We know that there are some churches where divorced persons are not welcome– not welcome at the communion table, or not welcome to attend at all. My guess is that used to be true at Second Congregational Church once upon a time, but, thankfully, I hope, that is no longer true here. I say “I hope” because I cannot speak from the perspective of one who may have felt welcome or not.
The divorce rate in the United States is now roughly 50%, that is, one in every two marriages will most likely end in divorce. The rate goes up for 2nd and 3rd marriages and varies by age of the persons who marry. One in two. With the possible exception of celebrities whose marriages have lasted a matter of moments or days, that represents a lot of heartache. I personally haven’t spoken to anyone who’s gotten a divorce who hasn’t had some regret or sadness, either because they got divorced or because they got married in the first place. There are also, frequently, expressions of shame or guilt, whether justified or not.
So, an argument could be made that I must be a little crazy to choose to preach on this text from Mark instead of the reading from Hebrews which talks about the supremacy of Christ or, better yet, some passage having to do with worldwide communion. But, on this communion Sunday, this passage may have something to tell us about the nature of communion and connection, and the cost of being connected, or, if you will, the cost of loving.
Once again, “the Pharisees”–the foil for Jesus in the gospels–have sent a delegation to test Jesus. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And Jesus asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They rightly answer, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” It’s true. The law in Deuteronomy allows a man whose wife “does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her,” to write a certificate of divorce, give it to her, and send her out of his house, where, by the way, she is now without resources or home or protection. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you,” Jesus says.
It’s helpful to understand what marriage was in Jesus’ time, because it’s very different from our current Western culture. Biblical scholar John Pilch explains–
In the ancient Mediterranean world, marriages were between families. Each family selected a partner, union with whom was intended to bind the families together, forming a stronger unit. Just as children cannot choose their parents, so too children in this culture could not choose their marriage partners. God chose one’s parents, and through one’s parents God chose one’s marriage partner. Hence Jesus’ cultural truism about marriage: ‘What God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Even such a brief statement of the nature of Mediterranean marriages makes it evident why divorce would be unacceptable. Divorce is not just the separation of two partners but rather the separation of two families. In a society driven by the values of honor and shame, the family of the bride will be shamed. The bride’s male relatives in particular will have to bear the shame as well as the responsibility to remedy it. Feuding will result and undoubtedly escalate to bloodshed. This must be avoided at all cost, hence the cultural rule is no divorce…
(John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle B, pp. 145-6)
You may have heard of the Indian family sentenced to death this week for murdering their daughter and her fiancee because he was of a lower caste and brought shame to their family. Such honor killings, alas, are still all too common in many parts of the world.
The point is, when marriage is talked about in the Bible it is frequently in a very different context than our own, so we should be careful not to make pronouncements about it too easily. Not only does Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ question in the context of a tightly ordered family structure which bound people together in rigid, often deadly ways, but then he refers back to the creation story in Genesis, to God’s intention for human community and relationships. “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Now, as the opponents of same-gender marriage like to say, this refers to Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve, but that is an argument from silence. This story is seeking to answer the question, Where did human beings come from and why are things the way they are? By simple observation, one could see that male and female were necessary to grow the race. God’s intention, therefore, must have been for male and female to join together “and become one flesh.” It really doesn’t conceive of, let alone address, the issue of same-gender relationships; and we know that Jesus also said nothing about them.
Setting up tests, setting up others so that you can separate yourself from them, was not what Jesus was about. Over and over, he sought to create community, to build bridges, to connect people with each other, with God, with their true selves. When the fabric of community was torn or shredded, the result was always heartbreak–it still is–, and it was never God’s intention for human beings.
So I see Jesus’ teaching on divorce in that context. “It is not right for the earth creature to be alone,” God says in the second creation story. We are created for relationship. Whenever we enter into an intimate relationship with another, with all the risks and vulnerability that entails, we “tie the knot” of one part of that fabric. When we in the church bless a wedding, we affirm that God is the third party in that relationship. When, for whatever reason–neglect, abuse, growing in different directions, mistake from the get-go, one or both partners’ lack of commitment, stress, human failing, whatever–when the relationship between two people fails, it tears the thread. It results in various levels of pain.
We know that that level of pain can get ratcheted up by nasty divorce proceedings and bitter battles. Nobody wins there. But what I think Jesus is also saying here is that it’s not really possible to “sunder” what God has joined together; there’s no such thing as leaving a relationship behind as though it never happened. It did. We are part of each other, and god is still a party in the relationship. When I meet with couples who are getting married for a second or third time, I always ask about their former partners because they are in this marriage too. Divorce is a legal proceeding. Connection is a sacred design.
“Connection is why we’re here,” says sociologist and TED Talk speaker Dr. Brene Brown. In her collection of hundreds of stories about vulnerability and connection, she concludes that what unravels connection is shame, which she defines as the fear of disconnection–Is there something about me that makes people not want to connect with me? Isn’t that part of the shame that some people feel when they are divorced? Is there something about me that is unloveable, that’s not worthy of connection? For those of us who have never been married, maybe never been in an intimate relationships, that may also be the fear or even the shame–that there’s something about me not worthy of connection.
Out of all the stories she collected about vulnerability and shame, Dr. Brown decided to focus on those people who, despite it all, still had a sense of worthiness about themselves and a strong sense of love and belonging. The main difference between them and those who didn’t was simply–or not so simply–that they believed they were worthy of love and belonging. They approached life with a whole-heartedness. And what they all had in common was courage, from the Latin root for heart–to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart –the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves and others. They made connections as a result of their authenticity, being true to themselves. They fully embraced their vulnerability, and in fact they believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. “Connection is why we’re here.”
Regardless of our marital status, all of us experience vulnerability. The threads of the fabric are so beautiful yet also so fragile. In just a moment, everything can change. Yet the threads are also so intricately woven together, that the fabric of life is unimaginably strong. Our vulnerability is, indeed, what makes us beautiful, part of a greater Beauty. We can all learn to live wholeheartedly.
Rather than being a ticket to security, marriage is an exercise in vulnerability, to entrust yourself to, throw your lot in with, another person. It is to risk loving, which is always risky–that person may reject you, or change, or hurt you, or die. Whole-hearted living involves the risk of heartbreak.
I actually imagine God as heartbroken much of the time, heart-broken at our turning away from our truth, heart-broken at our hard-heartedness, our cruelty and neglect of one another and the earth, heart-broken at our wall-building obsession instead of our bridge-building calling.
So God is an expert in broken heartedness. Our broken hearts are not alien to God, are no barrier to God. Because God is also an expert in whole-heartedness. God is always patching up the fabric, re-tying the threads, adding a strand of shocking beauty when we least expect it. Always widening the circle to let another in.
That’s what Jesus did when the disciples tried to keep the children away. Children were the least powerful, the most vulnerable, the ones often sent by the adults in that culture to wander into homes or gatherings to find out secrets. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. I’ve got nothing to hide and everything to share.
The invitation to connection, to community, extends to everyone who wants to come. This is the welcome table. Here’s as good a statement of welcome as I’ve seen–it comes from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona Beach, FL–
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We weclome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…and you!
“Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. I’ve got nothing to hide and everything to share. Everything that I have and everything that I am is yours.
Here–This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, the cup of the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for everyone for the forgiveness of sin, or, another way of putting is, for the repairing of the breach between you and God and one another. All are welcome here.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark