One of the great blessings of ministry is the opportunity to work among so many intact, loving marriages. The statistics suggest that being grounded in a life of faith and of a faith community is a strong indicator for success in marriage, and in a time when half of all marriages fail, that’s important. Growing up, I didn’t know what a good marriage was, never saw married love in action. In my ministry as an adult, I have seen good marriages in abundance. Thank you for that. Not everybody gets married, and not every marriage is a good one. If you have a good marriage – if you had a good marriage – please take a second to thank and praise God, the source of all the love there is.
Marriage is good because it comports with something hard-wired in human character: we need each other; we were made to come together and be together; it is not good for man to be alone, says the Lord in Genesis chapter one. More than that, it is about the best system yet devised for organizing and supporting families and society more broadly. Marriage is not just about two people who put their lives together; it is also about the community and the operation of society.
Well and good, but, as George Bernard Shaw has pointed out, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” So I am grateful for the opportunity this morning to explore one aspect of that dangerous nonsense, one in which Christians down the centuries have been sadly and painfully complicit, and that is divorce.
Before I say anything else, let me say this: divorced people are absolutely welcome in this church, and encouraged to come to Holy Communion. Divorcing people are likewise welcome and are offered the loving support of this church and its pastor.
There is a reason I say that: Human relationships are hard work, and even the ones on which we work the hardest sometimes fail. Marriages fail. Contrary to what the church has taught for centuries, and over against the social tabus that all but criminalized divorce, when a marriage fails, it should be dissolved. And then, instead of recrimination and blame, everyone involved should take a bath of truth, all should forgive and be forgiven (forgiveness is God’s sovereign and only answer to our sin and folly) and then a fresh start encouraged. Staying in a failed marriage helps nobody: the last 15 years of my parents’ marriage while they waited for us kids to grow up and move out was hideous torture for everybody involved.
But here’s why I want to make sure that the word we off the world about divorce is clear and compassionate. When she was finally alone in the house, mother became a recluse; she had no friends, she very seldom went out. One Sunday, though, she managed to get dressed and walk across the street to church, a large, prosperous Southern Baptist congregation in a handsome colonial-style building. The sermon was a ringing denunciation of divorce based on Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Mother never went back, never went to any church again.
So much for the healing power of the gospel.
The position adopted by the church, based on Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, is not only the wrong one for people, it is a gross misunderstanding of his teaching.
When Jesus says what he says this morning about divorce, we must be very careful how we hear him. Jesus was speaking to a particular community in a particular time and place. His words, taken from their context, have caused immense suffering down the centuries. They are woven into the pattern of profound misunderstandings and fantasies that have controlled the church’s teaching about sex and marriage and family.
Jesus is talking about Jewish divorce. The man was in charge. He could divorce his wife by writing out a certificate of divorce, and the divorce was final as soon as he handed it to her. According to Deuteronomy 24, if he married her, but he didn’t enjoy the wedding night, he could divorce her in the morning. She could not divorce him, however, with his written consent, no matter what her reason was. Meanwhile, he could take other wives if he liked, and just let her starve. There was a lot of this sort of thing in the world of Jewish divorce in Jesus’ day.
Jesus takes this down in his usual way: not by dismissing the law, but by intensifying it, making it harder to obey, requiring a higher integrity and respect for God and persons.
This is good. It’s how Jesus taught and as usual it’s meant to be challenging.
But it’s not meant to be what it became. The church basically criminalized divorce, while turning a blind eye to concubinage, sex on the side, what we called at home Hanky Panky, and thus became complicit in the terrible mess about sex, gender, equality, faithfulness, consent, assault and child sexual abuse that we find ourselves in today … Much of the church’s teaching was a stew of tribal prejudices, misplaced idealism, bald patriarchy, puritan fantasy, and utter ignorance of biology and human nature.
It caused a lot of suffering.
Just as some marriages fail, sometimes the church – our preaching, our doctrine, our community – fails as well: we fail to offer hope and healing to those who suffer, we fail to rise to the challenges of modern life, we fail to embody the forgiveness, life and salvation that we eat and drink each week in the sacrament, we fail in real time, with real people.
So let us resolve to recognize and live into the fact that the first thing that broken relationships need, the first thing a broken heart needs, is a healing bath of unconditional love. Let us further resolve to recognize and cherish the great truth that underlies broken hearts and broken relationships, the great primal truth that we need each other, that it is not good for us to be alone, and that there is a hard-wired hunger in our hearts for love, human love, physical love, right-here-right-now kind of love. We need it. We seek it. Sometimes we find it. Sometimes we get it wrong. Some people – and I know people like this – find a love that is holy and entirely spiritual and thrives on prayer. And for some, that’s enough; for others, no so much. No matter: everybody needs love, and love is where you find it.
Just as the church will always be a home for sinners, let it also be a place where love is found, where compassion is shared, where judgements are suspended, and where healing can happen.
Let us pray.