of Paul’s writings becomes less and less emphasized until it totally drops away.

Yet here in Luke’s Gospel the second coming is proclaimed again, much later than Paul’s writings.  And Luke dares to say that his generation will not pass away before they see the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ in glory. This generation will see it.

Maybe it’s because they wanted Jesus to come back and set things right. You see, by the time Luke’s community assembled his Gospel things were bad. You wouldn’t know it by reading Luke and its companion book the book of Acts.  Luke tells the story of Jesus and the book Acts tells the story of the early Church, and they are meant to be one piece. Luke’s story begins with the babe in the manger. His Gospel is the only one that tells this story.  Jesus was born in a barn in a little town of no account in the Roman Empire, which probably had only 500 people living in it. But his life, death and resurrection had such an impact that finally his story spreads over the entire Roman Empire and Acts ends with Paul going all the way to Rome and hoping for an audience with the Emperor. From a boy born in a barn to an audience with Caesar, what a triumphant story?

But Luke’s community was experiencing nothing like this triumph as they assembled the Gospel and the book of Acts.

Paul was dead, and so was Peter. Rather than having an audience with the emperor they were killed by Nero when he blamed the Christians for the fire in Rome that he started.

What’s more the origins of their story in Jerusalem were laid waste by Vespasian.  He sacked Jerusalem and tour down the temple, leaving it in rubble.

Judaism, looking for someone to blame for this disaster began to accuse the Christians of promoting heresy by following this Jesus. They were kicked out of the synagogues and so began the feud between Christianity and Judaism which led to thousands of years of violence, especially form Christians against Jews.

And if all that weren’t enough it was about this time when Luke’s Gospel was coming together that the Roman governors in Asia Minor, in Galatia and Ephesus, began to notice the rise of Christianity.  And so the first organized persecutions of Christians by Roman authorities had its beginnings.

So maybe Luke’s Gospel was hoping for Jesus to come back and set things right. And like so many others, Luke’s community was disappointed.

Nevertheless countless generations have hoped for that day. Even now, we’re a mess.  The world has gone crazy, with mass shootings, and ISIS wreaking havoc around the world. We want Jesus to come back and set things right or at least get us out of here.  The current generation’s fixation with the rapture is all about saving us form the mess of humanity by getting us out of it. It’s an escape plan. We seem more interested in escape than engagement.

But if we were engaged with Jesus coming back what would that look like? In fact, that’s what ISIS thinks it’s doing. They are engaging the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus to make things right. I did not know until this year that Islam believes in the second coming of Jesus.  Why not? Islam came out of Judaism and Christianity and shares many of the same stories; why not the second coming? Just like us they believe that the end of the world will come and God will be in charge. This will be preceded by the coming of the prophet (for them, messiah for us) Jesus. ISIS believes this is the time and they are giving God a helping hand by killing all their enemies and anyone who would disagree with them.

That’s even worse, when we think that God setting things right needs our assistance through violence for God’s sake.  That’s just crazy. I cannot imagine Jesus cooperating with this kind of idiocy.

And in the midst of all this insanity still, just like in the early Church, the second coming is delayed.

But wait a minute.  Let’s give the early Church a little more credit. Maybe the statement in Luke’s Gospel about the coming of the Son of Man in glory was not a prediction of an end, but the acknowledgement of a reality already present in their community.

After all, each week, despite persecution, they gathered and shared the bread and wine and said, “Here is the Son of Man, here is the presence of Christ in our very midst.”  They created a community of love and support and looked around at each other, the gathered Church, and said, “Here is the coming of the Son of Man.  It is the Body of Christ we call the Church.” And then they took the love they experienced in that community out into the world and shared it with those who were on the margins of society, those who needed the love of God, and said, “Here is the coming of the Son of Man, here is the Christ, given for you by the community of God’s love.” And despite all the troubles they were experiencing, the death of Peter and Paul, the destruction of the town of their origin, Jerusalem, the conflict with Judaism, and the Roman persecution, despite it all they were growing.  In their generation they witnessed the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ.

My brothers and sisters, we too, in our generation witness the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ. Because we gather each Sunday and share the bread and wine and say, “Here is the Son of Man, the Christ, in our very midst.” We look around at one another and say, “Here is the gathered community which we call the Body of Christ.  It, too, represents the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Christ.” And then we go out into the world to share the love of God, and in those acts the Son of Man, the Christ, comes to the world around us. Not at the end of time, but in our generation, right here, right now, the Son of Man is revealed among us.  Despite the insanity of the world, the craziness of ISIS, mass shootings, and all that fills us with fear. We have seen the coming of the Son of Man in our generation. Amen.

 

When God is Absent

See what's new at St. Patrick's.
See what’s new at St. Patrick’s.

Divorce and Grace

Mark 10:2-16 October 4, 2015
The Rev. George Glazier

Picture this: Sitting in my office are two people who are in love. They are holding hands and we have gathered for the second session of pre-marital counseling. We have talked about their lives, how they met, how they fell in love and we are beginning to talk about their expectations for their marriage. It is all cozy and soft and romantic up to this point. Then I ask the question: “What could happen that would jeopardize your marriage?” I go on to say: “I am not talking about divorce but I am talking about situations that could lead you to a divorce.”

Their reaction is like someone who has had a cup of cold water thrown in their face. What was cozy, soft, and romantic suddenly turns to uncomfortable, hard, too real. They are shocked. It is much the same way that I react to Jesus’ words about divorce in today’s gospel – shock.

So what is Jesus saying and why is he saying it?

Really I cannot go there yet. This is not an academic question for me. I am a once divorced, happily remarried man. The words of Jesus, even though I have studied them and I understand what he is saying, what I hear and still hear is condemnation. Woe is me.

There are some killer words and phrases in scripture that seem to pronounce a verdict on certain people. Or, they have been taken by the church or the society in such a way as to pronounce a verdict on certain people. Though the gospel is primarily about grace, love and forgiveness, this does not change the fact that for some people what is first heard is judgment. That is the way it is for me when I hear Jesus speak of divorce. So I have to pause.

Divorce in my experience was a kind of hell. I have had worse experiences but not many. It has had a negative impact on me and on my children. So I can understand those who want to take this passage as use it as some kind of firewall to stem tide of divorce. Jesus says NO to divorce. So don’t, ever.

But that does not work.

First, it ignores the fact that that couple in my office, along with all the other divorced people I have ever known, wanted to have a loving, lasting, happy marriage. But some made mistakes and at some point the mistakes overwhelmed the marriage and they had to accept divorce as an unwelcome but real fact of life. I have never met one single person (though I am sure they are out there) who took marriage so lightly that they assumed divorce would happen. To a person they all thought, as I thought, this will never happen to me, to us.

Second, this Jesus-says-NO-to divorce attitude also ignores that after the hell of divorce there can be an experience of grace, of God’s grace, when we enter anew, chastened by sorrow and failure, into a new relationship. I really did not fully understand the overwhelming sense of God’s grace until I met and fell in love with my wife, Pam. The negative impact of divorce was more than mitigated by the her presence in my life and in the lives of my children.

Finally this ignores the fact that adultery, addiction, abuse, and a host of other situations can, untreated or unacknowledged, can put an end to a marriage. There are responsible reasons for a divorce.

So, stuff happens. Grace happens … because God loves us and God, who has promised to never divorce us – though God certain has cause – can enter our lives through just about any experience, even divorce.

So what is Jesus saying? And why is he saying it?

He is saying what all lovers instinctively know whether they stand in the midst of love or in the ruins of marriage gone sour. He is saying that the intention of God, like the intention of all lovers, is to make marriage a joyful, life-long union in which the two people grow in grace and love, becoming fully the people God has created them to be.

This is why straight people marry. This is why gay people want to and should be married. This is why God blesses all those who are willing to make the commitment to be in, grow in and stay in marriage. The intention of people and the intention of God is the same in regard to marriage, at least at the beginning. But life can be hard, marriages can take a beating, some of them fail.

The context of this passage is Jesus answering a question from the Pharisees. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Or, I think the better way to frame it would be when is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The first question is easily answered by Jesus or anyone quoting Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The process whereby a husband can divorce a wife is laid out in this passage. Yet, one of the most disputed questions among rabbis in Jesus’ day had to do with the legitimate reasons a husband could divorce a wife. Some rabbis held that the only grounds for divorce were adultery. Some held that something as small as disrespect from the wife could justify a divorce.

So this is what the Pharisees are asking. They actually are having an academic discussion about the rules of divorce. The fact of divorce is never disputed. But Jesus will not enter into this academic discussion. He goes off on another tangent altogether. He goes to God’s purposes in marriage – life-long, loving, joyful union.

He then highlights and underscores the male prerogative in divorce as it was practiced in his day. Wives had almost no right to divorce their husbands for any reason. He holds this up and says in effect:

Moses allowed this for the hardness of hearts of you men.

As with other scriptures of condemnation, it is interesting how the church has taken this scripture to persecute those whose life situation was threatening to others. No medieval village wanted a lot of single, unattached divorce people, men or women, in its ranks. In a day when women were seen as property of either fathers or husbands, no place wanted women free and unattached. So, there are clear historical reasons that the church highlighted and underscored these words of Jesus, turning them into a prohibition of divorce rather than encouragement of a life-long union.

So, what about a new understanding in which we agree with the intention of God and the vast majority of those who enter into marriage: That marriage is meant to be life long, happy, and place where the two people can grow in love and grace. But we also agree with the fact of life that some, for many reasons, do not succeed in this. Our response to divorce is not condemnation or judgment but the response that Christians always are enjoined to make: to have mercy on those going through divorce and to assure them of God’s love and ours.

At the time of my divorce I was blessed to be a priest in the Episcopal Church that has been pioneering this attitude to divorce for 50 years. While some other branches of Christianity has stayed mired in a prohibition understanding of Jesus’ teaching, we have taking a more gracious and loving approach. I was blessed to be in a local church that gave me just those things – mercy and love – when I was going through my divorce. I did not expect such a gracious response because I underestimated the love of God and the love of church people. It was transformative for me and my life and I have seen it replayed again and again in lives of others.

How to tick off Jesus

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith

Sermon September 27, 2015, Mark 9:38-50

I am really glad the children are out for Sunday School during the reading of this Gospel. Jesus’ imagery about tying a millstone around someone’s neck and hurling them into the sea, or cutting off hands or feet, or plucking out eyes is pretty graphic stuff. I know we read a lot of the Gospel of Mark this year, but we don’t read it all. We could have left this part out.

I don’t like this reading because over 30 years ago I knew a young person who tried to pluck out his eye because he was afraid he would be sent to hell. And I have heard far too many Christians complain about other Christians they disagree with by quoting the passage about the millstone, as if it should be applied literally to their opponent.

To understand this lesson we need to remember that Jesus is using hyperbole. He is over-exaggerating to make a point. He does not want anyone to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck. He does not want anyone to cut off hands or feet. Or pluck out eyes. Remember, all the tools of rhetoric were established hundreds of years before Jesus. Our ancient ancestors were pre-technological. They were not dumb. In some ways, language was their technology and they pondered over every word and phrase to get just the right message across. And in this case the use of exaggeration by Jesus gets across the message that he is angry; very angry.

To give a modern example it would be like what my mother used to say when the three of us boys were acting up. She would say, “You boys better shape up or I am selling you to an orphanage.” We knew she was exaggerating. We knew she wouldn’t sell us to an orphanage. But we also knew she was angry.

So what is Jesus so angry about? In general he is angry that his disciples do not get it. He is talking about servanthood and giving his life for the world, and all they can think about is, “What’s in it for us?”

But the specific issue that sets Jesus off, the straw that breaks the camel’s back (to use another hyperbole) is the disciples resorting to us and them thinking.

“Master,” they say. “We saw somebody casting out demons in your name and since he wasn’t one of US we tried to stop him.”

I hate to admit it but it has taken me over 35 years to see this connection. I have read this passage dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and only this week does it finally dawn on me. Jesus is angry because his disciples can’t see the good that is happening outside their own little group and so want to stop it. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Are you nuts!? People are being healed. Demons are being cast out. Good things are happening. And you can’t get on board with that simply because the people doing it are not in our group!? You idiots ought to have a millstone tied around your necks and be thrown into the sea. Cut off your hands and feet and pluck out your eyes for all the good you are.”

Now do you get the idea? He is ticked off and venting at his disciples for the stupidity of their “us” and “them” thinking.

Unfortunately we have been very fond of that kind of thinking in the Church. We are always quick to judge who has it right and how has it wrong, and name a “them” we would like to exclude. I know we have our disagreements but I try to remember that good things happened even with Christian groups with which I disagree. As you know I do not like fundamentalism. I do not think it is a proper way to interpret scripture. And if you read my column in the newsletter you know I am thrilled that fundamentalism is on the decline. Thank God. However, I know that there are countless fundamentalist churches where good things happen and where their pastors do great work. Demons are cast and people’s lives are made better. They are “us,” not “them.”

I do not like a lot of the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. I think it subjugates women and I think the celibacy requirement for priests is kind of silly. It does not change the fact that there are many good Catholic churches with excellent leadership where people’s lives are changed for the better, and the demons that hold them down are cast out. They are “us,” not “them.”

I am sure these Churches have their own complaints about us as well. But we still strive to do good work, to make people’s lives better and cast out the demons that hold them down.  When we see our combined good work then there is no “them.” It is all “us.”

We could say the same about other religions, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, if they are working to make people’s lives better, to cast out demons that hold people down, then they are “us,” not “them.”

Now I am not so naïve to think we have no enemies. I will never sit down with the late Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church unless they make some changes. And ISIS is clearly the enemy of all who seek to do good through religion.  They represent all that can be horrible about religion: extreme fundamentalism that leads to killing and atrocities, all in the name of God.

Yes, there are those who are not us.  But most people of good will are closer to us than we think.

Sadly, the Pope’s visit last week contributed to even more “us” and “them” thinking, not because of what he said but the spin put on it by the media. On one side people said he spoke to “our” issues of sexuality and family. On the other side people said he spoke to “our” issues of immigration and climate change. I heard it all last week. I listened to all sides. I even listened to Rush Limbaugh. I wanted to hear what was out there. And it was all about choosing sides. Actually, the pope spoke to all kinds of issues on both sides of our political divide. Then he said that the leaders of the world need to work together for the benefit of humanity and the safeguarding of the planet. Work together. Do good. Nobody reported on that! The media was too busy picking sides. But I think the real story was his call for leaders to work together to create a better world. That’s news!

We are a long way form that. The “us” and ‘them” thinking is so dominant in our culture that when John Boehner stepped down as Speaker of the House he started singing “Zippity Do-Dah!” He was so glad to be out of that morass he broke forth in song.

And yet Jesus reminds his disciples and us that when we work together for good there is no “them” it is only “us.” And if we persist in this “us/them” thinking it only makes things worse. And it’s a really good way to tick off Jesus.

Let us pray:

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.