A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 4, 2015 (Proper 22, Year B)
In the marriage rite, immediately after the couple exchanges vows, the priest pronounces them husband and wife and then says these words: “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” I love this moment for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it’s the only time I ever get to say the word “asunder.” The line comes from Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel passage and it means “separate” — the more pedestrian modern translation we just heard reads, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” I prefer the word “asunder,” perhaps because it’s such a dramatic moment that it feels right to use a word that rhymes with “thunder.”
What we don’t hear about in the marriage rite is what Jesus says next. He speaks of divorce and adultery. No one wants to hear about such things — certainly not on their wedding day. And no one wants the priest to talk about divorce rates or the odds that the marriage may well be “put asunder” — that the covenant of marriage might, in time, be broken.
My guess is that everyone sitting here has been touched by divorce in some way. As a child of divorced parents, as someone who has been divorced, as a supportive friend for someone going through a divorce, as a parent whose child has been divorced. It’s not easy to talk about; it’s a topic we’d rather avoid or ignore and yet it is a reality of life, a reality of human relationships.
This passage comes up in the lectionary cycle every three years and just think for a moment about those you know who have been divorced in that period of time. I’m well aware of couples here who have been through this and on a personal level, my own brother has gone through a divorce since I last preached on the topic.
But there it is. A reality that affects all of us. And let’s face it, the Church as a broader institution hasn’t always been the most gracious on the topic. Judgment and the lack of a loving response has been the rule rather than the exception. During a painful, isolating time the Church hasn’t always modeled a merciful, loving response.
But forget about the church for a moment. What does Jesus have to say about divorce? After that line about putting things asunder, he goes on to say that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Which for many hits a very raw nerve.
But let’s take a closer look at this passage. As is usually the case, there’s a subtext that transcends the surface conversation. You’ll note Mark sets up this interaction by saying “Some Pharisees came to test Jesus.” Which, in Scripture, is a red flag for “loaded question.” They were trying to trick Jesus into saying something contrary to the Law of Moses which did indeed have a provision for divorce.
But as much as the Pharisees seek to draw Jesus into a legalistic debate, he refuses to go there; he won’t get sucked into an argument over the minutia of the Law. He takes the broad view of faith not the narrow one. So instead of engaging the Pharisees, he focuses on God’s will for all people, in this case regarding the institution of marriage. God’s will, as rooted in creation, is for marriage to bring two people closer to God and one another. It’s not about finding an easy out. And it’s certainly not about protecting a patriarchal system which made it easy for a man to cast off a woman at his convenience. Remember, marriage in Ancient Palestine was less about love than it was an economic contract between two families. To divorce a woman was to leave her as one of society’s most vulnerable members. And, as we know, Jesus’ concern was always focused upon “the least of these;” the oppressed, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak.
So Jesus isn’t saying that divorce should never happen under any circumstances – he’s not getting into that debate. He doesn’t blindly condemn those who have been divorced. Listen again to what he says, “What God has joined together let no one separate.” So many failed marriages seem, in retrospect, to have precious 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 we don’t apply to God for marriage licenses.
For better or worse, human beings are free to make these unions themselves. An untenable marriage full of pain and anguish for both parties is not what God has joined together. Suffering is not what God intends for us. There may well be aspects of God’s blessing in each failed union – times of happiness or the gift of children. But God desires a life of joy for each one of us – not one without hardships, mind you – we weren’t promised a continual honeymoon. But marriages that are unhealthy are not what God wants for us. God does not “join together” two people who hurt one another. Jesus doesn’t condemn divorce; he just wishes it weren’t ever necessary.
The thing is, 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. Marriage at its best offers us a glimpse of the divine love between God and Jesus Christ. 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 puts us asunder. 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 human weakness. And this is the love that Jesus points to throughout his ministry, the love into which he so fervently calls us.
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 while divorce is not to be entered into “lightly or unadvisedly” as the marriage rite advises on entering into holy matrimony in the first place, it sometimes takes the death of a relationship for resurrection to happen.
Three years from now, there will be other relationships that have fractured. Chances are some sitting here will have experienced first hand the emotional pain of divorce and others the ripples of its impact. My prayer for every couple on their wedding day is that through their relationship they will be drawn ever closer to the risen Christ. Which is precisely the same prayer I hold out for all of you.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015