Let us pray: Holy and loving God, you are a God of reconciliation. You are a God of communion. You are a God who desires to live in relationship with each and every person, and yet we know that we do not have it in ourselves to live in reconciliation with each and every person. We pray for the grace to see one another as you see us. We pray for the grace to remember that each person is a beloved child of your creation, and as we celebrate Communion with the church universal, we pray that we may be united in your love and in your peace that passes all understanding. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be a fragrant offering pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, O Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This question and this text causes the typical person (as well as the typical pastor) to glance through text quickly and move on to the next narrative. After all, if we ourselves have not been divorced, we certainly know at least one person who has been divorced. According to the American Psychological Association, The Encyclopedia of Psychology reports the divorce rate in the United States to be somewhere between 40% and 50%. In the Upper New York Conference, when a clergyperson goes through the process of divorce, he or she is required to take time off from the church in order to care for one’s self during the transition from marriage to singleness. Divorce is probably not the best topic for a pastor’s sermon, but I am not going to talk about divorce because when Jesus was asked this question, he did not talk about divorce, either.
“What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 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.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.”
The Pharisees, in the words of this gospel writer, are testing Jesus. They want to know whether or not it is legal to dissolve a marriage. They want to know if a man can divorce a woman for sexual impurity and if it is okay for a man to divorce a woman because the man has grown tired of the woman and no longer finds her attractive. Is it permissible to divorce? This is the heart of the question.
Jesus, as a good rabbi and teacher, first asks the Pharisees what the law says. They correctly respond reciting the letter of the law. Jesus, then re-frames the situation and rather than talking about the dissolution of marriage, Jesus talks about the significance of marriage. Rather than talking about how to cast someone aside, Jesus talks about how we, humanity, have been created for relationship with one another. God created them male and female. God created woman so that man would not live alone. God created a helper for man, so that together they could live in communion with one another. Just as God is our helper and just as God desires to live in relationship with each one of us, so God created us that we would live in relationship with one another.
Now, please hear me when I say that the gospel writer does not mean that if you are married and you are in a relationship in which you are being harmed that you are required by God to stay in that marriage. God intended humanity to live in relationship with one another, but there are certainly times and reasons when staying in a marriage causes greater harm than good. There are certainly times when a relationship is damaged beyond the point of reconciliation, and in those times, we—the church—are called to acknowledge that even though “divorce publicly declares a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties…the welfare of each child is the most important consideration.”
Jesus, throughout the gospel of Mark, has been on an urgent mission: healing, teaching, and proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God is one in which people are not ruled merely by the letter of the law, but where people look beyond, at the intention of the laws given to us. The laws, the commandments given by Moses are more than a list of “Thou Shall” and “Thou shall nots;” these commands were given to help guide us to live more fully in a covenantal relationship with God and with one another.
We, as heirs, to the kingdom of God are called to more than blindly following the letter of the law. We are called to faithfully understand the impact and the intention of the law. We are called to more than following the letter of the law; we are called to act justly and ethically with respect to the law. For when we act justly and respectfully, then we are able to live in relationship and in community with one another.
Last weekend, I found myself in the midst of an argument on Facebook. I rarely comment on memes (photos with writing) that favor one position over another, but I saw a meme that, in my mind, devalued all victims of sexual assault and not just the one captured in this meme. I commented that when a group produces such a meme and when people share such a photo, it is about more than one particular alleged event; it is indicative of how a person might view any person who has been assaulted. How we understand the law and how we express our understanding through our words and actions reflect how we understand community, and ultimately how we live and express laws reflect how we understand our relationship with our creator.
The kingdom of God is near when we look beyond what is or is not permissible and we look at the impact and the intent of the law. The kingdom of God is near when we value one another and act with respect and concern for one another. Yet, our cultural norm has become to abuse the authority with which we have been entrusted or to neglect our full responsibility. To abuse and to neglect is to turn aside from the fullness of the kingdom of God; to abuse and to neglect is to choose what is permissible over what is ethical; to abuse and to neglect is to doubt that God’s grace given through Christ is sufficient for you.
Several weeks ago, I preached on the Syrophonecican woman. In that sermon, I told you that later in the gospel of Mark, Jesus would say, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Well, today is that day. If we want to experience the kingdom of God that has drawn near, then we must cast off our pretenses, cast off our concerns, cast off our anxieties. We must let go of our own ideas of what it means to be valued, to be loved, to be safe, and we must open our outstretched arms like a young child waiting to be lifted, held, and comforted.
On this World Communion Sunday, it is my prayer that we, along with our siblings in the church universal, would pause and celebrate the communion we share with one another through the grace of God: our creator, our redeemer, and our sustainer. Amen.