October 3, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
Marriage, Divorce (and St. Francis)
Happy St. Francis Day, happy marriage & divorce day(??), happy blessing of the children day… We’ve got a pretty complicated trinity of themes to wrestle with this morning.
It was 21 years ago – October 8, 2000 –– that I last preached on this gospel. A whole lot has changed in our culture since then, but I need to begin by confessing that as a divorced, remarried person, even after 35 years in a second marriage that is one of the deepest blessings of my life, I still find Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce painful, while as a mother and now a grandmother, I continue to find Jesus’ blessing of the children deeply comforting. (And St. Francis? He’ll show up, too.)
So – let’s dive in.
Before we can get to divorce, we have to start back at the beginning with marriage. Jesus quotes Genesis that when ha’adam (the earth creature, which we translate as “Adam”) “saw the woman, he said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’” For this reason they “leave father and mother and the two shall become one flesh.”
This sounds pretty straightforward as a basis for marriage, but I think of Br. Eldridge, my long-time spiritual director from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who often spoke of the covenanted relationship among brothers in a monastic community – they, too, leave father and mother and become part of a new community. – A nod to St. Francis here, who not only left his father and his mother but the family fortune and every stitch of clothing behind when he embraced Lady Poverty and gathered a community of friars around him to re-envision the Church. So it is that in today’s gospel reading, Br. Eldridge heard all covenanted relationships named: married, partnered, monastic, communal, gay or straight. After all, it is God who says, “it is not good that ha’adam should be alone,” and companionship takes many forms. We are blessed to live in a time when marriage in this beloved community of St. Paul’s takes a variety of those forms, when my 22 year-old gender-fluid step-grandchild can plan their wedding for this coming spring, when our own bishop and his husband are role models of a loving, companionable marriage.
Twenty-one years ago, this was not so. Laws and rules governing marriage have changed dramatically since then. And this is cause for much rejoicing.
But even as we celebrate these happy changes to marriage, the reality of divorce remains as messy and painful as ever. “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder,” Jesus says. Whether it is Martin Smith, former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who abandoned his vows, divorcing himself from his brothers in the monastery and moving to Washington, or Mary Lee divorcing her first husband and moving to Maine, the sundering of a relationship leaves scars; the brokenness is real, not only the brokenness of the relationship, but of the all the people involved. My sense of sin and failure remains deep, and personal, and real. One commentator quoted a divorced woman in his parish who said that hearing this passage read in church “felt like having someone dump garbage all over me.” I get it. When I hear Jesus’ words, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder,” it’s hard not to feel condemned.
One thing that’s helped reconcile me to this passage is Liberation Theology, which carefully considers whether any Scriptural injunction is relevant primarily to the time in which it was issued, or whether it represents the immutable will of God.
In first century Palestine, for example, the husband had absolute authority over his wife. Women had no legal standing, nor could they seek a divorce; only the men could. And it could be as casual as saying, “Get out. I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” No papers to file, no court to decide, just a push out the door. Divorced women then had essentially two options: destitution or prostitution. So it is out of his concern for divorced women that Jesus is basically saying to the men, “Don’t make women and children homeless.” It’s part of his perpetually tender care for the most vulnerable. It’s also why the blessing of the children comes right on the heels of this passage. Because the disciples see the children as inconsequential to their mission, they consider themselves well within their rights to send them away. Not Jesus, though. He welcomes them.
And our Lord welcome us as well. We are, after all, God’s beloved children: broken and sinful, well and strong, single, married, gay, straight, divorced, or remarried. Whatever our situation, we need to remember that Jesus never divorces himself from us.
That’s because Jesus never denies humanity’s broken, wounded nature. He knows that, inevitably, we all hurt and betray those we love and live with. We are prone to damage every relationship we make. Jesus himself lived and died misunderstood by his family, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by his dearest friends. But don’t forget that on the other side of Easter, Jesus embraced and forgave them, just as now he loves and forgives us, calling us into new life and new beginnings. After all, for some of us the brokenness of divorce may be a way to wholeness.
Christ is with us, always, for better or for worse, and he calls us to be with him, so that, as our marriage service says, our lives as Christians may be “a sign of Christ’s love in this sinful and broken world,” and that we might “grow in love and peace” with one another, with our furred and feathered and scaly companions (thank you, St. Francis), and with God.