Never Alone

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2015 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16

NeverAlone“Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” By the end of this year, I will have said these words eleven times after hearing the marriage vows of eleven couples. Jesus says these words in today’s Gospel lesson. And he says many other words about marriage and divorce, about fidelity and desire, and about relationships with the most vulnerable. Beneath these words, no matter how hard they are to hear or to speak, beneath these words shimmers Jesus’ surpassing dream for all creation – that none of us and no part of that creation will ever truly be alone.

Let’s start at the beginning and see what we shall see. The Pharisees come to test Jesus. Whenever this happens in the Gospel, we can bet that Jesus is not going to fall into the Pharisees trap, for a trap it is. They are not being genuine. They are not actually curious about what this great teacher has to say about a certain hot button issue. They just want to make Jesus look bad. This is not the way to begin a conversation of such consequence, and yet testing Jesus is their motive. Thus, we have our first notion of aloneness – the Pharisees desire to set Jesus apart, on the wrong side of an issue, in order to ridicule and debase him, to say to his followers, “See, your teacher is callous and wrong. How could you listen to him?”

You can see how the test is rigged to put Jesus on the wrong side. They lay their trap with this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question in the Jewish society of the time was simple: “Yes, it is lawful,” as described in the Law and codified in the book of Deuteronomy. But the Pharisees suspect that Jesus might have something else to say, something they could use against him.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. Instead, he turns the question back on them, in effect drawing them closer to him, into a conversation instead of a courtroom proceeding. “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees reply, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Notice there are two separate actions in this process: writing the certificate of dismissal and completing the divorce. The reality of this two-step process spurs Jesus’ next statement: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

You see, Moses created the “certificate of dismissal” in order to protect the divorced wife. Men held all the power in the relationship. Women went from being under their father’s power to being under their husband’s. They had no freedom of choice. They were closer to property than people. There was no such thing as mutuality in the relationship. According to some schools of rabbinical thought, a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner.

In today’s society, some divorced women feel a sense of liberation when they finally tunnel out of the pit their husbands’ misplaced power had dug for them. These women are models of resiliency and courage. But in Jesus’ culture, a woman simply couldn’t leave her husband. If he divorced her, she might feel some small sense of liberation, but this would most likely be snuffed out by fear: fear that she had no protection, no connections; fear that she was now a ripe target for exploitation.

That’s why Moses created the “certificate of dismissal.” It was something a divorced woman could carry with her to show potential employers or future spouses that the divorce was her husband’s idea and everything had been done according to the Law. The “hardness of heart” Jesus speaks of comes from husbands who kicked their wives out of the house with absolutely no thought to their future welfare. So the certificate of dismissal was an oh-so-small gesture to keep the divorced woman from feeling completely abandoned, completely alone.

But Jesus isn’t willing to let the conversation go with an oh-so-small gesture. Instead, Jesus reaches back, past Moses and the Law, all the back to the creation narratives of the book of Genesis. In the first creation story, humanity is made after everything else, so there was no chance for loneliness. But in the second creation story, which Jesus’ references, the “person of earth” (ha adam in the Hebrew) is created first, so this person is utterly and hopelessly alone. So God makes every animal to see if it would alleviate the human’s loneliness, but to no avail. And so God makes another person. And finally the human being finds deep connection, deep relationship. Of course, this is before the fall, before domination and isolation had entered into the story.

Jesus dreams for all creation to embrace living lives of deep connection, so no one need be alone. That’s why he spends so much time with people whom others completely ignore. So the question is, does this mean Jesus prohibits divorce, in all cases, for all time?

I don’t think so. Because domination and isolation are the sad realities of our fallen state, they often become the sad realities in our relationships. Sometimes dominance is the hallmark of a marital relationship, and so one person’s desire guts the relationship of its presumed mutuality. Sometimes the debasing feeling of aloneness is most acute when a marital relationship is supposed to be warding it away and isn’t. In these toxic cases, separation often leads to new life, new possibilities, new chances for mutual connection with other people. Sometimes divorce is the merciful choice, because mercy is all about second chances.

Jesus knows a thing or two about mercy. And so, like he often does, by appealing to a deeper reality, Jesus reorients the conversation to what really matters: not the Pharisees’ insincere test, but the sacredness of relationships that chase isolation away. Jesus ignores the Law, which the Pharisees bring up, and sidesteps the legal ramifications, so I don’t think his energy is invested in legislating new territory for his society’s divorce debate. The last two scenes in the passage show where his energy really sparks.

First, he clarifies something for the disciples. If someone initiates a divorce specifically to marry someone else, then that person has already committed adultery. In other words, the adulterer has satisfied his own craving without thought to the welfare of his spouse.* That person is now alone, and all because the adulterer couldn’t keep himself from straying. This lack of fidelity, this wanton disregard for the welfare of another really gets Jesus’ blood boiling. Again and again throughout the Gospel, his underlying dream surfaces: no one need ever be alone.

And so the final scene in our passage makes perfect sense with the others. We mentioned children two weeks ago: how they were the lowest of the low in Jesus’ society; lower than farm animals, they weren’t even thought of as people until they were old enough and strong enough to work. And yet, Jesus welcomes them into his arms, lets them cling to him, offers them the kingdom of God. In effect, he says, “You are not alone. You may be treated as if you don’t matter, as if you don’t exist, but don’t you believe it for a moment.”

He says the same thing to each of us. This is the conviction he breathes into our souls. In a world where domination and isolation reign, his good news reports a different story, one of connection and deep relationship. Too often, people fall victim to such domination and isolation, which infect the marital relationships that are designed to ward off such evils. In these cases, Jesus’ promise still holds: “You are not alone. I am with you. You need not seek fulfillment where none is to be found. Come to me and together we will begin your story again, so you may find new sources of connection and deep relationship. Remember: you need never be alone.”

*I adlibbed a bit here on Sunday to make sure people understood how I interpret this bit: basically, I think the “and” between “divorces” and “marries” assumes that the two are linked (i.e. the person driving the divorce is doing it in order to marry another). I don’t think he’s talking about a divorce and then a remarriage ten years later.

The Vow

The following post appeared Saturday, March 5th on, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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A couple of months before our recent wedding, my wife and I sat down with the Book of Common Prayer and turned to page 423. We read the header and the italicized rubrics, and then our eyes fell on those famous words: Dearly Beloved. “We’re really doing it?” she asked. “We’re really planning our wedding ceremony?”

“We really are,” I confirmed. We each held one side of the book as we leafed through the service, discussing music and readings and the people we might ask to participate. When we reached the end of the printed liturgy, she looked at me, confusion written on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“When do I get say ‘I do?’ ”

I stifled a chuckle, remembering that each of the brides I had counseled before their weddings had asked me the same question. From the days when brides, my wife included, draped white pillowcases from their hair and walked down imaginary aisles lined with dolls and stuffed animals, they had each dreamed of saying those two small words. When they discovered that “I do” doesn’t appear in the beautiful Episcopal liturgy, I had ten-minute mutinies on my hands. “What do you mean I don’t get to say ‘I do?’ I’m out of here. We’ll get married at the VFW hall and my cousin will get a temporary license to officiate and he’ll let me say, ‘I do.’ Come on, dear, we’re leaving.”

After of few minutes, though, they calmed down enough to listen to reason. Now, I don’t relish the thought of destroying the dreams of brides everywhere, so I try to be as sensitive as possible. But when my own bride-to-be wondered aloud about the lack of those two little words, I didn’t really know what to say. My standard pastoral line wouldn’t work on her because I’m not her priest. So instead, I patted her on the back and resisted the urge to say, “There, there.”

A few weeks later, we had our first premarital counseling session, and the priest suggested that we memorize our vows rather than have the officiant feed them to us line by line. We decided to take on the challenge. Each day from then on, we practiced the vows. We spoke them aloud, prompting each other when we hesitated and gently correcting each other when we mixed up the phrases. Over the course of a few weeks, we learned the words by heart.

In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

These deep, rich words sunk into us as we learned them. They are now the bedrock of our marriage, and (I hope my wife agrees with me!) they are so much better than “I do.” These words make me wonder: how often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but we don’t “vow” to do these things.

Vows don’t happen too often. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.

A vow is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. This is made explicit by the pairs of opposites that the couple speaks during the vows – better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. The vow is the acknowledgment that life will never quite be the same as it was before that moment, no matter how long a couple might have been living together before marriage. When I vowed to take Leah to be my wife, I entered into a new type of existence, one in which I now (at long last) own the fact that I am not the most important person in my own life. I vowed to cherish her and to love her – come what may. I can think of no greater duty and no greater joy than to explore with her this new existence that our vow has opened to us.

This new existence begins with the vow – not two measly words – but a few sentences that change lives. And the vow begins with a few more words that are more important the all the rest: “In the name of God…” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow. The new existence into which we entered a few weeks ago at our wedding happens with God’s name at the top of the page. It couldn’t be otherwise.

I know that it has only been a few weeks, and we aren’t planning on having children for a while; but I wonder if our future daughter will put a pillowcase on her head and walk down an imaginary aisle? She probably will. But hopefully, we will teach her not to look forward to saying, “I do.” Rather, we will teach her to dream about the deep, rich words: “This is my solemn vow.”

Better wine than before

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I never pass up a chance to talk about the Gospel according to John. This past Sunday’s Gospel text was John 2:1-11, which spurred this article published in the local paper.

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View from the Tor of Glastonbury. See what I mean about the grass?

On my wall, I have a collage of pictures from a college choir trip to England in 2005. In one picture, 15 friends and I are standing in front of the Tor of Glastonbury, a ruined tower on the top of a hill in Southern England. It’s a great picture—the four men and eleven women are all smiles because the late-spring sun is shining and because even the dullest blade of English grass is greener than the greenest blade of American grass. Recently, I looked at the picture and realized that fifty percent of the people in it have gotten married or engaged in the last four years. Whenever I get a new invitation or see wedding pictures on Facebook, a special kind of happiness grips me, a happiness reserved for such outward signs of God’s love as marriage.

In a Christian context, a marriage displays to the world the best attempt human beings can make at emulating the love of God. Marriage unites two people in a commitment (a better word may be “covenant”) to love and cherish one another so that the world is enriched by their love. Indeed, a couple truly meant to commit themselves to each other shows their love for God by loving one another. Because God’s love is so intimately involved, marriage is a calling, just like any other action taken on behalf of God. The celebration of this love, upon which the marriage is founded, is the wedding.

The wedding celebrates the union of two people in the love of God. How wonderfully appropriate, then, is it that Jesus first reveals his glory at a wedding feast. The location of this revelation reminds me that Jesus brings people back into union with God. This is one way to characterize his mission—he reunites me with every good thing I have lost through years of indifference and antipathy. By accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, I find cause to celebrate the fact that, while I may have broken my relationship with God, God has never broken God’s covenant with me. The commitment God made to Abraham and his descendants finds new life in me when I discover the possibility of reunion with God through the love of Christ. Just like the wedding feast, this discovery necessitates celebration. But just like a marriage, this celebration can last a lifetime.

Imagine the beauty of a life lived in the full knowledge that God is committed to loving you. What would you do in response to that commitment? How would your life change? Jesus changes the water in the jars to wine, and not just any wine, but wine that is superior to what was originally served. In the same way, living into the covenant God has made with you brings change. You will be changed. You will become better wine than before. You will be a sign of the glory of God in the world. If this is not cause for celebration, nothing is.

When I attend the wedding of a friend, I always remember this story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. His appearance at the wedding and the sign he performs to reveal his glory attune me to feeling the joy that spills over from the celebration in heaven when people on earth find the love of God in one another. When Jesus calls us into union with himself, we can share in the lifelong celebration of being Jesus’ disciples, the lifelong knowledge that we are becoming better wine than we were before, and the lifelong commitment to experience the love of God that continues to be present and active in the world.