The Rev. Peter Faass
Oh, isn’t this just lovely! Today we have the confluence of two topics that create the perfect homiletical storm: Jesus’ challenging declaration about divorce, and the beginning of the parish’s annual stewardship campaign! Divorce and money. What preacher doesn’t pray for the opportunity to preach on these two topics, together no less. Not!
I don’t want to be flip; divorce is a painful subject that impacts all too many of us. After all, we proclaim when we marry two persons, “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” That’s a serious statement with the potential, if we violate it, of putting us in conflict with God. So, arriving at the point in a marriage when it is clear that there is no other option left but to dissolve the relationship, is no small thing. That is not a decision to be taken lightly. Regardless of the circumstances, divorce always causes pain and suffering to someone; to the couple, children, their families, and the couple’s support communities. Divorce hurts everyone.
Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He replies by saying, no. To do so is to commit adultery. He uses the Biblical passage we use in the nuptial blessing to justify this: “the two shall become one flesh,’” He says. “So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
These words can be devasting to people of faith who may be contemplating a divorce, or who have gone through one. They can drive people away from the One who we believe, “stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace.” That anti-divorce pronouncement can seem more of a driving away than an embrace during one of life’s most traumatic events, just when people most need that saving embrace.
Two things about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees:
- First, it’s a rhetorical trap. The passage opens with the statement, “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked . . .” The Pharisees consistently tested Jesus to get him to say something that they could arrest him for.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist had been arrested and executed by King Herod over the issue of divorce. John had railed against King Herod because he had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who had divorced Philip in order to marry Herod. Is your head spinning yet?
John rejected the Mosaic law that allowed a man to divorce a woman by simply writing a certificate of divorce and putting her out of the house. It is important to note that the Herodian household was both Jewish and Gentile, and Gentiles allowed both a man and a woman this avenue for an easy divorce, ergo Herodias initiating her divorce from Philip. John was no less amused by this Gentile practice than the Jewish one: he saw both as contrary to God’s intent. His speaking out about it got him killed.
Jesus is aware of this and of the Pharisees’ malice - yet he doesn’t dodge the question. Yet, he undergirds John’s position on divorce, even though doing so places him in a precarious theological and political position, threatening his own life. Why does he do this?
- Second point: He does so because he understands the indefensible position of vulnerability that the facile divorce law of Moses placed women in. Jesus’ ministry is laser-focused on protecting the vulnerable. He does so in this encounter even though it gives further warrant for the authorities to seek his death.
According to Mosaic Law, a woman could be divorced because, “she does not please [her husband] because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” (Deut. 24:1)
What options did a divorced woman have? Not many:
- She could beg.
- She could try and return to her family of origin if they would have her back.
- She could become a prostitute.
Talk about being cast into the direst of vulnerable states! Jesus will have none of it.
Neither will the Episcopal Church, which allows for a divorce and remarriage, because we understand that there are times when to stay in a marriage creates a situation of dire emotional, spiritual and even physical vulnerability for one (or both) of the married couple. The truth is, Jesus is concerned with the vulnerability, dignity, health and well-being of people - not the act of divorce itself.
In chapters nine and ten of Mark, Jesus cites children (3 times) – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable – as those who we must become like in order to truly follow him. “Let the little children come to me;” he tells the disciples. “Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Ultimately, this passage on divorce is about stewardship: Stewardship of those most vulnerable in our society. In this case, women who are imperiled and abused by a harsh patriarchal culture, and children whom that culture sees as non-persons. The Gospel and the entire canon of the Bible is about God’s call to us to exercise good stewardship over the entire creation and all its inhabitants.
In Genesis, God calls us to rule over Creation. “To rule” doesn’t mean to abuse, dominate, take advantage of, or even destroy Creation; it indicates we are partners with God in the care of Creation.
Everything in the Hebrew and Christian texts calls to:
- Take care of and be good stewards of the widow, the orphan, the alien, the ill, the hungry, the outsider, the imprisoned, the naked, the disabled, the aged, and the lonely.
- Exercise good stewardship of our bodies, our treatment of others, our relationship with God, our speech, our faith lives, our inter-relationships, our communities, our wealth and resources, and “this fragile earth our island home.”
To be human – to be made in the image of God – is a call to practice good stewardship.
As faithful followers of Jesus, stewardship is something we are supposed to do every day. For better or worse, the church primarily focuses on stewardship in the autumn as an annual stewardship campaign. To the point of being cringeworthy, almost everyone associates the annual stewardship campaign with money. It’s all about the coin.
Truth be told, it is about the coin. The coin – and our giving generously of it – not only engages in good stewardship of our money, but it allows us as a congregation to engage and promote all the other ways God calls us to be good stewards. That is critical work.
In a world that is increasingly uncaring about the exercise of good stewardship (not only for the most vulnerable but for just about everything we are called to be good stewards of), the Church remains a beacon of hope in role modeling a better way of life for all people.
- We do this through our adult and children formation programs. We do this in our worship, preaching, and music.
- We do this through our ministries and outreach.
- We do this in pastoral care.
- We do this in uplifting arts and culture through our own programming, and that of our tenants.
- We do this by maintaining our beautiful property and building with its iconic White Spire here in the heart of the Van Aken District.
- We do this by striving to incarnate the new commandment to love others as Jesus loves us:
- We love the married, the single, the divorced and the widowed.
- We love the African-American, the African expat, the Asian, the Hispanic, the bi-racial, the multi-racial and the White.
- We love the LGBTQ, the un-gendered, the cis-gendered and the heterosexual.
- We love the strong in faith, the weak in faith, the seeker and the follower.
- We do this in ways great and small: some on the radar screen, and a lot below it.
- We do it because we love Jesus and we believe the reign of God he proclaims is the only way for humanity to exercise the perfect stewardship that God calls us to.
So yes, the annual stewardship campaign is about the coin, because the coin allows us to do all this and more. I pray you give from abundance, not meagerness, to this stewardship campaign. Doing so enables us to continue role-modeling and live into the stewardship for all the Creation and its inhabitants that have been given into our care.