The Dilemma Today is the Sunday Trinity Cathedral has designated as the beginning of our two month Annual Renewal Program. I have a phantasy that if Trinity Cathedral was a mega church I would be well prepared for the commencement of the program by having pre-selected a text or a series of texts well in advance. I would then have built an impressive series of sermons around my text or texts, all of which in a subtle variety of cleaver ways, utterly convinces you- my hearers- of the need to open your wallets as wide as your desire is to open your hearts.
Alas, this option is not open to me. In a liturgical tradition the preacher is both constrained and enabled by the fixed nature of the Lectionary. Constrained, because as we begin our Annual Renewal Program, I am not able to pick and choose scriptural texts around which to build an utterly convincing argument for the necessity of tithing. Enabled, because the Lectionary forces me to stay within the conversation that God chooses to have with us as a community concerning his dream for our becoming. The Lectionary disciplines us, not only me, but all of us, to listen to what God is telling us as a community – a community that seeks to remain within a covenanted relationship with God’s self. In our tradition preaching is not so much a conversation that I have with all of you. It’s the articulation -often in seemingly inarticulate groans and sighs – of the conversation the Holy Spirit is fostering with us.
All of this is a preamble to the more difficult task of squaring-up to the gospel for our commencement Sunday – Jesus’s teaching on divorce. Aghhhhhhhhhhhh!
Taking the text Head-On In some churches you would hear the preacher present this text as the scriptural basis supporting the indissolubility of marriage. In other churches you might hear the preacher attempt to explain this text away. Both approaches successfully avoid struggling with the text. The opportunity this text presents is one of the most powerful examples of what we as Episcopalians really believe God is calling us to do. We are a tradition that believes that each generation has to sit in the tension between the tradition, as we receive it, and the lives we actually live. At Trinity Cathedral we express this through our tag-line:
Trinity Cathedral where traditional worship meets with contemporary ideas.
If you want to know who we are and why you might feel drawn to belong here, this tag-line says it all.
This is the fourth week of a consecutive reading from the central chapters of Mark’s Gospel. Each week our struggle with the text has led us to an understanding which connects the scripture with the reality of the lives we live without hopefully, damaging the integrity of either. You might like to refresh your memory of this journey by rereading my sermon blogs beginning on September 16th or listening to the sermon podcasts posted on the Trinity Homepage or Facebook page.
Jesus’s words about divorce are not, as in the case of last week’s Gospel reading, an example of his use of hyperbole. The context is one of those pesky ones where the Pharisees, presented in the Gospels and the bad guys, seek to entrap Jesus in the manner reminiscent of a presidential debate. It’s refreshing to see that Jesus does not pivot.
The key line for me is where Jesus, referring to the Mosaic Law tells the Pharisees that divorce was allowed:
Because of your hardness of hearts …
He then tells them that this was not what God intended from the beginning of Creation. So does this mean, as the Church once universally contended, and in some sections of Christianity still does, that divorce is a sin against God’s intention at the Creation that men and women to live together in indissoluble marriages? I think not!
For a more in-depth exploration of the reasons why I think Jesus is not universally ruling out divorce, I refer you to an exegesis of the context and meaning of today’s text by Matt Skinner in his 2009 commentary on the Mark 10:2-16 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10%2f4%2f2009&tab=4
Themes Within the Text What I see here is not so much Jesus talking about divorce but about the integrity of marriage, and within that integrity, the rights of the woman. For it was, and remains, God’s intention that human beings accept their responsibilities for one another when they choose to enter into covenanted relationships. What makes marriage a covenanted relationship is that God at Creation intended that human beings should not live alone. It is also an earthly image for the covenanted relationship between Christ and the community of those who follow him.
Last Wednesday, I was part of a discussion of the upcoming Gospel passage at the Bishop’s weekly staff meeting. I listened hoping to glean some helpful pointers for addressing this text. Instead I became deeply moved as in this mixed group of colleagues, some clergy, some lay, several persons spoke of the painful memories of their experience of divorce. If I could sum up my sense of their pain, it was the pain of the loss of innocence. The pain of the disillusionment at finding themselves unable to continue to live in an unhappy marriage. What seemed to have hurt them most was not the emotional trauma of the break-up of their relationships but the breaking of their sacred vow to live with their marriage partner for the rest of their lives. It seemed to me that no-one in that room who had been through a divorce, had remained unscathed by the loss of their once innocent belief that when you make sacred promises everything should work out, and people should live happily thereafter.
The loss of our innocence leaves a deep and often ugly scar in us. And yet, I also noted that each of these persons had gone-on to make a new and fulfilling marriage with another person. For me there could not be a more graphic example of how we are called to live in the tension between the tradition we receive and the lives we actually live. As Anglican Christians this place of tension is where we expect to encounter God. It is in this tension that God comes looking for us.
I am at the point where I feel I could go on writing about Mark 10:2-16 all day. I interpret this feeling to be a sign that I need to wrap-up this blog entry. The central statement in this whole passage for me is when Jesus refers to divorce as a law written to mitigate the hardness of human (read male) hearts.
Two Distinct Conversations Jesus has one conversation with the Pharisees and then moves to a different conversation when he goes indoors with his disciples. With the Pharisees Jesus seems to be concerned about the plight of women in the case of a writ of divorce. Under the Mosaic Law the writ of divorce was to be given to the woman as a protection against the huge discrimination she would experience in a patriarchal society where women were merely the chattel firstly of their father and then their husband. The Pharisees, all men of course, make no mention of this aspect of the Law.
When Jesus is alone with the disciples he specifically includes the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband in cases of adultery. Matt Skinner notes that this was such a shocking suggestion that Matthew, in his Gospel omits mention of this possibility altogether. It’s an interesting aside that in the Church of England the priest hands the marriage certificate to the bride reminding her that the certificate is her legal property and not her husband’s. This custom is a historic leftover from a time when proof of marriage was a woman’s only legal protection in a society where it was men who held the upper hand.
Jesus seems to be saying not that there can never be a divorce but that in divorce men and woman are equal. In his conversation with the Pharisees his message is that divorce is impossible when it is being used by men as a loophole to justify adultery. When this is the case, divorce or no, the new marriage contract does not protect the guilty person from continuing in an adulterous state. Jesus does not see the sin of adultery as a sin against the property rights of other men, but a sin against the marriage partner- against the wife – a sin against covenanted relationship. This is the link to his second and different conversation with the disciples. Here, Jesus alludes to the centrality of the marriage partnership. He seems to understand that both men and women can institute divorce and that both will be morally accountable to each other for their behavior. I don’t read his words to be saying that relationships never fail. I hear him speaking against the reduction of the marriage relationship to a matter of male property rights over women and divorce as the easy legal loophole to justify male or female adultery.
Jesus’ Concerns I note how having shown his concern for woman Jesus then rebukes the disciples for their exclusion of the children from his presence – suffer the little children to come unto me for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. In today’s passage we hear Jesus continuing is teaching about vulnerability.Woman and children are the images Jesus uses for the way that God, incarnate in himself, volunteers to become vulnerable to the hardness of the human heart. To be vulnerable and excluded from the protections of power is the chief qualification for inclusion into the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ seeming prohibition on divorce is not a denial of the propensity for human relationships to fail. It is a reminder that covenanted relationships carry responsibilities that can’t be sloughed off without a recognition of the pain of relationship failure. This is a pain that is healed only through repentance. Only in repentance do we gain the ability to move forward and learn from our failures how to make better informed future choices.
Linking the Improbable Perhaps this Gospel reading is not such a bad one to have on the Sunday we commence our annual renewal, looking forward to 2013. Rather than being read as a prohibition on divorce the text is about the integrity of marriage and the costs to the human heart when marriages fail. It’s about marriage as a model of covenanted relationship intended by God at Creation. That God intends marriage as a fruit of Creation necessitates in our own generation, extending the concept of covenanted marriage to include our gay brothers and sisters. It is also a reminder that through our baptism, we, as the saving, and cross bearing community of Christians at Trinity Cathedral, on the corner of Central and Roosevelt, have entered into an intentional and covenanted relationship with God. As members of the Body of Christ we incur responsibilities and obligations to our faith community.
Not to put too fine a point on it. One of the responsibilities of our covenant of baptism is to open our wallets as wide as we desire to open our hearts. Wallets and hearts exist in a virtuous cycle. If we are serious about being in covenanted relationship with God, the opening of one is intended by God to lead to the opening of the other. However, more about pledging and tithing in weeks to come. So stay tuned!