You can listen to the sermon here.
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Over the past couple of months, Pastor Pam and I have gone back and forth between preaching from the pulpit and preaching from the aisle. Some of you have appreciated that change of pace. Some of you haven’t. Which is okay too.
But mostly, some of you have wondered – why? Why preach from the aisle? I can’t speak for Pastor Pam, but, for me, there are just times when it feels…appropriate. That there is a need to be closer to you.
And today feels like one of those days for me. Especially after hearing what we just heard from the gospel of Mark. A reading that makes us catch our breath in fear. A reading that stings with judgment. A reading that hurts so many of us.
I’ve been a bit frightened of this text all week. But a couple of weeks ago, I said that we don’t need to be afraid of any scripture because God’s relationship with us is not fragile nor easily broken. So, we can face this one together too.
Which was the gift I’ve received this week – the gift of wrestling with this text in the company of others. With staff, with some of you in our weekly bible study, and with other clergy. So any insights that I might have into this text are not my own, but rather have been born out of that communal reading of this text.
And what was so beautiful about those gatherings this week with each group was the great care and caution with which everyone approached this reading. Because we all knew the danger for this text to cause great pain and to alienate people in our community. Few of us have remained untouched by divorce or broken relationships in our life or the life of family and friends.
And we also knew that for far too long, this passage has been used as bully text to hurt people. It has been used against those who have had to make the gut-wrenching decision to end a marriage. It has been used against those who have fallen in love with someone of the same-gender.
There is no doubt about it, this text has been used as a Scriptural stone by self-righteous people to throw at those deemed sinful. And yet, also in Scripture, Jesus is the one who says only those who have never sinned can throw stones, which renders us all empty-handed and passive.
So, I simply cannot believe that Jesus intended for his words to be used as a weapon against others. To hurt or to judge. But rather, as Mike Skunes said this week, maybe this passage is not meant to be a knife that hurts others but rather as a mirror that shows us about ourselves.
So, let’s have a look in the mirror. The first thing that happens is Pharisees test Jesus with a question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
The first thing were learn from this passage is that it is in the context of Jesus being put to a test. Jesus did wake up one morning and decide he’s going to announce how divorce and remarriage shall be viewed for the rest of time. There is a context here.
You see, there was a big debate going on back then about when a man could divorce his wife. Could he divorce her for any reason – like burning your toast – or could he only divorce her for committing adultery?
Do I have to wait for her to have an affair, or can I divorce her now for ruining breakfast? Tell us how we can use the law to divorce our wives, Jesus!
But Jesus won’t do that. Because they miss the whole purpose of the law. The purpose of the law is not to justify you getting what you want. The purpose of the law is to protect the vulnerable. Which is why Jesus reminds them that a man must give his wife a certificate of divorce – it protected her from great societal risk. But the Pharisees don’t seem to mention that.
They want Jesus to weigh in on the debate about how can we divorce our wives and Jesus will have nothing to do with it – except to emphasize the call to protect the vulnerable – not dismiss them.
Which is why Jesus changes the focus from what the law allows to what God intends. Jesus pulls us from the law of Moses to the creation story, which first says that God made them male and female. Meaning they are equals. Meaning that it shouldn’t just be the men who are the boss in the relationship. But then the creation story says that God made us to be in relationship with each other, to be one. And what God has brought together, let no one separate.
Jesus isn’t interested in debating how one can legally get out of a relationship. Is it legal, yes, it is legal, but if your first concern is how you can lawfully (and therefore cleanly, or guilt-free) get out of a relationship, then you’ve missed the point. It would be like if a groom on his wedding day said, “So, if this doesn’t work out, I can just divorce her, right?” Well, yeah, you can, but you’re kind of missing the point of today.
Marriage isn’t a contract that can be casually entered into and casually broken. And the heartache and the pain that some of you have lived through because of broken relationships and betrayal and hard decision goes to show that there is nothing casual about divorce. It is not simply a legal matter.
This is about a relationship. And God’s intention that humanity be in relationship with one another in a way that honors and cares for one another. And whenever that doesn’t happen, it isn’t simply a legal issue. It is a human issue.
God doesn’t intend for divorce. No one intends for divorce. God intends for humans to be in relationship with each other. But that doesn’t always happen. Which is why it is legal to get a divorce. Jesus never says that the law of divorce is wrong. It just isn’t the primary concern. It’s about how can we be loving and compassionate with each, even though the relationship is ending.
And then Jesus says that thing about remarriage. Which is almost the hardest part. To imply that anyone who gets divorced and then remarried is committing adultery.
That’s been the real bear this week for me. What to do with that. And the way that I am currently making sense of it is notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about the rejected partner in a divorce and their remarriage. He only speaks about the one who initiates the divorce. So the only way I can make sense of it is that Jesus is still speaking to those who are taking marriage too casually – that if you see someone else that you’d like to have an affair with, well you can just divorce your current spouse and marry that person, and still be above the law. As scholar Matt Skinner has said, “(Jesus’) point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery.” If you are using divorce just to discard someone and legally get something or someone else, than you’ve missed the point of and misused marriage.
I do not think that Jesus is saying that getting remarried after getting divorced is committing adultery. I think Jesus is saying that using divorce in order to justify and legalize satisfying our own selfish desires is the same as adultery.
Do you see how there is a back-story to this conversation on divorce? Do you see how there is more going on? In fact, there is always a back-story to every conversation on divorce. There is always more that has gone on behind the scenes. Which is where too often the church has gone wrong on this topic. I’ve heard of people who were told they weren’t welcome in a church or weren’t allowed to communion because they were divorced and remarried – no questions asked! No concern about the backstory. This past week, I learned about a couple that has been married for 25 years, but it is their previous divorces that they keep a secret from their church, constantly terrified that anyone will find out.
Too often the church has used these words of Jesus without thinking about the backstory and too often the church has condemned and dismissed and discarded those who have been divorced without listening to their backstory. The backstories of abuse. Of broken promises. Of personality differences. Of rushed commitments. Of addiction. Of insurmountable grief. Of differing hopes and dreams. Too often the church hasn’t listened to the backstories of all the heartbreaking reasons why a couple would decide to end a relationship.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ concern is always focused on the vulnerable and those in need. A those who are in an unhappy, unhealthy and destructive relationship are people who are vulnerable and in need. Wouldn’t we want to embrace them rather them push them away? Would the church, or God for that matter, rather that a miserable couple be bound to each other to be miserably married for a long time or that they be set free? Which is maybe the best way for them to be loving and compassionate to each other. To set each other free from the promises that they can no longer keep.
Sometimes relationships need to end. It isn’t what anyone, including God, would’ve hoped for, but no one should live in a loveless or hostile relationships. And no one should have to live alone – and so we find love and friendship in other places, by the grace of God.
The Pharisees wanted to make this about what’s legal, but this isn’t about what’s legal. It is about the heartache of God when we become a fractured people. Which is what they mirror of this text shows us. That we are a fractured people. Broken relationships – both intimate and other – divide us. When what, since the beginning, God wants is for us to be one. One people of God. This isn’t about living up to God’s law. This is about our universal need for the grace of God when we fail to be what God has made us to be.
As I said, this sermon was born out of the words of many, so I’ll leave you with the words of my friend, Eric Clapp. “Jesus calls us back to (the creation story) as a reminder that we were created not to live in isolation, but in community. And sometimes that community or that relationship is broken and dies. But even in that brokenness and death, God is actively working to bring wholeness and new life. The story is not over. The story ALWAYS ends in resurrection. It always ends in life. In the midst of your brokenness, may you remember that your story is still unfolding, that there is a God who created you as a part of a beautiful creation, and that you, the whole you, all of who you are, is redeemed by a God whose love knows no end.” Amen.