Thanks to the Lectionary, it comes around every three years. Like clockwork. Mark 10:2-16. Commonly called, amongst the preachers who wrestle with it, “the divorce proper”. The words of Jesus are very straightforward — uncomfortably so. When he says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (or as in the King James Version, “let no one put asunder.”), he leaves no margin for error. “Til death do us part,” for Jesus means just that. No exceptions.
Only we preachers know the reality. The reality of lives broken by the tragedy of divorce will be sitting in the congregation looking up at us. So will the reality of marriages straining at the breaking point. Hardly a person under the sound of our voices tomorrow will be untouched by the hurt, pain, regret, guilt and shame that so often accompanies the death of a marriage.
Preachers don’t need to soft pedal Jesus’ words, though. In my experience, most explanations aimed toward convincing our hearers, “why Jesus didn’t really mean, this, he actually meant something else” fail miserably. Such explanations fail because all of our intellectual jujitsu merely underscores that it’s the preacher who is working very hard to make the Jesus of the Gospels more amenable to our own 21st century opinions. The starkness of Jesus’ words in Mark 10 must be faced, and faced directly.
Since I’ve been preaching in the Episcopal Church, this passage of scripture has appeared (including tomorrow) five times. I’ve preached on it four times — to three different congregations. Every time I have come face to text with Jesus’ words, I’ve had to confront my own story, because I am a divorced and remarried person. I have wrestled with the text and I have wrestled with my life. In the spirit of full disclosure and in direct contradiction to the homiletical commandment to “keep personal references out of sermons”, I have told those present in those congregations for those sermons the part of my history that remains a scar in my heart and a source of hurt in my soul. I haven’t given details. God knows all of those. And thankfully, God’s forgiveness is stronger than my guilt.
As tough as it will be for many people to hear the words from Jesus tomorrow about divorce, I think the passage provides an opportunity for all of us gathered around the text in the liturgy to reflect upon what it means to be a Christian community. For Christians, marriages aren’t privatized acts of romantic love between husband and wife alone. The community of faith is the context for marriage — and it is the community of faith that is charged with supporting husbands and wives as they attempt to live into the vows they made to each other. The community of faith is also the context for support and healing whenever a marriage dies. Sadly, in our attempts to maintain the facade of “everything is fine” and “my personal life is my business”, we often cut ourselves off from the very community that could surround us with love and care in the times when we feel unloved and most uncared for.
For all of the difficulties this Gospel text will present to preachers, though, there is a gift in the text as well. For a few minutes tomorrow morning, we won’t be able to pretend that what happens in church has very little to do with the rest of our lives. We will not be able to spiritualize this Gospel so as to distance ourselves from it. In my experience, this is also the passage that will elicit people’s stories. I often have more pastoral conversations after the “divorce passage” shows up in the liturgy than after any other Sunday of any other year in the three year Lectionary cycle.
I won’t be preaching tomorrow, but I will be listening to the sermon — and like every other separated, divorced and remarried person I will be listening for the Good News that proclaims grace, healing and resurrection in the face of guilt, hurt and death. My divorce, now 26 years old, cost me and my ex in ways neither of us could have imagined. The pain was deep and the journey toward healing and forgiveness long. Tomorrow, I’ll get to revisit memories and emotions. I’ll also receive the assurance of forgiveness and the opportunity to feast upon the grace of God in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. And I’ll have the opportunity to be with a group of people — my community of faith: single, widowed, married, partnered, separated, divorced, and remarried. We are the whole people of God — even when we are broken.