Monthly Archives: September 2021

Preaching a Toxic Text


Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:11.

I dread this pericope. I can’t help but wonder how these words of Jesus are being processed by women and men who are divorced and remarried, have children who are divorced, are trapped in abusive marriages or were raised by parents who are divorced or separated. It is tempting simply to ignore this first half of the reading in which Jesus deals with a question regarding divorce and focus instead on the second half where Jesus blesses the little children. If you are going to exercise that prerogative, I strongly suggest you omit from the gospel reading the previous section on divorce. Simply leaving these words hanging in the air without contextualizing or addressing them borders on pastoral malpractice.

On the other hand, if you choose to take the bull by the horns and preach on Jesus’ difficult remarks, there are a few essential points to be made. First, it must be emphasized that Jesus is responding to a man’s question asked by men of a man in a man’s world. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” There was no provision in Jewish law for women to divorce their husbands. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, (c. 1991; published by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 256. Thus, the concern here is exclusively for the rights of a man over his woman. Jesus will not discuss the matter of divorce on these terms. Though he does not dispute the validity of provisions allowing divorce under Mosaic law, he will not let this be the final word. Instead, he circles back to the Book of Genesis, also deemed to be a writing of Moses in Jesus’ day, to articulate the divine relational intent for marriage.

Jesus brings together elements from the two Genesis creation stories (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:4-25) to broaden his audience’s perspective. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Mark 10:6.[1] This is so because “the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Genesis 2:18.[2] Clearly, men and women were created to be partners in God’s creative scheme. As such, their union is not merely contractual. It is covenantal. God is instrumental in this holy union. Accordingly, it is not for human beings to annul it. A man may not, under color of law, dispose of his wife as he would a piece of property to acquire a newer model. To do so amounts to adultery by another name. Jesus goes further to say that if a woman “divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:12. As previously noted, there was no provision in First Century Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband. For this reason, most commentators believe this verse to be a later interpolation supplied by the church to make clear that the same rule applies to women in cultural contexts where such provisions did exist. Eg., Hooker, at 257. However that might be, it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ insistence that marriage is a covenant of equality between partners.

Second, Jesus’ uncompromising position on the matter of divorce needs to be seen against the background of his covenantal understanding of it. That understanding is further articulated by Saint Paul’s recognition of marriage as a symbol of and witness to the relationship between Christ and his church found in his Letter to the Church at Ephesus. Ephesians 5:21-33. [3] Marriage is not simply a private matter between two people. It is part of the glue that holds communities together, it provides shelter and care for children, the ones for whom the reign of God is chiefly designed (Mark 10:14), and it witnesses to the passionate love God has for the church. For these reasons, it should not lightly be dissolved.

That said, this text must never be used to stigmatize persons who have been divorced as having “failed” in some fundamental way. To be sure, Jesus and Saint Paul give us a high vision of marriage. But has any marriage ever met these high standards? No more than any church has ever lived fully into its identity as the Body of Christ. There is no such thing as a “successful marriage.” All marriages are failed marriages, some of which end in divorce. All marriages, first, second or third, are broken. All of them stand in need of grace and forgiveness. My own marriage has both lasted and deepened over the last four decades. But that is in no small part because Sesle and I both had parents who supported us financially, provided child care when we needed it and were always ready to lend a helping hand. We had supportive church communities that we knew we could count on. We both had employers who were compassionate and understanding when we needed to take time off in times of severe illness-which we faced more than once over the years. Would our marriage have fared as well if we had been on our own and without all of this support? Thankfully, I will never know the answer to that question. But asking it every so often reminds me that “it takes a village” to sustain a marriage and that better people than me have seen their marriages collapse under the weight of lonliness, isolation, health issues, financial stress and unemployment challenges Sesle and I never had to face alone.

In sum, I believe that this text must be handled with extreme caution. But with careful preparation and a compassionate gospel focus, it will preach.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks of the intimate, turbulent and fragile nature of marriage as well as its potential for making us more than we can be individually.


How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Source: The Country of Marriage, (c. 1971 by Wendell Berry; pub. by Counterpoint Press 2013) also published in Poetry, June 1967. Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] This text has frequently been used in support of the proposition that marriage consists exclusively between men and women, excluding be definition faithful monogamous relationships between LGBTQ+ folk. But that does not follow. God also “separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Genesis 1:4. And yet God also created the moon and stars to give light during the night and there are caves and ocean depths on which the sun never shines even during the day. “God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’” Genesis 1:9. Yet we know that there are intertidal zones and wetlands critical to the earth’s many ecosystems that are neither water ways nor dry land. No one would suggest that these areas were not also divinely created and declared “very good.” Similarly, the binary poles of male and female do not define humanity in its entirety, but simply articulate parameters within which it blossoms and grows.

[2] The term “man” in the English translation is deceptive. “Adam” is not chiefly a proper name. It means simply “earth creature” or “creature made of earth.” As such, Adam is not, properly speaking, a man. It is not until the woman is created that there is man “ish” and woman “ishah.” Thus, one could and probably should say that man and women were created simultaneously.

[3] I am well aware that many find Paul’s words problematic because, whereas he urges husbands to love their wives, he calls upon wives to obey their husbands. I think that criticism is misplaced. Paul begins his exhortation with the admonition “to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21. Though Paul identifies the husband with Christ who is the “head of the church,” Jesus himself says to his disciples that he is “among them as one who serves.” Luke 22:27. Thus, one could reverse the roles and render the text “husbands, obey your wives” and “wives, love your husbands” without doing any violence to Paul’s argument here. The point is that Jesus relationship with his church is one of mutuality, friendship and partnership. Marriage should be seen as a sign and witness to such mutuality under the gentle reign of God.

Hurt My Little Ones and There Will be Hell to Pay-Jesus

Once again, I have not had the opportunity to compose a post for this week’s readings. I offer here a reflection on the gospel text I posted three years ago. It is a difficult text, but one that I believe has something important to tell us.

Peter's Outer Cape Portico


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day: Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to…

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Finding Jesus in a Flawed Church


Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm 54

James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Then [Jesus] came to Capernaum [with his disciples]; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Mark 9:33-34.

A young pastor found himself on his knees late at night after a particularly contentious church council meeting. “Good God!” he cried out, “I can’t possibly be a minister to this church. Nobody cares about the good news of the gospel. All they seem to care about is the budget and who controls where the money is spent and who has the final say on what happens everywhere from the altar to the furnace room! These people have no idea what it means to be the church and I don’t think they even care!”

Suddenly, the young pastor looked up and saw Jesus sitting in a chair in front of his desk. He was startled at first, but Jesus’ disarming smile soon dispelled his terror. “I’ve been listening to your prayers, son,” said Jesus. “Let me assure you, I know exactly how you feel. My first congregation was literally the death of me. I had a council president who promised to stand by me come hell or high water. But when the going got tough, he didn’t want to know me. My closest workers were constantly quarrelling over “who was the greatest.” I had a church treasurer who embezzled church funds and he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities! As for the rest of the congregation, they deserted me and left me alone to be hung out to dry-and that’s no metaphor. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”

At my daughter Emily’s ordination, I told her, along with a whole congregation of worshipers and well wishers, that there are just two requirements for being a successful pastor. First you have to believe in Jesus. Second, you have to love the church. Everything else you can fake. The second point is often the stumbling block. Of course, everyone loves the idea of church-that warm and inviting place where all are welcome, no one is judged and there is no favoritism. It is the real church we find hard to love. And this is so not only for pastors with unrealistic expectations for congregational life, but also for individuals seeking in the church the wonderful, accepting family none of us ever had. What we find when we walk in the door are people who are passive-aggressive, manipulative, power hungry and emotionally wounded in ways that make them unappealing candidates for friendship. They are people who compete with one another for power, prestige and control-much like Jesus’ twelve disciples.

Of course, that is only half the story and not even the better half. The church is also populated with the folks that are regularly found working at the local food pantry, picking up trash at the town playground with other volunteers and donating their services for the biannual blood donation drive. They show up with a casserole, a hug and a kind word where families experience a death, accident or severe illness. These folks are the first to pull out their checkbooks when natural disasters occur here or abroad. When the church basement floods, they are always there bailing away. Their small acts of kindness-a hand squeeze for the downcast fellow in the pew, a smile for the pensive teenager standing awkwardly in the corner of the parish hall, a gentle injection of calming humor into a tense and combative argument-have a transformational power out of all proportion to their seeming insignificance. These folks carry far more than their share in supporting their church and their community without getting any recognition for it, but you never hear them complain. They are what Jesus would call “the salt of the earth.”

That brings me to something said by Chaplain Peter, the teacher, pastor and prison chaplain who preached at my ordination. “Peter,” he said, “you will meet in your congregation some of the kindest, most selfless and most faithful people you will ever know. And you will also meet people who are more cruel, manipulative and toxic than you thought possible. And here’s the hardest thing. Often they will be the same people.” Chaplin Peter got that right. I learned that lesson the day it came to light that a talented youth worker and father of three, who had had such a positive influence on so many kids, was cheating on his wife with a married woman in the congregation.

I learned that lesson again when a homeless family with two small children in tow showed up at the church looking for grocery money. I had nothing left in my discretionary fund and only ten dollars in my wallet to offer. That’s when Brent, who had been painting the parish hall restrooms, walked into the narthex as the family was leaving. Brent was an old Norwegian carpenter who weathered the Great Depression without any help from anyone. He made no secret of his contempt for “welfare bums living off our tax dollars.” I was pretty sure he overheard everything that transpired between me and that family. I fully expected a lecture on the folly of giving “handouts” to people too lazy to work. I was wrong. There was a tear running down Brent’s cheek and he had three twenties in his hand. “You can’t feed a family on ten dollars anymore!” he said. “Hurry up and give ‘em this before they go.”

Martin Luther was fond of reminding us that believers are at the same time saints and sinners. Though we frequently fail to live up to the standards of love we profess, we sometimes find ourselves being better than we-and everyone else-thought possible. Nobody understood that better than Saint Paul, who could say to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, “Now you are the body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Not “you should be the body of Christ” or “if you ever manage to get your act together you might be the body of Christ,” but you are the body of Christ. The apostle goes on to encourage the Corinthian Church to live into what it truly is. That, I think, is the aim of all ministry within the church, namely, reminding us that we have been bought with a price, that we are better than what we have allowed ourselves to become and that God has important work for us to do. The resurrected Christ sought out the very disciples who had failed him so miserably and placed in their trembling hands the task of announcing the good news of reconciliation and peace to the world. Ours is the God of the second chance; the God who sees far more in us than we dare to see in ourselves.    

Prayer at the Closing of a Church

Good and gracious God,

this church-like our town-

is all used up.

There’s not enough of us

to keep the doors open.

So this little church

will join the row

of locked doors

and boarded up windows

that now line this street.

We didn’t do much

that is outstanding

over the last century.

There were no martyrs

among us, no heroes

of faith who gave all

for the sake of the gospel.

But we had Martha Bertrand

who taught Sunday school

for fifty years plus.

Her classes didn’t produce

Pastors or missionaries.

But she kissed away

a lot of bruises,

bandaged a lot of skinned knees

and once spent the whole

night with a former pupil,

by then a college freshman,

who arrived at her house

at some ungodly hour

looking desperately

for a reason not to end his life.

He didn’t.

We had several pastors,

None of them orators,

None of them church builders

None of them well known

figures in the community.

But they were there

when a loved one died,

when a family was in crisis,

when anyone was at wit’s end

and had nowhere else to turn.

They baptized, married and

buried us with love

and the same old shopworn

but still comforting scriptures,

hymns and words of consolation.

We didn’t do much

to end the scourges

of hunger and homelessness

in our community.

But we took our turn

housing the homeless

each month in our basement,

giving them a home cooked meal

shared with us around a table,

because these people

deserved more than

a roof over their head.

They deserved a home

and we tried to give them

as much a home

as we could provide

in a church basement.

We cared for Arnie,

a schizophrenic kid

with a criminal record,

who never darkened the door

of the sanctuary

but showed up for every potluck.

When he stole Mrs. Higgins’ purse

we didn’t call the cops.

The pastor just paid a visit

to his group home

and asked him to return it-

Which he did, asking with tears

that we forgive him.

We did.

We loved each other

As best we could-

Which often wasn’t very good.

We lived for Jesus, or tried.

But too often, his image was lost

in our concerns over finances,

the right way to worship,

fixing the boiler,

painting the restrooms

and in fights over who controls what.

But sometimes, we got Jesus right.

Sometimes, we met the challenge.

Sometimes we found ourselves

being better than we thought

we could be.

When that happened,

it was beautiful.

So as we retire

this old clay vessel,

we offer up these moments

as our final sacrifice of praise

in hopes that they have moved

the world just a little closer

to the day when your kingdom comes

and your will is done

on earth as it is in heaven.


The Mystery of Jesus


Isaiah 50:4-9

Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But who do you say that I am?” Mark 8:29.

That is the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. The answer was not self evident then, nor is it today. When I was in seminary, the historical critical method was still the prevailing approach to understanding the Bible, though it was beginning to come under intense scrutiny. Shaped as it is by modernist presuppositions, historical criticism seeks to uncover the core meaning of each biblical passage through objective application of rigorous textual dissection, source criticism, redaction analysis and form criticism with an eye toward placing it in its historical context. Properly employed, this method was supposed to strip away all of the dogmatic prejudices of Israel/the church and so reveal what historical truth can be harvested from the Bible. Nowhere was this fevered search more focused than in the quest to unearth “the historical Jesus” out from under the clutter of the early church’s theological assertions. 

Since my seminary days, history has left the historical critical method behind. The work of scholars of color, women and persons of LBGTQ+ orientations has shaken our enlightenment era confidence in our ability to be “objective.” History, we now know, is not a matter of undisputed and verifiable fact. It is always shaped by narrative and usually that of the powerful, the military victors and those who are well off enough to have the luxury of writing it. Often the facts and events that are omitted from one’s historical narrative are as telling as those included. Excluded from my own historical education was the Tuskegee experiments, the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre and the role of the slave trade in the rise of the United States. I learned a great deal about George Washington’s military prowess, statesmanship and piety. I was never told that, like nine of his successors, he was a slaveholder. There is no such thing as an unbiased account of anything and we deceive ourselves if we claim to be “unbiased.” The best we can do is be aware of our biases and try to see beyond them to the perspective of others.

So we start with the understanding that the mindset of the biblical narrators was quite different from our own. History, as we understand it in the modern context, had no place in their thinking. Thus, coming to them with questions framed in historical terms will not get us very far. The biblical speakers, writers and narrators did not distinguish between “natural” and “supernatural,” “spiritual” and “physical” or “mythical” and “historical.” For them, the universe was all of one piece and the God who created it inhabited it, acted within it and manifested God’s self to all its inhabitants. For that reason, Jesus is not revealed to us in modern documentary form. The nearest accounts we have of him are woven out of the stories, tales and teachings preserved for us by the early church in the New Testament. That might not appeal to our modernist sensibilities, but it is how God in God’s wisdom has chosen to reveal God’s only begotton Son.

All of this being so, I do not believe the question of whether and to what extent we can or cannot squeeze what we characterize as “history” out of the New Testament is worth pursuing. I contend that there is but one critical question: “Did the New Testament witnesses, in all of their diversity, tension and irreconcilable differences nevertheless ‘get Jesus right?’” Or is the Christian cannon just a tangle of garbled memories, exaggerated tales and dogmatically distorted preaching put into the mouth of a man whose true identity lies buried somewhere beneath the literary rubble? Can we trust the Jesus who emerges from the scriptural cannon as the church has transmitted it? I do not believe that is a question historical criticism or any other interpretive method can answer. The only response that can be given is the one given by Philip to Nathaniel in John’s gospel: “Come and see.” John 1:46. For the mystery of Jesus’ identity finally lies not in the text, but in the witness of the community formed by the text. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would hold no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to scholars of ancient religion and culture, but of no relevance for anyone else.

Bottom line, the only Jesus we can know is the one proclaimed by his disciples. That, of course, includes not only the New Testament witnesses of the early church, but also the witness of all who throughout history have experienced Jesus as savior, come to know him through their attention to the scriptures and proclaimed him as Lord. Rather than viewing the church’s scriptures and teachings throughout the ages as a distracting and distorting encrustation obscuring the true “historical Jesus,” we should view them as a growing variety of windows into the identity of Jesus, a mystery we can never fully grasp this side of the resurrection. As such, they enhance rather than obscure our understanding of who Jesus is. Today we have the benefit of witness from Latin American disciples who find Jesus in their struggle for liberation; Black American disciples who find Jesus in their resistance to systemic racism and LGBTQ+ disciples who find Jesus in their struggle to live out their vocations authentically in a church that has for centuries excluded them. We are never through with trying to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Here is a poem by Andrew Hudgins reflecting on the identity of Jesus in light of John’s gospel’s account of his resurrection.

Christ as a Gardener

The boxwoods planted in the park spelled LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again – come spring, come Easter – no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here – what lives, what dies,
an how. But it goes even deeper than that.

His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it –
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashed by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail and goldenrod.

Source: Andrew Hudgins (b. 1951) was raised in Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree. at Huntingdon College and his master’s at University of Alabama. Additionally, he earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. Hudgins is the author of numerous collections of poetry and essays, many of which have received high critical praise. He is currently Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio State University, having previously taught at Baylor University and the University of Cincinnati. Hudgins lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio, with his wife, the writer Erin McGraw. You can read more about Andrew Hudgins and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.