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Sermon 2006-10-08

Sermon 2006-10-08

Marriage, Divorce and the Love of God

Proper 22:  Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-18; Mark 10:2-9
October 8, 2006

Pastor Mary Blessing,
Vicar, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley CA


Boy, those Pharisees are really out to get Jesus, aren’t they?  Throughout Mark’s gospel we find this tension building—the more Jesus calls people into discipleship, into a conversion of heart that brings them closer to God and each other in love, the more the Pharisees want to “trip him up”, to get him to do or say something that will get people to disregard his teachings.

Today, the Pharisees want to trip Jesus up on the topic of Divorce. Do you remember what happened to John the Baptist when he challenged Herod on the topic of Divorce?  That’s right, John was beheaded for criticizing Herod for getting his brother’s wife to divorce and marry him.  With this backdrop in the Gospel of Mark, we can see that the Pharisees are not asking a sincere question about the Law of Moses, as if they didn’t already know the answer—they are trying to trick Jesus.  This is a very dangerous moment for Jesus.  You think you get uncomfortable talking about divorce, can you imagine how Jesus must have felt?  Wisely, Jesus brings the question back to a question of “what does the scripture say”?

2 Things:  1) Deuteronomy says that Moses allowed divorce, and so part of Jesus’ answer is “yes”.  2) But even before Moses and before the need to “rein” people in with “the Law”, scripture tells us that in Creation, God intended things to be different.

By his use of scripture, Jesus reminds these Pharisees, that God intended something even more complete than what the Law of Moses allowed.  God intended for a man and a woman to be bound together in a covenant relationship of love, a relationship so strong that they became as one.  Each wanting what is best for the other more than wanting something for themselves.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.

According to the Law of Moses, divorce was a lopsided event: it was a simple certificate a man wrote to dismiss his wife if she displeased him. Now, I always thought this was a rather dirty deal—considering the woman probably didn’t choose this man in the first place—her father probably picked her husband.  There was no such thing as a woman’s rights—she was the property of her father until he made arrangements for her marriage, and then her father signed away his claim on his daughter to a man who took over her life.  She was then her husband’s property.  If he no longer wanted that property he had the right to write a certificate releasing his claim on her—but releasing her to what?  Not much.  Probably not even back to her father’s family, who would no doubt reject her, leaving her to fend for herself in the streets.  Oh, and if her husband dismissed her with a divorce certificate, guess who got the kids?  He did.  The children were the property of the husband, too.  So, a woman singed off in divorce was tossed into the streets, not allowed to see her own children, left to a life of begging, or even prostitution.

Is it any wonder Jesus chose to remind these Pharisees that what God intended in creation—to keep a man and a woman as “one flesh”, bound to one another for eternity?  Jesus was a man of compassion, always seeking to care for the one that society disregarded.  No wonder he gave these Pharisees a new option, to over-ride Moses’ Law, and return to God’s rule.  In effect, Jesus told them it is not good to divorce, and this was good, especially for women.

Now, pastors, preachers, Biblical scholars, churches, Canon Law and secular law, have struggled with this question ever since.  Elsewhere, especially in St. Paul’s writings, scripture again allows for the possibility that divorce may be appropriate when to stay married keeps a person from a full relationship with God.  In fact, you can rest assured, the Episcopal Church has dealt with this topic, and while it is the first duty of a priest to do all in that priest’s power to help keep a couple in a marriage relationship, divorce and remarriage is allowed in our Church.  We recognize that there are times when divorce is necessary as a means of reconciliation and healing.  No doubt some of you have been through this or have witnessed this in others.

But, what I wonder is, long before people get to the stage of  seeking divorce, what has been done to first teach them about the covenant of marriage?  What sort of preparation have young people received to know the truth about marriage?  What social structures and spiritual community supports have there been that uphold those persons in their marriage relationship?

On the whole, our society is not very good at preparing people for the rigors of a committed relationship. I heard a YOUNG LIFE pastor speaking to teens about the best opportunity he had as a teen to learn about real love and real sex, the ingredients of a marriage that distinguish it from other relationships, like simple roommates—was when he sat around the campfire with a youth mentor couple, and the teens had a chance to just “ask any question” of this married couple, and they answered.  Simple, straight forward, frank questions, like, “So what do you do when it’s your honeymoon night, and you have to get undressed, all the way naked, right in front of your partner?”  Or, what’s it like when you have the screaming baby in the middle of the night and YOU don’t want to get out of bed to feed it, and your WIFE doesn’t want to get out of bed to feed it”?  How do you get through those nights?  And “What do you do when you want to go to the ball game with the guys, and she wants you to go to a chick flick”  All sorts of real questions, that the married couple answered, honestly, openly, until the wee hours of the night.  And when the teens grew up, found their mates and struggled through a difficult time or two, the mentor’s words came back to them—and it helped get them set straight.

 Yesterday I attended a beautiful, very meaningful marriage ceremony.  The bride wore a tasteful, crème colored satin dress, with a full train—the groom wore a standard charcoal grey tux, there were 3 ordained ministers, including the groom’s father who delivered the homily, and the church was filled with glorious organ music and Scottish bagpipes.  Everything was perfect.

The first reading was I Corinthians 13—you know, the one we usually hear at weddings—“Love is patient and kind, Love never insists on its own way…”  A passage from a letter St. Paul wrote, not to a couple in love, but to a group of early converts to Christianity who were losing their way, acting rudely and immoral, as they struggle to have an authentic engagement in what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ.

Now, the young couple I witnessed making their vows to each other yesterday are not your usual, naïve, adolescents making promises they probably don’t even understand.  The man and the woman are each, in his or her own right, deeply committed first and foremost to living a life centered in Jesus Christ.  It is precisely because they each first came to a mature faith as disciples of Christ that they were able to truly hear the words of St. Paul and know that they can use these words as a foundational piece of the new life they are making in Godly covenant with each other.  I believe this couple will not have to be overly concerned with the “Laws of Moses” or the Canons of the Church as regards divorce and remarriage. Their lives are already transformed by the power of Christ living in them. They are working together to keep that process of transformation alive in their new relationship, “no longer as two, but one flesh”.  As Jesus said, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”