by Floyd M. Schoenhals
Bishop, Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, ELCA
One Sunday after I read this Gospel text in a congregation I was serving, I felt like "the eyes of all in the (congregation) were fixed on me." I especially noticed the eyes and the expressions on the faces of those who had been divorced and remarried. They were looking at me with great expectation. What was their pastor was going to say to them about this text?
The Congregation Council had designated that day as Stewardship Sunday. Members were invited to turn in their financial commitments for the following year. Because the Council had asked me to preach a "stewardship sermon", I chose a different text for the sermon. The expectant expressions on faces turned to disappointment. After the service, a member of the congregation, a former pastor who was divorced and remarried, said one word to me, "Chicken!"
I grew up in a rural community at a time when divorce was considered shameful and divorced persons were often shunned. If divorced persons were members of a congregation, the task of a pastor was to discern who was the "guilty party". The "innocent party" was encouraged to remain in the congregation, but often such persons were also shunned and shamed. No one seemed to take into account the pain that all persons who were divorced had experienced both during and following their marriages.
Today there is an incredible amount of pressure and stress on all marriage relationships. Even persons in otherwise happy marriages struggle with dual careers, keeping their jobs, paying the bills, and caring for the children.
Even though divorce is more acceptable in our culture today, whenever divorce happens, whether it's because of tragic necessity, on the hand, or serial monogamy, on the other, divorce brings pain to those who are divorced, to their children, to their families, to their friends, and to their sisters and brothers in Christ.
When people marry, they hope and plan for a faithful lifelong relationship with one another. I have never known anyone to get married in order to get divorced. I have never known anyone who thinks that divorce is wonderful. I have never known anyone who has avoided feeling guilt or even shame, when a marriage relationship is broken.
Some Pharisees asked Jesus a question to test him. "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" They already knew the answer to the question. What were they trying to do? John the Baptizer was beheaded because he had told Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Were the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus into saying that Herod's divorce was not lawful? Were they hoping that they could encourage Herod to do to Jesus what he had done to John? After all, the Pharisees had been conspiring with the Herodians for some time about how to get rid of Jesus.
In his response to their question, Jesus referred to Genesis 2 and to God's intention for marriage. "It is not good for human beings to be alone." It's not good for humans to be lonely. And so, a man is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Divorce is not God's intention for marriage; but, because of human brokenness, it happens.
"Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Well, Deuteronomy 24 says so. But Jesus, in effect, is asking a deeper question, "So what?" When two people become one flesh, God is creating a new being. And if this new being dies because of divorce, there is loss and grief. There is a need for forgiveness, healing, and newness of life. The mending of what is broken is ultimately what Jesus is about. Jesus invites not only the little children but also all God's children to come to him. He takes all of us up in his arms, lays his hands on us, and blesses us.
St. Augustine wrote, "Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you." Human beings also yearn for and need friendships, relationships, and community with one another. In his chorus from The Rock, T. S. Eliot wrote, "What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community and no community not lived in praise of God."
Marriage is one way that God joins persons together in relationship and human community. There are also other ways. When any such relationships are broken, there is always pain and suffering.
At our recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly, right after voting members approved the resolutions on ministry policies, I was walking back to the hotel. A young man came up beside me. He was downcast and looked very discouraged. He looked like he was on the road to Emmaus. "How are you doing?" I asked. "For many years," he said, "I have hoped and prayed that this church will support gay and lesbian persons who desire to live together in relationships. I have hoped and prayed that this church will also allow persons living together in such relationships to serve as rostered leaders in this church. I want to celebrate this, but I'm having a hard time doing it now. There are others from my synod at this assembly who strongly disagree with these decisions and they are considering leaving this church. I know that some people back home also strongly disagree with these decisions. I'm afraid some of them will leave. I'm afraid some of them will not talk to me. I love them too. I don't want them to leave."
For a long time this young man had lamented that there were gifted people who were being excluded from full participation in the life of this church. Now that this church was providing a way for full participation, he was lamenting that some were separating themselves from him and excluding themselves from this church because there was now a way for these gifted people to be included. In a way he was saying, "…what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Perhaps the young man was lamenting the tendency for people in our society and in our churches to think that unity means uniformity and diversity or disagreement means division.
Perhaps he was also lamenting the general inclination in our society and in our churches, as Bill Bishop concluded in his book The Big Sort (i), for people to sort themselves into homogeneous enclaves of likeminded persons. We read books that agree with our thinking. We listen to news reporters who agree with our opinions or political orientations. We want to be with friends who people who think like us and do what we like to do.
In The Different Drum, Scott Peck wrote, "The first response of a group in seeking to form community is most often to try to fake it. The members attempt to be an instant community by being pleasant with one another and avoiding all disagreement." (ii) When disagreement comes, people don't know how to handle it. This attempt, this pretense of community, is what Peck calls 'pseudocommunity'.
What made it so painful for the young man walking beside me on the way back to the hotel, and what makes the struggle in this church so difficult these days is that those who see things one way and those who see things another way are all striving equally hard to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
The ways of God are not always clear to us. We do not see the hidden hand of God, but, as the letter to the Hebrews says, "…we do see Jesus."
"We do see Jesus." We see Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. We see Jesus on the way to the cross to have all of his relationships broken. We see him on his way to be abandoned and forsaken by family, friends, followers, and even his heavenly Parent. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." We see Jesus on the way to be denied, betrayed, and crucified on a cross outside the city and buried in a borrowed tomb.
In Jesus we see that God is not shouting encouraging words from a safe distance to us, but is sharing the pain and suffering of our broken relationships with us. Jesus brings forgiveness and healing by experiencing our broken relationships with us. God raised Jesus from the dead to restore broken relationships and all that we have separated that God has joined together. God raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus so that in the proclamation of his death and resurrection God will bring about a new creation and a new human community.
At the font you and I were buried with Christ into his death and raised with him to a new life. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are reconciled to God and to one another. There is one God, one faith, one baptism, one church, one human community, one world.
"We do see Jesus." We see Jesus in the bread, which is broken. We see Jesus in the wine, which is poured. The broken bread and the wine that is poured out for us forms us into Christ's body and bring us all together in community with the Triune God and one another. We become the body of Christ for the sake of this broken world.
"Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days (God) has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word." Hebrews 11:1-3
(i) Bill Bishop. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
(ii) M. Scott Peck. The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. New York: Touchstone, 1987, pp. 86-87.