“The Power of Us” Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16 10/4/15
I have to admit I read this week’s assigned gospel text and let out a groan. “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” Having just spent the last 6 months or so getting ready for a wedding, and still barely coming down from last weekend’s wedding celebration of our daughter and now son-in-law, I did NOT want to spend any time at all thinking about divorce!
I also groaned because I know divorce is always a painful subject. Many of you have been through divorce, and know how painful and guilt-ridden it can be. Others of you, perhaps some of the same people, are children of divorce and know how devastating and disruptive it can be from that perspective. Still others of you have never been and perhaps never will be married, so the whole topic of marriage may carry its own pain and stigma.
“Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” Groan…
This is one of those “hard passages” of Scripture, where Jesus’ words seem harsh and decidedly un-pastoral; another one of those antagonistic conversations with the Pharisees. “Agonistic” is actually the word to describe this conversation and was a common form of interchange in ancient Palestine. The word means “combative, striving to overcome in argument” [Dictionary.com] “Verbal jujitsu” is another way to describe it, and Jesus seems to be quite skilled in it. “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’” Jesus counters back, and off it goes.
Here’s the thing–the standard practice for divorce was this, as a passage from Deuteronomy assumes–“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” –that’s the norm, as it says in Deuteronomy 24, traditionally thought to be written by Moses. Wow. I can only imagine how many “objectionable” things Bruce could find about me, but thankfully has chosen not to scribble a certificate of divorce on a notepad and send me off packing. Furthermore, a woman so dismissed would have no resources with which to live, no recourse other to “become another man’s wife,” who, on any given day, might also decide that he found something objectionable in her and so could throw her out.
Jesus is challenging the specific beliefs and practices taken for granted in his culture. And, by the way, despite the oft-quoted passage from Genesis about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife to become one flesh, one man, one woman, along with the sections on marriage in Deuteronomy, the reality of “Biblical marriage” came to include polygamy and concubines as well. We should careful when we or someone else begins a sentence, “Well, the Bible says…”
Marriage is more than a certificate, Jesus says, and you cannot simply end it by declaring on paper that it is over. Divorce in this sense is not even possible. Once you have been married–once you have shared intimacy, have entrusted yourself in a sense to another person– there is no such thing as saying it never happened. That person will always be part of you, and you carry them with you into every future relationship, for good or for ill. You had better acknowledge that and come to terms with it, lest it come up to catch you unawares in the most surprising and inconvenient ways.
In a society where the family–the extended family– was the primary means of support and even survival, Jesus expresses concern for those who would be left without means or defense or support–primarily women and children–if they are dismissed from a family structure. “Making it on your own” was not really an option. We, on the other hand, blithely hold up “self-made men or women” or “rugged individuals” as people to be admired–they don’t “need” anyone else. I actually don’t believe that’s true. While it may not be families that share DNA or bloodlines, we are all much more interdependent than we’d like to acknowledge, not just with those near to us, but with all those who occupy this planet with us. We are all in this together. So we must not be too quick to “write off” those whom we may find “objectionable.”
Which brings me back to last weekend and the beautiful celebration of Meredith and Christopher’s marriage. My dear friend and our children’s godmother Rebecca Dolch was the officiant of the service, so I only had to be the mother of the bride (and the newest mother-in-law in town). In her homily, Rebecca said to Meredith and Chris, “I asked you two, what is it about marriage for two people who are extremely independent, self-sustaining, and fully-formed individuals? And you said that you were deeply moved by the Power of ‘Us.’” A wonderful description of marriage: The Power of Us.”
It’s a wonderful description of a church family, too, of the Body of Christ. “The Power of Us.” On this Worldwide Communion Sunday, we are reminded of just how wide the table is spread, just how big the “us” is. In a marriage, in a church family, in a worldwide communion of Christians, imagine the Power of Us. And then imagine if the Us included all people, not just Christians.
“The power of Us,” Rebecca said, “is a comforting presence”–not only for two people facing the stresses and strains of daily life, but for people who come together as a church family. “A comforting presence” in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. We all need that.
“The power of Us,” Rebecca said, “is a transforming power.” In the push and pull of relationships, in the variety of gifts and graces, preferences and dislikes, we are shaped by one another. Marriage is a kind of people-making machine, as one psychologist suggests, because at some point you will come face to face with a principle or a truth you each thought was foundational but which is now, apparently, in conflict, and because you love each other, you will have to find a way through, deeper into your humanity.
“The power of Us is a confounding mystery,” Rebecca said. “How can you be so different from me and exasperating and yet I love you with raw acceptance?” How can you love me even when you’ve seen me at my worst? The power of Us is a confounding mystery.
And finally, Rebecca said, “The power of Us is a gracious gift that, given attention and nourishment, will continue to unfold throughout a lifetime.” From cradle to grave, at its best the koininia or community of the church can offer all of its members attention and nourishment that will continue to unfold throughout a lifetime.
How many people, here in our community, let alone throughout the world, need to experience the power of US? Maybe the question is, who doesn’t, really? That’s why young men and some women turn to gangs and jihadist groups, because they long for the power of Us. How many perpetrators of violence, like the seemingly endless stream of school shootings and yet again this week’s tragedy in Roseberg, OR, are described as “loners,” not because they want to be but because that is what they have been made into? They’ve never been invited into an “us” that is comforting, transformative, mysterious, gracious.
What are the possibilities of the Us who are members of this body, this loaf and this cup? What might be given birth through us? Imagine. Dream. “The Power of Us’–not just a wonderful description of marriage but also of this church family, which, of course, is part of a greater “us.” The table is set. The bread and cup are ready. We are part of this Body.
Even God is an “us,” the early Christians taught in the doctrine of the Trinity, and we are in God. In sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, for richer for poorer, until death shall part us—but wait, no, not even death will part us. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is good news! Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark