Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Open Table: A Sermon

Open Table
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 4th, 2009
World Communion Sunday

Genesis 2:18-24
Mark 10:2-16

The sermon theme today is letting go of the need to be a busybody.

Of course, I know that none of you are busybodies. But your friends might be. You can pass this sermon on to them.

Busybodies, fusspots, and scolds do their best to make life difficult for others. The modus operandi of the busybody is to try to look good by making others look bad. Busybodies are masters at downplaying their own shortcomings and elevating the shortcomings of others. Some do it under the pious guise of wanting to hear God’s Word and follow God’s will. These godly busybodies enjoy finding passages in the Bible that condemn the supposed sins of others. It is important for busybodies to find sins that other people commit that the busybodies themselves do not.

Abortion and homosexuality are for many busybodies their bread and butter. It used to be divorce. But now that so many busybodies are divorced or have been divorced, they don’t go after that one quite so zealously. But divorced busybodies, if they didn’t learn anything from that experience, are as busily bodied as ever in making sure you know that they are better than you.

In the Gospels, the Pharisees are the archetypal busybodies. It should be noted that the Gospels were not fair to the Pharisees. If you go to a synagogue and talk to the local Rabbi, he or she will tell you that the gospel portrait of the Pharisees is one dimensional. The gospel writers used the Pharisees as a literary foil for Jesus.

In actuality, the Pharisees are the precursors to the rabbis of today. They kept the narrative, the traditions, and the teachings. They were the scholars and the leaders. Many of the sayings of Jesus were originally spoken by Pharisees such as Hillel. We know the famous story regarding Hillel. He was asked by a scoffer to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. He said: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others." Sounds like Jesus.

The Gospel writers typecast the Pharisees as narrow-minded, sneaky, petulant busybodies. In the story, these busybodies come to Jesus to test him. They want to trap him. They want to mess with him. They want to discredit him and if they are lucky, make him suffer the same fate as John the Baptist. John the Baptist, as you know, lost his head.

John was beheaded because of divorce. Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. She divorced Philip and married Herod. John the Baptist told Herod that he had broken Jewish law by doing that. Some might say John the Baptist was being a busybody. Could be. Herod had John the Baptist put in prison.

At one of Herod’s parties, Herod’s step-daughter, that is the daughter of Herodias (who was formerly Herod’s brother’s wife, but who now his wife) does a dance for him. Herod and the guests are so impressed that Herod promises her anything she wants including half his kingdom. The daughter asks her mother, Herodias, what she should ask for. Her mother replies famously: “the head of John the Baptizer.”

There you go: political intrigue, scandal, and naughtiness in high places. And that, good people, is how the wealthy elite get a head.

Not long after this incident the Pharisees come calling. They ask Jesus about divorce.

The busybodies who are asking Jesus about divorce are not asking him because they really want to know. They don’t want to learn anything. They know the law. Jesus knows they know. It is a test. It is a question that no matter how he answers he will look bad to somebody.

The Pharisees could read as well as Jesus. They know what is written in Deuteronomy chapter 24. For entertainment value you might read the book of Deuteronomy. It will take about an hour.

Before we discover what the book of Deuteronomy says about divorce, we might check what it has to say about other important topics. You will get advice on how to treat a rebellious son:
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21
After you conquer your neighboring suburb in battle, Deuteronomy offers counsel on what to do with the women.
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house for a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” -- Deuteronomy 21:10-14
Multiple choice: When you mow the lawn, what following pairs of animals are not allowed to pull the lawnmower?

a) Two oxen.
b) Two donkeys.
c) One ox and one donkey.

Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 10 has the answer. C.
10 You shall not plough (or mow the lawn) with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
That is followed by verse 11:

“You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.”

If any of you are wearing mixed fabrics would you undress now, please. We are in God’s house. If you insist on keeping your clothes on, no communion for you.

It is within the literary and historical and cultural context of Deuteronomy that we find this eternal wisdom, and the teaching on divorce which goes like this:
“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
The busybodies tell Jesus that this is the law on divorce. From the perspective of Deuteronomy, women are the property of men. In other words say the busybodies:
“We men can divorce our women on a whim, send them out with nothing, and be righteous observers of the law while doing it.”
Jesus tells the busybodies that the reason Moses gave them this option is because people lack compassion.

Jesus says that ideally it isn’t like that. He quotes from Genesis: God made human beings. They grow up. They move out of their parents’ basements. They get married and they live happily ever after. That is the ideal.

Jesus is not offering new, severe, judgmental rules. Jesus’ message is to the busybodies,
“Don’t even pretend to think you are holier than thou. If you think you can find a loophole that gives you divine permission to discard another human being, think again.”
A lifelong, happy marriage is the ideal. But you know, it doesn’t always happen like that. Marriage is important. Those of us in helping professions whether we are counselors, educators, ministers, and legislators, try to help people in their relationships. At times it helps.

But life is complicated. Life is messy. Far too often, life is downright ugly. Why in the midst of woundedness and brokenness would some want to make it even worse for others by denying them, for example, access to Christ’s table?

Busybodies will also use the words of Jesus here against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. “God made them male and female.” Which they interpret as meaning, God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Ha ha ha. Tell me if you are tired of hearing that one yet.

These same busybodies will work in the name of their religion to deny happiness as well as rights and protections to other human beings. As if Jesus would really be like that.

As far as I can tell, the Jesus who speaks to me from the Gospels is a Jesus who is all about treating people with compassion, fairness, and hospitality. He had little patience with busybodies and with those who twisted laws to justify their mistreatment of others.

Life in Spirit as Jesus saw it and announced it, was not about never making a mistake. It was not about being perfect. For those poor souls who think life is about trying to be perfect, the best they will do is put on a mask and pretend. Trying to bury and conceal woundedness takes a lot of energy. As does trying to project it on others. Life in Spirit is about owning one’s woundedness. It is about forgiving ourselves and others. It is about getting up each day and starting again.

I am not much of a believer in original sin. I do, however, affirm original woundedness. We are all wounded and we carry these wounds. If we don’t bring them to consciousness, name them, and honor them, we will wound others and ourselves even more. We will continue to wound, generation after generation.

During communion, the celebrant lifts the bread in front of the congregation and breaks it. It is a visual symbolic act. A symbolic act is rich with meaning. The action itself means more than what words can convey. When I as celebrant break the bread and simultaneously as congregant witness the bread being broken, I acknowledge my own woundedness.

We are all broken. In the breaking of the bread we are confronted with that at once painful and liberating truth. We are all broken, wounded. That is our common bond.

We are broken in our interpersonal relationships.
We are broken in our individual psyches.
We are broken in our communities.
We are broken in our nation.
We are broken in our global family.
We are broken in our relationship with Earth and with all living things.

The way of letting go and letting be is to let go of the need to keep nursing our particular manifestation of brokenness, our favorite wound. We can let go of the need to blame others for it, to feel ashamed about it, or to demand redress from someone (or society or God) for it.

Paradoxically, when we give up control of our woundedness, we are liberated from the control the wound has over us. We can only truly let go, that is forgive, when we realize that we have no right or power to forgive. Forgiveness only comes when we recognize that our woundedness is connected with that of others.

We are all wounded and broken including the busybodies, fusspots, and scolds. Forgiveness is the experience of being lucky enough to shrug and smile at the busybodies, including the busybody that is us.

As the bread is broken and the wine is poured all over the world today, may we and all living things receive the blessings we need. We are not alone. The bread and wine is for all of Earth, all of wounded Earth and all of its life. The bread and wine is for all of our broken, wounded and wonderful sisters and brothers.

Funny, silly, blessed busybodies all.


  1. good sermon, John; thanks for the opportunity to read it...

  2. :)

    The downside about busybodies is that no one who is a busybody actually thinks they are one.

  3. Alan, I am glad you commented.

    I wanted somehow to give you credit for the accurate and amusing description, "busybodies, fusspots, and scolds."

    My spouse liked it, too. She has been calling me a fusspot since the sermon. : )

  4. Thanks. I'm not sure I can actually take credit for the phrase, I think I read it somewhere a long time ago. But I'm glad to help popularize it!


  5. My spouse liked it, too. She has been calling me a fusspot since the sermon. : )

    I'm sure it's not the worst thing you could be called...

  6. I was about to forward this to *my* spouse, but he's already commented. :-)

  7. Hi John.

    Thanks for a terrific sermon, and for clues about alternatives to the cherry-picked accompaniment to the Mark passage by the Revised Common Lectionary.

    As I wrote in my commentary for last week: Put together with the favorite children’s Sunday School story that Jesus “rebuked” the disciples who wanted to chase the children away, we have the perfect storm for conventional, conservative, Christian family values. If we don’t read the context, this interpretation is supported by the reading from Hebrews and Psalm 8.

  8. We so miss you, John, and your sermons! One of your best yet :) We recall at our commitment ceremony you said that everyone is welcome here: This is not a Presbyterian Table or even a Christian Table...It is Jesus' table. Some may be confused by that but everyone knew that they were welcome to participate, as a community, in communion. It was beautiful :)

  9. Brian~ : )

    SeaRaven~ good thoughts. A lot of theology (good and bad) goes into the selection of texts that make the lectionary!!

    Tony & Mike~ miss you too and thanks! I said a similar thing on Sunday. "We refuse the Table to any Jesus would refuse. We just haven't found anyone he would refuse yet..."