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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

When the tears fall still I will praise you

Here's another sermon; soon I am hoping to be able to at put some audio on here somewhere but for now you'll have to make do with text.
This owes quite a lot to Roots, and also the tag line came from a post on Father Kris' blog. H/t also to AnneDroid for the concluding link

The readings were Job 1, 1 and 2, 1-10 and Mark 10, 2-16

When it comes to suffering, as we going to be BITTER, BATTERED OR BETTER?

Today's readings hold before us both the sovereignty of God and the dignity of humanity among God's creation.If God is good, what is the source of evil? Through the Book of Job we shall explore this great mystery over the coming weeks. It is a book for all times and all people. Job is not an Israelite, and the book contains no references to either the Covenant or to Jewish Law and traditions. Ancient Israelite wisdom was considered a shared international legacy, and the problem that it addresses is a perennial one.

Job is regarded by many as a literary figure. The argument goes that the carefully constructed speeches, which constitute this lengthy work, could not have been composed under the conditions of suffering described here. Satan's exclamation 'Skin for skin' is an evil celebration of the opportunity to inflict excruciating pain, which would drive out all possibility of connected thought. Regardless of how the narrative was recorded though, what we have here is an exposition of the problem of evil and of undeserved suffering. Job is like Noah, the blameless person who survives the deluge – but one of suffering, rather than water.The initial problem presented is the temptation to blame the suffering on God; 'Curse God, and die' as Job's wife graphically puts it. The effect of giving in to this temptation would be to regard a good God as the source of the evil, and in the face of this temptation Job knows that it cannot be so. His initial reply is simply, 'Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?' (Job 2.10). Previously, in response to the loss of his children and property, he had only said, memorably, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord' (Job 1.20).

St Augustine would take up this theme in seeing evil as the absence or corruption of what is good. But if the loss of what was good is total, then the 'evil' has no independent existence. It owes its presence only to the fact that it has good things to destroy. As Keith Ward has said, in “the Puzzle of Evil”, “Evil is parasitic on good.”

The scene is set. Job has seen that God is good and that the perfect human response to such goodness is to reflect this goodness. And, if the good is taken away, this is only a temptation to turn away from God, rather than evidence that God is less than good. For the God-fearing person, the temptation is there to be confronted. To give in to it would be to become bitter; Job does not , so while he is in for a battering, as we shall see in the coming weeks, the outcome in the end is that he ends up better.

In the Gospel reading, from Mark 10.2-16, the twin themes of divine sovereignty and human dignity underpin Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce. When asked whether divorce was unlawful, Jesus' negative response is based on a view that divorce involves a separation of what God has joined together (Mark 10.9) as well as the assault upon human dignity it can bring (vv. 10–12). Jesus' argument is simple – that divorce in his day was a concession to hardness of heart.

However, the intention of God is that husband and wife should become one flesh and thus complete the other, enabling each to be more than they would be apart. Surely everyone on their wedding day would affirm their desire to be 'one flesh' with the other and to recognise that their good desire was something divinely ordained. Jesus also reminds people that they are to respect the fact that married people belong exclusively to each other: we should not try to break the bonds that God has made.Jesus would have been aware that women were rendered particularly vulnerable in cases of divorce. In the male-dominated Jewish culture of the time women were often reliant upon their husbands for support and protection. The husband could simply dismiss his wife, and she would be powerless to object. In the worst cases, to be divorced could mean penury or being passed round from one husband to another, which was an assault upon the human dignity not only of the wives but also the husbands. We would do well to remember that today Islamic marriage and divorce is operated along fairly similar lines.

It is not my intention this morning to rehearse all the issues and opinions around the remarriage of divorced people, which as you may know the church of England does permit under certain circumstances. I will just say that since we are on the subject of suffering, there are some things we can say about marriage and divorce under the headline, bitter, battered or better.I am in that familiar paradoxical place that vicars often end up in, because I believe that marriage should be for life, but I believe that those who have been divorced should be given grace and mercy, the opportunity for restoration, and ultimately, under certain circumstances, the chance to marry again.

The short version of the force of this argument is that people who get divorced are not worse sinners than people who stay married, and also, as a person who has moral responsibility for the life of a community, I’d rather couples got married – even in a civil ceremony – than just lived together.Aha, you might say, but this passage shows that what you are suggesting is against the teaching of the Bible. Well, I did obviously read it before forming my opinions, and you’ll need to remember a key phrase I have used just now, which is “under certain circumstances”.If we wish to avoid being bitter or battered, there are clearly some circumstances in which we must accept that divorce, though regrettable, is unavoidable, and is sometimes even better for all concerned.

Jesus said divorce was permissible “because of your hardness of heart”. It is a sad fact that it is more often necessary today because of hardness of fists, and hardness of heads.But where the rubber of “under certain circumstances” really hits the road is in the reconciliation of verses 10 to 12 with church of England practice. Look at the text carefully, you will see it says “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her”.

One of the circumstances in which we say no to marriage requests is if the relationship is the result of one person leaving a marriage for another person, and then wanting to get married to that person. I wouldn’t even do a blessing for that, because that would be to legitimise adultery, or as “Four Weddings and funeral” puts it, “serial monogamy”.In brief, then, like Jesus we celebrate the sanctity of God’s gift of marriage, and like Jesus we seek to bring dignity to the divorced.

I found something on the internet this week on the website of a prison chaplain. If you are feeling bitter or battered, and want to be better, or even of you are not and you need to be encouraged to move on in the faith, listen to this, and consider how our circumstances, even if they are tough, do not compare with how some Christians live today.


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