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s139g06 Sunday 27 8/10/06

'the disciples spoke sternly to them ..' Mark 10.13

How frequently have I found that 'religious' people express their religiosity by pushing others around? 'We don't do things that way here ..'

I recall a long time ago in a country town, newcomers would find a note in their letterbox telling them that they had been put on a roster to provide a potato salad for a regular catering event to raise money for the local swimming pool. Woe betide anyone who didn't comply, or even worse if they suggested they could help at the function. Everything had to be done in the way the leader ordered. In a parish I knew one lady styled herself 'The Matriarch' and what she said was law. The parish existed to humour her and woe betide anyone who didn't ­ including, of course, the priest! The priest was expected to encourage others, preferably from the pulpit, to attend her prayer circle and her bible study. Doing this meant that she didn't have to change her attitudes. She could continue to exercise her ministry of bossing others around ­ rather than loving others. Little wonder that the last two clergy lasted only five years there!

And we might be tempted to think that it really doesn't matter if this continues. It is only 'small fry' when it comes to the big picture of the kingdom of God. Yet it is only a matter of degree between this and terrorism. I do in fact have a high view of the Church, and the godly calling she has. Yet so often I find people outside the Church actually doing what the Church teaches, well recognising the politics of church attendance for what it is and quietly absenting themselves.

In our local paper recently a minister laments what is happening in modern society in these words: 'Militant minority lobby groups are successfully lowering the value of marriage and family as God has ordained them .. We have authorities preventing teachers from exercising much-needed discipline in the class room .. Under the banner of 'tolerance' we are being forced to accept that which will destroy all that is valuable .. Our society was founded on Christian ethics, most of which were absolute, non-negotiable and clearly understood by all ..' (Central Western Daily Sept 23 2006 p 23 Insight with the Rev'd Robert Griffith).

Well, I reckon the words of acceptance and tolerance of Jesus in our gospel reading for today sound pretty absolute to me. I hear Jesus speaking much more about these things than about an absolutely unique 'christian' model of marriage or the desirability of using corporal discipline in schools. I could well imagine people of most other faiths and of no faith whatsoever believing these things.

And in fact I do have great difficulties with the concept that marriage as the world understands the church teaching is what God has ordained. The perception that the world has of what the Church teaches about marriage is that the wife ought to obey her husband no matter what and never be unfaithful to him. They perceive that the Church teaches that marriage is an unequal partnership with the woman giving more to the relationship than the man.

And they are quite justified in this perception. In A Prayer Book for Australia, in the conservative revision of the marriage service, the groom takes his wife 'to love and to cherish' whereas the bride takes her husband 'to love, honour and cherish' (p649). The world rightly rejects this unequal partnership, not because they have suddenly come up with a better idea, or want to be 'new age'. The world rightly rejects this unequal partnership, because it is not of God, because it is an utter distortion of the traditional Christian teaching. In Ephesians 5, St Paul makes it quite plain that a man loves his wife as Christ loved the Church ­ that is Jesus laid down his life for the Church. The command to obedience is a lesser command on the woman, in response to this preparedness of the husband to lay down his life for her. If there is any unequalness ­ the traditional Christian teaching tells us that it is the man who should give more to a relationship than the woman, and not the other way around.

If this is not made clear ­ then the abuse of women (and children) will continue forever ­ and it will continue in the name of god ­ but certainly not my God.

Let us be quite plain that Jesus, in his difficult 'one flesh' teaching places men and women who divorce and remarry on entirely equal culpability ­ which was quite new for his audience and I suspect that it is quite new for some Bible-believing 'christians' as well.

Now if this equality in partnership is the mark of the Christian marriage, then a goodly number of 'christian' marriages that are abusive are in fact not Christian at all. People simply do not leave marriages where there is an equal partnership ­ Christian or not. People leave marriages because there is not equality. If 'one flesh' is actually achieved then removing oneself from such a relationship is a sin. But if a relationship is toxic, if it is demeaning of one of the parties, then this is not a marriage at all.

And we should remember that Jesus was here talking to men. There were no women Pharisees. These men come and ask the question: 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce?' ­ that is 'Is it lawful for us to divorce our wives?' not: 'Is it lawful for our wives to divorce us?' Women were not included. They would have been most astonished had they heard Jesus admitting that women could divorce their husbands, had Jesus said this in their hearing and not just to the disciples.

The Pharisees were the strict party - they were not the libertarians. It is far more likely that they were looking for ammunition to use against the liberals. It was THEY who had hard hearts. It was their hardness of heart that caused the strictness of Jesus' reply. The measure they meet out was the measure they got back!

For people who have hardness of heart are the powerful people, they are the people who dominate and manipulate others. It is they who need to learn some forbearance and tolerance of others. It is they who need to learn to treat their partners as equals, and not to dismiss them at will.

And the Rev'd Griffith's words: 'Under the banner of 'tolerance'' cause me to return to my quotation of a week ago, in the Reith lectures 2006 Daniel Barenboim, Music Director of the Berlin State Opera and, until recently, Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra said these very profound words: 'people very often ask me .. this is a wonderful example of tolerance, and I say no I don't like the word 'tolerance', because to tolerate something or somebody means you tolerate them for negative reasons. You tolerate somebody in spite of the fact that he or she is ugly, you tolerate somebody .. in spite of the fact that he or she is stupid.' The Rev'd Robert Griffith doesn't even want 'tolerance' when Jesus calls us to do far more than this ­ he calls us to love.

In the beginning, God saw that it was not good for man (or woman) to be alone. There can be no more lonely place than being in an abusive marriage for all the exteriors. The God I worship does not punish someone who, in their youthful naiveté, contracted a relationship that has turned out to be abusive with eternal damnation unless they remain celebate for the rest of their lives. That sounds like a very heard heart to me!

And I do not want to return to the 'good old days' when clergy quietly excommunicated women who had separated from their husbands and sought the consolation of the church. I have little doubt that clergy never informed their Bishop of such an illegal and uncharitable action as the rubrick in the Prayer Book required. This was just another abuse, quietly hidden under the carpet, perpetrated by clergy of the Church.

In my work as a hospital chaplain it is lovely to be with people in their needs. Perhaps it is the first time many of them have met a member of the clergy who has not spoken sternly to them, and that is a bit scary, as well as a great joy!

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