Jesus, Marriage, Divorce, and More

sermon on Mark10:2-16
Acacia’s family had a priest who would preach before reading the Gospel, to help with what was going to be heard. I almost did that with this reading, since these are not easy verses, especially for some of us. It can sound like a commendation or a condemnation. Some of us hear blessing in these words and some of us indictment, while some of us may not feel Jesus address us here at all.

Yet to hear the heart of the message of mutual benefit—and not just be self-congratulatory—we need background. In Jesus’ society, women could not initiate divorce. A man was permitted, however, to divorce his wife about as simply as handing her a note saying “it’s over.” So this was actually a strong word on behalf of women. To kick a woman out of the house would leave her without resources, without support, cutting her off from life. Within these words, Jesus is advocating for women.

So the question was about the law, but Jesus was trying to remove it from a legal framework to appreciate life and the value of relationship. To move us in the direction of focusing on blessing and relationship rather than restrictions and curses, and because of the different ways we hear it, I want to start by considering our many situations in life or the various stages through which we could be transitioning, trying to catch at least some of our enormous complexity and diversity.

Among us gathered together in this congregation, some are happily married. Some may be still in that honeymoon bliss kind of feeling, and others have found benefits in that pairing for 60 years and more.

Among us are also those who have not found marriage to be blissful or maybe even beneficial. Some of us think of it more as an inconvenient slog.

Again, some among us have ended marriages because they were no longer life-giving. There are also some who did not choose divorce but were nevertheless subjected to separation. So together we know divorce can be a painful fracture and feeling of brokenness, and at other times can be relief or fresh opportunity. Quite likely, it is all of that together—the good and the bad, the sense of being a quitter and of necessity. It’s hard and complicated, which (as we’ll say more about) means we don’t need a hasty churchy condemnation about it.

To continue on, there are others of us here, as well. We have dating relationships or long-term partnerships without marriage. Given that it’s a new reality in our state and country, we also recognize that there are those among us who have been long told we couldn’t be married, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity have been too much excluded as unusual. And we’ll return to a bit more on what Jesus is or isn’t saying about that.

There are also those among us who are single. That may include the young among us who anticipate or yearn for relationships to come. It may include widows among us continuing to live with the memories of a partner or spouse. Singleness at any age may be with a sense of fullness or of emptiness, either that life is missing something without a partner that society seems to declare is the standard pattern, or else that it’s not necessary, that life is good and full and rich without being coupled.

That perspective helps us all to recognize how we define ourselves and how we determine what is the fullness of life and what relationships are good and beneficial. Clearly none among us finds relationship with only one other person. Life doesn’t come only in pairs. We know richness of relationships are shared in an enormous web of blessing, in types of connections with the variety of so many people and groups, as well as (we must remember, especially on this St. Francis day) with pets and trees and cows and all the creatures that make our life, our life.

In turning more directly to ask what this Bible reading means for us and our lives in all these relationships, I’m interested to note that the version from the Gospel of Matthew was used at my cousin’s wedding in Tacoma last weekend. The surprise is in that her husband had been divorced, which the reading declares to be problematic. Yet at the wedding service we certainly celebrated and listened for God’s blessing for them. That’s vastly different from using this passage as a club. We need to be cautious of warping these words from Jesus from being about life into the opposite. We can observe that the pope, even as he talked on his visit about family, pivoted from the narrow structure that labels “family values,” as if other forms and shapes of families had less value or were depreciating it for others.
In that regard, it’s worth exploring these distinctions that contrast the legalistic and institutional view with what seems more in character for Jesus and therefore for us as Christians.

One typical problem begins in elevating marriage to an undue degree, making it an important sign of blessing or even a way to get closer to God. For Roman Catholics, it is one of the sacraments, a means to receive grace. But it’s not just Catholics that try to make marriage into something it shouldn’t be. Too often a passage from Ephesians gets used that says a husband is head of his wife like Christ is the head of his church. It’s a bad analogy to begin with and is poisonous as a prescription. Even Martin Luther mistakenly wrote on occasion that marriage was a blessed state fulfilling what humanity was supposed to be in the Garden of Eden.

The problem is quickly apparent that marriage is no Paradise. Being married quite obviously does not automatically make us better people, much less holier people. We fail in trying to embody love and grace and forgiveness. We fall short. None of us can bear the burden of having to be Jesus for each other. We need Jesus because we aren’t Jesus. Rather than marriage being what gives us strength and grace and blessing, we need blessing and strength and grace in order to keep going in marriage.

And we also need it outside of marriage. That’s the second and larger problem when we’ve overestimated and elevated marriage beyond what is should be. If marriage is seen as so highly blessed, then divorce becomes so wrong as to exclude a person from blessing, from God’s goodness. That gets it completely backward: we need God’s grace exactly because we are broken, because we are imperfect in our relationships.

That also returns to the original difficulty with this Gospel reading. We come to church seeking grace and blessing and God’s goodness and help for the week ahead. But this risks excluding some of us who need help and forgiveness and love. It even gets institutionalized as a policy that divorce means you can no longer be part of the church, that it directly separates you from what you need. Some of you may even have been told that you weren’t welcome to receive Communion because of divorce. That is an effort literally to dismember you from forgiveness, from community, and from our Lord Jesus himself. And it’s wrong! That excommunication is not from our God of welcome and of healing!

There’s something similar in the question of homosexuality here. This may be the closest Jesus indirectly comes to addressing same-gendered relationships, while quoting Genesis about the two becoming one flesh.

Yet before we restrict that understanding of unity, it bears noting how much we judgmental people enjoy quoting Scripture against others, again as a cudgel. Rather than letting it speak or apply to us, the energy is invested instead to exalt ourselves by condemning others, trying to tell them they’re wrong and we’re right. That’s another of the self-promoting efforts to claim that something we’re doing makes us inherently closer to God. Just as when we say marriage is right and divorce is wrong, we also try to say one kind of relationship is good and another bad. But that once again ignores and undermines the fundamental truth that we are all dependent on God’s grace and on Jesus for life.

With all of that, these words from Jesus would be better used in pondering how we are called to appreciate and foster life and blessing and relationships. That is, after all, the central point from Jesus: our relationships aren’t solely for our own benefit. He cautions us against being so hard-hearted, so stubbornly self-centered, that we lose sight of the greater good we are intended to share. We are called to attend to and take care of each other, to be responsible and aware of how we affect others, to seek the good and strive for the best in our relationships. We should be mindful of what it means to be united, to be joined together, to be so inseparably connected, and to recognize this as God’s work for and among us. We can observe that to be true in marriages and as couples, and being tied together and dependent on each other is also true in our families, in community, as part of neighborhoods and nations, and being sustained by creation. Existence is mutual and communal. So Jesus isn’t just setting a strict legal standard. He’s opening our eyes to the goodness, the richness, the broad extent of what God intends in our relationships, to be caring and cared for.

One final note, turning toward the second part of the reading that we’ve only touched indirectly: by again welcoming a child into his arms Jesus insists once more that all need access to his grace and love and blessing. So it’s one thing to say we should be nice to kids or understanding of youth. It’s another to be proud of a vibrant and growing Sunday School program. But to take up the ethic of care and the promises we make in baptism, we should probably be asking in our families where other activities or selfish priorities are obstructing our children’s access to Jesus and God’s blessing. We should ask how our worship is indeed welcoming them and where it impedes that. We should ask if we ourselves are making use of the means of accessing blessing for life, of being sustained in relationship with God and this community and the fullness of creation.

Hymn: This Is a Day, Lord, Gladly Awaited (ELW #586)

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