I was asked months ago to provide pulpit fill for a Lutheran congregation in a suburb of Philadelphia for today's service. I agreed and put it on my calendar. I forgot about it until two weeks ago when I saw it on my calendar and scheduled some time for sermon prep as we got closer to the day. Then a week ago I looked at the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for today. (This is the common list of scripture passages read on any given Sunday in many Protestant Churches throughout the world).
When I read it I nearly dropped my jaw to the floor. The Gospel reading was Mark 10:2-16. The passage is about divorce, adultery, Jesus being tested yet again by the Pharisees, and little kids coming to Jesus and being stopped by the disciples. I wished in that moment that I had looked at the readings before saying yes.
This happens sometimes. Preachers read the passages for a coming Sunday and literally cringe inside. Can I call in sick? Can that Sunday be a vacation Sunday? Then it hit me, the pastor I am filling in for took this weekend as vacation ... Hmmmm. Smart guy!?
Troubling preaching texts are found throughout the Bible. They are found in the war stories and "angry God" limited view of some Hebrew Bible texts. They are found in the epistles about the role of women in ministry right beside Paul welcoming Phoebe as a "deacon." They are found in the book of Proverbs' image of the "noble wife" and in epistle readings about wives’ submission to their husbands. They are found in the Genesis story of Lot being willing to send his daughters out to be raped. And they are found in the hard stories of betrayal and death in the Gospel account of Jesus' final week.
Many of my examples are about women today, but not all, because that is the topic that I am immersed in right now. I preached twice at the Lutheran Church today as pulpit fill-in and I am preaching in chapel at LTSP tomorrow. The text for tomorrow, you ask ... Matthew 5: 27-36. And what is that text about; you ask ... marriage, adultery and divorce.
Seriously? Yes, seriously. I kid you not.
How did this happen? I am a very smart cookie. How did I get into this fix? How is it that I am preaching three sermons in two days on two passages about divorce, adultery and marriage? Me? Help! Where is my vacation Sunday?
The truth is that pastors feel this way from time to time. We are sometimes faced with texts that are generally hard for everyone. And we are faced with tough texts because of a specific reality within our community of faith. And sometimes they hit us as problematic just because of our own life circumstances. It would be easier to run away from them at times.
But we have to wrestle with these texts. We have to help folks see the deep contextualization of these texts and how they do not speak to us like they did when they were written (if they even did then). We have to help folks process what was happening then that brought about these challenging images, phrases, and texts.
Maybe it is right that I am preaching on these texts, because right now I am struggling with what I believe about modern relationships, marriage and divorce. There is an entire group of people in our country who are barred from basic marital rights because the definition of marriage is so tied to cultural and religious understandings of that rite.
There are people in broken relationships, being abused and mistreated, and are forced to endure because they and their families have views on divorce that do not allow them to find healing and health away from their current spouse.
There are churches battling over whether or not it is right and appropriate to do civil unions for GLBT persons or to accept them at all in their churches. These are hard discussions for some, but for me it is crystal clear.
Covenantal relationships recognized by the state are due to all Americans, regardless of gender. Period. Now the hard part is the role of the church in this. In France rights from the state are bestowed by the state in a civil ceremony. Then if the couple chooses to be married in the church, they do so and have their unison blessed. It works there.
I do not know if it would work here. But right now we have a problem. And preaching a word of grace about expanding our understanding of modern relationships is something I believe in to the core of my being. So being asked to preach on these texts is actually a gift. Maybe not for everyone preaching them this week, but is has been for me. I have found it a blessing.
Next tough text ... bring it on.