Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 5, 2003. 
Based on Mark 10:2-9 (Proper 22, Year B).

Most of us have been affected by divorce. If I were to ask those who have been divorced to raise their hands, which I’m not, I bet we’d see a good number of hands. And if they kept their hands up and I asked those whose parents have been divorced to raise their hands, we’d have even more. If I added people whose current spouse had been divorced, or those who’ve had a sibling or a close friend of the family endure a divorce, I bet nearly everyone here would have at least one hand in the air.

This is not a topic that anyone particularly wants to talk about but it’s an experience that has touched us all. And so when we hear the issue come up in our readings we usually hope the preacher will ignore the topic and preach on something more pleasant. And I admit it’s tempting to do just that. Tempting, but not faithful to what we have been presented. Because this theme stares back at us this morning like an un-welcomed guest who simply won’t go away.

Jesus addresses this issue in pretty clear terms. He says “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” And at first glance he seems to be saying that under no circumstances is divorce permissible. But this interpretation completely misses the point of the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. Remember, the Pharisees are always trying to trap Jesus, they’re forever trying to discredit him. And it never works. Because Jesus refuses to get drawn into a legalistic interpretation of Scripture. The Pharisees are concerned with the legal minutia about whether or not divorce is permissible but Jesus focuses on the deeper spiritual impact. The emphasis is not on what is technically legal or illicit but what accords with God’s will. And this is the heart of the spiritual life. 

So when Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let no one separate,” I hear an emphasis on the word God. What God has joined together. So many failed marriages seem, in retrospect, to have little of God in them. God wouldn’t join two people together in a verbally or physically abusive relationship. God wouldn’t join two people together in a relationship that didn’t lead to emotional and spiritual growth. God wouldn’t join two people together who lacked the maturity to live a life of mutual joy and respect. But unfortunately God doesn’t get final approval over the pairings. We don’t apply to God for marriage licenses. Human beings, you and I, are free to make these unions ourselves. And so often an untenable marriage full of pain and anguish for both parties is not what God has joined together. Pain is not what God intends for us. There may well be aspects of God’s blessing in each union – times of happiness or the gift of children. But God desires a life of joy for each one of us. And so marriages that are unhealthy are not what God wants for us. God does not “join together” two people who hurt one another.

I’m increasingly convinced that life is a series of death and resurrection cycles. Human relationships are no different. And so divorce is often the painful period of death that precedes the resurrection of new life and growth. And God is at the center of this. Even “successful marriages” have periods of death and resurrection, if the two partners are honest with one another. The good news in this is that Jesus loves us despite our shortcomings. When we are joined together with God through the love of Christ this is one relationship that God has absolutely joined together and it is the one relationship that cannot be separated.

God’s great desire for us is that we live in right relationship with one another. What does it mean to live in right relationship? It means recognizing that our individual needs and desires aren’t always primary. Right relationship is mutual. Right relationship is sacrificial. There is a giving of ourselves to the other. And right relationship allows for continual growth. It is not stifling, abusive, or self-absorbed.

Human relationships are, by their very nature, broken relationships. We are human, we are sinners, we are imperfect. And our relationships with one another reflect this. The one true relationship exists between God and Jesus. This relationship is our guide because in it we see perfect love and perfect obedience. Marriage at its best offers us a glimpse of this divine love. But it also offers a glimpse into our own brokenness and serves as a reminder that the only love that is truly unconditional is God’s love for us. Human beings may fail in their earthly relationships with one another but God never divorces us. Despite our sinfulness, our ignorance, our abuse, and our apathy towards God, God never divorces us. And that’s the good news that Jesus communicates in this exchange with the Pharisees. God’s love made manifest through Jesus Christ abides through all our human weakness. And this is the love that Jesus points to throughout his ministry. That’s the love he calls us to. That’s the love draws us to be part of.

This conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees is about more than just divorce. It’s about how we approach God. It’s not about legalism but about God’s desire for each one of us to be the person God created us to be. And that transcends human rules and regulations and laws. As painful as divorce is, God’s love for us is greater than a piece of paper. God wants us to be fruitful and to thrive. And it sometimes takes a death and resurrection cycle for this to transpire.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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