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Let Them Come

Lesson: Mark 10:2-16


I did something different this morning; something I've never done before. The lectionary reading for today begins at verse 2, but I started reading at verse 13, intentionally skipping over the first part of this passage. I didn’t start reading at verse 2 because the beginning of this passage has been used to beat people up, to shame and belittle people, when Jesus meant to do exactly the opposite, and I wanted you to know that before I talk about those verses, which I will. The lovely verses about welcoming the children follow a discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees about divorce. If you heard this discussion with 21st century ears and nothing more, you’d miss the grace intended in it, and you might even feel like getting up and walking out. One of the things that Jesus says – the part that feels like punishing the already-punished for those of us who have been divorced, and that includes me – is that a man who divorces and remarries is committing adultery. If you don’t know anything about divorce in 1st century Palestine, this does sound pretty harsh. But don’t walk out yet, because there’s more.


First, let’s take a step back. Is this passage really meant to be instruction on divorce? I don’t think so. We’re told the Pharisees are testing Jesus. I wonder if their question is less about divorce and more about coloring within the lines, so to speak. Maybe they want to see just how far Jesus will go outside the lines. Jesus takes up their challenge, but he focuses on God’s intent. The law – Torah – is intended as a means to an end, not an end in itself. God’s intention is human flourishing.


Here’s a piece you might miss if you didn’t know about divorce in 1st century Palestine: The Pharisees ask Jesus only about men divorcing their wives. Which makes sense. In 1st century Palestine, a man could get a writ of divorce for as trivial a reason as bad cooking. More often than not, this meant social and economic ruin for the wife. Unless her family agreed to take her back, a divorced woman had nowhere to go, and no way to support herself and her children. Which helps explain Jesus’ response. He’s concerned about the impact on the vulnerable; he’s concerned about human flourishing, as God intends. What Jesus is saying is that we should not treat people as disposable, and we should make sure that the most vulnerable are provided for. In that culture, certainly, but it’s still true in our world today: It’s women and children who suffer most, economically speaking, from divorce.[1] But then, later, when he’s speaking with his disciples, Jesus goes on to give identical instructions about women divorcing their husbands. This is surprising, because the law didn’t provide a way for a woman to divorce her husband.[2] Jesus is implying some equity that didn’t exist in that culture.


It’s immediately after this exchange that Mark tells the story I did read, about people bringing children to be “touched” by Jesus. Most often in Mark, when someone wants to be touched they want to be healed. It could be that these children are sickly, which might explain part of the disciples’ reaction. Yet Jesus is indignant, instructing not only that these people be allowed to bring their children to him for a touch of blessing and healing, but that it is to precisely these children – suffering, dependent, and vulnerable – that the kingdom of God belongs.


That is when everybody’s jaw drops. David Lose writes, “It is likely this last assertion that would have shocked the community listening to Jesus then … and probably should shock the community open to listening to Jesus today. Law is important. Marriage is important. Divorce [feels like] a tearing and sundering of something God had blessed. Everyone who has been divorced or part of a family of divorce or close to someone who has been divorced knows this. So it’s not exactly news.”[3] But what is news – indeed, the good news – is that God’s tender care is precisely for those who have been sundered and torn apart, those who are alone, dependent, vulnerable, suffering, disenfranchised, and hurting. Children. The sick. Divorced people. And so on.


So it isn’t about divorce, after all. It’s about community, and it’s about compassion. And it’s about grace. The disciples have already shown themselves to have an appetite for power and “greatness,” as we saw a couple of weeks ago.[4] They have no time for children because children can’t organize, lead, or pay their own way. But that, says Jesus, is just the point. A child can receive the good news of God’s love for all without claim, without calculation, without thinking about trying to earn it. Jesus isn’t telling us to imitate children, to have childlike qualities like innocence or naiveté or dependence. The point is that children don’t qualify for the kingdom, and if we’re trying to become childlike in order to qualify for the kingdom, we don’t get it.[5]


In connecting the divorce discussion to the children, Jesus also is showing the disciples that God’s concern is for the vulnerable, the broken and hurting. “Let the children come,”[6] he says. He doesn’t say in so many words, “Let the divorced come,” but we already know that he eats with sinners and tax collectors,[7] and we see his response to adultery in John’s gospel: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[8] In making room for the vulnerable and suffering, he calls us to make more room in our congregation and in ourselves for the brokenness, the hurt, the real messiness that is real life. What if we didn’t have to hide the parts of ourselves that feel less acceptable: divorces, addictions, depression, faith crises, scary diagnoses, joblessness, homelessness, sexual or gender identity, kids who make bad choices, our own bad choices, our flaws, our fears, our vulnerability? The parts of us that get crammed down into the dark places are the very places of our greatest struggle and deepest need, the very places in need of healing.[9]


My friends, we can see in the culture around us what happens when people cling to power, cling to the pretense of superiority, and cling to “greatness.” We see pulling up the lifeboats and every man for himself; we see tribalism – me and mine first. We see a shocking loss of empathy and compassion, and even cruelty. We’ve seen small children separated from their parents at the border; unarmed Black people shot by police; refugees from violent regimes turned away; survivors of sexual assault and people with disabilities mocked, and the response is not horror, but applause. The message is loud and clear that the small, the vulnerable, the impoverished, the hurting, the oppressed and the powerless do not matter.


Jesus shows us a better way. “Let them come.” Let them come, because it’s our vulnerability that connects us, we’re all in equal need of mercy and grace, and we are all, equally, beloved children of God. And so Jesus makes room. He sets a bigger table. He just pulls that table open, drops in a couple of leaves and starts adding chairs. Isn’t that how we become a family? Isn’t that how we find our place, and set a place for others?


It is World Communion Sunday. World Communion Sunday was started in 1933 by a Presbyterian pastor in Pittsburgh. A gift to the world from Presbyterians. It didn’t really catch on until World War II, when people were trying to hold the world together. Today it’s celebrated around the world.[10] In 2018, it might seem like the least we can do, to declare the Christian churches of the world are one in Christ. We understand better than we did in 1933 how much we need to connect across religions and beyond religious boundaries. But at the heart and soul of World Communion Sunday is the reminder that we are called, in the face of the current culture and political climate, to keep on saying, “Let them come.” That is our practice, and that is our hope; that is how we keep putting one foot in front of the other on days like today when optimism falters. We keep on setting an ever-bigger table; keep on pulling up chairs; keep on welcoming every single human being as a precious child of God.


Jan Richardson, who created the artwork on your bulletin covers, also wrote this table blessing for World Communion Sunday:


To your table

you bid us come.

You have set the places,

you have poured the wine,

and there is always room,

you say,

for one more.


And so we come.

From the streets

and from the alleys

we come.


From the deserts

and from the hills

we come.


From the ravages of poverty

and from the palaces of privilege

we come.


Running,

limping,

carried,

we come.


We are bloodied with our wars,

we are wearied with our wounds,

we carry our dead within us,

and we reckon with their ghosts.


We hold the seeds of healing,

we dream of a new creation,

we know the things

that make for peace,

and we struggle to give them wings.


And yet, to your table

we come.


Hungering for your bread,

we come;

thirsting for your wine,

we come;

singing your song

in every language,

speaking your name

in every tongue,

in conflict and in communion,

in discord and in desire,

we come,

O God of Wisdom,

we come.[11]


May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.


© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[1] Thomas Leopold, “Gender Differences in the Consequences of Divorce: A Study of Multiple Outcomes,” April 13, 2018: “After divorce, women experience disproportionate declines in household income (de Vaus et al. 2015; Smock 1994) and standard of living (Bianchi et al. 1999; Peterson 1996) as well as sharp increases in the risk of poverty (Smock and Manning 1999). Women may also face a higher risk of losing homeownership and “falling down the housing ladder” (Dewilde 2008). Women’s lower chances of repartnering (Wu and Schimmele 2005) and responsibilities as a single parent may further impede their path to economic recovery.” “Findings suggest that men’s disproportionate strain of divorce is transient, whereas women’s is chronic.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5992251/


[2] Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (New York: Nan A. Talese [Doubleday], 1999), 82-83.


[3] David Lose, “The Issue,” https://www.davidlose.net/2018/10/pentecost-20-b-the-issue/.


[4] Mark 9:30-37; “Afraid to Ask,” https://www.togetherweserve.org/readsermons/afraid-to-ask.


[5] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 434.


[6] Mark 10:14.


[7] Mark 2:15-22.


[8] John 8:7.


[9] John Pavlovitz, Building a Bigger Table (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 32.


[10] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/.


[11] “Table Blessing.” Prayer © Jan L. Richardson from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season (Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2000), 129, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/10/03/the-best-supper/.

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