Friday, October 12, 2018

Asunder (A Sermon on Scripture and Divorce)

Bible passages: Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-16.


Before tackling the passages together, it is worth noting that both the Genesis passage and the one from Mark, listed above, have been used to great injury inside the church and among church people. They have been wielded as weapons, not as tools. They have driven people from the community and caused people to believe they might be outside of God's grace. This is a misuse of the written word and it is terrible when and where it occurs. 

The Genesis passage is actually the older of the two creation stories. It has the shape of a story told around a fire, a just-so story to explain the world all around and to share with younger generations a comprehension of Who is in charge of all things. This story has hints of amusement in that God, wanting a companion for the h'adamah (the dust person), holds a tryout for the position with all kinds of animals. None of the critters prove sufficient as a partner for the dust person. 

Thus, God divides the h'adamah, using part of the body to bring forth another, partnering body. In English, we miss the meaning of what is created in this situation. God seeks to make an ezer for the dust person. Ezer means helper, but not in the sense of a lesser aide or second in the command.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew scripture, when the word ezer is used- it is applied to God. Think of "Come, Thou Fount..." and 1 Samuel- "Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I've come..." Ebenezer means "by God's help". When God makes an ezer for the h'adamah, God is making a partner, in the Divine image, to work alongside the first dust person for the sake of creation. They are given the vocation of partnership in stewardship. 

To repeat, the ezer is not lesser or secondary, but has been drawn from the first h'adamah and created in the image of God- with some of the vocational strengths of God's own self- for help, comfort, and creation care. Use of this story to make women secondary, even in the sense of complementarianism, dilutes the power of the term ezer and the intention of God in the creation of the second dust person. 

Futhermore, the creation of the ezer reveals God's intention and desire for relationship between people. The partnership of marriage, through the term ezer, is meant to be one of help, community, and an economy of respect, honor, and deep care. We are to tread quite carefully if we are daring to attribute other intentions to God's work in this passage. 

This brings us to Jesus' words in Mark. Please note that when Mark is being written, as the earliest among the written gospels, the other written documents that circulated were likely the early letters of Paul. In Galatians, Paul writes, "In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free." This does not mean that all distinctions between people are to be ignored in a bizarre kind of Stepford-Christianity. It means, rather, that the hierarchies that cause divisions, pain, and inequity in the community of the Way of Christ are to be subsumed under the identity of belonging to and following Jesus. 

Knowing thus, Mark writes out this situation in which the Pharisees are testing Jesus. Their testing is not a function of their particular religion, Judaism, but because they are people. People do not like change. Jesus represents a change to the Pharisees' way of understanding Moses, of enforcing the written Law, and of having authority among the people. Their test is in the hopes of either revealing Jesus to be a betrayer of Moses or one who undermines the authority of Rome and the Roman system of paterfamilias

Jesus notes what Moses said about divorce and why Moses said it. God has made you for relationships, notes Jesus, but because of your hardness of heart, you do not do the work of those relationships. You want to have it your own way all the time. Moses saw, says Jesus, how that could harm your spouses, so he gave you an out, but you are unwise to use it carelessly. 

Additionally, Jesus knows that the system of paterfamilias also creates vulnerability among the people who are lowest in the social hierarchy. The male head of the household owns all the people therein- including his wife, her children, and the enslaved people. If the man chooses to divorce his wife, he is casting her out (possibly with her children) to an extremely uncertain life. She may be left to beg, to sell sex against her will, or to other desperate measures for the sake of her children and herself. 

Jesus, for the third time, draws the attention of the people to whom he is speaking to the children in their midst. Look at the smallest and most vulnerable among you, he says. Do not contribute to the things that will cause them harm. When you harm them, you harm Me. Think of this: when you harm the most vulnerable, you are bringing harm to Christ's own self. A situation that creates vulnerability, especially to one(s) at the margins, must be avoided for Christ's own sake. 

Now a word about divorce: 

I noted that we have been made for relationship and the economy of care inside a family in the building block of our society. That being said, there are three living entities inside a marital or partnership arrangement. There is Person A, Person B, and the relationship itself. When we note that a particular relationship is "until death do us part", the truth is that sometimes the relationship dies while both people are still living. 

If you are outside the relationship, you may think you know what killed it, but you do not. You're not in it. Being married is hard work, hard work that we don't always discuss fully. Sometimes a relationship, for myriad reasons, reaches its Good Friday and the Easter for the people therein is a life in separate directions. Sometimes there is resurrection for the relationship, but not always. 

Divorce is a death and it brings grief, confusion, anger, and all of death's fellow travelers. Death, however, is never God's final word. When people get divorced, we are compelled by Christ to show compassion, patience, and generosity of spirit. We do not know what we do not know. 

What we do know is that there are grief and pain. There is hurt. And there are people who need consolation and the relationship of friendship, neighborliness, or familial care. The use of scripture to further wound does not serve the purpose of facilitating healing or hope. 

It is possible to listen to someone in the midst of marital pain, before a decision for divorce has been decided, and just be still. Neither advising nor consenting, one can simply listen and repeat back what has been heard, offering prayers and support. Your advice can be kept close to your own vest because it is based on what you believe you would do and you are an entirely different person. 

In the book Kindly Welcome, little Amos Anger is sad about his schoolteacher leaving. He doesn't care for the new teacher (Br. William) and is speaking about this to his mentor, Harry. 

He climbed onto Brother Harry’s bed and sat… Looking at the bed by the window, he said, “Is it a sin if I don’t like Brother William?”
 Harry had been idly rocking, but so stark was this question that he stopped realizing his footsteps here must be cautious, less they be misguided. “Perhaps it’s not a sin if Brother William is in thy bad books,” he said. “The question is, how came his name to be written there, and is it thy writing or is it his?”  (Kindly Welcome, 190)

Good questions to ask one's self is this: 

What do I know about this situation? Is what I know in my handwriting or the writing of someone intimately involved? 

What do I know about this person? Are the words in the book of my heart in their writing or mine? 

What do I know about God's desires and character? Is that interpretation written in God's hand or mine? 

We are called to pay attention to what we say and do, in public and in private. Not only do we encounter Jesus through others, but they are encountering Him through us. What I say, how I use God's written word, how I show compassion- I am writing about myself in someone's inner book and, furthermore, as a Christian, I am writing about God. Are the words written through my actions statements that God would own? 

We have not been orphaned, but have been given the gift of the Spirit that we might comfort the grieving, be present to God's power in death, and rebuild what has been torn apart by the forces that oppose God. We can show a kind welcome, and receive one, with the Spirit who goes forth with us to do this truly needed, healing work for Christ's own sake.

Amen. 

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