THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Due to technical difficulties, the audio is not available until timecode 5:50. The sermon text is available here
Sermon: 3 October 2021
Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16
Proper 22, Year B
It is truly ironic that on the day we bring our furry friends to church to be blessed, we are reminded of the second creation story in Genesis 2, in which none of the creatures on God’s earth were good enough to be partners for the human. Regardless of our assigned scripture, I am so glad you are here with your stuffed and/or live animal friends who enrich our lives with joy and energy.
I actually really love the second creation story in the Bible – the one that ends with Adam and Eve in the garden. I like it because God feels so present, so immanent. It is a tender image, to behold God carefully and tenderly crafting humanity from the dirt. Instead of being bigger than the universe and omnipotent in all things, God comes much closer to us in this story, stooping to make the first human of clay, breathing life into its nostrils. This God likes evening walks through the garden and is desperate for the human he created to have a partner. Nothing less than someone of the same bones and flesh could do.
It is from this image the Church has gotten its foundational theology about marriage and human relationships and it is a beautiful and sanctified relationship. And yet, it is this image that Jesus cites when issuing a very clear decree forbidding divorce.
Trying to interpret today’s Gospel text about divorce is a bit like walking through a room full of mouse traps with your eyes closed and your shoes off. Any direction one attempts to go could lead to another problem, another trap, another avenue towards shame or guilt, and none of it feels very life-giving. I want us to be mindful of these traps before going forward to root around for the Good News.
One trap is the literal reading. After all, Jesus is pretty clear: divorce is never, ever okay period. Period. I barely want to give this theology any air time, however, I also want to say that it might be the simplest interpretation even with the most tragic consequences.
The second trap is well-meaning but frought – which is the argument that Jesus’s statement about divorce was to protect women. Some scholars claim that Jesus outlawed divorce in support of Jewish women who had no autonomy in their marriage status, and thus, were subject to be abandoned by their husbands at any point, left to destitution and shame.
Actually, there is little historical evidence that this was the case – the situation of destitution and shame that is implied in the above readings cannot be found in early rabbinical writing or even in scripture. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes that it also risks falsely classifying Jewish society as one that was monolithically oppressive to women – and the worse Jewish society looked, the better Jesus seems and the more comfortable we feel about his ban on divorce. But, we want to steer very clear of teaching this kind of theology.
And the third trap is to gloss over it: Yes, Jesus says these things. But Jesus also preaches forgiveness and love and so if he were alive today, he would probably approve of divorce. Friends, I do not know if that is true. There is nothing in scripture that allows us to make that interpretive leap – we do not get to pick and choose.
We cannot deny Jesus said these things. And yet, scripture might offer us foundation for a way to wrestle honestly with this or any other moral issue that makes us squirm. Matthew and Luke both recount Jesus’s ban on divorce, but in Matthew, there is an exception. No divorce except in the case of adultery. And in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, it appears as though he fully endorses the ban on divorce, though he also makes an exception for those who are married to non-Christians.
The gift that these additional pieces of Scripture gives us is not to start a handy checklist about when divorce might be okay or not. But rather, it gives us give us Scriptural foundation for moral questioning and pastoral exploration of Jesus’s teachings. It allows us to ask about the deeper theological meaning and impact of any moral directive we may find in Scripture. We know from Paul that the experience of the Church establish itself, to bring together Gentiles and Jews – it was messy work. Somewhere along the line, certain exceptions and modifications were necessarily made in order to be more inclusive and more loving. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Jesus is always challenging us with his demands for living a different kind of life; while at the same time giving us a kind of love that is utterly unconditional. The rigor and challenge is clear. Marriage is sanctified in the beginnings of the world and is one way, though not the only way, in which God’s people can be together. The mercy is harder to find, but I find myself going back to the second creation story; back to the desire and the joy the first person felt about a partner. What is God’s intention for marriage, for life, for friendship, for parenthood? How can we live with the rigor while also being merciful and loving in the way Jesus loved us?
It is not good for people to be alone, said God. And if God wrote down a wish list for what humanity would be like, I imagine it would be the kind of world where nobody was lonely, every person was treated with dignity, every person had food and water and shelter, and lived in close, personal intimate relationship with their Creator. It is a harmonious vision, a life-giving vision, a thriving vision.
And yet, in our post-Eden world, we know that so many of those things fall short of God’s vision. Things like abuse, emotional manipulation, crushing unhappiness – those are not present in God’s intention for marriage; and they can stifle the life out of a relationship. That is the opposite of what is happening in Genesis and, to me, the opposite of what the sacrament of marriage should be. We know that sometimes things die, including relationships, and divorce is not always the cause, more of an effect. And when that happens, it is better to honor it as such – acknowledging the tragedy and loss with as much grace as we can muster.
Separation is painful, though perhaps, like God’s creating two people from one flesh, it can lead to more life. It also may not. These are only answers we can find in prayer when we ask: what is going to give me life? What is the most loving way forward? If this text is hard for you to hear, please know you are not alone. I am in that boat with you. And I also firmly believe that God’s creative energy is working among us and within our relationships all the time. May we have the wisdom to listen.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
The full service is available for several weeks here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7939140