This sermon is like no sermon I have ever preached. The reading you have just heard contains one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Jesus does not invite us to an easy life if we try to follow him; I’ve known that for a long time, but I feel that I am hearing this reply to the Pharisees and again to the disciples for the first time. Perhaps in the past every single time this text came as the suggested reading I chose another text. Even though it is only once every three years. I don’t know.
This week was different.
Have you ever heard anyone say “I’m spiritual ; I’m just not religious.” What does that mean? What is the rest of that person’s story?
Did you ever ask the person to tell you more? What could possibly be the reason for such an answer?
Here is where my imagination took over. In my mind’s eye I see a man, sitting on the edge of a row over there —- or perhaps over there. He is alone,— all by himself.
It is time for the morning reading of the scripture, the one chosen for this day.
It begins: Some Pharisees came to test him and they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The reading continues with the unambiguous reply of Jesus both to the Pharisees and to the disciples. What God has joined together let no one separate.
At that point, the man that I see in my mind’s eye, gets up and walks out the door.
Still caught up I want to say “Stop! You haven’t heard the rest of the story!” There’s another part to the reading!” But he is gone.
I can’t go to find him to tell him the rest of the reading because it is real time and I am the preacher and I am expected to preach a sermon.
And it comes to me that I imagined that man because I want to walk out too, every time I hear that text. How dare I stand in this pulpit and try to shed light on the text of Jesus saying “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
How dare I, when thirty seven years ago my marriage ended in divorce? I walked away and since that time I have not been able to say all those words so deep in my heart to anyone. I just walk away from this hard saying of Jesus. There is pain in separation. I know that and many of us know that.
Time passes we have rebuilt our extended family. We love each other. We share joys and sorrows. That divorce of many years ago is part of our family story. And yet as I prepare this sermon, it looms up again. Unlike the man who walked out, I need to hear, not just read but really hear the rest of the story.
How do I do that so that I can write my sermon, so that I am able to preach on the text of the day?
Among the piles of books on my desk, commentaries, other sermons, translations, there is one book that speaks to me. It is called “The Holy Spirit and Preaching” by James Forbes. That is the Rev. Dr. James Forbes Jr., Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City.
What does The Holy Spirit have to say to me when I am stuck in sermon preparation? Anything?
Then I remember that there are two parts to this reading from Mark’s gospel.
Let’s read that second part again:
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But 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.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Into my mind comes a second picture. A picture of a Sunday School class long ago. Some 4 and 5 year -olds sitting on little chairs around their teacher. She is a big woman in a dark blue dress with white polka dots. Her name is Mrs. Bell.
We learned a new word from Mrs Bell; the word was catechism. I’m sure she smiled a bit as we held this only United Church catechism in Canada. But she had made a little book for each one of us, our name on the front, a book of 5 questions and 5 answers. Each Sunday Mrs. Bell would ask a question and we would answer what we had rehearsed at home.
I remember the first question. It was “WHO MADE YOU?” The answer “G0D MADE ME.”
And the second question “WHO IS GOD?” And the answer; “GOD IS LOVE.”
That is the rest of the story, the part we cannot afford to miss.
We aim for the very highest, as God intends us to be. We also know that as the Apostle Paul knew, we miss the mark.
The best news is as the writer of John’s gospel tells us :
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
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