June 12, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
The Breath in Our Bones
Today our scripture begins when Jesus goes out beyond the Jordan to teach the crowds. This was his custom, the Bible says. But this time, some Pharisees in the crowd decide to put Jesus to the test. “Excuse me, Rabbi, tell us: Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife?” Now I’m pretty sure Jesus took a long look at the person asking this question.“Well, what does it say in the law from Moses?” The Pharisees are unfazed. “Moses said it was fine; a man can write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her.” Okay, then. “So why are you asking me?!” is what I would have said.
But Jesus knows exactly why they are asking him, and it’s not really to find out what he knows about the law. It’s to find out what he knows about God. So Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses gave you that provision. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female… A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Please understand. Jesus is piecing together quotes from the scripture, and the thrust of his answer is that marriage matters to God. Jesus is not making the argument that men should only marry women, or that God only creates male and female. I know these verses have been invoked to oppose marriage equality and gender diversity, but that is not the argument Jesus is making. Jesus is talking about divorce.
After he delivers this answer to the Pharisees, it worries the disciples. Later in the house, sitting around the kitchen table, they ask him to please clarify what he meant. Because it sure sounds like Jesus opposes divorce even though it is legal. He says to them, “If a man divorces his wife and remarries, he is committing adultery against her. And. If a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery against him.” Then I’m pretty sure a terrible silence filled the room.
Okay. So there are a few hopeful points to notice about what Jesus said. First of all, in the ancient world, divorce was especially dangerous for women. A husband could divorce his wife, put her out, and she would have nothing —no financial resources, no community support. Some scholars suggest that Jesus took such a harsh stance against divorce because he seeks to protect women who were in a vulnerable position.
Something else that’s interesting… This teaching also shows up in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but in those books, Jesus does not say the last sentence which goes, “If a woman divorces her husband then remarries, she commits adultery against him” because how can a woman divorce her husband? One idea is that was possible under Roman law even though it wasn’t under Jewish law.
So there are these small feminist victories in Jesus’ teaching. But come on, of course we can tell, this does not soften the blow. I’m fairly certain that all of us here have been through divorce or know someone who has been through divorce and then remarried. The question the disciples are asking is our question too, “So what does this mean for them, Jesus? What does this mean for us?”
Jesus does not say divorce is no big deal. Jesus does not say divorce is a breach of contract; figure it out with your lawyers. Jesus tells them that divorce and remarriage is the breaking of a commandment that is tantamount to violating our covenant with the LORD our God. If you listen, you’ll hear the snap of the bone breaking.
Because if it were just about a contract, that would be a different story.
About seven years ago, Chris and I went with my dad to purchase our first car from the dealer. Days earlier we had gone on several test drives. We knew exactly which car we wanted and which color. We knew we were not going to haggle on the price. So I thought it might take us about a half hour to go in, set up the financing, and get the keys. Oh my goodness. If you have ever bought a car, then you know.
We were there sitting across the desk in the fluorescent-lit office for probably half the day. We met with three different service representatives and went through pages and pages of paperwork, signing here and initialing here, and just when I thought we were finishing, another set of forms appeared.
Now as Americans, we understand this activity. We are accustomed to making promises by sitting in a business office and reading through stacks of papers and signing our names. Yes, I promise to pay you this amount every month. Let me sign your contract so durable and official.
It is also true that there may be an element of this contract-making when couples choose to get married legally and obtain a license from the courthouse. Make no mistake. In our Christian faith, marriage is not a contract. It is not the endless signing of forms in somebody’s office.
Marriage involves making covenant promises that include the gathered community and the LORD our God. These are the promises made in faith, so they’re much more wild and risky than the promise to pay money on time. In marriage, we covenant to love each other in sickness and health, in plenty and want, in sorrow and joy, for as we long as we shall live. How can a person possibly make these promises, if not by faith?
All through the history of our faith, covenant is how we are in relationship with God. It is our promise to know God and to know that we are God’s people. Keeping the covenant was not a matter of slavish obedience to some arbitrary protocol; keeping the covenant was the work of our identity. And so it is that our covenant is like our bones. It’s the structure that gives us shape, made of the stuff that connects us together. And just like our bones, a covenant can break.
When Jesus names divorce as a violation of covenant, he’s saying that it is not just a breach of contract, not something that can be managed by the husband writing a note. A legal dispute would be so much more manageable. A breach of contract is a breach of contract. A broken covenant is painful. It changes our relationship with our family, with the community, and with God.
In any divorce, there is the allocation of blame and responsibility, the exhaustion of trying to sort out what was whose fault. It is nearly impossible to go through this and not have the experience of being punished unfairly. Even in the best circumstances, divorce is as wounding as a broken bone, or many broken bones.
So when the afternoon comes to make it official, and you find yourself sitting in the fluorescent-lit office across the conference table from your ex and their lawyer, this is the moment when it is critical to know where God is and where God is not.
Beloved friends, I promise. God is not the pages of legalese that will require a hundred signatures to determine who gets what. God is not keeping a record of wrongs ready to incriminate or exonerate. God is not looking at the fragments of our bones ready to issue a judgement on our violation.
God is in the healing. In the tears that stream down our faces at the worst time, because they carry in their salt an impulse toward forgiveness. God meets us at the table with the new covenant for the forgiveness of sin. God is in the rainbow, the weapon done and hung on the wall, the promise that new life can come from death. God is the one who shows up in that valley of dry bones all brittle and broken, and God is the breath in our bones, the breath that keeps calling us back to life, calling us back to love.
But this is so hard to believe. It is much easier to believe that God is the judge keeping score, much easier to believe that our suffering is some kind of penalty for our failure. That’s not it. I know that it’s not, and maybe you do too. And if you and I know that God is the healing (not the judge), then this is the story we have to tell. Because too many believe that if I have broken my marriage, then I have broken my relationship with God, then I don’t belong in the church.
Who will go to them and say, “But you do belong; we miss you.” Who will say God has lived through broken covenants before and will again, and nothing can stop God from loving you. I know this seems like simply offering a word of comfort. It is so much more than that. There is something revolutionary about seeing the truth of brokenness then telling the truth of God’s mercy.
Imagine the disciples sitting at the table in that house. They are pressing Jesus on what he told the Pharisees. So he clarifies: Divorce may be legal, but it’s breaking a covenant with the LORD. This is when I’m pretty sure a terrible silence fills the room. I wonder if the disciples look away, if some of them feel ashamed or indicted. Then wouldn’t you know, right as they’re trying to grapple with this, people begin coming in the house with their clamoring children. “Hey, we’re in the middle of something important. Could somebody please get these kids out of here!”
Jesus says, “Don’t you see —this is what I’m trying to teach you. Don’t send the children away.” God welcomes the children, and those who have been rejected. God welcomes the divorced, those who have done wrong and been wronged, all of us with broken bones, and broken hearts, and broken promises. Here let me show you how to welcome!”
And he took them in his arms and he blessed them, that we might learn how to do this for each other. May it be so. Amen.