Several times in recent days I`ve found myself in discussion with people about the possibility of holding a Marriage Ceremony when a former spouse is still living: It`s the vexed question of what we call the “re-marriage of divorcees”. Conversations like this are among the most challenging that clergy face because people often approach you with considerable scars and painful stories to tell.
Now they feel themselves to be on the cusp of something new …… they`ve plucked up the courage to come to the Vicarage….. and of course your heart goes out to them….. But this is where the difficulties begin. Because, candidly, when the stories are told we realise that when it comes to `affairs of the heart` we`re in very difficult territory and experience has taught me that there is huge potential here for deceiving ourselves and one another.
I`m not going to try to address all the issues involved in this today I just want to use it as one example of how the truth of what`s actually going on can so easily be sidestepped because candidly we instinctively want what we might call a `happy ending` … we don`t like saying `No` to anyone… and we certainly don`t want to offend or appear dogmatic…. But of course the problem is that we run the risk of making a certain `sentimentality` our guiding principle. This was summed up beautifully by a colleague who once said that his Church was quote, “United in the conviction that God is NICE” ….. and he went on… “The great enemy today is not atheism but sentimentality”.
And I think it`s this predisposition towards sentimentality which leaves preachers and congregations colluding so that we rarely if ever face the Jesus who says the kind of things we heard this morning: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he said “No, I tell you, but rather division!” The problem is that while ever we ignore or play down this and host of other significant texts we end up with a Christ who is a shadow of himself…. In short a `sentimental` Jesus.
So for example we ignore or play down the occasions where we`re told, `They took offence at him….` We never really grasp the gravity of what`s going on when they complained or murmured because he forgave sins. We don`t often talk about how people said, “his teaching is difficult” … We don`t dwell too much on the Jesus whose movement quickly collapsed as huge numbers deserted him. We forget that he so offended his home town residents that they wanted to throw him off a cliff. Of course, he in turn was exasperated and marvelled at peoples` lack of faith. But rather than soften his tone he `upped the ante` and told us to go through the narrow gate…. because everyone takes broad and easy way. He went on to roundly insult the Scribes and Pharisees…. He divided opinion and yes, they actually murdered him because of it all.
That`s just a pen portrait of some of the ways in which Christ brought the division he spoke about … and this morning`s text, as I say, invites us to just dwell for a while with this abrasiveness and his unwillingness to compromise…. What I`m getting at is that we so easily fall into the same trap as those people who were first listening to Jesus …. Just like them we have our own assumptions about him. That`s why he asked them “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” He`d clearly realised they had expectations of him; a different agenda for him…. and he was having none of it.
Interestingly, this is similar to what the Prophet Jeremiah was complaining about in our first reading this morning. He had to deal with Prophets who brought the profession into disrepute by peddling their `dreams` rather than the word of God. They also were dealing in sentimentality … rather than the fire or hammer blows of God`s Word to his people. But what really gets under the skin I think is the particular example of division which Jesus gives in that passage we heard a moment ago.
He says “From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12.52-53)
When he gives examples like this… when Jesus comes marching up to our front door and speaks of dividing the family no wonder we re-coil, because this is hard stuff… It`s really not what we`d like to think he`s about. We don`t like this kind of Jesus. This is the Jesus of the fanatics surely…? This is the Jesus who gives religion a bad name… Splitting families… he ought to be ashamed of himself! And off we go on a bit of a rant…. But of course, we never stop to make the connection… we never stop to think that maybe he has a point? Maybe our families and our ways of relating to them need a bit of a shake-up? Might it not be that our home and family life IS the very place he wants to begin changing the world…..?
Let me give you an example. This for me is the thing that gets missed on Mothering Sunday…. Don`t misunderstand me…. but again, it`s our old friend sentimentality. It`s lovely to mark Mothering Sunday but it`s another of those moments with huge potential for deceiving ourselves and one another. Because here`s the thing: whenever family gets mentioned in the New Testament there are few if any occasions where it`s not being criticised or remodelled by Jesus. So, before we fly off the handle and dismiss him out of hand we might like to ask why that might be? Might it not be that Jesus knows what many of us experience all the time… that these relationships are all too often a good breeding ground for sentimental and controlling ways of relating …..?
Ways that sound and look just fine from the outside but because they`re based on dreams rather than God`s word and his design for our life together they prove damaging for all concerned? I think Jesus`s point is that belonging to him brings you into a new relationship not only with the Father … it also reshapes your understanding of yourself and your relationship with others. And those closest of relationships are therefore challenged to become more effective mirrors of God`s will for his creation.
I mean that`s why the Covenant of marriage is SO important. It represents and stands for a great deal more than the often Hollywood-fuelled imaginings of the couple concerned. It`s is a holy calling designed to be a reflection of the faithfulness of God to his creation… It`s awesome stuff! But it doesn`t stop there. So for example, I still recall the rather possessive mother who took offence at me because I suggested that her child was not actually her property… and that motherhood was really a matter of nurturing a new life which she held `on trust`.
Again, I`ve met countless young couples needing to be freed from living under the over weening expectations of their respective parents … parents who forget, if they ever knew, that their children`s marriage meant that they had to let go and honour them as a couple in their own right…… And whilst having a dig at those of us who are parents… Yes, let`s take a look at the Ten Commandments. Always remember we have the right to be held in honour… but we have no right to expect obedience. And we all know what that`s about don`t we? The actor Sanjeev Baskar tells of the day he told his father that he was going to be an Actor. His father replied “Sanjeev.. it`s spelt `Doctor`”.
It seems to me that to coin a phrase, “Jesus has come to press all of our buttons”. He marches right up to our front door and yes he causes division… because he exposes the ways in which some of our ways of relating in hearth and home need shaking up if they are to better resemble what the world looks like when God is in charge…. the Kingdom of God. The division itself is not the bad thing… Mostly, it`s a sign of something new coming to birth.
But you see, I don`t think we`ve begun to engage with Jesus unless frankly, we`re a bit offended by him… Think of it as the kind of offence you take when you hear that a neighbour`s doing something that will affect the price of your house…..! That`ll get you going……! I mean, when you feel like that because of something Jesus says… then is the time to pray with it. As I`m sure I`ve said before I think we need to learn that discomfort like that is just as much a sign of God`s Spirit as any amount of so called `peace`. Because the Scriptures reveal an abrasive side to Jesus that we downplay at our peril. Again, our great enemy is not atheism but sentimentality.