Preaching about Divorce on World Communion Sunday
October 7 is World Communion Sunday – a day for celebrating the worldwide church – for celebrating all that we hold in common with Christians everywhere. It is a day when we remember that when we celebrate communion, we are celebrating at one table – we are celebrating together with all who have celebrated communion before and all who will celebrate it in the future, prefiguring that heavenly banquet when all God’s children will sit at table together.
There are many scriptures that would be a good fit for World Communion Sunday, but it is not obvious that any of the main lectionary readings fit the bill. The Revised Common Lectionary takes no note of World Communion Sunday. Instead, the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures begins with Job 1 and the “epistle” reading begins with Hebrews 1, inaugurating a tour of each book that will conclude on the last Sunday in October. In the meantime, the cycle of Gospel readings continues to slowly move through Mark, with all five October readings coming from the 10th chapter.
While any of these scriptures seem difficult to craft into a World Communion Sunday sermon, each scripture has some potential. Job is not a Jew, and yet God holds him up as an example of faithfulness – this can speak to a deeper ecumenism, reaching beyond those we are in communion with now into anticipation of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. The Hebrews passage speaks of us all having one Father through Christ, who calls us sisters and brothers. And the Mark passage . . . what are we to do with the Mark passage? Thank goodness the lectionary continues the reading past verse 12 – past the teaching on divorce and into the blessing of the children. “Let the children come to me…” Sermon written! Now onto hymn selections!
But not so fast.
Those Adultrous Divorcées
What I have outlined above is the seed of a credible World Communion Day sermon, but if you read the passages as recommended in the lectionary, that means that your parishioners are hearing Mark 10:2-12 with no commentary. I wonder – how many of your parishioners are divorced? How many have divorced siblings, parents, or children? How many are in difficult, perhaps even abusive relationships, staying together only because of this scripture? Would you have them hear this scripture without a word of grace from God through you? Is your desire to follow the lectionary to the letter greater than your desire to assure the people in your care of God’s love for them in every life situation – including divorce?
If you do not wish to preach about divorce, if the time is just not right for you or your congregation – if you are committed to the course outlined in the paragraphs above – then I urge you to not read the passage about divorce. Just crop the Mark passage to verses 13-16. Reading the divorce passage without exposition will distract many parishioners from the theme of your worship service: you will be preaching about unity, and they will be mired in their own thoughts of broken relationships. The conclusions they draw in this undirected time may even make it more difficult for them to confide in you when they or their loved ones face relationship problems, fearing God’s condemnation. After all, too few in the pews accept God’s grace for themselves any better than the many who never attend worship.
But if you are interested in preaching Mark 10:2-12, you may be familiar with the typical pastoral take on this passage:
Note that this teaching is for men, reminding them that women are vulnerable – at that time, women had few options for supporting themselves if they were divorced. The word used for “adultery” might be read more broadly to mean “sexual immorality,” and so Jesus is really saying, “unless you have already married a woman who is unfaithful to you, would you drive her into prostitution?” The scriptures tells us that Jesus was friends with prostitutes – he would have been familiar with their stories of how they came to be on the margins of society. So this could be read as a radically pro-woman teaching – which moves nicely into the teaching on children – both passages deal with Jesus reaching out to the most vulnerable and invisible persons in his society.
There’s only one problem with this: Jesus adds in verse 12: “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” The woman here is fine. She is married, taken care of economically, not being taken advantage of as far as we can tell. What shall we make of this?
Grace to the Divorced
As a woman who married – and divorced – at an early age, and who has now been remarried for almost 14 years, I have tried many ways to rationalize my situation: My first marriage wasn’t a real marriage because we didn’t know what we were getting into, or were too young, or didn’t really love each other properly, or didn’t get married in a church. There was abuse involved. (Although abuse is pointedly not mentioned in this scripture – unless, again, we go with the “sexual immorality” translation, which would encompass sexual abuse.) My second marriage is so clearly blessed by God. And so on. I have wasted a good many hours “talking back to Jesus” about this teaching.
What I have finally come to is that I sinned to marry my first husband, insofar as I turned from the path God had for me. And I sinned to divorce him, insofar as it is always against God’s best hopes for us for a relationship to become more and more broken until the individuals involved see no way to continue. I could point to my ex-husband’s sins in the matter too, but Jesus tells us that attending to others’ sins is his job.
Before I divorced, the end of a marriage seemed impossible for me to imagine. Now it is a possibility lurking around every corner. I remember that even after ten years of marriage to a good man who is full of loves me deeply and graciously, I felt less secure than I did as a naïve 21 year old, married for five months to someone with whom every day was a struggle.
As for adultery, I have long known that divorce and remarriage made me an adulteress. When you have shared a home and a bed with a person, they never leave. They inhabit a space in your heart and your head always. And their memory intrudes sometimes after weeks of absence.
We travel a crooked path when we stray from God. But God seeks us out and finds us. The truth about my divorce is that it was a sin. But the marriage itself had become such a sin that it would have been a greater sin to stay. We mustn’t be afraid to tell the truth about sin: we all stray from God. We all get into situations where our only choices involve hurting ourselves and hurting others. We all fail to love ourselves and others well, and to consult God often enough in our decision making. And we all carry the wounds, therefore, of sin – of our own sins, and of the sins of others unworthy of the trust we placed in them. (For no one is worthy of our complete trust but God.)
“Why am I still in pain so many years later?” This is a question many in your congregation may be carrying under their veneers of total competence. Mark 10:2-12 is your chance to tell them that they are not alone.
With God’s help, healing has come. I am still marked, no longer with wounds but with shiny scars. I give thanks that God forgives me, that God embraces me, and that God has blessed me with a wonderful marriage that draws me closer to God. But I still await that day in God’s kingdom when my first husband and I can share a meal with one another, freed from all that made friendship with one another impossible – the meal we anticipate and participate in at the Communion table.
On World Communion Sunday, “World” means ALL the world – not just those far away, but those we can no longer speak to or speak of – those who were close enough to hurt us (and for us to hurt) more than anyone else might do. This hurt, made worse by the great hopefulness that preceded it – even this is not too great to be redeemed. Naming this hurt “sin” reminds us that all sin has been conquered in Christ’s body. Jesus bore this pain for us on the cross, and through Jesus, we are brothers and sisters with those we loved who yet became our enemies. We are joined with them in Christ’s body and blood at the Communion table, one flesh, and we may not be torn asunder. Praise be to God!