“Dear Marriage Care friends,
Sorry to have to bring this news to all of you, especially as Dave and I have been Marriage Care all-stars in the past, but it now looks almost certain we’ll divorce.
I don’t know what to tell you; I’m not entirely sure how it happened myself. A little more than six weeks ago, he first announced his intention to leave, and after a couple attempts at reconciliation, he moved out, announced he wasn’t willing to put in any more effort at reconciling, and sent me a divorce petition through a lawyer. We still correspond, and while he still seems to care for me, there’s a lot in his decision that I’m not privy to, it seems he’s been planning it for a while, and he’s been more invested in splitting up than trying to reconcile.
In any case, I just wanted to send this letter because I thought you should know, and wanted to ask for your prayers at this time. It has been a whirlwind of emotions for me (as I’m sure it’s been for Dave), but God has provided much comfort in this trial.
Again, sorry to get back in touch only to give such bad news. If you want, you can consider it our effort to help the odds for the rest of the couples in a place where half of all marriages end in divorce (one has to try to keep her sense of humor in times like this.)
I got that email a few years back from a friend who spent two years in a Marriage Care group at Luther Seminary while I was a student there. I knew her well, because I was in the same Marriage Care group. Unfortunately, I also knew what she was feeling very well: I sent a very similar email to the same friends. Out of the five couples in that Marriage Care group, two of them are now divorced.
So, let’s begin this time together with the facts: I stand before you under a sentence of condemnation from this morning’s gospel passage. At one time, a pastor in the midst of a divorce was expected to remove himself or herself from the ministry, as a pastor is supposed to be a person of high moral standing and an example to the community to which he or she is called. That is no longer the case, but divorce remains a serious wound in the church and in the world at large. But Jesus presents another way of looking at our failings, and I hope you’ll hear it, as I do, as good news for sinners.
The first thing to do is acknowledge that Jesus isn’t kidding in our gospel reading this morning. In fact, he takes a question that was asked as a legal trap and elevates the answer by changing the debate completely. In the law given to Moses from God in the Old Testament was a provision where a man who found something objectionable with his wife could present her with a certificate of divorce, put her out of his house, and that was that – he had divorced her. (Keep in mind that women had no equal rights under that law – a woman couldn’t divorce her husband) But rather than getting trapped in legalities, Jesus began to address the intent God has had for creation from the beginning. Jesus claimed that even the legal concept of divorce is recognition of how far humanity has wandered from what God intends for creation.
“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Our Old Testament reading says that Adam was created first, and that Eve came after, as a helper to Adam. But the Hebrew is not so simple, and the story is more than it seems In the Hebrew language, all nouns have a gender – they are either masculine or feminine. But in this case there is an exception. The word for “man” is a-dam. Literally, it means, “One from the earth.” It refers to God forming humanity out of the soil. AND a-dam has no gender. Literally, you should read these first few verses in our Old Testament reading with “The Human” wherever “Adam” appears. A-dam does not become ha ish, “the man,” until God creates ha ishah, “the woman.” Some traditions use this passage to justify a higher order for men; an honest reading of the text tells us that man only becomes man when woman is created; we can only be defined by our relation to one another. Notice that in the Genesis passage it is the man who leaves his family to be joined to his wife, while in Jesus’ time women were given as property to their husbands. The Pharisees, like many in that time, saw women as possessions, while Jesus insisted that God has meant for all humanity to live in creative partnership together, and Jesus used the testimony of Genesis as proof of what God means for us to be.
But why would God allow divorce, if God has a different intent for human relationships? Jesus said it loud and clear: God allows divorce due to the hardness of the human heart. This is where God’s intent for creation meets our brokenness head-on, and rather than condemning broken vows or life-destroying marriages, God has created a means by which the worst of human sinfulness might be redeemed and reconciled with God’s creative intent. Genesis is clear that God does not mean for us to be alone: that is the reason God creates a second human to partner with the first. But notice how God creates the partner; the a-dam must give something of itself before the partner is suitable. It is not good for us to be alone, but we are not suitable partners for one another without some measure of self-sacrifice; this is who God means us to be. Where that sacrifice is no longer present, the relationship is troubled – this is true in marriages, in friendships, in every relationship that we can imagine here on earth. Sometimes there can be a rebirth to the relationship. There are marriages and friendships that suffer through rocky periods and emerge stronger for having been tested in the fire. But sometimes relationships die, or are killed by sins committed one against the other, and all that happens in the rocky times is an insult and defacing of what was once a healthy, vibrant relationship. Sometimes relationships can poison us to the point where we either choose divorce, the end of the relationship, or we commit ourselves to a living death, where something God has created in us dies slowly and in great anguish. It is this kind of suffering that divorce is meant to prevent, and it is this kind of death that God works against by allowing divorce due to the hardness of the human heart. Relationships die because we either cannot or will not forgive – that is the hardness of the human heart.
Does God mean for any of us to divorce, to claim that what one does in divorcing a spouse is right? Absolutely not. Divorce may be lawful, but it ain’t right. God allows divorce because of our brokenness, our frailty, our heard hearts that can’t be what they were meant to be in God’s creation. Jesus made it clear that divorce, while legal, is not what God means for us to be, and no amount of legal wrangling will make it so. But Jesus didn’t leave us there, either – Jesus provides the answers we need to hear, both in his words and in his deeds. He shows us what life is as God means it to be – life received as a child receives life, a gift, something undeserved and far beyond our ability to repay, and yet something we have received and are meant to enjoy to the fullest.
Make no mistake: divorce is divorce. Sin is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right. We cannot hide behind our lesser sins because we’re ashamed of our greater sins. We cannot clothe ourselves in righteous morality and be suitable partners to each other. We cannot shame our neighbors or our partners into relationships that are what God intends them to be. Are we adulterers? YES. We are covetous. We bear false witness. We live in broken relationships. We do violence against one another. We fail to protect each other's property. We dishonor our parents, elders and families. We don't keep Sabbath. We use God's name disrespectfully, even contemptuously. Worst of all, we worship gods of every kind: sports, wealth, sex, happiness, comfort, certainty, self-righteousness and purity. THIS IS WHO WE ARE. But Jesus also comes to give what we cannot give: mercy, forgiveness, and new life out of the sin and death that is in us. In Jesus we sinners are broken and whole, a people bound by sin yet free because of the love of God in Jesus Christ. Like the children Jesus welcomed in the last few verses in our reading today, Jesus invites us to come to him and receive grace. Jesus comes to us and asks us to stop hiding in our legal wranglings, because the rags of our self-righteousness and high morality are nothing compared to being clothed in his mercy, forgiveness and love.
There are no easy answers when it comes to living in relationship with others. Not one of us is perfect, not one relationship isn’t marked by some sin along the way, and not one of us can hope to live in God’s loving reign by means of what is lawful. It is grace that brings us here, forgiveness that marks our life together, and love that keeps us going when our brokenness poisons our relationships with sin. In this life you will live broken – in this life you will see relationships end badly – in this life you will find yourself wondering, as I did, “how in the world did I get here?” But when those days come, remember first that you are a treasured child of God, broken by sin but made whole by the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist sang, “what are mere mortals that you, God, should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?” Whatever we are, we are loved by God, and that, my friends, is the right answer under which all other questions are judged and found lacking. Be God’s beloved children, broken and made whole, and live in that love. Amen.