Sunday, October 04, 2009

What God has joined together

Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16
******** United Church of Christ
October 4, 2009 – World Communion Sunday

I almost chickened out from preaching on the passage in Mark. I mean, it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. One, it has a narrow view of marriage because that’s all that was known in the time of Jesus: husband and wife. And two, Jesus says if you divorce, then you have sinned.

I know a lot of divorced persons who get very angry and defensive about this passage. I was reluctant to preach on this knowing there are divorced and remarried persons in the congregation. I myself am a child of divorced parents. My parents did everything they could to save their marriage, 17 years of it by the end, even though it was probably doomed from the start. All of us have been touched by divorce one way or another. Even if we don’t know anyone who is divorced, our thoughts about marriage have been clouded by the issue.

Not long ago I heard on public radio a local journalist read her commentary about marriage and divorce. She cited her own divorce process as being very difficult, long and drawn out, a year of counseling to prove her marriage was dead and not merely sleeping. There was meeting after meeting with lawyers and her soon-to-be ex-husband about financial arrangements. There were parenting classes on how to handle this new family situation. And only after all that was she served papers. She contrasted this with the process for getting married. There was very little counseling, no parenting classes, and all the running around was merely errands for flowers, music, the hall, the church, dress, invitations, etc. Not much was required of her and her fiancé when it came to getting married as opposed to when they got divorced.

Billboard seen in New York City, 2006.
Back in the day of Jesus, it was comparatively painless to get divorced. In Deuteronomy chapter 24 it reads that if a man’s wife did not please him, that is, if he found something objectionable about her, he could write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. If she married again, the second husband could do the same, but the first husband could not marry her again because she had been defiled. There is nothing written in Deuteronomy about how a woman could divorce her husband. In Palestine, Jewish women could not sue for divorce. Jesus, though, upholds the same standard for men and women, holding each accountable.

The Pharisees may have been snoops by testing him, but Jesus was speaking of marriage and divorce in this way because he was building a community, a kingdom, a commonwealth, where love reigns rather than power. In the case of divorce, people were just writing each other off because they had the power to do so. There was no consideration of what this action might do to a woman, which would have rendered her useless and poor, unless some other man wanted her. Jesus said to the Pharisees that Moses wrote this commandment for the people of Israel because of their hardness of heart. The Law was shaped to the character of those for whom it was written. Jesus in effect says to them and to us that we need to shape our character to God’s law, which is love.

None of us is dispensable. We cannot write anyone off. In Hebrews we read that because the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father, and to be inclusive, one Creator, Jesus is not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers. All human beings are God’s children. When we dismiss someone else’s claim to grace, we reduce them in our eyes as being not as worthy.

Sometimes we leave the community that can and often does disappoint us. We think we will find something better: another church family that will not let us down, worship that suits us better, a better preacher, people that are friendlier. But in truth we cannot divorce ourselves from community or from those whom we find objectionable just because we have the power to do so. Every group of human beings has it flaws and its own need for forgiveness. To love is to know disappointment at one time or another. We know this from our own families and relationships. Nothing could be more true about the church, about us brothers and sisters striving to live out what it means to be in covenant with one another.

Thursday morning I peeled a few bags of the ugliest apples I have ever seen. Most folks wouldn’t give these apples a second glance, let alone use them in apple pies to be served to the public. Yet you take them and peel them and season them with cinnamon and sugar and bake them into something wonderful.

And you’ve all heard the saying about ‘one bad apple spoils the whole apple barrel.’ In truth, studies have been done where good people are put into a bad system, a bad apple barrel and those good people, over time, become bad apples, behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the bad system. It is what sort of system in which human beings connect and form relationships which can create dysfunction and that what needs to change is the apple barrel, the system if there is to be any hope of changing patterns of individual and communal behavior. Which means we’re all in this together.

In truth, we are all married, joined to each other; we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, promised to one another in Christ. What God has joined together, none of us should separate.

Imagine a world joined in covenant as in marriage, sealed with solemn promises, ‘til death us do part. Imagine then if we treated one another, thought of others around the world, as a spouse, a partner, a companion. We would promise to be faithful to them, to be with them in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. A wedding I performed a few years ago included words from the book of Ruth for the couple’s vows: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. For where you go I will go; and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, your history, my history; and your future, my future.”

We enter into this covenant of commitment and renew it each time we receive Communion. Through Communion we enter into a covenant with Christ and all those whom Christ loves, even those fractured covenants where the Church is divorced against itself; even those who will not worship with us because of who we welcome; even those we deem unlovable and objectionable; even those we cannot forgive: our enemies. Through Christ’s flesh, we see that we are one flesh. Through Christ’s blood, we see that we are one people. Marriage, that is, making a covenant, means more than just two people creating a life together. Marriage is all of us making a covenant, creating a family of God together, a whole family that excludes none from God’s grace and blessing.

And I close with these words of blessing from the UCC Book of Worship in the Order for the Marriage Covenant: “Be merciful in all your ways, kind in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another. Forgive as freely as God as forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, remembering that as members of the one body you are called to live in harmony, and never forget to be thankful for what God has done for you.” Amen.

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