I ask your prayers this morning in name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Forty-eight years ago on October 9th, 1973, the Episcopal Church at its 64th general convention recognized civil divorce. No longer would one be subject to excommunication or denied the sacrament. And the one year waiting period for remarriage was abolished. As you might imagine, this was big news and covered in newspapers all across the country. Our church had begun debating these cannons in 1808 when it passed a resolution prohibiting remarriage after divorce, except in cases of adultery. It’s been a touchy and messy subject since. The irony of this should not be lost on anyone. The English Reformation, the founding of the Church of England, our Anglican tradition all came into being because Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Lord have mercy, that man had six wives. As the ditty goes: one died, one survived, two de-wedded, two beheaded.
When Henry broke with the Pope and declared himself head of a new church in 1533, it was because he wanted to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir. Perhaps more than any of Jesus’s pronouncements, this one concerning divorce and remarriage has caused two millennia of soul crushing pain and rejection. It begs a scandalous question: did Jesus miss the mark on this one? Were his expectations unrealistic, his standards too high? Could he really demand such purity of heart from us mortals? Dare I ask, is he the one whose heart is a little too rough around the edges? As far as we know, he never married. This, my friends, is tough stuff and I must admit, I’ve had a hard time trying to find the good news in this gospel passage. One of the responsibilities of a preacher is to make sure that the gospels of love do not become messengers of shame and despair.
I appreciate how the New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, wrestles with some of the more confounding things Jesus said. She compares her struggles with scripture to the conflict one may have with the spouse or best friend. She writes, “When the love is strong enough, then honesty is not a threat. We can say, I think that’s a dangerous comment to make, or even how dare you, because the love keeps us in relationship. At times we have to agree to disagree, but the love continues.” And so, it goes with our own wrestling with scripture in the red-letter words of Jesus.
So let’s begin by asking what might this text have meant in its original context. Keep in mind that Jesus had turned his face toward Jerusalem. He took every opportunity to declare that the kingdom of God was radically different from first century Palestinian and Greco Roman culture. For starters, Jesus foils the rhetorical trap set by the Pharisees. They pose a question they know has no satisfying answer, yet Jesus manages a positive answer. Jesus speaks of God’s intention for marriage by not proposing the excommunication of any of his followers who divorce. Instead, he seeks to abolish the prerogative of husbands ending their marriages on a whim. At the time, Jewish law stipulated that a man could divorce his wife simply if she displeased him. Jesus does not deny the current practice of divorced as given to Moses in the 24th Chapter of Deuteronomy. Instead, he trumps it with another passage, the oldest of old school passages from the Torah. Jesus takes the Pharisees back to the very beginning, to the passage from Genesis in which God realized that his creation was incomplete. One can imagine God fretting, “It is not good for a human to be alone.” God wanted to give the very first human a partner, a helper, a companion in whose very image the first human had just been made. So, when Jesus tells his disciples whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. He is actually more concerned about mutual respect and equality between the two. In his day, adultery was understood as a crime against another man’s honor and property. You see a man could be as sexually promiscuous as he liked, as long as it didn’t violate another man’s property. A woman was required to be faithful or chased, so as not to bring shame on her husband and father. What’s more, when a woman received a certificate of divorce, she lost most of her rights. She could find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income. And if she were accused of adultery, she could be stoned to death. Jesus is saying that in his kingdom, divorce and remarriage amount to adultery for both women and men.
While Jesus concedes that divorce is something one can do, he insists that it is not what God intended. The question is not a legal one, he tells them, not at its heart. At its heart, the purpose of all human interaction, all human communion, is spiritual. What did God originally intend? What is God’s enduring dream? That the two become one flesh, that no one runs asunder what God joins together. This is my favorite part in our marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer. I love to wrap my stole around the couple’s hands, and I say that very thing, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one rend asunder.”
So now my friends, this is where I need you to open your minds, to free yourself from any notion that Eve being created from Adam’s rib meant that she was subordinate. In response to the dilemma of Adam needing a helpmate, God dreamed only as God can. My favorite spiritual writer, Debbie Thomas describes it this way, “The dream of likeness, a dream of partnership, a dream of intimacy. When the dream was realized, when God brought Eve to Adam, that first human being cried out in a kind of joy that had never been heard on earth before. This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Behold, my other half, my companion, my compliment, my friend. Here is someone I instinctively know. Someone obviously as precious, as singular, and as priceless to me as my own bones. My own flesh. My own self.” Human community began, Genesis tells us, with complete empathy and nurture. God’s model for the human family was a model of equality and mutuality. What Adam noticed first was not difference, it was similarity. Bone of my bones. It’s unfortunate that verse 25 was left off the lectionary because it reads, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Of course, times of prosperity and adversity lie ahead, but the role of a suitable, not subordinate, helper through it all is a constant. In the beginning, the couples stand side by side one flesh and mutuality and equality, but not subsumed by the other.
I think the scripture confronts us with our own cardio sclerosis, our own hardness of heart. In other words, the reason human relationships fail. The reason we wreak such destruction and brokenness on ourselves and innocent bystanders, is not that God’s dream is naive, idealistic, or fantastical. It’s because we humans are hard of heart. We’re selfish. We fall into self-hate and egotism. We’re lazy. We poison and dull our senses with substances. We break ourselves. We sin. To accept that God’s desire for human marriage is lifelong intimacy and companionship is not to suggest that God’s ideal is always possible or that failing in a marriage is a sin. It is not. The tension that we feel lies with Jesus insisting that the covenant of marriage could not be dissolved, but this is where the Holy Spirit comes to the rescue, as well as our own theology as Episcopalians, which allows reason to co-exist with scripture and tradition. And no, we are not surrendering to modern morays or caving to culture. We trust that God’s revelation did not end with the Bible and that God reveals God’s self to us as much today as when the Bible was canonized. As hard as it is to admit, the Bible and reality sometimes conflict. And we hold on too tight to the wrong thread of faith. The Holy Spirit, you see, moves and breathes within the pages and guides our reading and understanding of it, so that we can find abundance in life rather than shame and despair.
Scripture also makes abundantly clear that God’s dream is that all human relationships serve as dedicated lifelong schools for love. And that God does not love any dream more than God loves us. God’s dream for marriage is not meant to trap us, wound us, diminish us, or condemn us. Even though Adam’s cry at seeing Eve was a cry of pure joy, a cry of ecstatic recognition, we know that sometimes joy dies. Sometimes the familiar becomes unrecognizable. Marriage makes our vulnerabilities so familiar. Sometimes intimacy ends in betrayal. When these things happen, though, there is grace. There is mercy and there is freedom. Grace, mercy, and freedom. Always, always, always. Don’t ever forget that.
Toward the end of this chapter in Mark, after Jesus reverses the values, the hierarchical status quo in which men are valued over women, and adults over children, he offers another, perhaps the most uncomfortable proclamation of all: that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. “Then who can be saved?” the disciples fret. Jesus looks at them and says, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.” My friends, I have witnessed miracles in marriages and in divorces. Forgiveness, open heartedness, restored trust. Just a few years ago, I officiated the marriage of a divorced couple who remarried each other. They have a daughter. One day she confided in her father that her mother never stopped loving him. After a few years and a lot of hard emotional and spiritual work, they reconciled. I cannot begin to tell you how beautiful it was to bless them with their daughter kneeling in-between during that final marriage blessing. The fact that the marriage took place in Resurrection Chapel beneath this Sanctuary was not lost on anyone. This is not a fairy tale. This is God.
With God, all things are possible, and all things are possible for those who divorce. You are loved beyond our finite comprehension, and you are wedded to Christ. For that, I am certain. For those whom God has joined together, let no one rend asunder.