Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, October 4, 2015
We’ve had some milestone wedding anniversaries celebrated by members of our church this year. We congratulated Fred & Doreen Stevenson and Tom and June Masters on their 65th ; Lou & Shirley Ann Simkulak’s on their 50th. I just returned from Victoria, where we celebrated my parent’s 60th anniversary. These occasions give the rest of us amazing role models for what is possible in a relationship. They teach us how to bring out the best in one another, how to grow together, how to negotiate crises and difficult times. My Dad said that the key to a healthy and long relationship is understanding your partner’s emotional and physical needs. I might add that we also need to understand our own emotional and physical needs.
Unfortunately, not all relationships survive challenges. In fact, Stats Canada tells us that 41% of all marriages in Canada end in divorce and the average duration of these marriages is 14.5 years. Church goers are not immune from these statistics. There was an article in the June issue of the United Church Observer written by a recently-divorced minister. She talked about how particularly difficult it is for ministers who are divorced because they are expected to be role models. I assume similar pressure is placed on anyone in a public service profession, such as a teacher or a counsellor.
What, then, do we do with biblical passages such as our gospel lesson in which Jesus is clearly speaking against divorce? Let’s look at Jesus’ social context and see if we can gain a few clues to help us interpret this passage.
In Jesus’ day, when a woman received a certificate of divorce, she lost most of her rights, including property. The Pharisees, who often tried to trap Jesus in questions of legality, asked him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. You will note that in Jesus’ reply, he suggested that it was also legal for a woman to divorce her husband. This adds a complicated twist of justice to the picture that considers a woman’s rights as well as a man’s.
In Jesus’ Mediterranean culture, marriage was not between two individuals—it was between two families, each of whom chose the marriage partner for their child. The marriage was intended to bind particular families together into a stronger unit. Divorce, then, would not only be between two people, but also between two families. If the husband initiated a divorce, it would bring shame to the male relatives of the wife and result in feuding between the families. Divorce, then, was to be avoided at all costs because of its inevitable bloodshed. Perhaps this was also Jesus’ concern—broken relationships could lead to broken bodies.
Jesus shifts the Pharisees’ question of legality to a question of right relations. While he acknowledges the permissibility of divorce according to Jewish law, he suggests that what is more important is to focus on the healthy union of the relationship. Instead of trying to set up another law that is even stricter than what Moses gave, Jesus elevates the sacredness of relationship above a legal contract. He is less concerned with what is permissible—which usually settles for the lowest standard—and instead reaches for what is possible—which lifts our eyes to the highest standard.
So all of this is fine and good if there is a possibility of restoration of relationship. Sometimes we give up too quickly and need to ask for help in this very difficult work of reconciliation. But what happens when everything has been tried and the marriage relationship is still not working?
The Christian church has been all over the map in its interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Some churches do not allow divorcees to become members or to celebrate communion. Others accept them as long as they do not remarry. Yet Martin Luther, in the 1500’s, stated that there may be a number of just causes for divorce, including anger. He said that if a husband and wife could not live together harmoniously, but only in hatred and continual conflict, let them be divorced.
Way back in 1962, the United Church, after studying the scripture, the history of ecclesial pronouncements and the statements of other denominations around the world, recognized that “there will be cases where, in the spirit of our Lord, we must admit that it is in the best interests of all the persons involved (including the children and society) that the marriage be dissolved by divorce. We believe further that it is in harmony with the spirit of Jesus Christ and the New Testament teaching of redemption to allow those whose marriage has been dissolved by divorce, to remarry with the blessing of the church under certain conditions.” These conditions include recognition of the person’s own part in the failure of the marriage, repentance for that failure and adequate understanding & acceptance of their own responsibilities in a future relationship. Most important is the need to live in the grace of God through receiving and offering forgiveness.
When I told a friend that I was preaching a sermon on divorce, she said that we often honour the role models of couples who have healthy relationships, but we seldom honour the role models of couples who have healthy divorces. Her parents divorced well. They were careful not to force their children to take sides and they worked very hard to still respect each other. Forgiveness and grace must have played a major role in this hard work.
Some divorcees are beginning to ask the church to offer healing rituals of separation that will help them to let go of any hate, anger or bitterness for their sake and the sake of their family and friends.
This, I think, might capture the spirit of Jesus’ teaching where we ask not what is permissible—not what is the absolute minimum that we are legally required to uphold, but what is possible—what is the high standard of love, forgiveness and grace to which we are called in all of our relationships—even the broken ones.
We are only called to do our best—no more. Sometimes we cannot fix things and we need to learn how to live with our brokenness. All of us have had broken relationships of some type and we all live in the forgiving grace of God.
On this day of World Communion, we are grateful for the guidance of other denominations around the world, both present and past, that have helped us negotiate through very difficult circumstances and challenging biblical passages.
Through the broken body of Jesus, whom we remember as we break bread today with Christian communities around the world, we can know that we do not walk alone in our own brokenness.
 See John Pilch, “Marriage and Divorce in Jesus’ World,” http://liturgy.slu.edu/27OrdB100415/theword_cultural.html
 The United Church of Canada, Marriage Breakdown, Divorce, Remarriage: A Christian Understanding, 1962, p. 26.