When what I say does. not. matter. (A sermon on Mark 10:2-16)

In Sermons by Natalie Webb

This is a difficult text to preach, on a difficult week to preach. The confirmation hearing and vote that took place over the past couple of weeks left many women (not all, but many), and many survivors of abuse and assault (maybe all), with the sinking feeling that their stories, our stories, even when they are heard and believed, are not regarded as noteworthy.

And today in our lectionary gospel text, we find a group of highly privileged men, the Pharisees, putting another man to the test, in this case, Jesus, about what he would permit them to do to a woman. It feels a little close to home.

On Friday, I got a phone call from a pastor friend in tears. She wanted to know how in God’s name she was supposed to stand up and preach this week, on this text, knowing that, as she put it, “It just doesn’t matter.” The world does not care what women say or experience, the powerful do not believe survivors of sexual assault, or if they do, they just don’t care. “How do I preach when I know that what I say doesn’t matter?” she asked.

I listened, then tried my best to give her a pep-talk – I told her that speaking truth and justice and grace, even when it isn’t effective, even when it falls on deaf ears, is still a faithful act of worship – it matters to God, just ask the prophets. I said that, in a way, she’s right that it doesn’t matter what she says, because this week especially, her very presence as a woman in a pulpit was an act of resistance against all the powers and principalities that would rather put her in her place. I also told her that if she didn’t want to preach, she didn’t have to. She’s not the senior pastor, she could call in for a replacement, and knowing when to tend to her own wounds is an act of resistance and faithfulness, too.

And then I prayed for her and hung up. Then I cried and wondered how in the world I’m supposed to preach this week, and this text. It was a theme in conversations among women clergy, in text conversations, phone calls, in private groups on social media this week: what can we possibly say that matters, in a time like this?

 

I could rage at the evil powers in the world that twist this text into a trap that snaps around the ankles of women and men who are in abusive marriages. I could speak with the tongues of men and angels on the subject of domestic violence, during this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and tell you that God never ever wants her children to be abused or violated. I could plead with you to listen to the real-life experience of countless survivors of abuse, and the stories of those saints who did not survive their abuse, because good Christians told them that Jesus wants them to stay and suffer.  I could cry out “Shame!” on churches, on pastors, on priests, on politicians, who think that a person’s life is worth less than their surface-level reading of Scripture. I could rage and plead, but would it even really matter?

 

I could take another tactic – put on my bible scholar hat and try educating you about the nuances of the text, the hope that we can pull out even from passages with such destructive histories. We could talk about the Genesis text we read earlier – how the picture we get there is not one of lonely man looking for a woman to submit to him, but is rather a picture of a relationship of equals. The human, Adamah – better translated, “the dirt creature” – is split in two, into Ish and Isha (man and woman). God’s first created human is genderless, non-binary. And this lone human is made into two humans, not to make some point about heteronormativity as God’s perfect plan, but to show us the beauty and potential and risk of relationships with other humans.

I could take you back through the background of the Mark text – the love triangle between Herod and Herodias and Phillip in Mark chapter 6 that led to a high profile divorce and restructuring of power fueled by greed and manipulation and lust, the event that John the Baptist was killed for opposing. It’s no wonder the Pharisees ask this particular question of Jesus – they are trying to get him killed after all.

We could look at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ trap – we could watch a bunch of men quiz another man – and see Jesus start by saying, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” Not so subtly insisting on the divine image, the equality, the co-creation of the women these male religious leaders debate amongst themselves about. Jesus pushes even further, quoting Genesis: “For this reason a man shall leave his family and be joined to his wife.” He reminds them of their scriptural duty to forsake all else and cling to their spouse. Jesus takes the agency away from these men (who think it is theirs to decide about what and how much they can do to a woman), and Jesus gives agency to women, and ultimately to God.

In the house after the Pharisees are gone, Jesus answers their question more explicitly – whoever divorces, whoever sends away their spouse, to marry someone else who is more powerful, or more fertile, or who cooks their eggs the way they like them – actual real reasons people sought divorce – commits adultery. You don’t get to send your spouse away, leave them to fend for themselves, because a better deal came along. This is what we’re talking about here. We are NOT talking about women or men who are abused or assaulted. And people who use this text to wield their own power over the life of their spouse are doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing.

I could go on with more exegetical work, more history, give you a fuller picture of what is at stake here, but would it even really matter?

 

I could go a totally different direction and tell you about my own history with this text – about the ways I wrestled with it and others like it in more than hypothetical terms when I found myself in an abusive marriage. How the violent and surface-level ways I’d heard this text preached were so deeply ground into my bones that for years, I questioned my own calling. I thought, “Well, I’m a woman, a Baptist, and now divorced. That’s three strikes and you’re out.” Maybe I could become a nun, if the Catholics would have me. Eventually I settled on academia as a way I could follow my call.

I could tell you how one of the first times I stepped back into the pulpit after my first marriage ended was on this very day in the church year. The twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, six years ago (thanks a lot lectionary). I stepped into the pulpit at University Baptist in Waco, a church I had attended previously as a newlywed, and preached from Mark 10 – wrestling a blessing out of a text that had wounded me and so many others. I could tell you about how I sent a recording of that very sermon to the Covenant search team 2 and a half years ago – partly because it was a good sermon, and partly because I needed to know if my history was going to be a deal breaker. It wasn’t.

I came in view of a call, and I waited in that hallway as you all discussed and voted on me. I was told it was a unanimous vote, but maybe I heard wrong, because at one of my very first meetings at Covenant, my divorce came up in the context of another discussion, and one of the people in that meeting said something casually about not believing that divorce was ever God’s will. This person shrugged their shoulders, they had nothing at stake.

There I was, a brand new pastor, realizing that my own congregant, who presumably voted for me to come, thought that my re-marriage, my family, my 1 year old, was not in God’s will. Was Mark 10 running through his mind? Did he think I was adulterous? Like the Pharisees who had the presumption to make judgments on others with nothing at stake for themselves, even our church family often makes judgments, or withholds full blessing, from families, like mine, who have had no choice but to wrestle our blessing out of a text like this. And it’s not just divorced people, right? What other families are we withholding our full blessing from? When actual real lives and families are worth less to us than our interpretation of Scripture, we follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees.

I could tell you all about how despite the fact that I’ve done more work on this passage, its language and context and meaning than anyone in the room, or maybe the city, and despite the fact that I have everything at stake in getting it right, the Pharisees of the world, who have nothing at stake, who’ve done nothing more than a surface reading of the text, wield it violently against me and many of you, but would it even really matter?

 

We can hear each other’s stories and even believe them. We can empathize with each other’s pain. We can educate ourselves. We can know and love each other. And we can still just not care enough to do a damn thing. My experience as a woman and as a pastor is that I can say whatever I want, whatever I think God has given and gifted me to say, and it is not going to matter. Nothing is going to change.

This week, I give up. I’m not going to try to make a difference today. It’s like stepping in front of a train that is headed to where it’s headed anyway. Jesus knew that to be true. It didn’t matter what he said to the religious leaders, to the politicians, they were going to kill him anyway. He could educate them, he could tell them stories, he could pick up a child and give them an object lesson, he could point to his own life and body – there was no way to change their minds or to change their culture or to change their power structures. The train keeps chugging right along through and over him. Jesus knows this, he predicts this before and after our text for today.

So where do we go from here? Well, let’s see where Jesus goes. In our text today, he turns his view away from the leaders, away from his students, and toward the most vulnerable, most ignored, most silenced people in his vicinity: children. And to their mothers, we can presume. And Jesus blesses them. He starts throwing around blessings wildly and indiscriminately. No resume or interview required, no no questions asked. Jesus sees us, he takes us into his arms, he lays his hands on and blesses us.

And so that’s the only thing I can think to do today. If you feel like your voice doesn’t matter, if you feel tired and exhausted and low on hope, if you’ve been abused or assaulted or abandoned, if you’ve been disbelieved and ignored, if you feel powerless, I want to offer you a blessing. Sisters and brothers, siblings, during the time of quiet reflection, I want to invite you, if you’d like to receive a blessing, to please stand or raise your hand, and I’ll come to you where you are. I’d love to give wild and indiscriminate blessings to any and all of you.

Covenant – may we, like Jesus, turn our gaze away from the brokers of power for a moment, and may we start giving the blessing of God out freely and with abandon.

 

TIME OF BLESSINGS

 

Examples of blessings given and received:

*You are a beloved child of God.

*I believe you.

*Your anger is blessed by God.

*Your tender heart is blessed.

*Your emotions are the gift of God.

*Your marriage and family are blessed by God.

*You are not alone.

*God is with you and for you.

*You matter.