Service for Sunday 3rd October 2021
The Rev’d Dr Walter Houston
Good morning. My name is Walter Houston. I’m a retired URC minister living in Macclesfield in Cheshire, with a view of the Peak District hills from our top window, and I’m a member of Macclesfield and Bollington URC. I’m writing at the end of June, when the vaccination programme against Covid-19 had fully immunised 60% of adults in the UK, but cases of the Delta variant were rapidly on the rise. I can’t tell what will have happened by the time you hear this service, so my prayers will leave lots of space for you to fill in with your own concerns and current events. Following the lectionary through the Gospel of Mark, we come to the passage concerning divorce in chapter 10. This is a delicate topic. I know that quite a number of you will have been divorced, and your wounds may still be raw. Merely raising the subject may be painful to you. It may be that there are others to whom the very idea of divorce is horrifying, as well as many who are at ease in a long and happy marriage. Whatever your personal position, I hope that we can all look steadily at Jesus’ teaching and come away with something that helps us, but I apologise in advance to anyone who may be offended by something I say, even though of course I have no intention of offending.
Call To Worship
We lift up our eyes to the hills— from where will our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber.
The One who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Eternal One will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Hymn For The Beauty Of The Earth
Folliott Sandford Pierpoint (1864)
For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies.
2 For the beauty of the hour
of the day and of the night,
hill and vale and tree and flower,
sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our joyful hymn of praise
3 For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth, and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild,
4: For each perfect gift of thine
To our race so freely given
Graces human and divine
Flow’rs of earth and buds of heav’n
Loving God, creator of this earth and author of our lives, we come before you with joy, praising you for the love which surrounds us, and ready to hear what you have to say to us which may deepen the meaning of our lives and our loves. Open our ears to your word, and our hearts to your Holy Spirit, that we may firmly believe in your Gospel and live our lives to your glory.
Humbly we confess to you the sins of the past week, repenting of the evil we have done or said, especially to those close to us, and determined to reform our lives into the image of Christ who died for us. We reflect in silence for a short space.
God the Father has redeemed the world.
Christ the Son has died for our sins and is risen for our justification.
God the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts.
Our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination
Faithful God, how blessed are those
who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Sanctify us by your Word and Spirit
so that we may glorify you
in the company of the faithful;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
St Mark 10:2–12
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Hymn Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive
Rosamond E Hereklots 1905-1987
you taught us, Lord, to pray,
but you alone can grant us grace
to live the words we say.
2: How can your pardon reach and bless
the unforgiving heart,
that broods on wrongs
and will not let old bitterness depart?
3: In blazing light your Cross reveals
the truth we dimly knew:
what trivial debts are owed to us,
how great our debt to you!
4: Lord, cleanse the depths
within our souls,
and bid resentment cease;
then, bound to all in bonds of love,
our lives will spread your peace.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’—words that begin a famous novel of the 1950s. One of the things they do differently, one of the things the Bible does differently from the way we might do it, is telling stories. If we want to understand the story in Genesis about the creation of woman, it’s no good thinking it’s a kind of substitute for science, giving us something meant to be a factual account. Not at all: what it’s meant to do is to convey meaning. It tells us in the form of a myth what the author wanted to say about men, women, sex and marriage.
There isn’t time in this service to go through everything it might be saying, but let me just pick two points. First, it’s saying, through the bizarre picture of the woman being dug out of the man’s side, that men and women are much more like each other than they are different. They belong to the same species. Men are not from Mars and women from Venus. The man says, ‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ when he delightedly views his partner for the first time. And this is how sexual attraction works: like attracts like, and so people leave the homes that have nurtured them and set up new homes as couples. Some of us would want to add that this explains why some are attracted to persons of the same sex, and indeed that this also is within the purposes of God.
But second, it’s pretty clear that it is also saying that women are to play second fiddle to men. They are God’s afterthought, it would appear. God makes a human being (this is the proper meaning of the Hebrew word) and sets it in the perfection of Eden, before we learn that this human is actually a man, who needs a partner as a ‘helper’. And if the woman is a helper to the man, then whatever she helps him with is his project, not hers. Worse happens in the next chapter, when the snake selects the woman as his point of attack on the human couple, presumably because she is supposed to be weaker and more likely to succumb to temptation.
But though all this has been the belief of most human societies in the course of history, most of us today will have some trouble with it. We have learnt that women are capable of almost everything that men are capable of, including leadership, and most of us accept the idea that women and men are equal. This shows us that we do not have to take everything in the Bible as the word of God to be implicitly accepted. We need to discriminate, and to be open to be instructed by the Holy Spirit what it is in the text that is truly God’s word for us.
This is precisely what Jesus does in our reading from Mark. The question the Pharisees put to him is whether it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife. Not: for a woman to divorce her husband. That was unthinkable in Jewish society of the time. They fully accepted what the Genesis story implies, along with most of the rest of the Old Testament, that women were not equal to men, and that husbands had authority over their wives.
Mark says it was a trick question, which it must be, because, as Jesus points out, they already knew the answer. The law permitted a man to divorce his wife on condition that he gave her a certificate. That would be a protection in the society of the time, to show that she had not just left him of her own accord.
And now Jesus shows the power of his teaching, and how he is able to treat Scripture with discrimination and to lead his hearers, and us, into deeper understanding. ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.’ The translation ‘hardness of heart’ gives us the wrong impression. Being hard-hearted in English normally means being cruel or lacking in compassion. But the phrase in the Greek actually means lacking in understanding of God’s will, or deliberately rebelling against it. Because men—not just Jewish men, obviously—get tired of their wives, want to get rid of ageing wives they don’t love in favour of younger or prettier ones, or ones with a bigger dowry to bring to the marriage; because they are going to resort to divorce in any case, they must at least make sure the divorced women are protected from other predatory men. That was what Moses was concerned about, according to Jesus.
But that doesn’t mean divorce is OK and nothing to be concerned about. On the contrary, Jesus is very concerned that men, without any concern for their wives, were turning them out of the house to satisfy their own personal objectives and because in a society dominated by men they just could.
He goes on to show what God’s ideal in creation was, quoting from two chapters of Genesis. ‘God made them male and female’ from the first chapter; and from the part of chapter two we have been looking at, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ And Jesus repeats the last phrase for emphasis. ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ The phrase ‘one flesh’ is odd in English, and even in Greek. Going by various ways the word for ‘flesh’ is used in Hebrew, it could mean ‘one family unit’, or even ‘one body’. Either way, it means that husband and wife are tightly bound to each other; they belong together for life.
Jesus has taken from the Genesis passage the one key phrase that matters. And he sums it all up memorably. ‘What God has joined together, let no one separate.’ Later he tells his disciples that divorce followed by remarriage is the same as adultery. This is a particularly powerful way of underlining that ideally marriage is for life.
Now, Jesus was not in the business of laying down laws. His ethical teaching was more about getting people to think. If you remember that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew he says that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, that is equivalent to adultery, it’s obvious that he is inviting us to reflect that all our actions fall short of God’s ideal, regardless of whether they technically break one of the ten commandments. The same here. ‘Moses gave you this law because of your hardness of heart.’ But Christians are just as likely as anyone else to ignore or disobey what they know God wants: to have affairs, to abuse their partner, to contribute nothing to the home. If one partner behaves in such ways, it may be that the other has to choose whether to forgive them whether they want to be forgiven or not, or to separate from them.
But even if our efforts are perfectly sincere, we are imperfect beings, and sometimes things just don’t work out. Many of you will know that from your own experience. In such circumstances, divorce may the best way out, the lesser of two (or more) evils. But what Jesus is trying to show us is that however necessary, it is a failure beside God’s ideal for men and women, and should certainly never be undertaken lightly or casually, any more than marriage itself should.
Sadly, many Christians have treated Jesus’ teaching, which was never meant to be a law, as if it was one. For the Roman Catholic church, marriage cannot be dissolved. If you have been properly married to someone according to the rites of the Church, you are married to that person until one of you dies, even if you obtain a civil divorce and marry someone else. Of course, you will probably wonder how in that case Boris Johnson managed to get married for a third time after two divorces in a Catholic church, Westminster Cathedral, no less. The official explanation given was that those earlier marriages were not according to the rites of the Catholic Church and so didn’t count. And much more often the church manages to say that even a Catholic marriage didn’t count because it was not undertaken in full sincerity, and it is formally annulled, that is to say, it is deemed never to have properly taken place. Then the second marriage, which is presumed to be the first real one, can take place.
Most non-Catholics, perhaps many Catholics too, will regard this as sheer casuistry and missing the point. You make a law, and then you devise more laws to get round the first one. Far better to treat Jesus’ teaching for what it is, thought-provoking guidance, not law.
In every area of life what God expects of us is that we should use our intelligence and common sense to put into practice his values, of love, joy, peace, compassion, faithfulness, purity, generosity, being guided by his Spirit, whose fruits these are. This is actually far more demanding than following rules, but also less likely to result in misery.
And beyond that, we should live our whole lives to the glory of God. The Church has developed Jesus’ positive teaching about marriage along such lines, and this is far more important as well as happier than the unfortunate legalistic way in which it has so often developed the negative side.. For Christians, marriage is not simply an agreement between two persons to live their lives together, nor is it simply an alliance between two families, as it often was in history, and still often is in non-Western cultures today. Christian marriage takes place before God, and in it the couple offer themselves and their love to God, not only committing themselves to each other, but also committing themselves to live their joint life as an offering to God and to receive his blessing.
Those of us who have been married for a long time and are not likely to want to be divorced—this probably includes the majority of you who are listening to this service—do well to remind themselves every so often that this is the meaning of their life together. Our marriages, like our whole lives, need to be open to God to be enriched and blessed, and then the fulfilment and joy that we receive from them can return to God in praise and glory.
Hymn: Light of the Minds That Know Him
Timothy Dudley Smith
Light of the minds that know him,
may Christ be light to mine!
My sun in risen splendour,
my light of truth divine;
my guide in doubt and darkness,
my true and living way,
my clear light ever shining,
my dawn of heaven’s day.
Life of the souls that love him,
may Christ be ours indeed!
The living Bread from heaven
on whom our spirits feed;
who died for love of sinners
to bear our guilty load,
and make of life’s journey
a new Emmaus road.
Strength of the wills that serve him,
may Christ be strength to me,
who stilled the storm and tempest,
who calmed the tossing sea;
his Spirit’s power to move me,
his will to master mine,
his cross to carry daily
and conquer in his sign.
May it be ours to know him
that we may truly love,
and loving, fully serve him
as serve the saints above;
till in that home of glory
with fadeless splendour bright,
we serve in perfect freedom
our strength, our life, our light.
The risen Christ is the Saviour of all people.
Those joined to him by faith
are set right with God
and commissioned to serve
as God’s reconciling community.
Christ is head of this community, the Church,
which began with the apostles
and continues through all generations.
God our Father, after you every family in heaven and on earth is named. We thank you for the amazing gift of love, which sweetens and consecrates our sexual lives, and for the institution of marriage by which we dedicate those lives to you.
We pray now for everyone we know who is married or preparing for marriage. We pray especially for anyone we may know whose marriage is in difficulties, and for those whose marriage has come to an end and are trying to pick up the pieces and start their lives over again. Silence
We pray for children, that they may be brought up in secure and loving homes in which they may safely grow and blossom. Silence
We pray for your Church, and especially that wholesome and reviving teaching may flourish within it under the guidance of your Spirit. We remember especially our own churches, the other churches of our towns and villages, and the United Reformed Church. Silence
We pray for our country, for its Sovereign and its government and all its guiding institutions. Silence
We pray for the nations of the world, especially any which are at war, or racked by civil war. Silence
For ours and every country, we pray that the pandemic of Covid-19 may be overcome. Silence
Lastly, we pray for people we know personally who are sick, dying, or mourning one whom they loved. Silence
And all these prayers we offer in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us when we pray to say, ‘Our Father…’
Even if you are unable to attend your church, please continue your support through regular giving.
Gracious God, we live only through your grace and undeserved generosity, and only so are we able to respond with our own gifts. Take them as a sign of our thankfulness, and use them to your glory.
Hymn: Sing of the Lord’s Goodness
Ernest Sands (b.1949)
Sing of the Lord’s goodness,
Father of all wisdom,
come to him and bless His name.
Mercy He has shown us,
His love is for ever,
faithful to the end of days.
Come then, all you nations,
sing of your Lord’s goodness,
melodies of praise
and thanks to God.
Ring out the Lord’s glory,
praise Him with your music,
worship Him and bless His name.
2 Power He has wielded,
honour is His garment,
risen from the snares of death.
His word He has spoken,
one bread He has broken,
new life He now gives to all.
3 Courage in our darkness,
comfort in our sorrow,
Spirit of our God most high;
solace for the weary,
pardon for the sinner,
splendour of the living God.
4 Praise Him with your singing,
praise Him with the trumpet,
praise God with the lute and harp;
praise Him with the cymbals,
praise Him with your dancing,
praise God till the end of days.
The peace of God be with you as you love and serve the Lord. And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
Sources and Thanks
Call to Worship adapted by Andy Braunston from Psalm 121. Affirmation of faith adapted from the 1967 Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.
Thanks to David Shimmin, Chris Watson, Marion Thomas, Mandy Hibbert, Rhonda Newby and John Marsh for reading various spoken parts of the service.
For The Beauty Of The Earth – Folliott Sandford Pierpoint (1864). Performance by Vocal Arts Academy of Milwauli (Emily Crocker, director). 2013
Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive – Rosamond E Hereklots 1905-1987 Words: 1969 Oxford University Press, Music: 1994 Selah Publishing Company, Inc sung by the group Koine.
Light of the Minds That Know Him – Timothy Dudley Smith Words © 1984 by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Philip Stopford, Piano & Vocal from Christ Church Bronxville, USA
Sing of the Lord’s Goodness – Ernest Sands (b.1949) Words and Music: (c) 1981, Ernest Sands. Published by, OCP Publications, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213, USA. All rights reserved. Sung by unknown performers at Jazz Church.
Opening Organ Piece: Ein Feste Burg (“A mighty fortress”) by Max Reger
(organ of Basilica Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy – 2016)
Closing Organ Piece: Songs of Praise Toccata by Robert Prizeman
(organ of St Andrew’s, Farnham – 2019)
Both pieces played by and received, with thanks, from Brian Cotterill http://briancotterill.webs.com/