Before I begin, let me say I write these words with humble heart today, asking forgiveness, if needed, of those who know more of what I attempt to speak than I can possibly begin to comprehend. Even so, I am diving in here, with a certain sense that this is tender ground we walk on now.
I wound up in the wrong Divorce Court a few weeks ago.
I had gone to support a friend, but was running a little late and there wasn’t time to connect before her court time. I entered the courtroom on the second floor, double checking the schedule outside the door just to be sure I was in the right one. It appeared that I was.
I took my place quietly in the second row of hard wooden chairs and looked around. I didn’t see the person I had come there for, but it did seem as though things were running behind. Besides, I’ve been through this before with ones dear to me. Sometimes people are meeting with attorneys behind other closed doors. So I sat quietly and watched and waited while pair by pair men and women stood before the judge. He would ask questions. They would respectfully answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ He would tell them to come back later or would reflect on the fact that one or the other hadn’t shown up the last time or he would double check to be sure they knew what it meant that they were going ahead without legal representation. I was especially struck by the couple who found themselves standing there after having been married less than a year. There were no children to be considered and little material property accumulated, so in their case it really did appear to be cut and dry. That’s only the case though if one doesn’t consider the human toll…
It felt strange to sit and watch and listen without emotional attachment to any of the parties. I have sat in that chair before when this was not the case — when my heart was literally breaking for the pain behind the formal words spoken and perfunctory decisions made. When I believed that divorce was as right as it could be, necessary even, for the individuals involved to come to any kind of healing and wholeness. But even in those times, just like on this recent afternoon, the fact that we know that marriage is a contract which can be broken with a few strokes of a pen and entries into a computer database doesn’t begin to get at the struggle behind it all. One might not at first notice if you sat next to me on this recent afternoon, that in every single case there were lives leaving the courtroom limping, wounded in ways which might well take years and years to heal. For human beings can’t be quantified on paper. We enter into such ‘contracts’ with open hearts and when the wounds become so deep the marriage can no longer be sustained, that does not necessarily mean the wounds just go away. Both the wounds that are old and those that continue to be inflicted among and between the people involved.
This week, again, we have before us one of those texts many of us pastors would rather avoid. We have wondered at the meaning of these words in our own lives, perhaps. Or we have people in our congregations who are divorced and many of them, if they are so blessed, have found a way to love again. Jesus’ words about ‘adultery’ seem harsh to us… and perhaps that is made more so by the church’s long standing tendency to make more of this particular human failing or struggle than we have of others. Those who have somehow survived divorce itself with all of its heart-wrenching losses — of relationship or hope or place in a community or some combination thereof, are left then to sort out just what that means among the rest of us who almost can’t seem to keep ourselves from choosing sides — leaving one or the other out. It happens in congregations, too, to be sure. I know you’ve seen it where both members of a couple have been active and then one or the other has to choose whether to move on or to stay in a place where they may not feel nearly as welcome as before. And yes, even today, with all of its prevalence, there is still a kind of judgment that comes as we seem compelled sort out fault and blame, seeking perhaps to begin to understand. My heart breaks every time.
And so it is I don’t know exactly how I’ll preach this week. I can offer here only a few starting thoughts.
1. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t jump immediately into the debate. He puts it back on those asking the question with another question. To be sure, the Pharisees make no mention of, not even the slightest nod to the often profound human pain behind their challenge. They seem entirely insensitive to the real brokenness behind the scenario they offer now as they try to trip Jesus up.
2. It seems to me that Jesus’ speaking of adultery here is simply descriptive. It is just plain hard. Such brokenness can not be within God’s intent for any one of us. Adultery, in its most basic sense, means that something has been altered at its core in a way that was not intended at its inception. God does not intend for this to be. In fact, the ‘adultery’ might well have been so many years before one is divorced and remarried. For wouldn’t cruelty, abuse, disdain, and neglect also be outside of God’s intent?
3. I think if Jesus were to step into the experience of any one of us who has known the judgment of others in the wake of divorce — I think Jesus today would turn it back on those of us who are inclined to judge. For that can’t be what God intends either. Indeed, although my own experience does not fit the scenario behind Jesus’ words today, am I not also guilty of adultery? Am I not also among those not living up to or into the life God fully intended for me? Who am I to judge?
4. I am grateful that at least this text takes this on. For shouldn’t we in the church be able to talk about the things that matter? Even so, it is always risky from the pulpit where what we say can easily be so misunderstood — especially since there is seldom ready opportunity for those engaged in the listening side of the exchange to ask questions or to seek clarification.
5. I do still wonder though where the ‘grace’ or ‘gift’ is in this hard text. Is it in what I have already named or is it something else? What do you think?
No, I don’t know exactly how I will preach this week. I hope I will do so with gentleness and with grace.
As for my trip to Divorce Court a few weeks ago, I never did find my way to the right courtroom. I was sorry I wasn’t there to support a friend. As I left though, I found myself deeply aware of what a rare thing it is to sit in a place like that without the ties of history or loyalty — to not sit there with a broken heart. I wasn’t sorry for the experience, but as I preach this week I will do so knowing that almost none of us have the privilege of walking into those places detached from the struggle and hurt of it all. I hope that knowledge will shape my preaching, too.
- What experience do you bring to this text this week? Have you ever sat with broken heart in such a place? If so, how has that shaped your life and faith? How does that impact how you read and understand Jesus’ words today?
- Do you think people of faith still put the same stigma on divorce as we once did? Why or why not? If so, why do you think that is? If not, then what has changed?
- What is the ‘good news’ of this lesson before us now? Where do you discover God’s love and grace within these words?