Our God of Mercy, A Sermon on Divorce

The biblical text for this sermon was Mark 10:1-16.

Our God is a God full of mercy. We are called to reflect God in this world. The church is to be a place full of mercy.

The book of Genesis teaches that the goodness of relationship was at the center of creation. God, like Chef Marty thinking that our stew needs just a little bit of something else, was not quite satisfied with the beginnings of this world. While God was immediately enamored with the clay and mud that life had been breathed into from God’s own breath, God thought something is missing still. It is not good for humanity to live alone. Our God is a God of mercy. God took mercy on this lonely being in this big, giant planet and set about to create a helper, another life, similar, yet different, so unique bonds of relationship could be built. The friendships and communities that have enhanced and made our lives whole, are a result of God’s first work of mercy in this world.

Our God is a God full of mercy. We are called to reflect God in this world. The church is to be a place full of mercy.

We don’t need marriage to be complete in this world, but all of us need relationships, someone to depend upon and to be depended upon. Our healthiest relationships are marked by commitment, reliance and love. For some of us, one of those relationships might grow into marriage, where life long promises can be made so that we can trust the other to be completely naked, unashamedly intimate and very vulnerable. Marriage can be tough exactly because we have exposed ourselves fully to another, which creates fabulous opportunities to love and be loved, but also dangerous opportunities to hurt and be hurt.

So almost as soon as people began to shelter and protect this most intimate of relationships in the bonds of marriage, another ritual was created for people who could no longer trust or depend on each other, divorce. A couple of books after Genesis, Deuteronomy 24 sets some loose restrictions around divorce. The man, but not the woman, could divorce his wife if she no longer pleased him. This low bar created such a culture of divorce that religious people in Jesus’ day debated about it. One rabbi said men should be allowed to divorce their wife for any reason, even if it was just that he didn’t like her cooking. Others saw the danger in this and said no it shouldn’t be that easy, it needs to be a good reason, something truly abhorrent to God, like she slept around or something.

While rabbis debated the rights a man had to divorce, most ignored the complete lack of rights a woman had in marriage or divorce. A woman could be discarded by her husband, like a dog returned to the pound because it barks too much. And when a man divorced his wife in Jesus’ day, she had severe economic consequences and her choices for survival were limited. Remarriage was possible but unlikely. Living independently, working for herself was not just out of the question but against the civil law. The best hope was that her parents would take her back into their house, where she would live the rest of her life under a cultural cloud of shame because she had not pleased her husband. Divorce in Jesus’ day made the most vulnerable class of people, women, even more vulnerable. Some holy people, religious people, understood this but shrugged saying what can we do, the bible says divorce is legal. God’s law is God’s law.

Our God is a God full of mercy. We are called to reflect God in this world. The church is to be a place full of mercy.

So, full of mercy, Jesus weighed in. With mercy, Jesus saw the pain that divorce caused vulnerable women discarded in his society. With mercy, Jesus said there should be no more divorce, even though the biblical law clearly allowed it. With mercy Jesus declared that God stood with the most vulnerable of society. And this was the way it was in the church for a long, long time. And in Christian nations influenced by biblical law, divorce was also illegal. And women were protected and served.

Yet, marriages still broke up, from the day after Jesus said this to today. Men still abandoned their families and created a new family some other place. The church tried to respond, acknowledging some need for divorce, but their complicated laws only raised more questions and left everyone dissatisfied. As civil law began to allow divorce, divorced people were shunned, gossipped about and made to feel unwelcome in the church. When people divorced, they often left their church the same day they left their marriage. Jesus was clear, so the church feared any acknowledgment that marriage is difficult and divorce is sometimes necessary, might sound like they were condoning divorce. So, exactly when someone needed the support of the church, needed reassured that they were loved, the church said, sorry, our hands are tied, God’s law is God’s law.

Our God is a God full of mercy. We are called to reflect God in this world. The church is to be a place full of mercy.

This law banning divorce didn’t seem right to some. It didn’t reflect the real and true difficulty of weaving two lives into one. It didn’t seem to take into account human frailty or human error. As women and men were shunned from the church, some wondered whether this was what Jesus’ intended. As new marriages, full of goodness and love, were deemed by the church to be not only sinful, but nonexistent in the eyes of God, some asked is this what Jesus intended? Should the church called to love and serve our neighbor, turn her back on neighbors who had divorced?

So, in the twentieth century, some churches, but not all, decided to trust mercy over law. Some churches but not all acknowledged that divorce not only happens, but it might be the best thing for two people who in their vulnerability to one another are harming each other and the community around them. Some churches but not all, decided to understand this clear command of Jesus as an act of mercy for vulnerable women in that particular time and place, and a new act of mercy was needed today. Some churches, but not all, decided to trust Paul’s words in Romans 8 that nothing, should ever keep us away from Christ Jesus, and nothing includes divorce, too. Some churches but not all, decided to trust mercy over law, and acknowledge honestly how tough marriage can be at times for all of us. Divorce is never God’s intention for two people who marry, but divorce happens to good people trying hard in tough situations. Those who have experienced a divorce in our congregations should never be second class citizens, because they are like all of us, saint and sinner. And maybe, just maybe the God who revealed God’s power in Jesus through death and resurrection, can take the death of a marriage and help us find resurrection, new life and new hope. 

When the church chooses law, how God intended us to live, over mercy, God’s compassionate love for us when we are vulnerable and hurting, then the church has lost her way. Our God is a God full of mercy. We are called to reflect God in this world. The church is to be a place full of mercy.  Amen

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