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
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
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.