A Sermon for Sunday, October 3, the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for Proper 27B: Job 1.1, 2:1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1:1-4,2.5-12; Mk 10:2-16.
9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mk 10.9).
If these words from today’s gospel reading sound familiar to you, it’s because they are used at the end of the marriage liturgy of the Anglican church (BAS p.545). A few weeks from now, I’ll be reading them to a young bride and groom who will stand before me as they enter into this remarkable state of being that Jesus here describes. In my experience, it’s a remarkably rare thing now for young adults to seek a wedding in a church and in the Christian tradition. I suspect that your experience, perhaps with your own adult children, is similar.
That young people seem to have largely abandoned Christian marriage is an index of the predominant secularity of our age. Civil unions and co-habitation offer other alternatives for life together. Weddings on beaches and in gardens, with self-written vows, cater to our society’s desire for authenticity and self-expression. No-fault divorce laws and the idea of the “starter marriage” provide off-ramps for those who become dissatisfied.
We’ll get to Jesus’ teaching here on divorce towards the end of this homily, but here in the first part I want to talk about what Jesus’ comments say about God’s creative intentionality, and about how Jesus frames marriage as God’s design.
“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mk 10.9). As the capstone of the marriage service, these words of Jesus underscore the seriousness of what the couple are entering into, although to be sure the vows themselves speak eloquently of the stakes of marriage:
“… for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, for the rest of our live, according to God’s holy law. This is my solemn vow.” (BAS 544).
Think of the myriads of catastrophes that the newlyweds are vowing to face together: temptation, adultery and betrayal; job loss and economic ruin; life changing illnesses and accidents; dementia and slow, undignified decline. In part, the marriage service is saying to the newlyweds, buckle up, because you’re going to need God’s help to get through this ride.
Of course, for each of these potential tribulations, the wedding vows point to a concomitant blessing. Sickness and health, joy and sorrow, poverty and wealth are all bound up together in the fullness of our lives. As the psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30.5). In his earthly life, Jesus had full experience of the variety of human experience, from sharing the joy of the wedding at Canaan and the hospitality of friends’ houses, to his tears at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus is God’s promise of commitment to our earthly life in all its hills and valleys. In all this, God says in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, I will go with you and be there for you.
“Therefore, what God has joined together …”. In saying that marriage is God’s agency, Jesus is saying something profound about the created nature of our experience. In quoting Genesis 2:18-24, Jesus God’s desire that marriage is part of the life that is God’s gift to us to enjoy, as well as a participation in God’s work of Creation by continuing it from generation to generation. All of the things we see in our marriage service – friendship, partnership, community, parenthood – are part of the created order that God gives us to enjoy, and are also resources that God gives us to help us endure the challenges of life.
“… let no one separate”. These words remind us that Jesus’ teachings here on marriage are within the context of a discussion on divorce. Here I think the church needs to tread carefully and pastorally, sensitive to the lived experience of many of the faithful. Some of the alienation from marriage that I described earlier may be attributable to defences of “traditional marriage” mounted by religious conservatives fighting culture wars. I have no interest in these battles. If everyone in church had to raise their hands honestly if asked if they were ever divorced, my hand would be first in the air, even though the admission does me no credit and is still a shameful memory. We are human, and liable to err, as St. Paul writes (Rom 3.23).
It’s often said that Jesus in Mk 10 is speaking up against male-dominated divorce practices of his day which saw wives easily cast off and forced into lives of poverty and prostitution. I myself think this context is important, because it is entirely congruent with Jesus’ concern for the dignity of women as children of God, seen throughout his ministry. It would thus be a perversion of the gospel to read Mark 10 as a being a blanket prohibition against all divorce, even in cases of violence or neglect. My wife is on the board of a shelter for women and children escaping abusive relationships. Would Jesus condemn her for thus undermining marriage? I don’t see how any reading of the good news of God in Christ could require a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship.
Our Anglican Church has evolved its thinking on divorce and on marriage. We have moved towards an understanding of marriage as a means of knowing God’s grace, love, and the communion of the Trinity within matrimony, regardless of the gender of the participants or whether one or both parties have been divorced. To be sure, these changes break with Christian history and tradition of marriage, and only in the fulness of time will we know if we are right to alter our concept of marriage. I pray that we are right in these things. What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that in the mystery of marriage, we are given the power to love, to forgive, and to stand by one another through the darkest hours, all the while within the fulsome love of God in Christ who calls us to renew creation in the communion and community of this mysterious and wonderful way of being.