St. Stephen's Episcopal Church Oak Harbor

By God's Grace, All Are Welcome

Sermon for Proper 22B by Rev. Rilla Barrett

Proper 22B

Genesis 2: 18-24

Psalm 8

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

Mark 10:2-16


Years ago, while in the chair at my favorite hair salon, a skirmish ensued. It wasn’t what you’d think…someone who had hoped for a pale shade of wispy blonde had come out carrot orange…no, it was the dark scampering form of some sort of insect, probably not larger than an inch across – but that was big enough – moving rapidly across the floor through clumps of cut hair and other debris. Right away this multi-legged creature gained attention of all in the salon. Once we had all focused on it, its species was determined…a spider…and I held my breath, expecting that the next step would be for a shoe to drop, squashing the very life out of it. “Gosh, I don’t like spiders,” I mentioned to my stylist, “but I generally try to usher them outside. I mean, every creature has the right to exist…right?” (Just keep that thing away from me…) And then I saw that, without benefit of my wisdom, two women, closest to the now rapidly moving arachnid, doing just that. Several were looking for some way of capture – a cup and a flat surface, or just a flat surface? Or any capturing device into which this speeding spider might be held, finally choosing the broom and dust pan as a means in which to escort him outside. I liked that. All of those humans – not one of whom wanted to spend much time in the spider’s presence, all of them were still more interested in letting it live than in terminating it.

I’m not a spider person, and that is an understatement, but I do respect the life given to each of them by God, and their place in the environment. I also believe that their environment is meant to be outside – or at least somewhere that I am not. But, bottom line is that there is room for both of us.  

There have been many mornings since I came to St. Stephen’s when I’ve arrived to open the blinds in my office and find a beautiful adult deer sleeping in the space between our buildings and the line of trees that separate our property from our neighbors. It is a quiet, shaded, and protected spot. What a blessing to know that from my office, here in a busy town with military flights overhead and cars whizzing by, that I may look up at most any time to see the eyes of a fellow creature gazing back at me. I do not live nor work in a humans-only environment, and that makes me happy. There is room for both of us, and I often address those others as “Fellow Creatures” when I see a deer, or an eagle in a tree, or a Canada Goose or a squirrel. “Good Morning, Fellow Creature” I speak to the deer who come to our lake to for their morning drink, and I mean it. We share this place….except spiders, who don’t share my living quarters.

Daisy the Dachshund, another fellow creature who does share our living quarters, is another example of the relationship I experience with God’s creation. She is a dog, yes, but she and Michael and I have a relationship built on trust and love and respect. There is room for all of us.

St. Francis of Assisi taught these views. Francis was born in 1182 to a wealthy clothing merchant in Assisi, Italy in the hilly Umbrian section of Italy. His life was bound to be one of wealth and privilege until God spoke to Francis and his life was never the same. Francis gave away all that he had and spent the rest of his days teaching about God in creation, about how God is around us and so we are part of it. We humans share this planet earth with all of creation.

There are many folk stories of Francis and how he interacted with his fellow creatures. One of the best known stories is the story of the Wolf of Gubbio. The story is of a village fraught with fear over a ravenous wolf, just outside town who is gobbling animals and even a few humans.  

The villagers have become so afraid that nobody will leave town, until Francis bravely went to the wolf and, basically, made a pact between the wolf and the townsfolk to abide side by side, caring for one another. From then on, the villagers fed the wolf and the wolf leaved peacefully outside of town. The wolf’s peaceful ways became for them a living reminder of the wonders, patience, virtues and holiness of Francis, of the gift in relationships, and of the providence and power of God whose desire it is to be in relationship with us.

Thursday of this past week was the Feast of St. Francis, and I think it is appropriate that today’s lessons remind us of the importance of relationships, for the way two beings are connected, living creatures, whether it is two humans or a human and another living being, share this Earth, God’s creation.

My experience and my belief tell me that God wishes to be in relationship with God’s creation. God created all that is, and then didn’t go away and leave creation alone. No, God continued to care for us and stay in communication with us. God created all that is, willed good, loved it, and stayed around to find out how it went. When we messed up and got out of relationship with God, God sent prophets to remind us that that was not what God wanted.

Today’s lessons focus on primary human relationships – not necessarily humans and dogs, but humans and humans, which are often fraught with actions of our own imperfections.

In today’s gospel from Mark, we hear Jesus’ teachings about divorce, specifically about divorce and adultery, and to our modern ears, his words sound harsh. Divorce is sadly a reality in today’s society. According to the American Psychological Society, in our culture, in which approximately 90% of all people marry by the time they are age 50, currently about 40-50% of those marriages will end in divorce.

So, once again, it’s important always to know the context in which Jesus was living and teaching, so we hear more than our modern ears allow us to.

We are at the place in Mark where Jesus has left his homeland near Galilee and traveled south to Judea, where, it seems, his fame has preceded him. Folks are gathering all around him to hear his teaching. And, he is teaching about human relationships.

The Pharisees, keepers of the law, were always at him with a question and often an, “Is it lawful. . . ?” question. They tossed him many-a-stumpers, questions usually asked in public and meant to show him as uninformed regarding Judaic law. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And, the disciples, it says, asked him a similar question when they were together in the house. Give us your wisdom, both groups asked him.

And what do we know of divorce in that first century? Not a lot, but enough to see some cultural context, I suppose. What is most important is to remember that the first-century Mediterranean culture was an honor-based culture and it was family-centric, rather than individual-centric as is our modern culture. Marriage was different too. Marriage was very much an arrangement between two families, rather than two individuals. A marriage stood for the merger of two families and the extended families from those two units. It symbolized the honor of both families and all the people from both. Further, marriage was considered a blood relationship, rather than a legal one.

So, Jesus, reflecting the understanding of his time, saw married couples as “no longer two, but one flesh.” Marriage was very much a blood relationship, given by God and, just as one was related to mother, father, siblings, or cousins, it was believed that marriage could not be legally dissolved. Considering too that this was a world of arranged marriages, then obedience to one’s 

parents and the needs of the family, dictated by God they believed, were paramount.

Therefore, when divorce happened, what was really at stake was the dissolution of those extended family ties. Divorce would have represented a challenge to one’s birth family and would result in feuding and breakdown of that all-important family unit. Further, what Jesus spoke most negatively about was not divorce, but divorce and remarriage OR divorce in order to marry again, which would have resulted in substantial disruptions in families.

Jesus also spoke with his disciples about adultery. Looking at this concept in the First Century Mediterranean culture, leaving a marriage and then marrying another constituted adultery, for it would have brought dishonor to both, but especially the male and his birth family, and more family feuding would be the result.

To me, the focus of Jesus’ teaching was always about the building of relationships, especially as it related to the protection of the less powerful. When the Pharisees asked the question, Jesus turned it into a radical notion. That is, when Moses allowed a certificate of dismissal of a marriage to end a marriage, it was about the hardness of the human heart. For Jesus, the marriage union was permanent, for it protected women and children.

The Pharisees followed the Law of Moses, which said it was fine to write a certificate of dismissal and send a woman off – to probably live with their children in abject poverty – for that would have been the result of a woman without a man in that culture. A divorced woman was, virtually, shunned. Rather, don’t send a woman and her children off where they have no economic support and only one parent, for that is not good for the women nor the children. Jesus defended, as always, those to whom society gave no power or honor.

In this argument, he shifted the debate away from what was believed to be legal to what 

was ideal – absolute purity of heart. It was not right for a man to simply dismiss his wife because he had found fault in her. It was not right to end a marriage only to start another. Relationships are important enough that they shouldn’t begin or end, based on a whim. And, children, society’s most vulnerable, ought to be received with open arms.

You and I know the reality of divorce in today’s culture. We all know someone who has been divorced, a friend, a family member, a fellow worker, a neighbor, ourselves. And, unlike marriage in the first century, marriage today is very much between two individuals, rather than the merger of two families. Divorce is a no-win situation and the process involves a great deal of legal maneuvering and financial untangling that produces psychological damage for all of the involved family. Divorce ends a relationship that was not intended to end.

But we also know that sometimes divorce is necessary. In an abusive, unhappy, dysfunctional relationship, divorce may be the only way out of pain and strife for a family. It may be the only way to a new beginning. Sadly, there are times that divorce is the best answer to a difficult or dangerous relationship.

Relationships give to us joy and love, but they also present challenge and discord, for any two in a relationship are unique individuals, seeing things in his/her own way. Relationships are risky because they might end before we are ready to have them end, and we know that and yet we enter into them, for the joy that comes in the relationship.

God created all that is, and then stayed to be in relationship with us, God’s creation. We are meant to be in relationship as well.

We follow the one who went about proclaiming the unsettling reign of God in his words and deeds. He leaned toward greater equality and radical hospitality for society’s most vulnerable –

women and children. And, in considering this, we might ask ourselves what social structures and assumptions exist today that covertly oppress people, particularly women and children, and need to be disrupted and challenged? Welfare reform? Living wages? Homelessness? Children being taken from their parents at our border? Jesus proclaimed the unsettling reign of God in his words and deeds. . . and the bottom line is that we are called to do the same in our words and actions.

I don’t know if you saw it or not, but I was touched by a story on the national news this week…a real “feel good” story…and we sure do need more of them! 18-year old Jamal Speaks, who had played high school football in the Washington DC area for two years, was sidelined because – and this is hard to believe – because he had no legal address. Speaks’ family had virtually dissolved in some hard times, and the boy was left to fend for himself in various youth homeless shelters, none of whom could make his residency permanent. And so, he moved, and frequently and with no address and a new written rule, he became ineligible to play. Even more regrettable, this was during the games when college scouts were in the crowds, and Jamal would have been one of them who was being scouted, until his coach made the call to bench him. That was when his team, in a display of love and respect, stepped in and refused to play until their teammate joined them once again. A city councilman heard about it and started a Go-Fund-Me page, which did far more than expected. Due to the uncommon outpouring of community support, Jamal was re-instated back to the team and happily, he has been offered a possible place with several college teams. One city councilman said that God had made a difficult situation a good situation. And, in this story is the seed of it all. God’s creation, meant to be of relationships, with room for all, needs God’s people working, with God’s help, to make it happen. We are called to build relationships and most especially in places where they have been broken.

Let us pray…


Sovereign God, you make us for each other, to live in loving community as friends, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, partners and companions. Teach us to choose love that is committed and devoted; teach us like little children to wonder and to trust, and to take a stand when others are being oppressed, that our loving may reflect the image of Christ. Amen.