For the rest of the fall, I’m going to begin my sermons by talking to our children, though the grownups are welcome to listen! Let’s talk about power today. Make a fist with me. Holding up your fist can be a way of saying “I’m powerful.” There are different kinds of power, though. If you force someone to do something because you are bigger or stronger than them, or you have a weapon, then that’s one kind of power. Think about it—that kind of power usually makes people feel unhappy and unsafe (including the person with the power). Jesus says God gives us a different kind of power. He teaches about the power of love. In today’s story, Jesus was holding a child in his arms. And he said that his disciples should welcome children, and anyone who is little, or gets treated like they don’t matter. That’s the power of love. It feels good to everyone. It makes a makes a safe place for everyone. Jesus had to fight with his own disciples, though, to get them to understand. They wanted to send the children away. They didn’t think kids mattered. I want you to make a fist with me again and place it by your heart (I hear that your fist is about the same size as your heart). Remember that you are powerful. Your love gives you power. And that fighting isn’t a bad thing. Jesus shows us how to fight peacefully, fight with love, fight to protect ourselves and to make sure others are included and treated fairly.
Speaking now to the grown-ups—though the children can still listen! Let’s turn to Jesus’ words about divorce and marriage. I would have been happy to do without them this week, honestly. I thought seriously about cutting out those verses, for all the reasons you can imagine. In the end, I’m glad we’re tackling these thorny subjects, because I came to realize that, for Jesus, this little speech about divorce, marriage, and family, is key to how he thinks about power.
Jesus’ stance on divorce is really uncompromising. I certainly believe that sometimes divorce is the best, healthiest, and most life-giving decision, even when it is also very painful. However, as the scripture introduction mentioned, marriage was a property arrangement in the ancient world. Wives were the property of their husbands. It seems to me that when Jesus condemned divorce, his real agenda was to challenge the notion that men ought to have absolute power in marriage, that women and children are possessions men can keep or “dismiss,” depending on their whims. Jesus was aware that the choices made by men could literally mean life or death for these “little ones.” And though Jesus equated divorce with adultery, he also gave men and women equal power to initiate divorce, something that would have been unheard of in ancient society.
In this teaching, Jesus quoted the passage from the creation story in Genesis, which, again, makes some uncomfortable assumptions: that there are only two genders, male and female, and that marriage is always between a male and female partner. No non-binary, gay, trans, poly, or queer folks are included here. The passage assumes that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only option for faithful, loving relationship. We have the freedom, and the responsibility, to interpret the Bible. We do not have to use sacred scripture as a weapon. Underneath the cultural assumptions that no longer work for us, this text holds enduring truths. The oneness we experience when joined with another person is holy; it is one way we know God. We should never be careless about making or keeping promises. And, most importantly, these promises are not rooted in the power of domination and ownership. They are made freely in the power of love, love like that of our Creator.
How we use power in our households is interconnected with the power dynamics of the larger world. In her chapter, “Fight,” Valerie Kaur describes how, after 9/11, her fiancé, Ram, grew angrier and angrier as slurs were thrown at him in the streets. He began to criticize Kaur’s appearance, silence her, seek to control her, and shame her for engaging in political activism. Kaur explains:
He never hit me, just hurt me with words that came from his own sense of shame and discomfort in his body, his inability to negotiate being brown and Sikh and male in America. But I could not see my own bruises, only his. So I stayed with him. I stayed because I did not want to lose him to a world that was trying to kill him. (See No Stranger, p. 74)
Eventually, Kaur realized that she needed to fight for herself, by ending this relationship. And she saw how this very personal fight was linked to the larger fight for justice. She writes: “When you love someone, you fight to protect them when they are in harm’s way. If you ‘see no stranger’ and choose to love all people, then you must fight for anyone who is suffering from the harm of injustice.” (p. 92) She describes her fight against the war in Iraq as an act of “ancestral solidarity.” This deep solidarity says:
I show up for you, because I see you as part of me. Your liberation is bound up in my own. . . . We needed to show up for communities who were subject to state violence [in the US], and for the people in countries our government was about to bomb, and for the soldiers about to be sent into battlefields that did not need to exist. (p. 82)
While Kaur favors fighting with non-violence, she finds strength and inspiration in the warrior tradition of her Sikh ancestors. Our Christian ancestors sought to dominate other faiths and cultures in a series of crusades, through slavery, colonialism, and genocide. Kaur’s ancestors; however, fought to defend the oppressed and vulnerable. She says:
The fight impulse is ancient and fundamental. These ancestors fought with swords and shields, bows and arrows, because they had no choice. They did not have a sophisticated matrix of legal and political avenues to defend civil and human rights, nor international law to mediate conflicts between nations. We have these avenues today. We no longer need literal weapons like our ancestors. But we could still learn from how they marshaled the fighting impulse on the battlefield. (p. 93)
The meek and mild Jesus who tolerates abuse has got to go. And so does the abusive Jesus who “discovers” and “civilizes” and “baptizes” at the point of the sword. Jesus does teach us to fight, to fight with love, to fight for love. Following Jesus, we are fighting for nothing short of a revolution in both our intimate relationships and our political and economic systems. Will we live in households, and a world, shaped by the power of domination or by the power of love? Jesus defends the rights of women in marriage and divorce. Though he does not condone divorce, he also does not approve of relationships steeped in the oppressive culture that prevailed in his time. Instead, he calls for promises grounded in mutual love and respect, partnerships that share power and resources. And in the second part of today’s text, Jesus places children, the most vulnerable people, at the center of power. Jesus’ agenda of reshaping the world revolves around welcoming and caring for the littlest ones. Those of us with greater privilege will not enter into the kingdom of God by loving the least from a patronizing distance, but by understanding that we need each other, and that our liberation is bound up together.
I’ll leave you with a few words from Valerie Kaur, about how we can prepare to fight.
Think about what breaks your heart. Notice what it feels like to have your fists clench, your jaw close, your pulse quicken. Notice what it feels like to want to fight back. Honor that in yourself. You are alive and have something worth fighting for. Now comes the second moment: How will you channel that into something that delivers life instead of death? Breathe. Think. Then choose your sword and shield. You don’t have to know all the answers. You just have to be ready for the moment when the world says: Now. (p. 97)