Genesis 2:18-24, Romans 2:1-11, Mark 10:2-16
Who wants to talk about divorce in church? I think we shouldn't avoid it, for there has been deluge of divorce in our society.
I also think we hear a lot of prejudice about divorce, without knowing what is really involved. So I want to ask today 1) what it is really like to be divorced, and 2) what Jesus said about it in the Bible. 3) I also want to ask what Jesus might say today.
Firstly, let's expose a lie.
Research by The Australian Institute Of Family Studies shows that almost all people get married with no intention of divorce. It's wrong to say 'so and so got married without commitment and expecting to get a divorce.'
Maybe when I say that, I am saying more about my pain than their relationship. People fear divorce, but nobody starts out wanting it..
What does it feels like for a divorced person?
Divorced people tell me they often feel barely accepted by their church.
Many Christians feel some churches are right to generally forbid remarriage. They believe Jesus has forbidden divorce under any circumstances.
Divorce brings great pain. We often hear 'He or she, just walked out' as though that was an easy end to their problems. But it is not so. A great load of prejudice from us lands on a divorced person and their family.
Very many of the single parents I know are excellent parents. And the problem children I see often come from undivorced families. The main problem in a problem kid's life is a lack of love and care, and you don't need a divorce for that. But single parent families are the ones whom society, that's us, blames for all its ills.
I have often hear from Christians that divorced people have loose morals. Married people often close ranks in the presence of divorced people, (like they do to widows and widowers.) They literally come up and pull their spouse away from divorced or widowed people. Divorced and widowed people have told me this. They have also said they only finally felt accepted again by their church when they remarried.
I am told that divorced people had poor relationships, and that if they had really tried, and really loved God they would still be married, like us.
These attitudes often force them out of the church, instead of loving and supporting them as sisters and brothers. Did you know that if a couple divorce, it is most probable they will both leave us, their sisters and brothers in the church, within a few months. Is it their lack of faith, or ours?
Divorced people rarely get it easy. Their original problems go on, only in a different way.
I had a friend who was hiding from her ex-husband in fear of her life, under an assumed name.
Others constantly fear their children will be abducted during custody visits.
Hassles about custody, maintenance and property drag on as constant irritations.
Abusive husbands who were fled by their wives find other ways to continue the abuse.
Divorced people, especially women and children , often end up financially worse off.
Children of divorced couples often live with a great burden of guilt, feeling somehow they have caused the problem. They see and hear people looking at them and whispering. They soon get the message they are, quote, problem children.
There is a counsellors' dictum about divorce: It is always easier and better in the long run to heal a relationship, if possible, because divorce only shifts the problems. And I agree. But if healing has not been possible, God forgive us if we add to a divorced person's pain and isolation.
What did Jesus actually say about divorce?
In Jesus' culture divorce was generally the right of the man. Women were a thing to be owned, with few legal rights, and were at the disposal of their husbands. To divorce your wife you gave her a piece of paper which ran,
Let this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that you may marry whatsoever man you will.
Given in the presence of two witnesses, it was legal.
There had to be some 'indecency' by the woman. But indecency was rather loosely defined. One Rabbi of Jesus' day said indecency could be as little as the man finding a woman who was more attractive!
What Jesus said was to protect a women from being thrust out onto the street because she burnt the toast. A divorced woman was often left with nowhere to go, and no means of living.
Jesus is very clearly saying that God's ideal for human relationships is that there will not be divorce. However, God's ideal is for the sake of a woman being protected against the arbitrary whims of a man, and indeed to protect the man!
You see, divorce is not forbidden just to keep grumpy old God happy. Divorce is forbidden to bless and protect people. Marriage is a gift of God to us for our benefit and blessing.
So we need to ask what Jesus says about a marriage which is harming the people involved, rather than being a gift of blessing to them.
And secondly, what is he calling a divorce? Jesus speaks, surely, of the breakdown of a marriage relationship.
When we get a divorce in our society, the law requires we have already been apart for at least twelve months. It's fairly obvious that the thing we call divorce, and to which we so often object in the church, is simply the paperwork which formalises what has already happened long before.
I put it to you that there are many divorced couples in churches all over the country. It just so happens they are still living in the same house, often in pain and misery.
And when we compare the kind of love we are called to in marriage, how many of us measure up? I wonder how many of us will never complete the paperwork, and yet are truly separated?
Part of the growth in divorce rates- and only part, I am sure-- is because a woman can leave a relationship without starving. And because, at last, some couples can publicly own up to their private separation which has previously had to remain hidden, corroding their souls away, because of community disapproval. Divorce has always been more common that the statistics showed.... we just called it something else, or didn't even see it.
There is one more issue facing us. About 25 to 33% of all women in our society have been sexually assaulted. And in one in three homes the wife has been physically assaulted or subject to other violence. And in an astonishingly high proportion of cases, it is other family members, and usually the husband, who are the perpetrators of all this.
Australia has the highest rate of domestic violence in the western world. The most common form of murder is murder of one family member by another.
We have tended to think of the home as our haven from the battles and stresses of society. But it has, in reality, been for many, many people, the primary battleground of life, and a place of misery and fear and oppression.
Does Jesus uphold this painful existence? Obviously not. The woman, it said in Genesis, 'is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh' to Adam. She is almost part of him. Someone to love and cherish as himself, not to abuse. 'Husbands, love your wives,' it says again and again in Ephesians five.
By Jesus standard, many marriages, are really only legal contracts under the law of the land which fall far short of the covenant relationship of marriage. In some relationships there may never have been a marriage by Jesus' standards. And to the woman who at last escapes, while we sometimes condemn her, he may be saying, "My sister, welcome to freedom." and "God bless you for leading your children out of slavery."
Thinking of friends who have divorced, I have left astonished at how plain lucky I was in the spouse I found. And how fortunate I have been not to have been driven apart from her in the struggles life has landed on us.
And I wonder if I was there to hear my friends pleas for help? Was I so busy or perhaps so lacking in the visible evidence of Christ's love, that perhaps they saw no point in asking me?
When we frown upon a divorce, let us pause. What did we know of the situation in their house, and what agony they may have been living in? We can not judge from the outside what their situation was. Some of the nicest people we meet, are animals home alone with their families.
I have learned how hard it is to survive in a marriage. Too many young mums and dads, and too many families, have been left without a friend or helper, and life and circumstance has simply crushed them. Did we turn one blind eye to many?
And if we think we measure up pretty well on all that, remember the words of Paul. "... you have no excuse... whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgement upon them you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.... all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." There is no qualitative difference between their divorce, and our gossip. Both fall short of the glory of God. There is no qualitative difference between their giving up on a relationship, and our bitchiness over the minor matters of the church. Indeed.... they agonised over their divorce, we don't think twice over bitchiness and gossiping. There is no qualitative difference between their divorce and our shouting matches and simmering disputes within marriage. Divorce is a tragedy, but there is no qualitative difference at all. We are all sinners. Do we dare we judge them differently from ourselves?
After all that, is there any good news in this sermon today?!!
There are four things. The first is that God gave us marriage, and let us rejoice in that. For at its best marriage is a joy, and enriches us greatly.
Secondly, God forgives us, and thirdly, lets us start out over again, whatever our failures. One of the communion liturgies says,
No longer is what we have been important.
it is what, with you, we can be,
starting now. Amen.
We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But we are all forgiven. It means we don't have to pretend about ourselves. We can admit that we have been even rotten to the core. But we can start again and go on for we have a clean slate with God.
And finally, God made us to love. But the greatest news is that marital love is not the ticket we need for heaven. Jesus said
"Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom."
A little child loves without being married. Little children respond to the good, and love with a spontaneous generosity and forgiveness which shames most of us. And all of us, unmarried or married, may seek to love that way. It is that love, seeking to love God and others, which will open us up to the healing growing Spirit of God. So if we are married, and divorce is in our thoughts, we can still seek to love those around us. If we are divorced, or on our own for other reasons, we can still love, and still meet and know God.
"Little children love one another for love is of God."
And hear the words in Isaiah:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
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