Love and Legalism

A couple of weeks ago the audio of my sermon got lost due to a tech mishap.  Because I had most of a manuscript and thought it was a good sermon on a hard passage, I committed to (re)creating a written version of the sermon. The text I preached is Mark 10: 2-16 and can be found here.

(NB Sermons and writing are similar but not identical practices for me.  What I’m posting here is a bit of a cross between the two.  I’ve adapted some of the techniques I’d use while preaching because this will mostly exist as writing; I’ve left others. I’ve left in many time specific references because rewriting them didn’t work for me.  As you read, remember that in some ways this exists primarily on Oct 4 2015. I’ve also left in some things I would’ve softened when I was preaching.)

Jesus is on a bit of a roll here, isn’t he?   A few verses ago it was cutting off body parts, now it’s hard answers about divorce.

Before we get into what Jesus said, let’s be clear that divorce is emotionally laden for all of us.  For some of us divorce is the great tragedy of our childhood, or that we forced into our children’s childhood.  For some of us divorce is what made us free, what gave us a life worth living back.  For me, of course, divorce is the topic I most wanted to preach on two weeks after getting married.

For a little bit, at least a few more paragraphs, let’s set all of our emotional baggage to the side and look at what happens. 

Jesus gets asked about divorce.  But this is about more than divorce.  We’re more than halfway through Mark’s gospel so things are about to go badly–trials and crucifixion are coming soon.  And then a Pharisee shows up.  Pharisees are the detail oriented sect of Judaism that Jesus probably hung out with most.  And the question is about Jewish law–what is and isn’t permitted.  And it’s not just a question, it’s a trap. 

This is a challenge religious scholars are posing to ask Jesus to choose between common practice of the day (when men and women were divorcing each other—a process that included negotiating a complex document—a get—that spelled out how both parties would be taken care of) and what Moses said (which is presumably what God wants).  So does Jesus pick the crowds whose support is increasingly keeping him alive or does he pick Moses who spoke with God and transcribed the Law?  It’s a trap all neatly wrapped up in question.

In my imagination there’s a pause between the question (trap!) and Jesus’s answer.  In my imaginary pause Jesus looks at the crowd who loves him, who Roman authorities fear angering, who is keeping him out of jail and away from death, and then Jesus looks at this Pharisee, this Jewish scholar whose life is in pursuit of the best way to keep God’s commandments.  Does he pick what the people want, what Moses said?

Then Jesus (and my imagination wants Jesus to have a mischievous glint in his eyes here but my faith tells me it’s more likely a smile tinged with sorrow) answers.  Not the crowd, not Moses, but Eden. Option C.  The answer that ignores the framework the question suggests: not a or b, but something more important than the crowd or Moses.

Eden.  That time we tell stories about when everything was perfect, before the stories we tell about our sinning, our hardness of heart to use the biblical euphemism.  “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus quotes from Genesis.  This is a quote from when we could always be our best selves, when the world was in perfect accord with God’s will.

We don’t live in that world.  (Sometimes the obvious needs stating.)  Here are some of the ways, which often contribute to divorce, in which our world is unlike Eden:
-no abuse (physical, verbal, or emotional)
-no societal cues for what a good marriage ought to look like (the man brings home the bacon and the woman keeps house and raises kids, also not biblical but more post-WWII)
-no poverty
-no wealth disparity
-no politics or other deeply held beliefs to argue about
-no in laws to abuse, ignore, or meddle
-no sexism
-a society which doesn’t value male flourishing more than female flourishing
-no jealousy
-no social (and often religious) disapproval of sexuality, especially anything that’s not cis, straight, white masculine sexuality

That’s a list of personal and societal sins. It’s a list about family histories and human limitations. On our best days we can rise above the limitations and sins that we inherit and that we inherently possess.  But marriage is about being together “for better and for worse” and sometimes, especially when items like those I just listed are involved, two people can’t live together through their “worses”.

Two weeks ago I stood right here (gestures to the space in front of the pews where I was married) and made extravagant vows, wild and crazy promises about for better and worse, about for as long as we both shall live, about sickness and health.  Two weeks ago the Bishop reminded many of us that  marriage is an image of God’s love for us. And in many ways marriage is a great image and metaphor for God’s crazy, extravagant, abundant, intimate love for us.

Let’s remember that we are to struggle to live into the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control we are assured are fruits of the Spirit.  When someone we know needs to end their marriage, let’s not look for traps and legalistic points to fixate on.  Let’s look for ways to be supportive, to help them mourn what is ending, that it needs to end, and celebrate the new possibilities that will come; Let’s look for ways to act out the fruits of the Spirit, much less perfect practice a love like God’s.

When we hear Jesus talk about divorce let’s try to remember a much bigger story—the bigger story Jesus is in the middle of and the bigger story we are all, always, in the middle of. Let’s try to remember that we are not perfect people any of us, and that some of our “worses” don’t allow another person to healthily live with us in the intimacy of marriage. 

Jesus is asked a question about divorce and legalism.  Let’s make sure all our responses are about God’s love.

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An Anglican/Episcopal priest, bibliophile, dog owner, and Montanan

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