My sermon is now posted on my parish’s website – click here
Or – read on.
Taps fingers on pulpit
Looks at watch
Oh, I’m sorry, did you expect me to say something about that text? I’m assuming you probably do. I spent the whole week reading commentaries that said, “if you’re going to read this lesson, you have to preach it.” So, I scoured the prayer book for a loophole in the “you have to read the gospel if you are going to have communion” rule and I couldn’t find one. I figured you’d probably notice if I snuck in Morning Prayer this morning. So… here we are. I guess you’d like me to say something about these hard words from Jesus. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe divorce has become so common place that this teaching has become irrelevant. Perhaps it is time to do our best Thomas Jefferson imitation and start cutting the stuff-that-scandalizes-us out of the Bible. We can start with this teaching on divorce and quickly move on to next week’s prescription to sell everything and give it to the poor. Of course, cutting away the scriptures that don’t suit us is a slippery slope. By now, we’ve cut away so much of the flesh, it is impossible to not start in on the bone. Why not get rid of all the stuff that Jesus said that is hard for us to swallow? I mean who really wants to look after the poor and widowed? Who wants to gain stature through humble service? Who wants to lose their life to save it?
I’m not a very good editor, and knowing when to stop might prove to be difficult. Loving my neighbor is pretty hard, his grass is always overgrown and he drives too fast… let’s cut that too. And loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? That doesn’t sound too easy, either. I mean, he doesn’t stop hurricanes from happening or crazy people from shooting up movie theaters and he hasn’t helped me win the lottery yet. Heck, he can’t even seem to keep marriages from falling apart. Let’s cut the love God piece out too. Pretty soon, all we’re left with is Jesus commanding us to love ourselves, and that’s pretty easy, human beings are pretty good at that. But self-congratulatory, “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology ends up being pretty useless when the hard times come, like, for example, when a marriage is splitting up.
As far as I’m concerned, the real problem with this passage isn’t what Jesus said, but rather for the last fifty years, the Church, absent a coherent theology on divorce because it has been absent a coherent theology on marriage since the end of World War II, has been largely silent on the issue of divorce. We’ve made pastoral provisions so that those wishing to be remarried in the church can do so. We’ve been less obvious about our shunning of those whose marriages didn’t last, but our silence has, for all intents and purposes, meant that divorce has become something of a taboo topic in mainstream Christianity. We have, in practice if not in theology, written divorce out of the church, which often means, couples that divorce feel the need to write themselves out of the Church.
I find the church’s silence on the matter of divorce mind-boggling for several reasons. First, and perhaps most distressing, is that almost all of us have experienced the pain of divorce. With a divorce rate hovering at 50%, we need not look beyond our extended families to find a marriage that broke apart: maybe it was yours, or your parents’, or a sibling’s, or a child’s, but I’d bet 95% of us have divorced members of our immediate family. The other 5%, I’m certain, have at least one close friend who is divorced. So why don’t we talk about it? Why do we feel so awkward dealing with tough issues as friends, as family, as a community of faith?
I also struggle with the church’s silence on divorce because Jesus actually talked about it. We spend all sorts of time and energy arguing about what Moses, Paul, and the various New Testament Johns had to say about all sorts of moral and practical issues, and yet we distinctly ignore this topic that Jesus talked about in a straightforward manner. So let’s do it, let’s talk about divorce no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
The first thing we have to ask is, what does Jesus say about divorce. I’m paraphrasing here, but Jesus essentially says, “divorce sucks.” And he’s right. Divorce sucks. It hurts. Divorce hurts the couple getting divorced. It hurts their children. It hurts their wider family. It hurts their friends. It hurts their communities of faith. Even when a divorce is the best course of action for everyone involved, it hurts. Logically, then, we ask a second question, “why does divorce hurt so much?” Divorce hurts because something is being torn apart. The two who became one flesh are now being ripped apart while the shrapnel of their breakup flies indiscriminately outward. The church then, whose mission it is to restore all people to unity with God and with each other, necessarily laments such a tearing apart of people. Rather than offering awkward silence, the Church, her clergy and laity, should mourn at the loss of a marriage. We should listen as people in pain tell their stories. We should offer a shoulder to cry on. We should invite all parties to share in the resurrection through repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.
The next question we have to ask is, if divorces happen, even in Jesus’ day, even as far back as the days of Moses, why does Jesus take such a hard line on it? As I said several times on my blog this week, in this teaching on divorce, Jesus sets the bar impossibly high. After Jesus and his disciples are alone, Jesus takes the time to explain what he has said to the Pharisees. He tells the twelve, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” If one was unclear about Jesus’ opinion of divorce before verse eleven, it becomes strikingly clear here that Jesus is 100% anti-divorce, and as we all know, that is an untenable opinion to hold. So why does Jesus take such a hard stance? Why does Jesus set the bar impossibly high? The simple answer is, because he cares. God cares deeply about his creation. As the Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2 both suggest, God is mindful of us. Human beings are the only part of God’s creation that was made in the imago dei. We bear within and upon us the image of God. We are chief stewards, the managers of creation. We are, for all intents and purposes, God’s best and most beloved handiwork, and because of this, God is mindful of us. And because God is mindful of us, the things we do and the things that happen to us matter to him. And because these things matter to God, the pain we feel is known and felt by God. In the Incarnation, God took the pain of this world into himself so that today, he can walk alongside us in our pain and heartbreak. Jesus takes such a hard line on marriage because when a marriage breaks up and people are hurting, it grieves God.
Our final question to ask then is what should the church say about divorce? If we’re going to talk about it, let’s at least be cogent. It is important for the church, her clergy and laity included, to be careful about using the language of adultery that Jesus uses with remarried persons in our midst. We don’t get to make judgments like that. The log in our own eye is enough for us to worry about. People much smarter than me have spent a lot of time trying to wrap their minds around remarriage. What the Church should say, without reservation, is “divorce sucks, divorce hurts, and we are here for you.” More importantly, our task is to remind folks that God is here for them. Maybe the most important thing the Church can say to our hurting world is that in the midst of any sort of crisis, God is there.
Divorce sucks. So does cancer. Violence sucks too. All of this is true. The tearing apart of human relationships hurts, not matter the reasons. The good news is, God is there. God is here. God is with us every step of the journey. The Church’s job, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel, is to share the good news with all of God’s people. Here it is, one more time, write it down, the good news, no matter the crisis, God is there. Amen.