Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.
I promiseâ¦until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
How many of us have repeated these words? They seemed so true, so beautiful, so eternal, so right, didn't they, when we first said them? Yet for some of us, they have become bittersweet. With over half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce, there is scarcely a family that remains untouched by the pain of separation and divorce.
Let's look at this difficult lesson from Mark's Gospel together.
Jesus has moved on from Capernaum to the land across the Jordan River, continuing to teach the growing crowds of people who congregated wherever they discovered Jesus to be. Word had spread. Jesus had healed the blind, deaf, and lame; he had cast out demons and had been transfigured by his Abba in the presence of Peter, James, and John.
And Jesus had taught. And taught. And taught some more. He had spoken with passion and authority about the Kingdom of God, about the nature of sin, about the cost of discipleship. He had spoken with love and joy and welcome to sinners, to all who recognized that they had fallen short of their Creator's ideals, with a message of hope, of redemption, of repentance and new life. Again and again, Jesus had taught those who came to hear the lessons of God's love for them, about God's desire that men, women, and children learn to live without fear, God's desire that they become lamps through which the divine love might shed light on all who knew them.
Over and over, as word of his teachings and his miracles spread, those in the " religious establishment" of his time stepped forward out of the crowds to do their best to trip this Jesus up. They were the ones who were knowledgeable about the will of God. They were the experts. They knew. After all, God's will had been revealed in Holy Scripture, once and for all. They knew the Law. This Jesus was such a know-it-all young radical; what did he know? What kind of education did he have, after all? He was just a carpenter's son from a backwater town in Galilee.
Here they are at Jesus again. "We'll get him this time," they thought. "This time we'll trick him into saying something we can nail him on."
"Teacher," they asked, chuckling behind their hands, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Well, of course it was lawful; they knew Moses had said it was, but they asked anyway.
Jesus turned the question back on them: "What did Moses command you?" "Well, Moses said it was okay, that a man could divorce his wife anytime he wanted to, just be deciding to do it and drawing up the necessary paperwork."
"Why?" asked Jesus. "Why would Moses do this, knowing that in the creation stories God had created Adam and Eve as equals, bone of each other's bone, flesh of each other's flesh, for eternity? Why?"
The Pharisees had no answer for Jesus. Jesus refused to be tricked into betraying the will, the dream, the desire and intent of God in favor of the letter of the Law. "I'll tell you why," he said. "Because of your hardness of heart; because God knew that your humanity would lead you away from one another. Human beings have hard hearts. That's a fact. Human beings--even the best ones--fall short of God's dreams for them, and they fall short. Period. God's dream is that each couple be divinely joined, joined with God as the "third partner" in the marriage, and that all who witness this divine union respect and uphold it, that no one dare to separate it."
It was true then. It's true now. Despite our strongest hopes, our best intentions, we humans have hard hearts. We fall short of God's dreams for us, for our lives together. People change. We grow, sometimes in different directions. Sometimes we become cruel to each other; we forget that we are indeed "one bone and one flesh" and we begin to destroy one another, oblivious to the fact that we're destroying ourselves in the process. Sometimes marriages have to end to keep this self-destruction from totally eradicating all possibility of a future life for one or both partners. Estrangement happens. We're human.
However, marriages don't exist in a vacuum. Christian marriages include the entire community. They're not just about vows made between two individuals. We who witness these vows make our own promises: that we will do all in our power to uphold these two persons in their marriage. "We will!" we answer with enthusiasm.
There really is no way to take these difficult words and stuff them back into Jesus' mouth, is there? There are churches that do not permit remarriage after divorce under any circumstances. There are those who do nothing to try to uphold two struggling persons in the vows they have made to one another. Mirroring the secular culture, for which everything is temporary, transient, we hear, "Oh, you're divorcing? That's too bad. Oh well. Better luck next time," as though Jesus' words had never been uttered.
And there are faith communities in which each couple meets not only with the clergy before their marriage is blessed, but with a couple or a group of couples from within the congregation who have been married 30 years or more--to the same partner. They hear of the struggles that take place in every long-lived marriage: problems with children; financial struggles; differing priorities for time and resources; the cyclic nature of sexual activity, with physical and romantic attractions to one who is not one's spouse; destructive lifestyles of whatever kind; abuse, addiction, and plain and simple boredom. They learn from the experience of others, inasmuch as we can ever learn from another's mistakes, before they begin their walk together. Sometimes this approach helps--particularly when difficulties arise.
A member of one of these support groups tells the story of his own struggle with every young couple. When he was 54 years old, married to his high school sweetheart for 30 years, he met a young woman who seemed to be his "soulmate." They thought the same way. They enjoyed the same activities, loved the same authors, the same music. They completed each other's sentences. It was true love, he believed. Through much struggling, and with support and counsel from his local pastor and church, he turned away from this lovely woman who seemed to promise so much, but who threatened what God had joined together, and he returned to his wife. They have now been married for 51 years, and he has not regretted his decision. He explains it as a natural, human phenomenon, and states that the vows he made before God were all that kept him in his marriage 20 years ago. But he and his wife prayed together through the crisis, which lasted three, almost four, years. They have offered this to others for many years now, and their experience has "upheld" many in their promises.
This can't always happen. It doesn't always work. There are times when we must divorce. But Jesus has given us the ideal. Jesus has spoken to us the living Word of our Creator. When Christians divorce, it may never be in a cavalier, casual way. Divorce must be accompanied by repentance, even if it is perceived to have been the "fault" of only one party. The two are one bone, one flesh. Ideally, both partners can repent, can do that 180-degree turn back toward God and toward God's hopes and dreams for them. But if not, then one can do it alone for the two. In addition, the community must repent as well of their failure (our failure) to "do everything in [our] power to uphold these two persons in their vows." Repent, and begin anew, as we do with any of the myriad ways we fall short of God's ideals.
And here's the good news. What happens when we repent, when we "turn around" once again to face our God? We are redeemed, washed clean by the love of God in Christ, by the face of Christ in one another, and by the grace that surprises us with new life, with new possibilities, with new hopes. We can claim again God's dreams for us, claim again the unique image of God in which each of us is created, and as we allow ourselves to be healed, we can once again become the lamps through which the love of Christ is made known in the world. Stronger, wiser, we continue the rich and complicated and joyous journey toward the Kingdom. Together. And that's good news!
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.