Sunday, October 04, 2015


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 4, 2015

Year B, Proper 22: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

            In today’s gospel lesson we get to hear Jesus’ challenging and demanding teaching on marriage.
            And, maybe surprisingly for an institution that for a while there had seemed like it might be on its way out, marriage has become a hot button subject in our country.
            People are still adjusting to the new reality decreed by the Supreme Court just a couple of months ago, making marriage between members of the same sex legal in all 50 states.
            Not everyone, including, I know, not everyone here at St. Paul’s, is pleased by this development. And, one clerk in Kentucky managed to get a ton of media attention for her refusal to issue marriage licenses – or allow others to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She also landed some jail time and, apparently, a brief encounter with Pope Francis, delighting some and disappointing others.
            And, actually, I’ve been doing a lot of weddings lately including a beautiful wedding, despite the storm, yesterday right here at St. Paul’s.
            It was nice to see the church looking even more beautiful than usual, to see everybody all dressed up, so excited to witness Desiree and Emanuel make their vows to each other in the presence of God and the congregation.
            Desiree and Emanuel didn’t do this but lots of couples include the lighting of what’s called a “unity candle” as part of the marriage service.
            Have you seen this?
            Usually there’s one larger candle surrounded on either side by two smaller candles. The couple then draws light from the side candles to light the center candle, symbolizing that where there were once two, now there is one.
            I was reminded of the unity candle when I looked at today’s challenging and demanding gospel lesson.
            We’re told that the Pharisees want to test Jesus by asking him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
            Now, this is an interesting and kind of surprising question for them to ask since, among first century Jews, the reality of divorce was taken for granted – was as much a fact of life - as it is today among us.
            The Pharisees would have known very well – and they would have known that Jesus knew very well – that the Book of Deuteronomy gives Jewish men permission to divorce their wives.
            The only debate among Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day was about the grounds of divorce. Under what circumstances – for what reasons – could a man divorce his wife?
            Some thought a man needed little excuse – it could be something as trivial as the wife preparing an unsatisfactory meal. While others thought that men required a more serious reason to break up a marriage.
            And, yes, in Jewish law it was only the man who could do the divorcing. But, actually, Roman law – and remember that Israel was under Roman control in the first century - allowed women to initiate divorce – a fact that we hear in Jesus’ private explanation to the disciples.
            So, the Pharisees knew, Jesus knew, everybody knew, that Moses, in the Book of Deuteronomy, allowed for divorce.
            So, it seems to me that the Pharisees must have heard that Jesus was going around teaching a harder, higher standard on the issue of divorce.
            And, sure enough, when the Pharisees ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus acknowledges the permission given in Deuteronomy – everybody knew that - but then dismisses this permission as something that was given because the people had hardness of heart.
            Instead, Jesus looks all the way back to the beginning, to Genesis, to the way things were always meant to be, before everything got messed up by us.
            In marriage, the two become one flesh.
            And Jesus quotes those famous words that we still say in the marriage service, that I said at yesterday’s wedding: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
            Obviously this is a text that’s hard for a lot of us to hear – and it’s hard to preach about. Some of us are divorced or separated ourselves. Some of us have troubled marriages. All of us have been touched by divorce in our families and among our friends.
            And, I’m convinced that the God of love and mercy does not want people to stay in marriages that have become abusive or miserable – marriages that, for any number of reasons, should not have happened in the first place.
            And, I’m also convinced that, while God cares about marriage a lot, and while God cares a lot about our own marriages, God is most interested in unity.
            It’s no accident that Jesus looks back to the beginning of creation – back to the beginning – back to when there was no separation between God and us – back to when there were no divisions among us.
            Jesus looks back, reminds us of the time before things got broken and messed up.
            And, ever since, God has been hard at work putting the pieces back together again. Because of our hardened hearts, God gave us the law. Because of our refusal to obey, God gave the prophets.
            And, finally, in one grand effort at restoring unity, God gave us God’s Self, Jesus, who, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “for a little while was made lower than the angels.”
            At its best, marriage can be a powerful symbol - a beautiful taste - of the unity between God and us, between Christ and the church.
            But, all of us, married, single, divorced, widowed, all of us are called to unite with one another and allow God to unite with us.
            All of us are called to let God work with us, in us, and through us, to put the pieces of the world back together again so that we may be one as Jesus and God the Father are one.
            And, as we were reminded once again last week with yet another mass shooting, this time at a community college in Oregon, we live in a world scarred by shocking violence, cruelty, and hardness of heart. We all know that have a long way to go before we achieve the unity that God wants, that God dreams, for us.
            Sometimes we get a taste of that unity in marriage.
            But, you know, we all get a taste of that unity here at St. Paul’s.
            You’ve heard me say this before: one of the things I love most about St. Paul’s is our amazing diversity and the fact that, for the most part, we all get along beautifully and lovingly.
            It’s like we each have our own little candle and we come together to light the giant and bright unity candle that is St. Paul’s.
            And, when we see the bright light of our unity candle we are privileged to get a glimpse of, to get a taste of, the unity that God so desires for us all, the unity that God desires for all creation.
            The unity that God has joined together and that no one may separate.
            God cares about marriage a lot, but God is most interested in unity.