October 4, 2015

“On Reading the Bible”
Mark 10:2-16

Today is World Communion Sunday and I wish I could preach a nice sermon on the unity of all God’s people as we gather around the table of the Lord. But I cannot. Once you read out loud this text from chapter ten in Mark’s gospel, you have to say something about it.

I just read parts of this text to a different gathered congregation last weekend. It was at a wedding.

I have a list of suggested texts, taken from our Book of Worship, that I share with couples ahead of time and I ask them to read the texts aloud to each other and decide on two that will be read at their wedding.

The suggested text for weddings does not include the entire portion we read this morning. I didn’t read the part about the Pharisees questioning Jesus. Last Saturday I did not read the part about what the Commandments say. I did not read the part about adultery. What I did read was the part about the unique ‘one-ness’ that comes in any covenant commitment like marriage.

What I was doing was to select a text that supported the ritual that we had gathered to perform, a wedding. It wasn’t terribly important, in that moment, to expand the reading to include what, at first glance seems to be a contradiction. Here it is: The law says it is perfectly ok to divorce your wife with little more than a note that says she may go. Jesus, however, reads into the law and says that if you do this permitted thing, divorce, you are engaging in breaking one of the ‘top ten’ rules, adultery.

I so wish that Jesus had said more about this. I could use some good advice. So I went looking around. In Matthew’s later version of this story, for instance, he adds an exception to the standard regarding marriage and divorce spoken that Mark relates, and if you look to Paul you’ll find yet another. Christians apparently have always struggled with these issues, so should we be surprised that we continue to struggle today?

Some years ago I had a young woman call me. “Can we meet, today,” she pleaded. So we met at the office. She came in, big sunglasses only slightly hiding a black eye. I didn’t assume anything. But the physical abuse she had been suffering came out amidst many tears. I let her vent. Then she asked, “what should I do?” I told her, “you and your children should get out of there to someplace safe.” “Divorce,” she asked? “Yea.” There was a slight pause, and then she looked at me, and I’ll never forget this, she said, “you are not supposed to tell me that, you are a pastor.”

What she was implying was that she expected me to abide by some ancient and antiquated notion of marriage where the wife, during the marriage vows, promised to ‘submit.’ Back then there was no parallel promise in the groom’s vows. She was emphasizing that, and the ‘for better or worse’ part. Emphasis on worse. I stuck by my advice then, and would offer the same in any similar situation today.

You may have heard Pastor Goguts, last Sunday, mention that he and Carol recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Becky and I will be celebrating our 34th very soon. I will say what Pastor Goguts said: “That’s a very long time.”

Whenever someone asks me how long we’ve been married and I say 34 years I generally get some word of congratulation. I am thankful for that, but I usually tell them to compliment Becky because she has put up with me for all that time. She has put up with gun dogs shedding in the house, muddy boots, strange things in the freezer. While it is true that opposites attract, it sometimes makes for difficulties in a relationship.

And difficulties, not abuse, not infidelity, sometimes lead to couples ‘writing’ for divorce.  Some of you might know that the law Jesus is referring to allows men to write for divorce of their wives.  In this instance, the balance of social and economic power in the relationship tips sharply toward the husband. Divorced women had no other option, other than being on the street, than to remarry as quickly as possible.  Jesus is criticizing the men here.

While the social conditions have changed since the time St. Mark recorded this story. The world at large has different expectations about all relationships, particularly marriage. I am not sure people have changed. See, this whole business of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees reads, to me, like he is telling them that they have been playing it ‘fast-and-loose’ with the law. The only reason for the permission giving the law provides is because people can be ‘hard-hearted.’ God’s creation insists that we do not take relationships lightly.

And so Jesus is calling into question a marriage practice in our contemporary society. Let’s call it serial monogamy. One day, or a string of days, the wife burns the pot roast or the husband doesn’t pick up his laundry; perhaps she yelled at him for something one to many times; or he spent the night out playing poker with the boys again. I don’t know. But these two decide they are just not a good match and get a divorce. Then, they find someone, begin dating, and get married. Then one day the pot roast is burned or the laundry is in the middle of the bathroom floor and the cycle begins again.

What I often tell young couples who come to see me about getting married is that perhaps the single most important element in your relationship is commitment. I am all for the electricity between two people, the greeks called it ‘eros.’ But if that is the basis for a relationship, you are in big trouble.

Sometimes people love another person, and enter into the relationship believing that they can ‘change’ something about that person that they find distasteful, or aggravating. We all change, of course, but to assume you can change another into something or someone you want them to be is a ‘fanciful hope.’

When Becky turned 40, I jokingly said, at the birthday party, that I was considering trading her in for ‘two twenties.’ My mother in law ‘Kitty,’ quickly said in her West Virginia accent, “honey, you aren’t wired for 220.”

Nelson Mandela, father of modern day, post apartheid South Africa, spent 27 years in prison. Two short years after his release Winnie and Nelson separated. I wondered, ‘here is a man who spent 27 years in some of the worst prisons on the face of the earth. He gets out, reunited with family, and relatively quickly says in effect, ‘I can’t handle this.’ Really? Somehow he had the inner strength and fortitude to survive brutality but cannot put up with this woman.

As some Facebook pages identify, some relationships are “complicated.”

So in my reading of the Bible, taking the path of Jesus, I have a hard time sticking to the letter of the law. I am speaking to those of you who think that you have it all figured out now because somewhere in Leviticus or Exodus it says, ‘thus and so,’ you are wrong. Jesus himself doesn’t do that; here he is emphasizing the ‘intent’ of the law. It is not so much that divorce is not tolerated but what he is saying is that trivialization of the human relationship is what has gone wrong.

I want to take a minute and speak to those who might be new in the faith, haven’t thought about this too much, or perhaps have found yourself in this very situation. Whenever human relationships do not reflect the goodness and grace of God we have a responsibility to get things right, and if that is not possible, then there is this one, last, resort. It is a last resort, not a first choice. When chosen, it is sad, in every case, that things turned out this way but good people find themselves in this situation with some frequency. Does ‘sticking it out’ no matter what glorify God? I don’t think so.

We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at 10:12. Instead, we have the brief story in 10:13-16 of people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. And, that relationship, at its best, does what it is supposed to do: glorify God.