Sermons That Work

A Run Through the Thorns, Proper 22 (B) – 2012

October 07, 2012

This morning, may we dare to run through the field of thorns and find the great treasure that awaits us there. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage catches our attention because it addresses marriage and divorce in a way that’s unavoidable. Many preachers would like to bypass this text on this day, preach on marriage only at weddings, and not have to talk about divorce at all.

And who can blame them? Preaching about divorce and marriage is like running through a field of thorns. Why? Because any contemporary congregation is likely to contain people who are married, people who are divorced, people who are divorced and remarried, people who may get divorced at some time in the future, people who have been treated shabbily by churches due to their marital difficulties, peoples whose lives and families and friends have been hurt by the pain of divorce. It’s everybody’s issue, indirectly or directly. Preaching about it looks like running through a field of thorns, and listening to a sermon on marriage and divorce can, no doubt, seem the same way: one misstep and we just add to the hurting.

But let us venture together carefully into the thorny field, in the hope that amid the briars we can find together what sermons are supposed to reveal: good news for a world that’s broken and in pain.

The discussion gets started because some of the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. They want to trap him in his words and so destroy his credibility. The issue they raise is a controversial one at that time: whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Authorities differ on this question. Some allow divorce only in instances of adultery. Others allow divorce for the slightest of reasons. But note how the issue is framed: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No consideration is given to the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. That is out of the question. Here men have all the power.

Jesus knows this question is not an honest inquiry. These Pharisees are not interested in his opinion, but in testing him, defeating him. He responds to the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, How does the Law of Moses read, the law you hold in such high regard?

Jesus knows the answer, of course, and so does everyone within hearing distance. It’s what today is called a no-brainer. And so the Pharisees shoot back the correct reference: Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.

The reference here is to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24. It’s arguable, to say the least, that Moses is giving permission to divorce. What he does instead is to recognize that divorce happens and to set forth norms regarding certain types of remarriage. Like the canon law of the Episcopal Church, Moses acknowledges that divorce happens here in this world outside the Garden of Eden.

The acknowledgment found in Deuteronomy is turned by these particular Pharisees into permission for divorce. But remember, here we are not talking about an egalitarian model of marriage and divorce, but a system where men have all the power, where the sexes are treated unequally, and where a divorced woman has very little hope for the future.

Rather than endeavor to trap Jesus in his words, these Pharisees could have sought to learn something from him. Rather than raise questions about divorce, they could ask advice about how to live faithfully and well within marriage. What an opportunity they miss!

These Pharisees get the reference right, but get the spirit wrong. And Jesus lays into them. “So you give that Deuteronomy passage as permission for divorce, with its demand that the paperwork be in order? Moses would never have written that except for divorce happening anyway, except for the hardness of the human heart in this world outside Eden!”

It is as though he thumps a finger against the sternum of each of those Pharisees and says: “Don’t you get it? You hearts are hard! If human hearts were not hard, then marriages would always work, and Moses wouldn’t have written about what happens when they don’t!”

Jesus addresses each one of us and says the same thing: “Don’t you get it? Your hearts are hard!”

But please note this, and note it well. He’s not just challenging the divorced among us. He’s challenging every last one of us, even if we have been married happily for six decades. The divorced are not to be regarded as some pariah class different from the rest of us. The problem of the hard heart is not limited to divorced people, but is common to us all. In some it becomes manifest in a marital break-up. In others it shows itself in a marriage that remains together but is lifeless. In still others, hardness of heart appears in a failure to forgive our friends, in a judgmental spirit toward our children or parents, or any of the other forms of sin in which we humans become trapped. The divorced are not worse and not better than the rest of us. We all find ourselves in the same place: outside the gates of Eden.

But then Jesus stops talking about hard hearts. Instead, he takes us by both hands and looks at us with an expression of compassion, hope and remembrance. He calls us back to a time before the invention of power games, whether the sexism of his own period or today’s equal-opportunity destructiveness, where either partner can damage the other. Jesus, looking at us with that expression of compassion, hope, and remembrance, calls us back to a time before time, back to when our home was the Garden, back to the intention of God at creation. God made them male and female. Delightfully different. Wonderfully equal. Intended to be one flesh. No hardness of heart. No games, no secrets, but naked and unashamed.

We read in Genesis that the woman was made from the man’s rib. It’s said in Jewish tradition that the reason for this peculiar procedure is that woman and man might be intimate and equal. Woman was not made from man’s head, so that she should be superior, nor from his feet, that she should be inferior, but rather from a bone near his center, near his heart, that the two might be equal and intimate.

Just as a husband and wife can draw strength from remembrance of their early days as a couple, so all of us can discover again the mystery of marriage by recalling God’s original intention: that man and woman both are made in the divine image and meant for one another in a relationship of equality and intimacy.

Yes, of course, there are some marriages that are dead from the start, and others that die along the way. There are people who simply marry the wrong partner, and spouses who have the right to escape what has become of marriage when their safety or sanity is threatened.

But in other cases, divorce happens because people see marriage like those opponents of Jesus did: as a power relationship, as a problem that divorce can solve, where an insane consumer culture leads people to treat as disposable not only houses and cars, but also spouses and families.

That’s not it! Marriage is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. It is not a business deal subject to a cost-benefit analysis. It is a means by which wife and husband can participate in the kingdom of God – and do so in the comfort of their own home!

Some of the male contemporaries of Jesus saw their wives as merchandise, property. It is dubious progress that now both wife and husband can regard each other in that belittling way. Instead, each spouse is to be to the other joy and challenge, cross and crown.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse not so that you can experience mere consumer happiness like the owner of a new appliance designed with obsolescence in mind.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse so that together you can taste in your human way something of the joy of the marriage between God and creation, Christ and the church, the Lamb and his bride.

In our time we know too well that a broken marriage can seem like the road to hell. May we not forget that God’s abiding intention is quite the opposite: marriage is intended as a road to heaven; not a problem, but a holy mystery; not a mere happiness, but a divine joy.

In the name of the God who in the end calls all his children home to the wedding feast where by the Spirit’s power we will find ourselves united with Christ forever. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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