That awful gospel about divorce

Last Sunday, we preachers had a choice to make regarding preaching texts. I could not find a way through the gospel text. Good grief, it's just this side of awful. (Unless you take great care as a preacher.) I chose the Old Testament text instead (which, quite honestly, has it's own set of issues). My friend Marc Ostlie-Olson, however, went right after Mark 10 and came out the other side with this piece of grace. Go on, read it. It's good for your soul. St Anthony Park Lutheran Church

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 2.18-25

Mark 10.1-16


I am aware of the difficulty of these texts in the moment.  And by moment, I mean a couple of things.  There is the current political moment, in which questions of marriage and its meaning and its malleability will be on ballots in a few weeks. A moment of decision and debate.  And by moment I mean also the hundred or so painful or poignant moments that have surfaced in hearts during the last few minutes, as the words rained onto our ears.

Mark 10, together with the second chapter of Genesis have been wielded at times like weapons against divorced people and single people and women and gay people and widows and widowers.  Even when they’re not handled so aggressively, they wait like tiger traps in the Bible, holes into which you might fall and be unable to rise again.

It’s hard to know what to do with these bits of the Bible – these chapters with their history of use and abuse so stark and so strong that they are rendered, perhaps, unavailable as good news for so many.

Preachers today will be standing in pulpits like this beneath the weight of these words and the baggage that they bear, making choices about what to say and how to say it and who it will hurt or offend or affirm – who it will tickle or terrorize, what it might aim people towards doing or deciding or voicing or voting.

That’s one option today.  To go to work together and wrestle a moral from Mark’s Jesus and his dustup with the Pharisees about divorce and resulting table talk with his disciples.  To parse this gospel lesson into something objective or applicable.  In an age when one particular holy grail seems to be articulating and advancing a Biblical Vision of all kinds of social stuff: marriage, divorce, gender, parenting, government, and what have you, we could dig in together and argue or arrive at some kind of clarity, I suppose. A rule. Lessons for some kind of life.

We could do that.  John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist wants me to do that – he wrote me a letter suggesting it – not just me, of course, and not just him.  My public pastor’s mailbox gets hit fairly often these days, from various sides of various issues.  We could take each of them on this morning – turn our big brains to work on pros and cons.   But we wouldn’t do it together, would we?  We wouldn’t be together.  I know that, because I’ve already lost you, haven’t I – some of you.  Most of you?  All of you?

If you have been wounded by divorce, you’re already somewhere else this morning.  If you’ve been dragged through the hard and stony land of a loveless union, or watched and waited as a loved one’s marriage withered on the vine.  If you have fled an abusive relationship, or quietly rejoiced at the end of an empty one.  If your parents split up when you were five or when you were forty.  If you hurt someone you had promised to help, or live with regret at past failures, or wake daily relieved that you got out alive.  If you’re single and like it or single and sorry about it.  If there are some names you cannot yet speak aloud or some places you cannot pass by without weeping.

If you’ve been compassed by the painful wall these words have erected among us this morning, building the back story to this Gospel might not matter to you.  A historical explaining of Jesus’ comments about divorce and remarriage in the context of 1st century Palestinian Jewish rabbinic debate might not be the balm or blessing or challenge or consolation you come here for.  A skinny reading of Genesis as God’s divine plan for lifelong heterosexual male-dominated marriage might not fit the hole in your heart.

Whether you are hurting or whole today, struggling or strong, you need to know that this is not a policy presentation.  It’s not a stump speech, where hot button issues are fair game and the villains are vile and the winners wear white hats and the point is to win you over to a side or a stance or scare you with statistics.  We are not here to wrestle from these few lines of scripture a Biblical vision of marriage.  Regardless of what you may want or expect – that’s not a test I’m going to take up – and this because I am aware how hot buttons and third rails are so often jabbed and jumped against the hearts and souls and lives of real people, and because I am aware also that, between the polarized podiums of public debate, there exists a world of complex reality that does not yield to easy answers – whether they’re offered convincingly in placid power points, or shouted as threats on the sidewalk or the street.

Between the pure poles of every side’s sound bites, there stand people of flesh and blood and soul and spirit – humanity whom Christ has come to redeem.  And it’s there – between the podiums and beyond the easy answers that the God of the universe has chosen most fully to meet us.

That is the reason our central symbol is this cross, beloved.  Not that we need to suffer in order to be like God – and not that Christ’s passion must be repaid in kind through some set of ordeals or exercises, but because God has chosen to suffer as we do.  And we do, my sisters and brothers, we suffer; together and apart.  If we can’t be honest about that, we’re wasting our morning.

God chooses this way - the way of the cross, the way of humiliation and hopelessness and hunger and hurt in order to be with us, so that we won’t be alone.  God chooses to suffer in order to make it, if you’ll excuse the pun, painfully clear that there is no one and no place beyond the reach of God’s love and the grasp of God’s grace.

My friend Dan writes about the cross.  It’s God’s embrace, he says, of our darkness.  It’s God’s unconditional refusal to turn away or dismiss or dispose of us.

And the cross is also God’s victory.  By this enduring embrace, God exposes and unseats all of the powers that enslave us to despair or saddle us with anger or anxiety or doubt.

Jesus says God’s law is given because of the hardness of our hearts.  When did we lose sight of the truth that we need the Gospel for the same sad reason?

If what you hear as Good News in the Bible comes at the expense of anybody other than Christ Jesus, it’s not Gospel – it’s just some kind of validation – some kind of carefully crafted comfort.  And that’s not what we’re here to do.

We set the reading of scripture and the preaching of the word within a worship that begins with confession of real sin and ends with an unconditional promise of real peace.  And today we also will gather together at the table where Christ Jesus meets us in his body, and where we are invited to receive the kingdom of God as hungrily and trustingly and desperately as little children.

Holy Communion is God’s love enacted in space and time.  It is God joining together past with present and future.  It’s God overcoming hurt with forgiveness.  Communion is a place and a moment wherein the words “one flesh” become in Christ a reality that transcends couplehood or singleness or sameness or gender.  It is a means of grace - a place and a moment wherein we receive in ourselves the reality that Jesus meets us, that Jesus joins us, that Jesus welcomes us, each and together, to a life of incredible vulnerability and nakedness and honesty that comprise a paradise that we cannot ourselves conceive – a place beyond shame.

Let them come to me, says Jesus, and do not stop them – and he’s talking about you and me, dear people; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

Thanks be to God.