Sermon for 4 October
As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
You touch us in our place of need,
Jesus, elder Brother;
help us not to turn our faces,
but to receive you as you come,
that we may be channels of your grace
now and for ever. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading treats the issue of marriage and divorce. Let me then read you some words on marriage by one Robert Farrar Capon, an author and a priest of the Episcopal Church of the USA. It’s a longish quotation, so don’t worry if you can’t hold it all in your mind (find the whole thing here).
Marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. That at the age of twenty or so, with little knowledge of each other and a dangerous overdose of self-confidence, two human beings should undertake to commit themselves for life— and that church and state should receive their vows with a straight face—all this is absurd indeed. And it is tolerable only if it is revelled in as such. A pox on all the neat little explanations as to why it is reasonable that two teenagers should be bound to each other until death. It is not reasonable. It happens to be true to life, but it remains absurd. Up with the absurdity of marriage then…
The world is going mad because it has too many reasonable options, and not enough interest or nerve to choose anything for good. In such a world, the marriage service is not reasonable, but it is sane; which is quite another matter…
I have rarely read anything so insanely sane about marriage. It says to me, Marriage is so crazy, it just might work.
Marriage is so crazy, it just might work. A young student once told me that he hesitates to get married because it would be so terrible if it failed. It’s better, he reasons, to live together because if you split up it’s not such a disaster; you don’t have the shame of a failed marriage.
That is a very high view of marriage, a very high view indeed. It greatly respects marriage. And I respect that. The thing that troubles me most with it isn’t that two people might live together without getting married; my impression is that this young man would require a high degree of commitment from himself in any relationship. My problem with it is that it’s too reasonable. There’s no leap of faith. There’s no crazy sanity, no trusting of your very self and soul to another person. And surely, wholeheartedly trusting yourself to another person is central to marriage.
The Uniting Church has a lot to say about marriage. Some of it is in our Marriage Service. In the section known as the Declaration of Purpose we say,
Marriage is a gift of God and a means of grace.
In the life-long union of marriage
we can know the joy of God,
in whose image we are made, male and female.
Marriage, we say, has been instituted by God. You may not marry God’s gift to women—or to men!—but marriage itself is a gift of God. And this life-long union is a good gift.
It’s a gift that can help us to know the joy of God. We usually call God ‘he’, but God is not male. God is beyond male and female. When we call God ‘Father’, we aren’t saying men are more like God than women. This life-long union with one of those mysterious members of the opposite sex may enable us to open ourselves more to the mystery of God.
The Marriage Service goes on:
Marriage is founded in God’s loving nature,
and in the covenant of love made with us in Christ.
Husband and wife,
in giving themselves to each other in love,
reflect the love of Christ for his Church.
‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.’ That’s from the bible, in 1 John 4.16. You don’t have to be married to live in love. There are many loving relationships; the love of a parent for a child is one. But marriage exposes us as we are to one other person, day after day. It’s a great training ground for living in love.
The service also says,
In Christian marriage,
wife and husband are called
to live together faithfully,
and to love each other
with respect, tenderness and delight.
The companionship and comfort of marriage
enables the full expression of physical love
between husband and wife.
Husband and wife are intended to have a full and faithful sexual life together. We all know that. It sometimes becomes the stuff of humour. George Bernard Shaw once said,
Marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.
The Marriage Service doesn’t prudishly turn away from this aspect of marriage—it celebrates it.
Marriage isn’t just for the couple alone. The service goes on:
They share the life of a home
and may be entrusted
with the gift and care of children.
They help to shape a society
in which human dignity and happiness
may flourish and abound.
Marriage and family are basic building blocks of society. Children need stable and loving early experiences so that one day, they may take their place in the community. It is our duty as a Christian community to do all we can to uphold marriage and family life, and to give our support to all families.
Next, the service says
Marriage is a way of life
that all people should honour;
it is not to be entered into lightly or selfishly,
but responsibly and in the love of God.
It is delightfully absurd that two people trust themselves to each other for life. We shouldn’t be po-faced about that. But we also honour the commitment of marriage, and seek to ensure that those who are entering into it have thought it through as far as possible.
I have a responsibility here whenever I marry anyone. Did you know that a minister can refuse to marry two people for any reason? I once told a couple after premarital counselling that I wouldn’t marry them, on the date they suggested, and that we needed a longer time of preparation to work things through. I told them that if they wanted to find someone else to marry them, I’d give them the paperwork and they could go ahead. I was quaking in my boots, but I thought the couple before me were headed for disaster. At the news, the prospective groom had a huge look of relief on his face, and promptly ran away interstate, never to be seen again.
The Uniting Church has a very high view of marriage, and we honour and uphold it. We also recognise that not every marriage succeeds, despite the hopes and dreams that have gone into it. We acknowledge that divorce occurs, and the Assembly has made this statement about divorce:
In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take.
Divorce is always painful, not least for those who go through divorce. But the Uniting Church does not stigmatise those who are divorced. We do not blame divorced people and seek to punish them. Heaven knows, they usually punish themselves enough! It seems that those who have the highest view of marriage hurt the most when it goes wrong. So we offer care, not blame.
It is hard in a fellowship, when two of its members divorce; it can be next to impossible for the congregation to be a safe place for both parties. But we extend the care that we are able to offer. Our care may be imperfect, but it is offered in the name of Jesus. And we dare not exclude a divorced person in the name of Jesus.
The Uniting Church says this about remarriage:
The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.
Friends, everyone deserves a second chance. God’s grace is available to all. The healing power of God can release people to remarry.
In the light of all this, how do we make sense of the words of Jesus? It seems that Jesus forbids both divorce and remarriage.
Let me make two things clear. Firstly, the bible elsewhere gives grounds for divorce. For example, in Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus says that divorce is possible in the case of ‘unchastity’, or unfaithfulness. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that if a Christian is married to an unbeliever, and the unbeliever leaves, then the believer should ‘let it be so’ (7.15).
So the New Testament doesn’t speak with one voice on divorce. There’s a conversation going on in the New Testament. And we haven’t even looked at the Old Testament.
Secondly, the question that Jesus was being asked had a context. There was a debate going on about the grounds for divorce. Could it be for ‘any cause’ at all? Or was it only for unfaithfulness? Those who believed that divorce could happen for any cause were not entering into marriage ‘responsibly and in the love of God’. It wasn’t ‘till death us do part’; it was more like until a better offer came along.
Jesus says No to such a view of marriage, and so does the Church. Marriage is not a time-limited contract that can be broken; it is a covenant that we enter into with another for life.
So—and this is clearer in Matthew than in Mark—Jesus is saying that if you enter into marriage lightly or selfishly, knowing you can always get out of it, you are entering into it wrongly.
Therefore, to divorce for any old reason is not right. Certainly, to divorce because you’d like to hitch up with someone else is a wrong-headed idea of marriage.
Marriage is a life-long covenant. However: even a life-long covenant may be broken. And if it is broken, then there is an opportunity for grace and for healing and for a second chance, a new beginning.
I have married a number of divorced people; some of them have been members of the Catholic Church, who wanted to be married in church but were not allowed to have the service in their own church. I’m glad to have had that opportunity.
Robert Farrar Capon was right. Marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. The commitment of two people to one another in marriage may be absurd, but it is life-giving; it may be unreasonable, but it is sane.
Marriage may go wrong, in which case we care for those who are going through the difficulties of a broken marriage. And we look for God’s grace for second chances. But whatever happens, marriage is a gift that we must hold well, and honour among one another. Marriage is so crazy, it just might work.