In anticipation of this sermon, I have received emails and phone calls. Sunday greeting line and grocery store check-out line comments have also come my way. Some of you have taken time to share your experiences related to divorce. One suggested that I shouldn't preach on Divorce the Sunday before Thanksgiving. My daughter said, "Why divorce, Dad? It is so sad to talk about." I replied, "I feel I need to speak to people's sadness, Sarah."
Rarely has one sermon generated this much response prior to its delivery. Thank you to all who have taken time to communicate your thoughts and feelings.
This sermon cannot and will not answer all questions about divorce. No sermon is able to do so. My hope is that by beginning a healthy reflection on divorce "in church," I may help in healing and paving a way forward for those caught in the quagmire of familial and personal pain related to divorce. The stories I share are real, but somewhat blended from those I have heard throughout a lifetime of ministry. How does scripture, our tradition, and our experience assist the church in better responding to divorce and remarriage?
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
She was a child when her parents separated and divorced. She remembers her father as a good man and a good dad. But, after he left the family, she didn't connect with him again until she was in her 20's. It turns out, her mother would not let him see her. Anger all around. When he left, they also left church for good. I heard her story when she returned to worship in her 30's. Turns out, both her father and mother shared one thing in common- the pain of the church's judgment.
He was a teenager when his parents divorced. He remembers the day his dad walked out the front door. It was the most painful day of his life. But, it was also the day the fighting stopped. In time, he came to know peace in two homes. In both homes he felt loved and cared for. He also remembers that following the divorce, his family stopped going to church. No one called. It seemed like no one cared.
They seemed like the perfect couple. Always in church. Always happy. They were married 20 years when he ran off with his young assistant. He divorced, remarried, and started a second family. She lost faith in God and men. Still she struggles to trust and form meaningful relationships with God and men. She says today, "My bitterness and pain consume me much of the time. Where is God in all of this?"
For 21 years I have witnessed and walked through painful separations, divorce, and sometimes, remarriage in the church. Most times, people have shown up at my door after it was too late to salvage their marriage or after the divorce was final in the courts. Usually one partner, the one who felt "acted-upon," came in the midst of their pain to tell me the story. Always, it has been pain that has dominated the faces, hearts, and souls of the person in need.
In Mark 10:9, Jesus says, "Those whom God has joined together, let no put asunder." Yet, the "torn asundered" are everywhere in our lives. Each of our families - either our immediate or extended families - have experienced the tearing apart of divorce. The word "Divorce" itself comes from an old English battle term meaning, "the severing of a limb." For the "asundered," the pain of divorce is often so palpable that it feels like losing an arm or leg - or worse - like death itself. One email which came from an attorney who is a child of divorce and works as a mediator and lawyer in the field now writes:
"There are many psychological studies showing that divorce is the most stressful thing a person can go through. I think one reason for that is that there are so many choices to make. You get advice that covers the gamut from: "throw the bum out and get a protection order," to "Go buy a negligee and rekindle the spark." And not only do you get that kind of advice, but because your mind and heart are divided, you actually consider doing all that in the same day! Even in the most necessary divorces one tends to be divided . . . Like in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' study on death, the same stages of death exist for the death of a person as with the death of a relationship." (I might add, that most of the choices are foreign to people or certainly life changing in their outcome. That complicates the challenge even more).
With death, we in the church know what to do and say (although we don't always get it right). But, with divorce, we do not know what to do or say. The things we do best: prayer, presence and liturgy - seem as conflicted and torn as the couple and family upon whom we look. So, we tend to do little or nothing well in the face of this struggle. That is why I believe divorce is the "elephant in the living room" of the Christian church.
Most denominations in Protestantism don't have meaningful ministries for those facing divorce or coming through its devastation. Divorcees are mostly left alone in their guilt, which combined with the church's prejudice or downright clumsiness in responding to their pain, doesn't help. As I said, we who have great celebrations for marriage, even funerals and memorial services (to pick-up on the theme of death), have seemingly nothing to offer in divorce. (Actually, our United Church of Christ Book of Worship does have a service for the end of marriage - which I have sometimes offered to couples faced with divorce). To be honest, we who turn to Holy Scripture as our guide, find little comfort or help in the passages (I will return to this in a moment).
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church tells divorcees to "pay for an annulment" or "stay away from the Eucharist." Couples have told me they rarely trust priests as premarital or marital counselors. They totally flee from them in any post-marital situations.
So, the Catholic Church doesn't really know what to do with people whom it has exiled
from the sacrament or who lack the money or desire to "play and pay" for an annulment. One exiled Catholic, who has found refuge here among us, writes:
There are no support groups in the church for divorced persons and all the festivities are geared to couples. They even celebrate a Marriage Sunday which leaves the rest of us just standing there in silence and feeling the disdain because we failed to keep the vows of one of the sacraments.
Caught between exile and silence, guilt and prejudice, folks who already feel broken and alone often leave Christ and his church. In the midst of all this, we often have the children and extended family to whom we need to minister. I have literally found myself talking on the phone to one partner - when the other partner and a child - were on hold at the same time seeking to talk. We, like those in divorce, are often torn asunder, too. I think the crisis and its ripple effects are all too clear. But, is there another way beyond guilt, exile, silence, prejudice and outright pain?
Let's look at holy scripture and then I will close with a few suggestions.
Holy scripture has plenty to say about divorce - most of it hard to hear. We must begin with the understanding that in Genesis 1 and 2, God creates man and woman for one another. The Creator declares it good that one should not be lonely or without the other. Separation in this context is no option. Divorce is unthinkable. All Judeao-Christian theology begins here and for some - it ends here. If God could only will us be together and happy, Adam and Eve and all who follow would be united and happy. But, such a plan is beyond God's power to fulfill. Such simple togetherness cannot be willed and fulfilled. Scripture is filled with infidelity, and marital struggles. Therefore, divorce enters the scriptural scene early on.
In the Old Testament passages on divorce are legislative, prophetic, or metaphorical. The legislative passages such as Leviticus 22:13, 21:14, Deuteronomy 22:19, 28-29 forbid divorce in certain situations or declare it must happen because certain acts. In the prophetic passages, Malachi 2:13-16, declares the ease with which divorce is practiced is an insult to God. In vs. 16, he says he is dead set against divorces in his day because of the hardship and cruelty they inflict on women. His voice is concerned more with women's pain than legal issues. The metaphorical passages in Hosea, chapters 1-3, Jeremiah 3:1-8, and Isaiah 50:1 deal with God's divorcing an unfaithful Israel. God has every right to abandon Israel, but his love and mercy equally demand he find a way to reunite.
Dt. 24:1-4 is the key Old Testament law on divorce. The book of Deuteronomy itself offers a legal document written more than 2700 years ago in a time when few societies had any extensive laws regarding divorce. This conditional form of the law attempts to speak to a prohibition of reestablishing a marriage previously dissolved and after there has been an intervening marriage on the part of the woman. The law is highly specified. But, from this law, we can conclude that divorces happened 2,700 years ago and that they were allowed and tolerated, but not encouraged.
Much more could be said about Old Testament writings on divorce. But, the fact is there was no general legislation regarding divorce and remarriage. The practice of divorce was nowhere officially granted. The right to remarry is nowhere officially granted. All of this is surprising in light of the fact that Old Testament legislation so thoroughly covers the situations of life. There are all sorts of laws on dietary regulations. But, there is nothing which clearly guides those in divorce. We do know that the Hebrews had a very high view of marriage as divine and noble. Yet, there was a lot of divorce in the ancient world of the Hebrew people.
In the New Testament, the writings in the Gospels and Paul present a clear prohibition against divorce and remarriage based on the divine intention around marriage in Genesis 2. Marriage is a divine institution originated by God. The intention is that male and female realize a spiritual union. The union is seen as inseparable. Both Jesus and Paul hold up this high view of marriage based on what they see around him - a growing mistreatment and abuse of marriage, and in divorce, an abuse, neglect, and mistreatment of women. They hold out a vision for the human capacity to achieve the divine intentions of marriage. They both see the dissolution of marriage as a sin. This is not a small matter for Jesus or Paul. It is a sin which distorts God's original intentions for human life. Do Not Stop Here!
While it is crucial to acknowledge that divorce is an expression of human sinfulness, we must not stop there. Unfortunately, that is where most people and most churches stop and walk away. We must walk on! We must declare just as openly and just as clearly that any marital relationship short of progress toward the spiritual union of the couple is likewise an expression of human failure. All who are married or in covenanted relationships must live into the fullness of health which God intends for both partners in the covenant.
But, we must not stop here, either. Marriage was made for humans, not humans for the marriage. Therefore, when marriage fails to enhance and further the total well-being of the humans involved - when it causes hurt and constant pain - it must not continue. We need to ask what is more important: the continuance of legal marital bonds or the happiness, nurture, and Godly designed human fulfillment of the partners involved?
We in the church need to articulate a clearer vision for marriage based on Genesis 2 - which lifts up the divine blessing of God, the covenant of God's children in partnership and the joy of togetherness. In marriage, spiritual oneness is a dynamic process, not a static one and the unity of marriage is always about the strength and blessedness of two independent individual personalities reaching the fullness of their individual potential - but doing it together. I see too many couples who are "married singles." They are married but act like single people - simply interacting for self-gratification, not marital unity. We need to emphasize the unity of marriage.
But, when such unity is no longer true, the church must articulate grace and the fullness of God's love in the face of this dissolution of the marital bonds. Our message of love, acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, care, redemption, and rebirth can be the most powerful force in helping divorced persons to begin to reshape their identity once again.
In the face of divorce, each of us must always remember, before any one of us made any commitments to another human being, we made promises to God in baptism. Before any identity was formed in marriage, our personal identity was shaped as children of our loving God. We need to embrace those who are going through divorce as our baptized brothers and sisters in Christ - for whom the fullness of grace and forgiveness is as real as it is for anyone!
We must also offer concrete ministries for persons who are divorced. I offer anyone here and those who read this or hear this later, my pastoral presence for counseling and hoped for healing in the face of divorce. I offer our service for dissolution at the end of a marriage. I offer my services for personal prayer. We as a staff have gifts to offer for healing in every dimension of your life - emotional, spiritual, and in the areas of financial management and resourcing.
In the coming days, Ron, Elaine and I will set up a time for a special community service for adults and children who have experienced divorce and need closure and healing for the wounds and pain experienced.
Beyond services and pastoral presence with folks experiencing divorce, you and I need to be there for people - as best as we are able. Divorce is messy. But, through the dying of relationships, I have seen many resurrections of individuals and of new marriages. There are many in our church who were married once before - sometimes as a very young age - and then in remarriage, have experienced the wholeness and happiness they never knew before. Others speak of "growing-up" and maturing after divorce. They tell of coming to know who they really were and finding happiness in their self-discovery. We must walk all the way through divorce with people - like the father walked all the way through his son's rebirth in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
As we go to our Thanksgiving celebrations this week, I pray that something here - in this sermon or this worship experience - has brought some healing to your life. With an attitude of gratitude, let us go from worship to be reconcilers for and with "the asundered." Let us be graceful lovers of each one we encounter on the way. Let us reach out to children of divorce, as well as adults of divorce. Let us be God's healing presence in a hurting world. Let us talk about the "elephant in the living room" in a way that will assist in the spiritual and emotional healing of those around us. May God bless and keep you now and always. Amen.
* The biblical reflections and insights in this sermon are drawn primarily from Myrna and Robert Kysar's little book The Asundered, John Knox Press, 1978, Atlanta, GA.
"Entered your eternal home where all your people gather in peace."
At this spiritual family reunion, we look back to the recent and still raw losses in our life together. But, we also look further back to the martyrs and saints through the ages who have inspired us to carry the cross, to proclaim Christ's love and good news to all the world, to resist the power of evil, to proclaim justice and to be lovers of a world which is hard to love at times.
When I look further back, I see the first saint, Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem for proclaiming Jesus Christ as his savior. I see Sts. Peter and Paul, the unlikely team who built the church on the rock of Jesus. I see Sts. Aquila and Priscilla - a married couple who served the Lord with gladness. I see St. Christopher carrying a child on his back across a swollen river. I see St. Maximilian, the first conscientious objector, who was drafted by the Roman Army but refused to serve. Maximilian's only loyalty was to the army of God, which he saw as the peacemaking followers of Jesus Christ. For this he was executed.
I see St. James the Greater, brother of St. John, who was so full of grace and truth that on the way to his death, the soldier assigned to him fell on his knees, confessed faith in the prisoner's God. St. James lifted him to his feet, kissed him on the cheek and said, "Peace be with you." They were executed together and their last sweet exchange of peace we still observe today when we say, "The peace of the Lord be always with you."
Gathered at our spiritual family reunion I see St. Francis with the animals, St. Martin Luther King, Jr. of Atlanta with garbage workers, and St. Rosa of Montgomery with seamstresses and bus boycotters. We are, on this day, gathered together as a "great cloud of witnesses (so says the letter to the Hebrews) to glorify God and praise our savior Jesus Christ!
Paradoxically, "looking back" is what the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints liked to do least of all. Their eyes were always on the prize in front of them. They were forward thinkers, forward walkers, dreamers, visionaries and doers of God's word! They drove through life with little use for rear view mirrors. And every single one of them calls to us today to look forward, too. They call to us to be audacious in our faith, our hope and our love. Audacious faith, hope, and love are the guiding principles of All Saint's Day. And God knows, we need such audacity more today than ever before.
Audacity is best defined as boldness and daring; as liveliness, brazenness and an uninhibited ability to move ahead! Holy Scripture is audacious. In the face of darkness and despair, prophets, visionaries, and our Messiah bring the audacity of hope. In Isaiah 25, the prophet cries out from the bleakest hours of Judah's nationhood, "(Do not dismay) . . . The Lord God will wipe away every tear from all faces, and the disgrace of God's people, he will take away from all the earth" (Isaiah 25:8). Isaiah has the audacity to bring hope to his people who have lost hope!
When faced with the reality of his friend Lazarus four days dead and buried, Jesus weeps. Then he wipes away his tears. Then he stands up and declares, "Take away the stone . . . believe and you will see the glory of God !. . . Lazarus, come out!" You think it's hard to get up on Sunday mornings, try raising the dead! Jesus has the audacity to raise the dead!
Years later, Apocalyptic John, is faced with a young Christian church confronted by intense persecution. But, John is not dismayed. He prophesies from his cave on the Island of Patmos: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more . . . behold, I am making all things new." John has the audacity to envision a new Jerusalem! In the new Jerusalem the warfare of Abraham's children is no longer! Imagine such a new Jerusalem in our times! That is audacious!
There is a part of me which lacks the audacity to follow the prophet, the Messiah, the Apocalyptic One, the saints and marytrs. It is the part of me that studies the face of tombstones and not the faces of children. It is the part of me that succumbs to endings, drowns in tears of sadness, and hides from the rising sun.
But, then I see the face of Jesus and I remember to be audacious once again. I see him in the garden on Easter morning telling the faithful women - who have come to anoint his dead body - that he is not dead. He is risen! I see the Risen Christ telling his followers to re-frame the horror of his crucifixion and see it instead as God's greatest gift to human history. I see our audacious Savior - living, breathing, hoping, exuding joy. I see Jesus and I can no longer succumb to sadness. I see our audacious Savior and I cannot be silent anymore.
Today, as we gather for our spiritual family reunion and the scriptures call us to look forward in faith. We need new eyes to see and new hearts to feel God's presence with us. We need to be audacious in our faith, our hope, and our love.
We need to have the audacity to believe that our brothers and sisters fighting in Iraq must be brought safely home. Fighting in Iraq will not win the war on terror and we are blind to the truth if we cannot see this. We need to have the audacity to believe that the 700,000 men and women in this state working at or below the minimum wage, need to get a foot up economically and see that wage raised from $5.15 an hour to $6.85 an hour. We need to have the audacity to believe that their children - numbering over 250,000 in Ohio - need help to move out of abject poverty - poverty which makes Cleveland the poorest major city in our nation and Cincinnati the eighth poorest big city. Poverty which means 18% of our sisters and brothers in Columbus are not making it economically. We need to increase the Minimum Wage on Tuesday, November 7th.
We need to be audacious enough to believe, like our own Barb Poppe believes and like Bill Wright believes, that building more homeless shelters is not the solution to homelessness, rather rebuilding lives is the answer! We need to be as audacious as our Ohio Supreme Court in believing that Ohio's Education system must be fixed because it is badly broken. A system where the rich get a good education and the poor do not, cannot be allowed to continue operating this way.
In fact, we need to be audacious enough to believe in the state motto of Ohio, "With God nothing is impossible!" How true!
I feel a new spirit in Ohio. Call it what you will, but I believe it is no less than the audacious spirit of God breathing new life, new hope, and new vitality into our weary bones. Let us pay attention to the breath of God's spirit calling us forward in faith.
On this All Saint's Day, which is, after all, as close as we come all year to a spiritual family reunion, let us remember with love those who have passed before us. May their memory inspire us from behind to move forward in faith.
Remember the words of your uncles and aunts, your mothers and fathers, your mentors and teachers, your pastors and friends who throughout your life have encouraged you to be audacious in your faith, hope, and love.
And as you remember them, remember our Savior Jesus Christ, who every time we are called to his table of love and grace has the audacity to say, "remember me . . . " Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church