Sermon – October 5, 2003 – Divorce

The church leadership team at another parish I served was off on a retreat to lay out hopes and dreams for the coming year.  Midway through the meeting, there was a knock on the door. “Michael is out in his pickup and he needs to speak with you.”  I walked outside and found this young man leaning on his steering wheel sobbing.  That morning his bride of 11 months asked him to move out, saying she wanted a divorce.  So there he sat, sobbing.  He said he just couldn’t believe it.

Divorce is like that.  It is unexpected, deeply painful, hard to believe sometimes.  All of us who have, through our families, and friends and churches, witnessed the heartbreak of divorce, know that this is painful, things are torn apart.

Knowing that, then we come to church to hear that Jesus is uncompromising on the issue of divorce. He is challenged by the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Jesus never gets the easy questions.

Someone told a humorous story about an eminent psychologist who had been called to testify in court. She sat down in the witness chair, unaware that the rear legs of the chair were precariously close to the back edge of the raised platform. The district attorney approached her and asked, “For the record, what is your name?” The witness was a little nervous and tilted back in the chair just a bit as she began to answer the question.

Before she could finish saying her first name, she was catapulted head-over-heels and landed in a stack of exhibits and recording equipment. Everyone watched in stunned silence as she got up, rearranged her disheveled dress and was reseated on the witness stand.  The District Attorney paused, took a deep breath, and then continued…”Well, doctor, perhaps we could start with an easier question.” The Pharisees almost never asked Jesus an easier question, and the question in today’s text was just as difficult a topic in Jesus day as it is in ours. He leaves very little wiggle room.  He felt strongly about divorce, because he sought through his ministry, his presence completeness, wholeness.  Jesus knows that divorce hurts children and families.  That it hurts the couple breaking up.  Divorce hurts the community of friends and family that surrounded the marriage couple and supported them and bore witness to their union.

Divorce hurts because things are broken.  Hearts and Homes.  Promises and Dreams.  And families.   It hurts because it represents failure of will, of commitment, of strength, of faith.  A failure to achieve an ideal that God has set before us.

Divorce hurts.  And it is not my intention to rub salt in such wounds.

But we need to wonder a spiritual community why such a painful thing so prevalent?  Half of the marriages entered into these days don’t last.  They fall apart.   Why is this so prevalent, something so fundamental to the lives of men and women.

Partly, I think, it may be attributed to a sort of community numbness, where numbers so large as 50 percent dull the shock and the pain and divorce consequently and ironically, becomes easier.  There is safety in numbers.

More, though, I think it is a consequence of a cultural failure to shore up the commitments that we profess as individuals and as communities.  We fail to take seriously the commitments and vows and promises and hopes that we profess publicly before God and families, to each other, saying “for better or for worse.”    But it appears that about half of us have our fingers crossed.    We fail to prepare ourselves and others for the challenges that rise up against two people in this time, and they are unique and they are huge.   No one marries with the expectation they will divorce, but marriage is hard.  And with the distractions, with the pathological obsession we have with individualism, it requires commitment and faithfulness, flexibility and struggle and sacrifice.  These are things of life-long learning.  We need to make those things known.  To reclaim them.  We need to help young people understand the need for commitment and loyalty and fidelity and faithfulness, that!  that is not the chore but the freedom of marriage, not to be bound up in the laissez faire ethics that are distributed so generously in the popular culture.     Marriage requires vision so that the worse does not obscure the better and so that the better does not render one naive or unwatchful for the dangerous, for the worse.

But in about half the cases in this country, the worse prevails and the marriage fails  and we have a responsibility to prepare one another for those challenges that tend to these results.  Because it hurts when these things break.

And to that reality, we hear Jesus say, divorce ought not be an option.  And those words sting a bit today, don’t they, because all of us have experienced divorce in our families or with our friends.

We need to remember to whom Jesus spoke and when.  He was speaking at a time when only men could divorce and they could do so capriciously, just issue a certificate of divorce for reasons like ‘you’re a lousy cook, or don’t keep the house clean, or other things more serious.  But the man had option to dump the woman at will.   At a time when women had no education or skills to sustain them.    And the woman had to recourse, no appeal, no alternative but to leave and flee from sadness into shame and possibly, danger.  Part of Jesus words were in condemnation of such practices by men.  Part of his intention was to call to account those who would dismiss another human being, to put her in such a precarious position with no justification.  Don’t do that, he was saying.  I forbid it among my people.  There is a strong reminder that this is a new community created in Christ, where one does not hold such power over another.

He went even further here, saying that women would be bound by the same principle.  In that, he is overruling the Jewish law that prohibited women from divorcing.    While he grants them here the same status as men, he imposes on them the same responsibility and culpability.  I’m talking to all you, he says.  Radical words in  his time, for leveling the community and preserving it.  Jesus is concerned about completeness and wholeness. He would only seek the ideal, the perfect, in his name.  What else would he do?

He does so by getting back to the basics.    To Genesis.  In the creation story, we heard God pronounce, “it is good” on all the phases of creation.  And then, speaking of the man, he says “it is not good that man should be alone.  I will make him a helper to be his partner.”  A helper, in the Hebrew, is a world that is otherwise only used in reference to God.  This is a creative, equal partnership that God intends.  In other words, it is God’s creative intention that the couple would be together as partners as helpers, sharing.  That they would form something new together, apart for the families that reared them, for the purposes of creating something new, to sustain the creation that God has put into play.  This is a powerful mission that God has given couples that have come together.    Those of you who have heard me speak at weddings might recall that like to speak of the power of such unions.  That something new is created that did not exist before.  Something pregnant ! with power for change and new life and new possibilities.  It is a place where history is created and even changed.

Something new is created.  Something that tends toward wholeness.  That is Jesus’ goal here, I think.  That is his intent, that these things which tend toward wholeness, which have been blessed by God, should be honored and held sacred.  Is it not the message of Jesus that we should have wholeness and new life in him?  Is it not the message of Jesus that we should be a new creation?  Here, he is pointing to a consequence of that creation.   This is the man who says love your neighbor, even love your enemies.  Share with each other, lift up.  Serve each other.  Sacrifice.  Heal.  Anoint.  Pray.  Do these things together.  It is the drawing together in his  name that Jesus seeks, and when that is broken or undermined, there he stands in warning.

And that which contends against wholeness, friends, that which breaks apart, that which separates is sin.  Some wise man once remarked that the ideal community was created in Adam and Eve, but we of our time live with marriage after the fall.

You see, divorce is only the result.  Much happens before it.  Things break down.  People fail.  Divorce only confirms it.  It is the sin of broken promises, disrespect, even disregard for the challenges that such a union impose.  Often, divorce is a failure to struggle with God for the sake of the union.

And things are broken.  And it hurts.  And often the wounds are deep, maybe permanent.  Either the wounds of rejection, or guilt.

Yet, some divorces are inevitable, even preferable.  If a man beats his wife like a rented mule, he has squandered his vows and defied God.  That same with verbal and emotional abuse.  And in my view, he has no claim to hold her to a promise that he has broken with rage and hatred.  If one so disregards his or her promises of fidelity that they routinely and unrepentantly cheat on their spouse, then they have no claim to the perseverance of the one they have betrayed.  And after careful consideration, when the effects of continuing a marriage are found to be more destructive to our welfare than ending it, we choose divorce, the lesser of the evils in a fallen and imperfect world.   But that does not mean there is no pain, no need for healing, no need for repentance, no need for forgiveness.

For, is it not also, the promise of our Lord, is it not also fundamental to his ministry and our faith, fundamental to our getting from moment to moment, that if we come to him with a repentant heart, that if we bring our brokenness to the foot of his cross, he will touch us with his healing hand?

Those whose relationships have persevered need to thank God for grace.  Those who have suffered the failure of these relationships need to seek our Lord’s touch.  And neither should stand between the other and God in criticism or resentment.

At the end of our gospel lesson today, Jesus commands the disciples to bring him the children, to not forbid their coming into his presence.  It says he touched them.  Well, when Mark speaks of Jesus touching people, most always means he healed them.  These children were probably sick, runny noses, dirty diapers, coughing, crying.   In need.  And he touched them.  That is how he is.  That is what he does.  Those who stand in the midst of a shattered marriage, who have found themselves sick with pain or guilt from divorce, can receive that same healing touch.  They need it.  Jesus will give it.  Let us not, like the disciples, try to prevent it.




Copyright (c) 2003 by Pastor Robert J. Rasmus