Making Relationships Sacred
This sermon was originally preached in October 2018.
Leviticus 19:9-18 (NRSV)
9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer[a] among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Mark 10:2-16 (NRSV)2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 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. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The Word of our Lord.
Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be a part of worship with you again in this way, especially as we consider together God’s Word for us today.
I admit, I gave this sermon kind of a ridiculous title. “Making relationships sacred.” Of course, they are sacred. Our actions do not determine the essence of their sacredness. But our actions can attest to the sacredness of relationships. And, we seem to need to keep reminding ourselves of that fact. Partly, as the passages today show us, because it’s just so easy to dismiss the inherent value of our neighbors – even neighbors in our own homes. It’s just so easy to be thoughtless, careless, unkind, disrespectful, or unjust toward one another. We are called to continually return to being intentional about sharing love with one another. So, let’s consider together, some more of how we do this.
In Mark’s Gospel reading for us today, the Pharisees pose to Jesus a trick question. It’s a trick because the answer is both yes and no. Yes, human law does allow for divorce. No, God’s law does not allow for it. And that’s because God’s law is rooted in the value of the relational humanity God created.
Now, right off the bat, we can get into a whole bunch of questions. Questions, unlike what the Pharisees pose, are not meant to be trick questions necessarily but ones that come from genuine desires to understand God’s will amid the real circumstances we’re living in. What about this kind of situation? What about that one? What if there’s abuse? What if you’re constantly disrespected? What if you’ve been betrayed? What if you can’t stop fighting?
Exactly, there are cases where divorce is the healthiest step to take for the well-being of both spouses. That doesn’t mean that’s what God intended or hopes for us. And, this both yes and no answer, is a reminder to us that the creation of a covenant and the dissolution of a covenant should never be made lightly or rashly, but with great respect and care.
For those of us tracking the headlines over the last few weeks, we’ve all had visceral reactions to what’s been displayed related to the latest nomination and confirmation for the Supreme Court. One phrase in particular has really stuck with me – a wish that Renate Dolphin made when she said she hoped that the daughters of Brett Kavanaugh and a bunch of his high school classmates were never treated the way they treated her, and her reputation, in their yearbook.
I think this stuck with me most because I’ve known men and women who deeply wish they had made better choices in the past about how they treated other people, and the lasting harm they created in people’s lives. How it never occurred to them how they would have to show up a social or work events down the road, and have to look those people in the eye again – if they had the courage – or shake hands and look their family members in the eye.
See Ms. Dolphin says she had no idea about statements made about her before now. At one point she says,
“If this report is true, I am profoundly hurt. I did nothing to deserve this. There is nothing affectionate or respectful in [this] … It is heartbreaking if these guys who acted like my friends in high school were saying these nasty, false things about me behind my back.”
It’s the kind of revelation that forces a person to rethink every friendship, every date, every interaction. In response Judge Kavanaugh said those statements really were poor attempts at expressing inclusion of someone they cared about. But it does not feel caring to her. And to underscore this, Ms Dolphin simply said I hope their daughters are never treated this way.
That’s a thing for all of us, isn’t it? Most of us, in junior high and high school, rarely if ever image some day having to recount or account for our past experiences with children who we teach, coach, or are raising. Unless we have adult mentors in school or church or our neighborhoods, coming alongside us and encouraging us to treat our peers in ways we stand by with integrity down the road, we’re left to our own imaginations and hormones. Without a caring community around us in our adolescence, encouraging us toward healthy choices along the way, it’s far too easy to make a lot of mistakes and cause a lot of hurt.
In ancient times, the law for harming another person in any way, according to God’s standard for valuing human life, was life for life. For example, in Leviticus 24:20, the Bible says, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. This is not about revenge, this is about value. The full godly value of what was taken needed to be honored. You take an eye, you better be prepared to give an eye.
Goodness! Think about that for a moment. We’re so many years – millennia – from when these notions were first made, so far removed from the essence of what’s at stake here. It may take a moment to really take it in.
Imagine if every time you robbed yourself – in some way, you took away from the value of yourself – or your robbed someone else of their inherent value in any way, and you had to atone for it in equal measure of value. What would that mean? Could you truly account for every harm you’ve ever caused yourself or another person?
I’ll let you sit with that for a bit, and we’ll come back to it. First though, let’s look at the Book of Leviticus a little more. Essentially, is the book of the first priests or pastors of Israel. It’s a record of the ritual practices that assist a person in achieving forgiveness. So, for example, one of ways they tried to solve the challenge of how impossible it was to provide a tooth for a tooth, was to provide symbolic offerings of life to be sacrificed at the altar by the priests. So, birds, lambs, goats, were all given various levels of symbolic meaning. Then, depending on a trespass you committed, you could seek redemption by offering a measure of life in response to the trespass you made against yourself or others. So, instead of coming to the communion table today, you would be coming to the sacrificial altar to atone for any wrong you have made, or for any wrong you could possibly make, even by the germs you carry due to any number of types of activities you may have recently been involved.
Levi is the father of the Levite tribe, Moses’ tribe. Aaron, Moses’ brother, became the first priest and for many following generations, the Levites, particularly the Aaronites, served as the priests of the Temple.
It’s interesting that this is the family that becomes the priestly family. Levi knew well how hard it is to atone for the ways you have brought pain to others, especially to your family and your land. See, Levi is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. And he’s one of the three sons – he and two full brothers Reuben and Simeon – who Jacob did not bless before he died. Reuben had strongly offended his father, and Simeon and Levi had betrayed their father by massacring a town they had recently settled in. The brothers led a charge in killing all of the men of the town and taking the women and children and all of the livestock for their own. They did this in reaction, in a heat of passion, after hearing about a man who had slept with their sister Dinah. And, it’s noteworthy that the town they destroyed would go on to become part the future Samaritan community of the New Testament.
The Bible provides no details about how Levi went from being essentially cast out by Jacob to becoming the tribe of the priestly family. Some Rabbi scholars speculate that Levi, as opposed to Simeon, at some point recognized the great pain he had caused and worked to seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and repent. They believe that is how his family could become leaders in the activity of atonement.
We all know how difficult the work of reconciliation really is. In fact, I have a hunch that recognizing how difficult that work may be part of the epidemic rates of anxiety that permeate our society today. People are so fearful of failing, of somehow doing it wrong, or messing up – in their work and in their home, as a parent or as a caregiver of another person. Our society shares more publically about our fears of failure as well as our opinions of what ought to happen to anyone who fails in any way. We share these far more than we share examples and opinions about how to reconcile and repair brokenness. For example, what might Ms Dolphin’s peers do to atone for how they treated her in the past
In the pastoral counseling that I do, I often sit with people when they feel the worst has happened in their lives – their burnout caused significant problems at work or at home, there’s been an act of violence or abuse, there’s been an affair. I get brought in, in particular, when these events occur among the leadership of an organization. The work I do focuses on helping the remaining organizational leaders figure out what to do with all the brokenness and how to reconcile out of all the pain and hurt.
When I consider all the broken pieces that people I work with face, along with the standard the Old Testament holds for atoning for any wrong – life for life – it can feel impossible to meet that standard. Again and again I am so deeply grateful for Jesus’ saying, Enough. One more. There will be one more life, offered on behalf of every person who has caused destruction in this world.
The result? Not only our salvation, but this. We do not gather around a sacrificial altar today. We are not bringing symbolic life to be sacrificed on your behalf. It’s done.
We are called to live with this truth at the forefront of our lives. We have been forgiven. So repent. Go and sin no more. And if you sin, repent. Go and sin no more. Repent. Go in the other direction. If you were not about valuing yourself or the people around you, value yourself and the people around you.
Keeping all this in mind, as we turn to our New Testament passage for today, you can almost feel Jesus’ exasperation talking to the Pharisees and the disciples, can’t you? You’re not getting it. It’s not about whether divorce is ok or not. It’s about, are you treating the human being in front of you with their God-given inherent value? Are you treating them that way, in your mind and in your heart, and not just with your words or actions? We might add, are you treating other people with value when they are not in front of you, when you’re in the locker room or with your girlfriends? When you’re on your computer.
Are you treating the children in front of you – whether they are your own or not – with their God-given inherent value?
See, receiving the Kingdom as a child is not just about taking on a childlike perspective of awe and wonder and belief. It’s also about actually receiving the Kingdom within the children in front of us. It’s recognizing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, right here among us. We are in the midst of creating it together. That’s the tremendous, incredible gift God has given us. That we get to co-create the Kingdom of God together, relationship by relationship.
Friends, this sermon, or the headlines, or any other way God may be prompting you, may be bringing up for you ways you have not valued yourself or others in the way that God calls us to, ways you need to seek forgiveness, participate in reconciling, or repenting. I encourage you, during our time for communion today, to take time to be in prayer. You may write some things down, or just quietly bow your head. And just to not call anyone out, if you’re not necessarily feeling prompted by anything in particular, you could go ahead and bow your head too if you wanted and just be in prayer for other things. If you are being prompted, go ahead and take time to confess, to acknowledge the hurt coming up that you may have participated in causing. Be grateful for the forgiveness that Jesus has already offered you. And ask God to show you how you can help to make things better or to go in a more healthy direction going forward. Above all, may you be blessed this morning. Knowing you are deeply loved by God. And the ways we trespass against ourselves and one another, thank God, are not the end of the story. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.