Where is the Grace?
In this sermon, Pastor Leanne addresses a tough passage from Matthew as we struggle to understand where God's Grace is for us in these words...
Where's the Grace?
Rev. Leanne Masters
February 16, 2014
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
To start off our conversation this morning, I’d like to tell you two stories. The first is from when I was a little girl and there was an older couple that lived in an apartment across the street from us. They pretty much were surrogate grandparents for us kids, we would go over and play at their house and they would watch us in the case of emergencies. They were wonderful people, warm and caring and loving.
I was really very young at the time that this happened, so the details are a little bit fuzzy, but I remember that we went to their wedding reception, possibly their wedding, too. What I remember the most about the whole thing, besides the beautiful white suit that the wife wore, was that I was confused, so very confused by why they were getting married…because as far as I knew, they were already married. So I asked my mom and dad about it.
Mom and dad were straight forward and honest about the whole thing. Even though the couple had been married many many years before in a civil ceremony, one of them had been married before, and was divorced. And because of that, they had never been married in a church, because the church that they belonged to did not recognize their marriage, and because of all of this, they never felt that they were truly married. Their church wedding, the celebration that I remember, the one that made it a “real” marriage, was performed only after the death of the first spouse.
I remember feeling so incredibly sad that this wonderful couple, who loved each other deeply, had never felt like they were really married until that day, even after more than twenty years of marriage.
To get to the second story, we have to flash forward probably about ten to fifteen years or so. My freshman year in college, there was a guy who lived downstairs from me. He and his girlfriend had talked about marriage, and had planned on it after he graduated from college. Without going into details, the wedding date got moved up a few years, and they got married that winter. As I sat in the sanctuary of the church where they were getting married, I remember my jaw opening with shock at the words of the minister in his sermon, “and, if in a few years, you discover that you’ve made a mistake, there’s always divorce.”
By the time their original wedding date rolled around, they were no longer together. And I remember feeling so incredibly sad that this young couple, so full of hope for the future, never even seemed to have a chance at making it work out.
These two stories, at least to me, represent how our churches have tended to take two very different tracks when it comes to dealing with the issue of divorce. These two tracks seem to be almost black and white, it’s either totally okay, or it’s totally not…
I think that this comes from our lack of comfortability with the issue, especially how scripture addresses it. Especially this passage that we read from Matthew this morning. The topic of divorce is addressed in such stark language, that we feel that we either have to embrace the words wholly and completely, or completely throw them out.
But, as my stories above have hopefully illustrated, the truth is that it is a subject that cannot be addressed in either one of these ways with any degree of compassion or care.
Now, we don’t like to talk about divorce in church, in any way. I certainly wanted to avoid it today. I really did. I wanted to edit the Gospel reading down to talk about murder, the impact of how we think about another person, how we all too often dehumanize or diminish them to the point that we can easily move to killing them. To talk about the joy of the meeting that we had here yesterday, and how I was so thankful for the beautiful hospitality that you all showed to the whole of the Presbytery. To talk about the changing of the weather or....anything, anything, but this topic.
Why? Because it’s something that hits incredibly close to home for so many people. Because, the fact of the matter is that divorce, the dissolution of a very special, intimate relationship between two people is very much so a reality of our world. We all know someone who has been divorced: a friend, a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, a significant other…ourselves. I myself am a second wife, and know from my husband of his own struggle with the disolution of his first marriage. And because, no matter what the circumstances or situations surrounding a divorce are, we all know that it is a difficult and painful process for everyone involved.
But the reasons why we avoid talking about it, the pain and the difficulty of it, are the very reasons why we should, and why we should turn to Christ for understanding on why and how to address it in a way that is caring, compassionate, and loving.
First of all, when we approach a passage like this, I think that it is important to read it in context with Jesus’ other teachings on divorce.
And so, let us turn to the Gospel of Mark...in chapter 10:2-12
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Now, this ends on the same note as our passage from Matthew, but the lead up is a little more in depth, and gives us a bit of a better insight into where Jesus was coming from as he speaks these words.
And so, let us wrestle with the word of the Lord:
First, we need to recognize who is bringing this question to Jesus in the first place. It is not the average joe in the street trying to figure out how to live a life that is good and righteous and holy. It is not the disciples, seeking to understand his teachings more fully. It is the Pharisees, those who are obsessed with the strict cultural and religious laws, the black and white rules for living…and those who, according to the gospels, are also obsessed with trying to trick Jesus, to trip him up, and to get something that they can haul him into the authorities for.
And so, we have to realize that this question, too, in one way or another, is a trick question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And, as he often does with the trick questions of the Pharisees, Jesus turns it around to a lesson on the difference between the way that things are and the way things should be.
Now, our Matthew text doesn’t have this question and answer format, but we have to realize that Jesus was speaking into the same context, where these were the questions about and the attitudes towards the law that were in the air.
In Mark, the Pharisees answer their own question about the legality of divorce. Yes, it is legal, the laws of Moses say so explicitly. What is interesting about it being the laws of Moses that they are quoting here is that saying that it is legal through those laws gives it a divine legality as well…because, according to tradition, Moses received the laws from God, himself.
Jesus does not dispute this, either, only gives the reasons why this is so. He states that Moses allowed for divorce, that God allows for divorce, because of our condition as humans…as he puts it, our hardness of heart. What he is saying here is not that those who end their marriages are hardened or cold, but that we, as humans are broken in our relationships with others.
Let me say that again, there is a brokenness in our relationships. All of our relationships. This is nothing that is new or foreign to us. We all know that there are times that we do not treat each other in the ways that we should, and there are times that we are not treated in the way that we should be. There are disagreements and discords between all of humanity, some that can be reconciled, and some that, simply, cannot be.
God understands this about us, and therefore allows for the dissolution of relationships, even the special, intimate relationships between husband and wife.
However, Jesus, as always, quickly follows this acknowledgement up with the reality of the fact that this, while it is how it is, is not how it is meant to be.
We are meant to be whole and complete in our relationships, all of our relationships, whether they are relationships between neighbors, friends, family members or spouses. We are meant to be able to treat others as they should be, and we are meant to be treated in the same way. We are meant to be able to reconcile our difficulties in our relationships, as Matthew describes Jesus saying, we should leave our offering at the altar and go and reconcile ourselves to each other and be drawn closer together. This is how it is supposed to be… This is what we are supposed to work towards, in all of our relationships with each other. Seeking reconciliation and harmony with each other. And this is how it will be in the coming Kingdom of God.
However, in the meantime, we still are faced with the reality that the kingdom of God has not yet come, and that we still face that brokenness in our relationships which, sometimes simply cannot be healed.
It is because of that tension between the reality of our brokenness and the hope of the coming of the kingdom of God where our brokenness will be no more that there is no way that we, as faithful Christians, can approach the question of divorce and dissolution with any degree of certainty on either side of the question of “is it right or is it wrong” or “is it allowable or is it forbidden.”
It is not a matter of either encouraging the dissolution of a marriage or condemning it…How we are and who we are with each other is not cut and dried, and neither should our attitude or approach to the question be.
Instead, understanding this tension, as a faithful and loving community, we should approach the question with the law of love in our hearts and in our lives, reaching out to those wrestling with the difficulty and pain of a dissolved relationship with all the compassion and the care of Christ, seeking to comfort and heal each other when we are hurting.
So, let us pray...