In the Name of our God who creates, sustains, and renews our lives. Amen.
The Old Testament and Gospel readings today are probably more than you bargained for. You might be thinking that it would have been a good morning to stay home and have that extra cup of coffee. Committed relationships, marriage, and divorce are sensitive and emotionally charged entities and can be jam-packed with both good and painful memories. The jokes people tell about these things are barely able to mask the very real heartache that can be a part of relationships.
Like the one about the person who goes to see the Rabbi. “Rabbi, something terrible is happening and I have to talk to you about it. My spouse is poisoning me. What should I do?” The Rabbi, very surprised by this, offers, “I’ll tell you what. Let me talk to your spouse. I’ll see what I can find out and let you know.”
A week later the Rabbi calls this distraught person says. “I spoke to your spouse on the phone…for three hours. You want my advice?”
“Of course, that’s why I came to you!” The Rabbi replied, “Take the poison.”
Notice that I’ve made this story gender neutral. Sometimes we need to start out with a little humor before we get into what muddy waters of readings like today’s. I suspect that somewhere between 50 to 75% of any congregation listening to these texts have either been divorced, considered divorce or separation, are the children or parents of divorced people, or have ended a relationship of some importance.
Two important truths up front: In no way does Jesus condemn or judge people who, having entered into marriage, discover that the healthiest thing may be to end the marriage covenant, and these lessons are not solely about marriage but about the importance of all relationships for us.
The scene to which we are privy in Mark’s Gospel is another stab the Pharisees are taking to outfox Jesus and force him into a theological corner. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask. The Pharisees knew well that divorce was allowed and was a common practice. Torah states that a man may divorce his wife simply by handing her a certificate of divorce and sending her away. The stark inequality, how3ever, is that a woman was not permitted to divorce her husband for any reason.
There were two schools of thought in the Jewish world of the time—one that divorce was only permissible in the case of infidelity; another that it was allowed for just about any reason, including bad cooking. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into taking sides with one of these positions.
Jesus throws a curve ball. In ancient times, women were second class citizens, rarely owned property, and were to be seen and not heard from. Marriage was a guarantee of support for the most vulnerable members of Jewish society—women and children. Without the protection of the laws against divorce, women were at the mercy of their husbands.
The position Jesus takes in this debate is on the side of the less fortunate and vulnerable—the place he will always land. What Jesus says in this Gospel is by no means the final word on divorce. It is a response to a question posed by his fiercest critics who came with the explicit intention of making a fool of him. Jesus is avowing his support for anyone who is hurt, broken, and made vulnerable because of the termination of a long term relationship—regardless of what the reasons for its breakdown might be.
Jesus was all about moving forward, not looking back. Remember that he told his followers that they should go out and spread the Good News about God’s love and mercy and when they left a place that rejected their message to keep moving on—and not look back.
I’ve often said that we take the Bible seriously, not literally. Part of that equation means to seriously understand the cultural ethos of the time in which scripture was written. But then we need to move on, to go forward, not look back.
If we did not believe that God is still speaking to the Church and that we have been blessed with a brain with which to continue to understand God’s ongoing revelation, then a person who insists on working on the Sabbath could be put to death and you could sell your daughter into servitude as the book of Exodus allows. We would still stone women who are unfaithful to their husbands, require women to cover their heads and keep their mouths shut in church, and dismiss children as second class citizens. We would still have an entirely male priesthood. Remarriage after a divorce would not be permitted. Our country might still practice the abomination of slavery. And, by the way, we couldn’t eat shrimp, lobster, or ham sandwich. God in Jesus wants us to move forward, not look back.
Autumn is a season we associate with the harvest, enjoying the beauty of creation in the color of the foliage, and giving thanks for God’s abundance. During this month of October, preaching at St. Paul’s will focus on the way we experience God’s grace and bounty as a community. We will also hear this theme articulated by the brief witness offered by members of our congregation. It is my hope that this time will be an opportunity to reflect on our gratitude for our life together here and what it means to us.
When I was on vacation in Provincetown, Scott and I decided to take the trolley tour that is a very touristy thing to do. A trolley-like vehicle with clanging bell maneuvers the narrow streets of town and the beach areas, a driver-guide pointing out interesting pieces of history.
We’ve done it before so it was just a nostalgic excursion for us. As we waited on the trolley for the last tour of the day to begin, two older women, one somewhat disabled, approached the driver and asked if they could pay with a credit card. “No, I’m sorry,” its cash only.
Well, they didn’t have enough cash and they had forgotten their ATM card. We were about to go up to the guide and offer to pay for them when the driver said, “I’ll tell you what. You come on the tour and at the end of it I’ll give you the address and you can send a check.”
What trust, I thought to myself. We don’t experience that much anymore. It got me to thinking that one of the reasons I think we’ve chosen to be part of this faith community is trust—trust that when we say “all are welcome” we mean it; trust that three weeks or months into your time here you’re not going to be sorry you came because the message of God’s unconditional love morphs into one of God’s judgment; trust that scripture will be preached intelligently and with care; trust that you can count on this community to support you in the good and bad times.
The Gospel is the Good News of liberation for all God’s people and that is why you can trust that the good news will be proclaimed here for everyone—not just a select group. Today we hear the good news about God’s intention for human relationships. God does not want us to be alone and is on the side of unity, community, and relationship. But God is also on the side of health and wholeness and doesn’t want us to remain in relationships that destabilize those things.
God created us to be in relationships that may come in all kinds and are all equally blessed in God’s realm. Sometimes that involves a person with whom we share our entire life or several years of it. Or it may be a short term friendship that nurtures us for a while but one or both partners need to move on. Sometimes it involves an intentional family of choice like the people with whom we live or work or play or learn or worship—even someone we meet on a train or plane or in the grocery store.
Tova Maris is an Orthodox Jewish woman who describes her divorce experience for a series she wrote for the New York Times last year, a divorce that came after 17 years of marriage to an Orthodox Jewish man—a culture in which to this day only the husband has the right to send the wife away from his house.
On the day of her divorce, just before she left the rabbinical court, the chief rabbi looked her in the eye and she prepared herself for his judgment and rebuke. Instead, he said kindly, “Don’t look back. Go forth, become the person you need to be” Tova smiled, nodded, and then, as they did at the conclusion of her wedding years before, the rabbis wished her mazel tov.
All of our associations, unions and convergences—even when there are bumps along the way, even when there is separation— teach us valuable life lessons, sustain and challenge us, and help us to grow. They are gifts from God, sacred stepping stones in our lives and we are grateful for them all. Every relationship is a new beginning. Don’t look back. Go forth. Jesus, too, wishes us mazel tov.