Sunday, October 7, 2018

Year B Proper 22 2019 Marriage, Deferred

Year B Proper 22, 7 October 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Marriage, Deferred” 

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Mark 10:2-16 Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “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.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

“Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” Supposedly that was uttered by Mark Twain. And this morning’s Gospel is one of those. We hear what it says. Jesus is plain and clear. It talks to us about our sin. It talks to us about our faith. There is no subtlety or nuance in Jesus’ words. But we need to look at marriage, sexuality, and sin for it to be really clear. 

If we saw a child playing with a shotgun, we would raise a stink. And rightly so. We do not take seriously the things we ought. We hold such tremendous power in our hands at times, and play around with them like they are toys. 

Two years ago I was visiting a church just outside of Liverpool. Prescott Parish Church is gorgeous, more than 1,000 years old on the site, more than 400 in this building. As I was getting a behind the scenes tour from the Vicar (equivalent of our Rector) he showed us the bishop’s chair, almost 500 years old. And then he went and opened the safe and handed me a silver flagon. While it was in my hands, he mentioned that it was over 500 years old as well. I about died. What was merely the flagon for communion wine to him, was priceless, irreplaceable, and far too precious to be in the hands of someone like me. I know how clumsy I am. But having something so precious in our grasp, is what I think Jesus is going for when he speaks on marriage and sexuality in particular. 

Life's Little Instruction Book was a very popular book of sayings 25 years ago, or so. Little quick lines of wisdom, from a father to a son if I remember correctly. One word of advice always stuck with me. I did not see the wisdom of it when I read it as much as I do now. But the longer I live, the more I see the truth of it, personally and professionally. “Choose your life's mate carefully. From this one decision will come 90 percent of all your happiness or misery.” (H. Jackson Brown Jr.)  

As we look at today’s reading from the Gospel, we see one of those squirmy Scriptures, one of those things that has been used as a weapon more than as a scalpel. And because of that I want to delicately proceed. When about half of marriages end in divorce, then our understanding of marriage has a problem. Also, when the number of children born outside of marriage is at 40% for the US population (and up to 70% in some racial categories), then marriage has a problem. (Yale Study, 

Several of you in this room may be divorced. For all the people who are friends and loved ones who are divorced, I have heard with love the situations and problems which led to those heartbreaking decisions. Being abused is something God does not ever want for any of us. We can only care for our actions, and too many times our partner’s choices are beyond our influence and there are times when divorce is the best option. And in some situations the only option. 

Getting divorced was what many friends and family members needed to do. Hear that from me first. At the same time, I have stood with the happy couples at the altar as they made promises to each other and to God. These are done with the best of intentions. No one on their wedding day has ever expressed to me that they thought this would end. If they did I would have stopped the wedding right then and there. (Maybe that is why they did not tell me.) I have sat in my office with the “no longer happy” couple as well when promises were not kept, and things did not work out the way they had dreamed. 

Our hearts break when we grieve, and we can grieve for things lost, whether real or hopes and dreams. When we put away dreams, there are lots of reactions, as Langston Hughes’ famous poem describes so well. 

“Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?        
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run? 
      Does it stink like rotten meat? 
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
     Maybe it just sags
     like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode? 

What do we do with those broken, shattered, sagging, or explosive hopes unfulfilled? I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he speaks to divorce. The dream for us, God’s dream for us, all those hopes and fears of all the years are wrapped up in this most important of decisions. And when the dream vanishes, and a sloppy mess is all that remains, that is what Jesus wants us to avoid. 

Nobody hopes for divorce. Nobody wants to go there, or have that happen. Jesus did not either. But to get at what Jesus was saying, we have to understand Jewish divorce law. A man can divorce his wife. That is it. One way. It can only come from the husband. And it is done by saying, “I divorce you.” Now it is not that simple. It is this simple.  “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you.” It is that simple. Three times. Either uttered in a row, or 10 years apart, the third utterance equaled divorce. 

And as Jesus said, Moses allowed it out of hardness of heart on the male’s part that it was even allowed. Women could not initiate divorce. Only men could. Thankfully this has changed. Women are no longer chattel/property.  I believe this came mostly through Jesus’ influence and Paul’s explicit repetition in his writing of the early Christian creed, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” So Jesus is talking to us, men. It is out of our hardness of heart that this was even allowed.  
The power dynamics of gender and politics could not be more current, more relevant. There are many heartbroken and bereft after the events of this last week. It is the same old story retold. Many are hurting because of the vehemence of the opposition. I do not want to go there today. BUT our national debate, or turmoil, is nothing new, other than the fact that women now have a voice and platform to express their understandable rage.  
Jesus wants for us to take seriously and see the eternal ramifications of our choices, some taken so lightly and without any thought of the ramifications, that is like that proverbial toddler playing with a loaded gun.  
I mentioned this while on the Shrine Mont retreat, but it is worth repeating. This is the second time in Mark where Jesus uses a little child to teach them. It is not childishness that Jesus found endearing, when he said let the children come to him. But think of a child, full of faith and trust, they do not question or worry about how things are. They cry when they are hungry knowing they will be fed. They come to the table knowing that the food will be there. They just show up, full of faith that whatever their need is will be provided. The placement of this story with the passage on divorce may seem diametrical, but think about it. Especially in this most pivotal of relationships we need to come at full of faith and trust. We are given the gift of our spouse. We are to treat them as we would treat Christ. This is the ideal we have been given, and too many times it is when we have done less than that that divorce is the outcome. 

Fathers, if you want your children to feel safe and secure, let them see and never question your love and respect of their mother. Mothers, never let it be considered in your children’s minds anything but love and respect for their father. Those that know us better than we know ourselves at times know our hearts, and they get glimpses of our souls. In coming together we humans can bring new life, which is about as godly an act as could be. We rarely recognize the importance, the power, the significance of this most precious relationship. 

Because of that, Jesus wants us to take it so seriously. It cannot be treated carelessly. It cannot be tossed aside without a thought. This is why he elevates the discussion to the level of the 10 Commandments. No one would consciously go there, not the good Jewish men who were listening to his teachings. They would never think of breaking the 10 Commandments (Thou shalt not commit adultery, in particular.), but they might consider divorce. He says that both are that important. Marriage is as important as the teaching of Moses. Jesus does not give this out as a way to make us feel worse, but as a cautionary prescription. “Guard your heart. Guard your heart. Guard the hearts of those in your care.”  

When I perform a wedding ceremony there is a line I always use. I mean it intentionally; I mean it instructionally. It stems directly from what Jesus says here. I tell the happy couple, “As you succeed, so do we all.” As we care for our spouses it is a model of the mystical union of Christ and Christ’s Church. It is an example of the first couple Adam and Eve. It is the training ground for ourselves and our families of how to love the world. It is not to be entered into lightly or unexamined. 

We could almost approach it, like we do our faith. We crawl on Jesus lap, knowing we are always welcome there. We embrace our spouse with the same simplicity and childlike faith. Here, here in this embrace, I am always welcome. This is my home. That is the dream Jesus has for us. That is his hope. Jesus calls less than that sin. 
We picture sin in huge black letters dripping awful gunk. But sin is a technical term I have mentioned before, the difference between the bulls-eye and where our arrow hits. Christ’s dream, Christ’s goal for us, is a mutual, loving, lifelong union. Less than that is missing the mark. No more. No less. 

Jesus says this because he loves us and wants what is best for us. And it is never too late for that dream to come true. Amen. 

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Blessings, Rock