Sermon from Community Night Eucharist, 1 October 2015

Gospel reading: Mark 10:2-16
Preacher: Will Lamb

Earlier this year, the broadcaster Adrian Chiles set himself the task of going to Mass every day during the season of Lent. A Roman Catholic, he thought of this exercise initially as a penance, but as he entered more deeply into this discipline, it turned out to be anything but: ‘From day one’, he said, ‘I was captivated’. He described attending Mass in London, Swansea, Birmingham and Manchester – wherever he happened to me on any given day. 

The churches he visited were ‘a mixed bag’ – as were the priests. He said: ‘A third of them I found to be great, with a handful quite life-changingly brilliant. Another third were sort of OK. The rest were pretty hopeless, not least because I often couldn’t actually hear what they were saying. And a handful were grumpy to the point of malevolence.’

That line ‘grumpy to the point of malevolence’ reminded me of a friend of mine who went along with six other couples to their first marriage preparation class to be greeted by a priest who began the session by observing that he wasn’t really sure why he was bothering: ‘50% of you will be divorced in ten years’. 

My friend was not a regular churchgoer, but throughout the session the priest conveyed a level of cynicism, which shocked her to the core. Seven couples gathered full of hope and expectation, ready to make vows to each other that were breathtaking in their wholeheartedness, and this was not the response they were expecting. 

Perhaps the priest was having a bad day, perhaps there was something that had caused him to be bruised or bitter –  but it’s a story that should pull us up short, particularly when we read this passage from Mark’s gospel. 

In some respects, this passage follows a familiar pattern in Mark. It is a controversy story. Jesus is asked a question, and this provides the starting point for discussion and debate: Pharisees come to Jesus and say, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ This is actually a rather odd question. It’s odd because the most authoritative studies show that there is no evidence that any Jewish group in the first century actually forbade divorce. Matthew makes the question more intelligible – his Pharisees ask whether a man is permitted to divorce his wife for any reason. But Jesus does not answer them. He asks them a question, ‘What does the Law say?’ And they know the answer: ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ Now of course this betrays all sorts of assumptions about the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives, and commentators have noted the way in which Jesus holds wives and husbands to the same ethical standards in this passage – and there is some speculation about the extent to which the symmetry between the rights of men and women may or may not have been innovative and unusual. 

But simply reading this passage as a source text for ethics perhaps misses an important dimension of this story. Indeed, Mark is not given to ethical injunctions. This is no manual of morals. That’s more Matthew’s style. The urgency of Mark’s gospel points again and again to the coming Kingdom. And Mark is much more interested in how we respond to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, which is inaugurated in his ministry. 

So the response of Jesus to his questioners is, I think, significant: ‘Because of your hardness of heart, Moses wrote this commandment for you’. ‘Because of your hardness of heart’. This is a story about hardness of heart.

Of course, when we read this story, we imagine that the ‘hardness of heart’ refers simply to those whose marriages have broken down, where for whatever reason, the light of love has grown dim and begun to fail. But that is not the only ‘hardness of heart’ that we encounter in this story. There is the hardness of heart of those who set out to test Jesus, to trip him up, those who know the rules and regulations, those like many who are religiously-inclined who like to lay down the law.

And this ‘hardness of heart’ provides the link with the passage which immediately follows this altercation. The disciples rebuke those bringing little children to meet Jesus.

‘Hardness of heart’ is something we encounter again and again in the scriptures. In Psalm 95, the people of Israel are urged not to follow the example of their ancestors as they wandered through the wilderness: ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the days of Massah in the desert’. It refers to that moment during the Exodus when the Israelites lost all faith in the wilderness, and the whole enterprise almost collapsed in chaos and recrimination, a consequence of their hardness of heart. And Mark, who draws again and again on the imagery of the Exodus, refers on more than one occasion to this same ‘hardness of heart’. In Chapter 3 and again in Chapter 4, ‘hardness of heart’ is identified at the root of all opposition to the Kingdom.

And that is why Jesus goes on to teach his disciples about the Kingdom: ‘When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’.

‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’. Note that in Mark’s Gospel, it is on the margins of Israel’s life that the proclamation of the imminence of God’s reign begins, simple fishermen who respond to his call, the ‘outsiders’ who glimpse Jesus’ true character. The crowds flock to him but the ‘religious authorities’ do not accept him. The Kingdom of God marks a break with conventions, with a readiness to include the excluded. Children, the ‘little ones’, are those to whom the Kingdom belongs.

Children represent all those who are unimportant and have no skill or status or possessions. But I wonder whether children also represent all those who have a capacity for wonder.

This childlike quality is something that we need to cultivate. This is an important spiritual discipline – because ‘wonder’ is the great antidote to ‘hardness of heart’. It is also a way of ensuring that when those of us who are called to public ministry and start talking about issues like divorce, marriage, sexual ethics and family life, we may resist getting caught in the rather sclerotic disputes that characterise our ecclesial life. If we begin everything we say with a sense of wonder at the extraordinary mystery of what it means to be human, with a sense that when we are speaking to people about their deepest hopes and desires, we are standing on holy ground. So often I fear that that when church leaders talk about sexual ethics, we just get the tone completely wrong.

But more than that, this capacity for wonder should characterise not only our discussions about moral theology, but all our theology. As the Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware, once said: ‘God is not so much the object of our knowledge but the cause of our wonder’. 

Perhaps it is with that same sense of awe and wonder that we approach this extraordinary gift of the Eucharist. As we are captivated by this awesome mystery, let us pray that we may bring that same sense of wonder to everything we do and everyone we meet.

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