I am always amazed at what people hear in sermons. From time to time people will repeat a line I spoke or paraphrase a point. I know people are listening, yet, I am always surprised by what people hear.
One Sunday after worship, a new parishioner, young woman in her early thirties, shook my hand and thanked me for the sermon. She said, “It really spoke to me. From what you said today it is clear that I need to leave my husband.” With that she said, “have a great day,” and kept walking.
Well, I didn’t have a great day. I stewed in my office: What did she hear in my sermon? I read it over a couple of times; I just couldn’t see it. I asked Kathy if there was anything in my sermon that would have motivated someone to do something so drastic. She too was baffled.
Finally, I called her. I tracked down her information and gave her a call. I asked if she could come to my office that week. Tuesday would work for her she said. Well, you can imagine how much I went crazy the next two days. The sermon was not about marriage. The sermon was about joy, how you need to have it. How did she hear a mandate to divorce?
On Tuesday the young woman came to my office and explained. She said for the last few years she and her husband had lost all interest in each other; they lived separate lives in a shared house. They had no debt, no children, and no love for each other. They were not bitter; they were not abusive to each other. Finally, she said, there is just no joy.
The sermon had been about joy and the power we get from it and how it is the essence of the Christian life. She said, “I want to have joy in my life. Neither of us find joy in each other, so we need to start a new life. Before Sunday, I just lacked a clear reason why I should end the marriage. Now I have one. I want to feel joy.”
After she left I remember being struck by how much I agreed with her. Yet a part of me struggled with the idea of divorce as a path to joy. There was something that seemed strange. Since then, through the years, I have encountered this struggle in various stages with couples. I have counseled many people in regard to marriage. Too often, people come to the pastor when the marriage is all but over. It is as if they need to talk to a pastor as a kind of full circle. A pastor married them, maybe a pastor will unmarry them.
To be frank, this is a part of ministry where I tread lightly. The bible doesn’t speak much about marriage. Part of me believes that being a good husband or being a good wife is really about being a good human being. That the bible does speak to and speaks about it a lot. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the most practical advice especially in times of conflict. People need to hear more than, “be nice to each other.”
Maybe a generation or two ago, the teaching of Jesus we read today would have been seen and heard as a deterrent to divorce. Jesus says don’t do it; so don’t do it. But not today. I spend much more time talking to people struggling with the bitterness of divorce after it is done more than trying to determine if it should be done. I have heard more guilt over what this will mean to parents or children than whether or not a divorce will impact a relationship with God.
The Roman Catholic Church still keeps to a very strict interpretation of what Jesus said. There are signs that this is changing. I brushed up against this change in the last few years as the rules of annulment are changing. More people are going through the effort to annul a marriage so they can remarry within the Roman Catholic Church. Where I enter into this is the inquiry about a former marriage or the deep sense of betrayal that a former spouse wants the church to believe a marriage was not real. One former wife shouted in my office, “does this mean our children are not real?”
It may be that this teaching of Jesus is a bit antiquated. We just don’t believe this is relevant to our lives. Any teaching of the bible that doesn’t fit our definitions and desires today is easily laid aside or at the very least seen as your choice. In truth that is how we live. So maybe just ignore this one. Don’t waste energy trying to argue against it; just keep going. Yet, two things keep me coming back to this teaching. What is more, I have come to see this as one of the most important teachings of Jesus.
The importance comes in two ways. The first is to recognize how such a teaching is about everyday life and everyone. To see this as everyday life we need to lay aside the literal interpretation. We need to not because Jesus doesn’t mean what he says. We need to lay aside the literal because there is greater value in the moral truth beyond it. The moral truth is this: Jesus is talking about discarding people. When a person sought a divorce in Jesus’ day, he or she was looking to discard a spouse. Mostly, this was about a man discarding a woman for a newer model, or a better financial opportunity. Whatever the motive, though, when Jesus says “divorce” it would be better to read “discard.” Read discard, don’t discard people.
The second way of seeing what is important here is to recognize the rarity of divorce. Divorcing someone is rare. Divorce is common today, but it is not something we do each day. People may get divorced once or twice in a lifetime (more than that is uncommon). While we don’t get divorced every day, we are tempted to discard people all the time.
Seeing someone as disposable, something to be discarded, happens all the time. If we recast the teaching of Jesus as discarding, it starts to make more sense. Read simply as divorce it is not something everyone experiences or needs to hear. If you are single, the literal meaning here is not a great concern. Read as discarding it is meant for everyone.
A few years ago a parishioner was going through a terrible divorce. What the young woman described as her motive and intention in divorce was very far from what Kirsti was experiencing. She was being discarded. It was painful and brutal.
Kirsti called my office to say she was finalizing her divorce on Tuesday. Can we do something that day to make it more than Tuesday.
I told her to give me a few days. Let me see what I can come up with I said. And I did find something. The Episcopalians have developed an unwedding ceremony. I borrowed and adapted from what they put together.
On the Tuesday she signed her divorce papers Kristi came to the church with a dozen friends. We arranged the chancel with chairs so she was one of many, not set apart. After a reading from the psalms about being kept, how the Lord keeps us, I asked Kirsti to step into the midst of her friends. I took rope, heavy rope for boats, and I wound the rope around her hands and wrists. I said, “the knot is tied.”
Then, one by one, her friends came forward and undid the rope. Finally the heavy rope fell to the floor. After a time, I picked it up and held it before her and said, “the knot is no more.” After a lot of tears and deep embrace of friends, we placed water on Kirsti’s forehead and said, “remember your baptism. You are a beloved of God; you are beloved of these who will remember you and care for you.” And then we wept some more. The last ritual was to extinguish a single candle.
One who was discarded now felt gathered; one who was cast aside now believed she was loved. It was more than Tuesday.
This was good, but it also revealed a big failure. If someone were to call me and say can you do a wedding, I wouldn’t blink. I know what to do. If someone dies and you call me to eulogize, to commend, to commit, to bury, I know what to do. There is no cause for confusion. Yet, what struck me about Kirsti’s request is that I really didn’t know what to do because I never felt the need, never considered what rite or ritual would help in such a profound moment of pain as signing papers finalizing your divorce.
I shared Kirsti’s story at a Presbytery retreat a few years ago. I was asked to lead a workshop on the new definitions we have for marriage. The denomination fought for decades over same sex marriage and finally came to a good compromise. We let everyone follow their conscience without threat or censure. My conscience like many has changed over the course of thirty years. I began with a need to have a biblical authority, a defense of tradition. I live now in awe of anyone who is lucky enough to find a person who cherishes them and will vow to honor them and abide with them in sickness and in health, joy and sorrow. I am ready to offer a blessing to such lucky people.
Near the end of the workshop, I said, we have changed our views on marriage, but I fear we have not changed our view on divorce. Culturally it is common, but it is still wrapped in shame and kept in silence. We are a welcoming church, but we have no real way of welcoming people who are discarded.
That is what Kirsti’s needed. She needed something more than Tuesday. This came clear to me. Yet I could also see my blindness. I know how to welcome the bereaved; I know how to welcome the sick; I know how to embrace the refugee: do I know how to welcome those who feel discarded? If my initial response is confusion, “I’ll get back to you,” then the answer is no. Not really.
When the young woman came to my office and described her joyless life, I was hearing and seeing someone whose knot had been untied long ago. Her marriage didn’t work out, didn’t take. It turns out this happens. My panic and fear and confusion was not a sign that she was doing something wrong or wanted something bad; my confusion was a clear sign that I had no idea what it meant for divorce to be a reality of life.
The young woman in the marriage that didn’t take had a radically different experience than Kirsti. Kirsti felt the full measure of being discarded. Her untying was heartbreaking. What binds the two experiences together, though, is my confusion, my lack of preparation, my inability to be ready with the artfulness of rite and ritual.
The power of Jesus’ teaching is not found in a literal interpretation. “Don’t divorce” is about as useful as “don’t do drugs.” Okay. Don’t discard people. Don’t fall to the temptation of casting people aside. This is a powerful teaching. It is perhaps the most important. It is the balance of the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t discard people is perhaps the most primal affirmation of the golden rule.
In our day, in our families, in our work and community we need to resist the temptation to discard those who bother, those who annoy, those who conjure disdain. This is not easy. The teachings of Jesus are easy to understand, impossible to live.
Yet, what is more is that we need to imagine, to dream, to create ways of welcoming the discarded, healing the discarded. Untying the knot worked for Kirsti. It made it more than Tuesday. Yet if this was what I could come up with in a day or so, what could we do in a decade? What could we create and foster and nurture for those who experience the deep pain of being discarded? Certainly a better Tuesday.
I invite all those who are experiencing the pain of a broken body to seek healing today with the oil. But I also invite all those who are experiencing the pain of a broken heart to seek healing as well. If you have been discarded, you are invited to feel the depth of grace and mercy. Remember you are a beloved of God; you are a beloved here. Amen.
- Ruth 1:15 - 18
- Mark 10:1 - 12