Pentecost 18 October 4, 2009

Genesis 2:18-24                                                                  

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

Mark 10:2-16


Today is the beginning of our annual fall pledge campaign, and the readings we’ve been given are actually great for the occasion. Maybe you were listening to them and thinking you were going to hear a sermon on divorce – always an edgy topic, almost as edgy as sermons on sex or money. Well, we’ll talk a little about divorce, and also sex while we’re at it, and of course money since this is the beginning of the pledge campaign. But really I want to talk about community and commitment, because community and commitment are the common themes that link all those other topics – divorce, sex and pledging — together.

Let’s start with the lead-in to the gospel. It’s important when we hear these gospel passages that we pay attention to how they’re framed, to what Jesus is responding to. Jesus’s teaching is never just in the abstract, a bunch of rules. It always has a context; it’s part of a discipleship conversation with the people around him – and with us. In this case, the teaching about divorce is in response to a question from the Pharisees, those religiously scrupulous (and sometimes hypocritical) people who were threatened by Jesus, by the way he cut through their surface rules to get to the heart of things. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” the Pharisees ask. And Mark says that their question is designed to “trap” Jesus.

You see, the Law of Moses allowed a man (the husband, not the wife!) to divorce his wife simply by saying “I divorce you” three times. The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to contradict Moses so they could condemn him as irreligious. But Jesus, as he always does, rather than answering their question on the terms they present, goes deeper. He answers it in terms of underlying considerations. What we’re talking about here, he says in effect, is community and commitment. If you don’t get community and commitment straight, you’re not going to come up with the right answer about whether it’s lawful in God’s eyes to divorce.

There are a lot of parallels between the Pharisees and the way we in our society think today. This is an age of shopping – church shopping and partner shopping and job and house and everything else shopping. We’re very leery about getting into anything that may ask more of us than we want to give. We want to keep our options open, keep an escape route open, guard our individual rights and freedoms. The whole health care debate, for instance is about this: we want to get something for ourselves without giving anything to anyone else. More and more people are living together without the commitment of marriage. More and more fathers, and now mothers, are walking away from their families.

But Jesus says that God created us differently. He created us for community and commitment. Quoting the reading from Genesis we heard this morning, “it is not good that [we] should be alone.” Or as Genesis also puts it, God created us “male and female” together, in relationship, not as isolated individuals. So in looking at questions like divorce – or health care reform or responding to any of our other critical challenges – we have to begin, Jesus is saying, not with our immediate individual self-interest, but with ourselves in community with others. And when we talk about community, of course, we immediately have to talk about commitment. Because any community, any relation with others, requires commitment – sticking it out and staying together even when it’s not in our immediate self-interest.

Now is commitment an absolute? Can we never divorce, never leave a church or a job or a school or whatever? I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, or the Bible, taken as a whole. It’s a complex question. But for our purposes today, it’s enough to say that community and commitment are very basic. And they’re also what we tend to blow off too lightly in our society today. Sex without commitment. Partnering without commitment.

Marriage without the commitment to really work on the marriage when the going gets rough. The benefits of civic life without commitment to its costs and responsibilities. All are real social problems today. And we’re not happier for all our so-called freedom. God made us to be together, in community; it is not good, or even in the end possible, for us to go it in life alone.

So that brings us to pledging – you’ve been waiting for it, haven’t you? Pledging, I want to tell you, is a sacrament. That is, it’s the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of your commitment to your church community. More-over – and this is the other part of a sacrament – pledging is the means by which we receive the grace of commitment and community.

Your pledge says, “Yes, I’m making this commitment of myself to my church community, whether I can make it to the service on a particular Sunday or not; whether I like what Fr. John preached or not; whether I liked the music or not; whether I like the bishop or not; indeed whether I believe in God at that particular moment in my life or not. I’m committing myself to be part of the community of Jesus Christ because I understand that’s the only way to be a Christian and the only way to be part of the mystery that Jesus calls eternal life. And when you pledge, and grow year by year in your pledging, you discover that the grace and benefits of commitment and community grow for you too.

That’s a bold statement, and if you have trouble with it, let’s talk. But I want you to ponder it carefully, prayerfully, in the weeks to come. I truly do believe that every one of us should pledge, no matter how much or how little we can make our commitment. I truly do believe – and I’ve experienced – that the stronger the pledging, the stronger the community, the stronger the commitment, the stronger the bond between you and Christ. We’re talking sacrament here, remember, not secular stuff about budgets – the church’s or yours.

If you want a final proof of that, read over again the lesson this morning from Hebrews. Hebrews is a wonderful book. It’s about how in Jesus Christ God pledged himself to humankind, committed himself totally to oneness with the human community, became our brother in the flesh not just the spirit. And why did he do this? So that in our response, our return commitment to him, we might be drawn into union with God.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe, you have blessed us with material riches beyond any people in history, and have called us together as the community of your Church. Deliver us from selfish concern for ourselves, from a fear of commitment. Open our hearts and our pocketbooks to give to you with the freedom and generosity with which you give to us. Help us to trust that in measure as we give, we will receive, in measure as we commit to your Church, we will experience your commitment to us. This we ask in the name of your Son, who in his life and death made the ultimate pledge of your love. Amen.

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