October 7, 2012/World Communion Sunday
The movie Eat, Pray, Love tells the story of author Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the book by the same name about her year long journey to challenge, change and expand her life. Her particular quest for new understanding and recapturing her passion for living began when Liz realized that her marriage was coming to an end. She divorced her husband, attempted a relationship with another man which also failed, and then made the decision to rediscover herself by spending a year living in three different places: Italy, India and Indonesia, specifically Bali.
In the movie when she first gets to Rome, she is looking at an apartment to live in during her stay. The landlady is showing her around, sees that her ring finger is empty and asks Liz about her marital status. Liz, in faltering Italian, tells the landlady that she is divorced. The lady asks back in Italian, “why divorced?” Liz, struggling to piece together the words in Italian, gives up and answers in English. “We broke it.”
We broke it.
There is no passage that I want less to preach on than this one from Mark. In years past when it’s come up in the lectionary, I’ve taken a variety of approaches to it, including not preaching on it at all. But it’s hard to hear a passage of this intensity read in worship, and then not hear something said about it. The topic is too personal, too prevalent and all of us, in one way or another, has been touched by it. Divorce. We broke it.
Jesus’ words are in response to a question asked of him by the Pharisees. This is an old trick of the Pharisees. They ask him a question they already know the answer to – or think they know the answer to – as a way to trap Jesus. Jesus always sees through their trickery though, and usually throws the question back at them. This time is no different. The Pharisees ask if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. This wasn’t some hypothetical question. Divorce happened. There wouldn’t be rules regarding it if it didn’t happen. In fact it was relatively easy for a man to divorce his wife according to Jewish law. As I understand it a husband basically just had to say, “I divorce you.” Prenuptial agreements weren’t unheard of then either. Marriage essentially was a contract between two people or between two families. There were clauses provided for separation of property, etc. in the initial contract. Divorce wasn’t unheard of. And the Pharisees knew it when they asked this question of Jesus. Jesus immediately asks them a question. “What did Moses command you?”
Well Moses allowed for a man to write down a certificate of dismissal, essentially a document that says, “I divorce you.” But Jesus tells them that the reason Moses did this was because the people had hardness of heart. They were stubborn and persisted in knowing the ways that a relationship could be broken. But that wasn’t what God intended. What God intended was that people should be in relationship. Marriage was one way that two people could be in a relationship, to support one another in relationship. That divorce was allowed was Moses’ way of acknowledging that we mulish, hard headed and hard hearted human beings struggle with being in relationship. And too often we are about broken relationships.
Jesus’s tough words about divorce also point to how seriously he took marriage. As I said earlier, a marriage at that time was a contract. Marriages weren’t often made for love; they were made for alliance, stability, security. A woman needed marriage for protection. The family name needed to continue, so children had to be born in legitimate relationships. I don’t know if the idea of true love was a factor in marriages at that time. But I think Jesus understood that marriage was more than just contractual. It was a promise. He challenges the Pharisees to think beyond Moses to Genesis, and the intention of the marriage relationship stated there.
God intended us to be in relationship. I agree. But I also know that for most of us divorces don’t just happen randomly or without thought. Divorce may be a broken relationship but that broken relationship can be necessary. Sometimes two people just shouldn’t be married, and the only way forward is divorce.
In writing on this passage for Working Preacher.org, Karoline Lewis, a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote about her own parent’s divorce when she was a senior in college. They were married for 27 years, but that length of time didn’t mean that their divorce wasn’t necessary. She writes that they are better people, better parents, better grandparents, because they made the tough but courageous decision to end their marriage. They broke it.
Our cultural expectations about marriage have also changed. Not everyone walks through life hoping to be married. I know far too many people who should have stayed single, and ended up in unhappy marriages because they felt enormous pressure to be married. Marriage has been set as an ideal in our culture, but not everybody finds their happiness, their fulfillment or their purpose in marriage.
We’re also fighting a culture war about the definition of marriage. Who should be married? What is marriage supposed to look like? Who has the right, legally and morally, to decide that? I’m not prepared to head that debate, but these are questions we have to find a way to talk about faithfully and compassionately.
It seems to me that when we struggle with a passage like this, a passage where Jesus speaks hard, even harsh words, we also have to hold these words in tension with who Jesus was overall. Jesus wasn’t afraid to be tough when that was necessary. He didn’t soften his words to appease his challengers and critics. But he also didn’t tell broken people, “Too bad for you! You broke it!” Jesus came for the broken people. He came for those who were sick and hurting. He came for those who were grieving, who were angry, who were outcast and marginalized. That was his primary concern. The reason these words on divorce are followed by the story of him taking children on his lap, in spite of the disciple’s objections, was because of his concern for those marginalized in society. Children were a prime example of marginalization. They had no power, no voice and no real place. They were completely dependent on others for everything. Jesus came for them. He came for the powerless and the voiceless, the weak and the dependent. He came for the broken.
We’re all broken. And we all have some hand in our brokenness. But I just cannot believe that Jesus would tell a broken person, divorced or otherwise, you have no place with me. I think the opposite is true. You’re broken? Be with me. Follow me. Find wholeness in me. Be in relationship with me so you can be in relationship with others.
Jesus came to show the world a new way to be in relationship with God and with each other. No matter how broken we are, we still need relationship. We still need community. Nothing makes me sadder than hearing someone say that they stopped coming to church after their divorce. They were too embarrassed. Too ashamed. As if church is for the perfect people?! No, this is where the broken people come. Or at least it should be.
There’s a quote I found online from the author John Green that says, “The world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.”
This morning we will come forward to this table and take bread and drink from the cup as a community, in relationship not just with each other but with people around the world. And even though we aren’t saying Green’s words aloud, that is what we are proclaiming, “The world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.” Because at this table, in this bread and this wine, in the people around us, in the Spirit moving in our midst, in the love of God and in relationship with the Son, we find hope. We know love. We are broken, but in relationship with God we are made whole. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”