The Pain of the “Big D” ~ Mark 10:2-16
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22], October 6-7, 2012
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist
Bob Wortmann was one of the finest Christian laymen I have ever had the privilege of knowing during my career as a parish pastor. Bob was an active leader in the congregation I served in northern New Jersey in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Bob and his wife Mary had three young daughters, a source of great delight in a congregation where most of the members had grown children.
Bob once told me that he could never remember a time when the church was not at the center of his life, even when he was in college. A bright man, Bob became an executive with a large accounting firm. He had married his college sweetheart, another high achiever, who became a lawyer. When they talked about marriage, Bob’s future wife made it abundantly clear that she did not want to have children. Bob was in love and clearly thought, Oh, whatever … she’ll change her mind.
As time went on, however, Bob realized that he desperately wanted a family. His wife was equally adamant that she had always insisted that motherhood was not one of her career goals and that this was not going to change. In time this gulf became insurmountable and they amicably ended their marriage.
This meant that Bob was divorced, a heavy burden on his heart. Mary, whom he subsequently met and married was a Roman Catholic, and, obviously, Bob’s divorce was a problem for Mary’s family and her church. Bob and Mary’s love for each other was greater than the demand of church doctrine, and so they married, a union that was blessed, as I mentioned, by three delightful little girls. Bob shared the fact of his first marriage with me when they joined our congregation. He thought, perhaps, that I would have a concern that he was divorced. I assured him that I was pleased they had found each other and that life had moved on to a joyous, abundant place for them.
For the first time in many years I thought of Bob Wortmann, when I read the Gospel lesson for today. Bob was a lector and in the Lutheran church lay people read the Gospel as well as the other lessons. I still remember the Sunday when Bob was assigned to read what is Mark’s Gospel lesson with its denunciation of anyone who would divorce his wife. Bob was too strong a man to ask for a substitute reader, but reading that lesson was painful for him and he had tears in his eyes as he read.
This is a long prelude to a sermon, but the issue that our Gospel lesson places before us is as raw and as painful as just about anything that Scripture can bring to our attention. I suppose many preachers will find a way of side-stepping this issue … a sermon on Genesis and the Creation could work … or perhaps the preacher could race on to the end of the Gospel and the lovely words about suffering the little children.
But I see no way to avoid the challenge … the pain … the heartache … that is at the heart of our Gospel lesson. It’s about divorce … and there are a lot of Bob Wortmanns in our congregation, people who clearly respond emotionally and personally to this issue. Divorce touches the lives of so many that it is clearly the two thousand pound gorilla that we cannot hide in this intimate Chapel. For Mark sets before us the words of Jesus on this toxic topic. Of all the hard sayings of Jesus, I can think of nothing, short of his words about hating mother and father, which are more distressing for us to hear.
So I do not think we can dodge this topic, but addressing divorce requires profound care on the part of the preacher and equal patience and attention on the part of those who listen to the sermon. The topic demands deep sensitivity to all the many aspects of this complex reality for lives are attached.
I recently heard of a parishioner who told her pastor that when she hears this passage from Mark 10 read or others like it, she feels like someone has dumped garbage all over her. Having survived a painful divorce, she now feels that no matter how hard she works to clean up her life and put on her Sunday best for church, when these words are read she feels like she is wearing a scarlet letter “D” around her neck.
So let’s plunge into this high voltage subject. The first thing we need to remember is that divorce in the First Century did not have the same context or meaning that it has today. Today both women and men can institute divorce proceedings. In Jesus’ day divorce was a privilege for men alone.
In the Jewish world in which Jesus lived there was, in effect, a kind of no-fault divorce, at least for men. There were two specific schools of thought about divorce in Jesus’ day. One approach held that a man could divorce his wife and send her away for any reason at all, what some have called the burnt toast divorce. All that was necessary was for the man to present a written statement that the woman was no longer his wife, and they were immediately divorced. There was no appeal.
The second school of thought held that a man could divorce his wife, but only if she were unfaithful to him. In either case, the result for the woman was devastating ~ she would be publicly disgraced, alienated from her family, and subjected to severe economic hardship. So Jesus’ first position of opposition to divorce was out of a concern to protect women in a world without safety nets.
Then, in his inimitable way, Jesus moves the conversation away from rules and property rights and what Moses allowed because of the hardness of the human heart, connecting the question about divorce to God’s purpose in the creation. In our text we read these wonderful words, so often read at weddings:
… 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.” [10: 6-9]
Jesus wants us to see marriage as God’s gift to us so that we can be fulfilled in the most profound of all possible relationships. Jesus said, I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance. Marriage is the means by which we join ourselves to another person … a person who can love us, work with us, and help us build a family, achieve security, and live a purposeful life. For Jesus marriage is not about property rights and male prerogatives. Marriage is about permanence and protection and preservation. Marriage is God’s gift of a lasting relationship set in the context of affirming. forgiving love.
Finally, Jesus wants us to know that divorce grieves the heart of God. No matter how we may justify what we do, Jesus insists that when we humans separate what God has united … we fracture God’s handiwork. Whenever a marriage ends in divorce, no matter how reasonable or inevitable this may seem, there is the death of a dream and great sadness … at the human level and the divine. I recently came across a quotation from the Prophet Malachi: I hate divorce, says the LORD God of Israel. [Malachi 2:16] Yes, God hates divorce, but I truly believe the final word is always the promise of forgiveness. Divorce is not a sin for which there can be no pardon and a chance for a new beginning.
This takes me back to Bob Wortmann, who divorced his first wife and then entered into a happy second marriage and the joy of parenthood. Was this wrong? His new wife Mary’s church said it was and she never felt welcome there again. But their marriage was a wonderful new beginning for both Bob and Mary. In fact, I believe I heard in our Old Testament lesson for today those wonderful, hopeful words: It is not good that the man should be alone … [Genesis 2: 18] Perhaps that should be the last word on this painful subject.
We live in a fallen, broken world where tragedies … including divorce … will happen. We will never eliminate the dissolution of marriage and sometimes it is clearly what love demands. As Christians we must do all we can to help bring healing to those who have experienced the profound sadness of divorce … in the hope that they may once again know that life in abundance Our Lord both valued and offered. AMEN.