Hard Sayings, Harder Time

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.   – 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

This past Sunday was tough. “Tough” really isn’t an adequate enough word to describe my sermon from this past Sunday. I didn’t enjoy having to prepare for it, or deliver it, and gauging from the range of reactions to it, there are many who didn’t enjoy it either.

Specifically, I preached on Mark 10:1-12 and Jesus’ tough sayings on divorce. It reads:

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 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.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Of course, having to preach on this wasn’t by design. I have been off-lectionary for a while, so I needed to come back to it so that I don’t get too far off into my own pet theological projects. This past week was one when it seems like the lectionary conspired to make things as hard as possible in that it was World Communion Sunday.

I tried my best to soften the blow. I started with a light story, then a series of encouragements to those who might be struggling in their marriages that they hang on, seek God, and remember that they belong to each other. We are always to hope that God will complete a work of grace in our lives to help us through the tough times. I then expressed solidarity with those who have been through a divorce, especially those who had someone leave them behind, including even the children. I also spoke a word of the possibility of grace for those who have hurt a former spouse in a marriage, but that healing for them and the other begins with confession and repentance. I then closed this section off by clearly stating that marriage is no excuse to endure abuse; marriage, as Jesus speaks about it, is built upon the foundations of love.

I then shifted to make two simple (at least, I thought they were simple) points. One, we hurt one another and violate these commands when we forget that our relationships are supposed to reflect union with God. At best, our marriages ought to be a place where we know that we belong to God, and belonging to God, we make ourselves fully available to our spouse so as to reflect Christ in our most intimate relationships. I then went on to draw parallels between our marriages and Christ’s union with the church. As Christ gave himself for us, the church and His bride, we should be careful to be of the same mind and purpose in our mission and work so as to reflect Christ to the world. I closed with the invitation to share in the wedding banquet of the Eucharistic table as a place to be drawn into union with Christ, and in so doing, experience Christ’s renewing grace in all our relationships.

From a technical point of view, I think I did okay. Honestly, I don’t see anything too challenging about the basic message in what I said. Jesus took marriage very seriously, and in the passage from Mark, I think Jesus takes it so seriously, he draws parallels between it and Israel’s marriage to the Lord God. The Pharisees, so intent on trying to establish what is permissible, forget God’s intention and design in marriage wherein both partners, in union with one another and with God, become fully human in a way that we cannot be by ourselves. They forget that in their zeal to uphold the Law, they have forgotten that the Law aims towards “marital” fidelity of the heart with the entirety of our being, not just a narrow set of concerns. They forget because they are blind to the fact that as a people, they have been unchaste and failed to fulfill the great calling instituted amongst them with the very first covenant given to Abraham.

In short, marriage is one place among many that the people of God are to be distinct and non-comformist with larger societal trends. We are this way because we confess that NO PART of our lives should remain untouched by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. All that we do should aim to conform to Christ, and in so doing, be about His work of reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Of course, I don’t pretend that we do this well. We are broken, sinful and wayward. There are many Christians who have been divorced, and they are not failures as believers. There are many, many factors that go into a divorce, and I don’t pretend for a second that it can all be reduced to a litmus test of either “faithful” or “unfaithful” to God. I know faithful Christians who have gone through the hell of divorce, and I proudly count them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I have also known others who claim Christ, but their relations with their spouse and children indicate anything but spiritual sensitivity and purpose.

However, there is a clear distinction in the raw statistics that show that Christians are better equipped, it seems, to resist societal trends that seem to have normalized divorce. The Barna Group recently concluded a survey wherein Christians fared a bit better, with marriages surviving at a little better rate than the national trend. The only groups to “beat” them were Asians and “upscale” (wealthier) adults. Even here, the picture is less than clear. Certainly, socio-economic pressures play their part in the overall trends. Yet, with that said, there seems to be a spiritual resource available to Christians that give them a better shot of their marriage surviving.

What is that, you might ask? I think it is the person of Christ. Just as it was with the Pharisees, the overriding concern of our day is “rights” talk; speech about what is permissible. Family courts across the country spend countless hours and millions of dollars discerning the rights of parties in a divorce, from matters ranging from economic splits to who gets custody of the children and who has parental visitation “rights.” Couples facing divorce, once the decision is made, quickly default into “rights” talk, and spend the majority of their time “protecting” themselves and their interests. In many cases, a wandering spouse initiates the split (maybe after an affair, mid-life crisis or the like) after spending a great deal of time pondering the question of their “right” to a “happy life” without their spouse dragging them down.

The instinct is understandable. Ingrained in our society is talk of the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I don’t dispute that these things exist, and they are goods to be pursued.

However, my read on the words of Jesus and our faith tradition is that our rights and inherent dignity are never found solely within ourselves. I have a right to freedom, but that is a freedom “for” something, namely to love others, love God and to serve in such a way that I reflect God’s glory back out into the world. I have the right to life, and that right comes because my very being is a gift from God that no one should be able to take from me. Accordingly, I ought to use that gift to protect others, particularly their life and dignity. I have the right to happiness, but that happiness can never, ever be found wandering in the desert of self-absorption. Along with Augustine, we affirm, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Confessions 1.1)

Our happiness is to be found in God alone. We belong to God. We were made for God. Our happiness lies in drawing all elements of our lives into conformity with the One for whom we were made.

Therefore, there are any number of things open to us, any number of things permissible. Divorce is a possibility. Pursuing our dreams another. There are so many things we can do, I don’t have time to list them all. As a preacher, my job isn’t to tell anyone what is or is not possible because both people and God always surprise me. However, we do have the words of Jesus and the teaching of Scripture that sketches for us what is edifying, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:23. The question we are to concern ourselves with, as believers, on a wide range of matters from divorce to how we use our resources is what builds up ourselves, our families, our communities, the body of Christ, and yes, even ultimately the larger world around us so that it all reflects the glory of God.

Therefore, this past Sunday was tough, but it was necessary. It was necessary because we live in a culture that maximizes freedom, yet minimizes obligation and community. It was necessary because the alive, active, sharp, two-edged sword of God’s word “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) It was necessary because anything less would cheapen the call of Jesus to “come and die” to who we once were so that we might become as He is. (Galatians 2:20) It was necessary because we — all of who we are — belong to God!

As I write these words, again, I know they sound fiery. They test even my resolve. I acknowledge that I am not perfect, and but for God’s grace, even my own marriage would be prone to fall into ruin. I am selfish and fully absorbed by my own concerns. My failings as a father and a husband are innumerable. I must depend upon God’s grace alone.

This is where having the standard, the challenge and the encouragement of Christ’s word that “what God has joined, let no one put asunder” (Mark 10:9) strengthens me, and certainly does no harm. I have a goal. I have a reminder. And if I were to fail in my marriage and as a father, I belong to one who loves me and heals me despite my falling short. But that doesn’t mean that Christ has no expectations of me.

In a word, the teachings of Jesus challenge me to learn to submit.

And it is here, on this word, that I think I found my challenge on Sunday, and all of us find our challenge in hearing Jesus as he speaks in Mark 10. We don’t like to submit, but God’s call is just that: learning to submit to God’s will in all things.

Jesus’ sayings are hard, indeed, because we have the hardest time bending the knee to Him. Thanks be to God for God’s grace which, more often than not, helps to loosen my joints exactly at the point I become the most resistant.

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