Dear Lord, this is a hard passage to preach.
It is hard for so many reasons. I am pretty sure there are people here today who know first-hand what it is like to go through a divorce, because there wasn’t enough strength to go on with things like they were, because irreparable damage had been done to trust, because the other wanted it but you didn’t or because you absolutely had to get out of a suffocating situation, even if doing so caused great pain. You may have watched your parents, or a sibling, or a son or daughter or grandchild go through a divorce. You may have lost the person you loved more than anything in the world and miss your beloved desperately so any talk of marriage is hard. Or you may have wanted for forever to get married but have not found the right person or still live in a world that, while changing, has made it next to impossible for two people devoted to each other to say, “I do”.
There is enormous complexity, confusion and complication related to marriage and divorce in our time—I wish we could heed Emily Dickinson’s advice and, if we must tell all the truth, to tell it slant. Today’s Gospel is too explicit. Too direct and clear for that. And so we are called, as people of faith, to wrestle with this text.
Perhaps it helps to remind ourselves of a few things:
In the time and place where Jesus found himself, marriage had a different function, a different meaning in the life of the culture and society. Certainly, the enormous differences in power and place between men and women shaped the implications of a divorce. One of the things of which I am acutely aware, is that in a lot of places in the world, this power difference is still very much in place. In fact, when I got married in 1988, I very consciously decided not to marry in Colombia because even then, by law I would have become the property in mind, body and earthly goods, of my husband.
Maybe it helps to remember that this started out as a test of Jesus’ orthodoxy, another effort on the part of those in power to trip him up. He is sparring and when we spar and debate, our arguments are intended to disarm, to disable, make our case. It is easier to spar when the categories are binary. The conversation continues when it’s just Jesus and his friends and his position does not moderate, but there too, we might remember that these folks have been bumbling and stumbling in their short-sightedness, their inability to keep the main thing the main thing, in the ways they just don’t understand. They were headed to Jerusalem and how hard it must have been for Jesus that over, and over again, not even those close to him were able to follow where he was leading.
I am reassured that what Jesus defends isn’t so much the law of God as God’s will, what God dreams and hopes and offers us in the relationship of marriage—a place of companionship, of safety, where the daily give and take are like water flowing over a rock, smoothing out the sharp edges, exposing unexpectedly beautiful veins of color and character that would never have been seen otherwise, constantly scrubbing clean what gets gritty and dirty.
Even I, who am married to a divorced man, who have counseled more than one person to consider divorce, who have rejoiced for people who got a second chance, even I, who am a thoroughly contemporary person, have some small sense of how deeply God must wish for us all the goodness that a strong marriage can offer, even I can understand that deep desire of God, that what has been made one will not be torn asunder.
Perhaps the most important reminder for me about this passage is that above all, Jesus is so acutely aware of, so singularly focused, on tending to those that are vulnerable and in need of care, support, healing and wholeness. More often than not, divorce is one of those places where deep, deep vulnerability intersects with failure, one of the hard, jagged edges of the human condition. In the Middle East in that time and society, the woman would have been the vulnerable one. It is not coincidence that Jesus is concerned for the woman of his time, who looses everything when her husband divorces her, and immediately afterward, takes up for little children who again, in his day and time, count for next to nothing.
That point of intersection between failure and vulnerability is the place where God places God’s self. It is the place we call the cross.
More often than not, even in the best of circumstances, divorce is devastating. It strips us of financial health, of social status, of our sense of ourselves, of our community, many of our friends, even our church. The vulnerability is enormous, regardless of whether or not the failures were in part, or sometimes, largely, ours.
There are other places where we see that intersection of vulnerability and failure. The news early this week was devastating: a tiny newborn baby, umbilical chord still attached, was found dead next to a high-rise in Manhattan, thrown out the window while she was still alive.
The news as the week was ending was devastating: Young men and women, in hope and vulnerability, doing the work of growing up, of learning and studying and preparing for adulthood, were mowed down in the prime of life. That place where were failure and vulnerability cross in ways too painful to fully grasp.
Sometime late on Friday afternoon—and here, I have to believe it happened out of plain and simple human error and the failures that are embedded in every war—people, frail and weak, getting medical care at a hospital in Afghanistan, people who were cared for by men and women, also vulnerable for being foreigners, and for bringing sutures and bandages, not weapons, found themselves being bombarded by us, saw, or became collateral damage made flesh.
And Jesus wept. At each and every one of those intersections of vulnerability and failure, our friend and savior wept. We too must weep. Then, Jesus took each person whose marriage had failed, each baby and child, each person in that hospital in Afghanistan, he took all of them up in his arms, laid hands of healing on them, and blessed them. That is the work of love. It is work that our God of infinite love does again. And again. And yet again. And as many times as necessary.
That love that holds, that heals, that blesses, opens space for us to learn a different way of being, creates the possibility that we will be able to grow into the full stature of Love. So we too may help do the work of the kingdom in our willingness to go to those places where failure intersects with vulnerability. Amen.