Gospel: Mark 10:2-16
1st Reading: Genesis 2:18-24
2nd Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Nick and I celebrated our 20th Anniversary this year. We met in our teens and, in a way, grew up together. I was 20 and Nick was 21 when we were married. The year we were married, I went through a terrible depression. Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was the adjustment of married life. I moved out of my parents' house and was still in college. Nick worked graveyard shifts at a home for developmentally disabled adults. He worked 4 nights and then had to turn his schedule around to the daytime for Thursday meetings. It was only a couple of years ago that I realized that I was probably so low because that was also the year my parents got a divorce.
The thought never crossed my mind that it was my parents' divorce that caused me such grief, because I was so relieved when they got divorced. It was not unexpected. They had been to marriage counseling year after year. I encouraged my mom to leave my dad. But I don't know if I fully expected her to go through with it, and they had just bought a new minivan—made a major purchase that made me think they were going to try to work it out again. I knew that they were unhappy, but I couldn't anticipate what life would be like if they were apart. We had to work out, where we would go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was the splitting up of the household. And then there was the complication I hadn't anticipated. My mom found a new relationship almost right away and a strange man moved into the house where I grew up.
Would it have been better if my parents had heeded Jesus' teaching about divorce? That's doubtful. 20 years later, they are both much better off, but at the time it was very difficult for all of us, especially for my brother and sister who stilled lived at home. During that time, the church was helpful to my mom. Our congregation had been her support system for a long time. She had many friends and activities there. Still, I doubt she looks forward to church on the day this reading comes up. Maybe some of you can relate.
My dad had a very different experience. He came to worship a couple of times a year. He did coach the church softball team and so was somewhat connected. He only joined the church so he could vote on the Sunday the congregation was voting to call a new pastor. In the divorce, he felt that the congregation took sides against him and felt bitter that no one called or came by to see how he was doing.
Those of you who know the pain of divorce, may have had this scripture used as a weapon against you. Why did Jesus say something that seems so unloving and unforgiving against divorced people? In some ways it just doesn't sound like something he would say.
Let me give you a little context for this. The word for divorce used here has nothing to do with marriage, but simply means, “to send away.” Divorce was not a mutual parting, but a situation in which a man could shirk his responsibilities to his wife and children—the children went with their mother. At the time Jesus lived, a man was the only one who could get a divorce. A woman was considered property—she had no rights, could not divorce anyone. On her own, a woman no way of making a living, and no honor or dignity, having been sent away from her husband. At this time, there were two Rabbis with different schools of thought about divorce. The one Rabbi believed that a man could send his wife away for any reason, whatsoever—even burning his dinner. The other Rabbi said that husbands had more responsibilities toward their wives, that they must give them a certificate saying it wasn't her fault and restoring some of the honor she would be lacking so maybe she'd have a chance to marry again. So here is Jesus' teaching on divorce. He takes a stronger stance. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Sending your wife away was not allowed. A husband's responsibility to his wife was so strong it might as well be his own flesh that was on the line. He should treat her as his own flesh, as he would treat himself. So this was a very empowering step that Jesus was offering, a big step forward in women's rights. For Jesus, it was unacceptable to cast off, to send away the most vulnerable, helpless people in society. And that's why he takes this little child in his lap in the next paragraph. Actually this teaching about divorce is sandwiched between little child stories. It is making the point about the ones who suffer most when wives are cast off.
In those days the primary role of the family was to be fruitful and multiply, to bear and raise children. And even the Pope can't deny that many kinds of families do a wonderful job at that. We've multiplied until this earth can barely support us. The weekend Sterling was born, world population hit 7 billion. We no longer have to worry about whether human population is high enough to sustain itself. We have to worry about if human population is too high to sustain itself and whether we are encroaching on God's commandment to the other animals to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
There are lots of kinds of families. In Jesus' times there were mostly arranged marriages, and that is still the norm in parts of the world, today. There are some families in which two people are monogamous with each other their whole lives, although they are more rare. There are families that are mixed. When my sister announced that she would be having her fourth child, her older children were less than excited. They already found it tedious to explain to their friends how their sister had different grandparents than they did. She has 5 children with 4 different dads, but the children are loved and they make it work. There are, of course, families with two moms or two dads. I provided childcare, when I was in seminary, for one couple who had adopted two children from China. One parent was called Daddy and the other Papa. I always had trouble remembering which was which.
One thing that hasn't changed since this reading from Genesis, is that it isn't any good for any of us to be alone. We need each other. Families need each other. Single people need deep friendships. And gay and lesbian people shouldn't have to be alone. It wasn't even good that God should be alone. Instead God created animals and people to be in relationship with, to work together with, to find fulfillment with, to argue with, and to love. There are animal families, as well, that we should respect. They play their part in this world. Families of bees ensure that we eat by pollinating crops. Coyote families keep the mice population under control. Families of trees help hold each other up, strengthening root systems and protecting each other in wind storms. Even families of bacteria play their part breaking down organic matter. In some ways, we are all family. We came from the same stardust and elements that all other creatures, animal, vegetable, or mineral on our planet. All life probably emerged from a single celled organism. We are all related and interrelated. We need each other.
And to these families, whether traditional families, or adoptive families, or dysfunctional families, Jesus says we can't abandon or throw away the helpless and vulnerable ones, whoever they may be. Sometimes it is women and children, sometimes it is puppies and kitties, sometimes it is the air we breathe or the river we live next to, or the tree we live under. When we see to the welfare of the most vulnerable and helpless, all other life benefits as well.
This is where many of us with the shooting in Roseburg this week. It is our nature to rush to blame and rush to answers to avoid the fear and pain that this kind of event brings up in us. God is with us in all our emotions. Rather than lead us to finger-pointing, may it lead us to embrace one another and to find out who are the vulnerable ones and how can we look out for each other so no one falls through the cracks. Who are the vulnerable ones and how do we stick with them so they aren't alone?
The truth is, we are powerful. God made us a little lower than the angels. We have what we need to survive and much more. We are so rich in this country. And whatever material wealth we do or don't have, we in this congregation are wealthy in connections. We know and care for each other. It is not good for us to be alone. No one worshipping here today, need feel alone. We are one. We come from one God. Our voices join. We share a faith. We value love. We are grateful. We are powerful. We use our power then to help those who need it most. We are responsible not to walk away from those who need us. That is what church is about. That is what the pantry is about. That is what this pet blessing is about. Our pets are maybe the best ones to teach us about being reliable companions. They are the ones who would never abandon us. They teach us about God's faithfulness. They are helpless and vulnerable, and by sticking with them, they don't drag us down, they lift us up and are a blessing and gift to us.
So I'm not saying that divorce doesn't matter. It is a painful subject that is never easy to navigate. How long do you stay in a bad relationship before giving up on it? How hard do you work on it, when the other person isn't interested in working on it at all? Can you learn to trust again after repeated infidelity or after abuse? None of us knows what goes on in another relationship. None of us in a position to judge. Our job is to remember that relationships are hard work, to be supportive of other people's relationships, and not to abandon anyone when they are at their lowest and most vulnerable and helpless points. It is our job to remember that Jesus loved us, when were little children, with nothing to offer him. That even when we denied and betrayed him, and hung him on a cross to die, he offered forgiveness and love. And then he came back to us, not to chastise and punish us, but to welcome us and give us eternal life. Now, we do the same to others around us, creating one big web, a safety net that no one slips through, until we call all brothers and sisters, and live in proper relationship with all that God has made.