October 7, 2018 The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Job 1:1; 2:1–10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12, Mark 10:2–16

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today we wrestle with a difficult text, Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Many in this room have faced or are facing the break-down of a marital relationship that ended in divorce. Further, many have gone on to remarry and have begun a new life with a new spouse and perhaps created a blended family in the process. Indeed, I myself have been married and divorced twice and am currently in my third marriage. And many, I included, have discovered in these new relationships great joy and blessings that may not have been present in the broken relationships we left behind. Yet, here we are facing Jesus’ challenging words, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” What are we to make of Jesus’ teaching especially if we have risen from the ashes of our own broken relationships to discover happiness and fulfillment in another relationship? Are we forever to be punished for our brokenness? Are our new relationships, as good and fulfilling as they are, abhorrent to God? If we persist in them, are we cutting ourselves off from God? Must we remain tethered for life to relationships that were entered in the passionate heat of youth, or that have atrophied under the weight of neglect or inertia, or that are caught in the horror of physical or emotional abuse? And if we leave such relationships, are we bound to lives of solitude and desperate celibacy to avoid God’s judgment?

In almost every sermon I have preached since returning from sabbatical, I have placed great emphasis on the need to give everything in our lives over to the care and trust of God. This theme in my preaching arose out of a period of deep, prayerful discernment during sabbatical and since, which in turn led to a fresh reading of the scriptures. Absolute trust in and commitment to God is a major theme in the Bible from beginning to end, I have noticed; and in text after text, people of faith are called to such radical trust. Interestingly, those who do not trust God—who break covenant with God and turn their backs on commitment to the way of God in the world—are often compared to unfaithful spouses who break the marital covenant. Consider the prophet Hosea from the Old Testament, for instance, who is instructed by God to take a prostitute as his wife and to have children by her to illustrate the spiritual adultery of which the people of Judah are guilty and the fruits of their unfaithfulness. This spiritual adultery included worshiping other gods, turning to other nations for military help, and ceasing to promote justice and righteousness in society. In these things, God’s covenant people betrayed and turned their backs on their covenant relationship with God. They had become, in a word, adulterers.

The other evening in our Bible study on the book of James, we were reading from chapter 4. In that chapter, James addresses the “conflicts and disputes” rampant in the community of faith to which he is writing. James contends that the origin of the conflicts was in the cravings at war within each person, particularly covetousness. When one covets something—wants something badly—one engages in “conflicts and disputes” with others to obtain that which is desired, in this case, I would guess, power or control or status in the community. James concludes, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” And then James does an astonishing thing. He calls these wayward folk “adulterers!” James’ point is simple: the people desire something, but instead of asking God for it, they take matters into their own hands and create “conflicts and disputes” with others to get what they desire. Had they taken their desires to God—had they trusted completely in God—they would have discovered that what they desire is not in line with God’s way in the world and they would not have asked in the first place. As it is, their covetousness, which led to “conflicts and disputes” in the community of faith, only highlights their unfaithfulness. They, like the people of Judah in the days of Hosea the prophet, were thus unfaithful to God—were, in a word, adulterers! The commentator on this passage from James tells us that it was common throughout biblical history to label unfaithfulness to God as “adultery” and further to label the unfaithful as “adulterers.”

This perspective sheds new light on our Gospel text for this morning. The point of absolute and complete trust in God is that every part of our lives be given over completely to God, including our most intimate relationships. Community, especially our most intimate expression of community—marriage—is built into the very fabric of creation. To be in community is a part of God’s desire for the creation. Jesus affirms this when he references God’s action in the creation of humankind in the Genesis story. Further, to be in intimate community with God is also a part of God’s desire for the creation, as was illustrated in Genesis by the easy interaction between God and the human beings God had created. That Jesus rooted the marital relationship in the Genesis account of creation is a sign that he believed the community that we share, especially the emotional and physical intimacy of marriage, is a sign of the kind of intimacy God wishes to have with us—a relationship that involves every part of our being in every part of our life. To break the bond of marriage, then, is to be unfaithful to our marital partner to be sure; but even more importantly, it is a sign that we have been unfaithful to our God who created us for intimate community. The breaking of the marriage covenant, like all sin, is at its heart the breaking of our covenant relationship with God, and breaking of our covenant relationship with God is, at its heart, the root of all sin. The first couple in Genesis broke covenant with God by eating of the forbidden tree with the promise that by so doing, they would themselves be like God. It is why the first of the Ten Commandments is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2–3) It is why, when asked which is the greatest commandment Jesus replies, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29–30) Adultery is not just emotional and physical infidelity against a spouse; it is failure to put our complete trust in God alone.

But there is good news to share. Despite our infidelity in this and other areas of our lives, God’s fervent desire is to be in relationship with us, and when we are unfaithful, God goes to great lengths to woo us back into intimate and life-giving relationship. Returning to the story of the prophet Hosea, after the birth of their children, his wife, Gomer, leaves him and pursues other relationships with multiple men, the last of which cannot even provide food and clothing enough for her. Despite her infidelity, Hosea tracks down this last husband and gives him money to provide for her basic needs; but it is not enough, and eventually, destitute, Gomer is to be auctioned off as a slave to pay her debts. Hosea is heartbroken and goes to God for help. God asks Hosea if, despite her unfaithfulness, he still loves Gomer. Hosea does, so, God instructs Hosea to go to the auction block, buy Gomer back and restore her as his wife in his home. Now, the customs are foreign to us, but the point is clear. Gomer’s infidelity is a metaphor for Israel’s infidelity to God; Hosea’s forgiving acts of love on behalf of Gomer are metaphors for God’s unfailing love for Israel.

Apparently, it’s true what we’ve been told: God’s “property is always to have mercy,” as the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer reminds us. Despite our unfaithfulness, God passionately seeks to bring us back into relationship with God no matter the cost to God. This is the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, after all, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life” (John 3:16); and so that in the end, those of us who believe in Jesus may conform our lives to his—may live each day learning to trust God more fully and entering more and more intimately into relationship with God. In this light, it is not surprising that many of us who have suffered the pain of divorce have bravely and boldly moved on to discover new life in another marital relationship. The hope that we carry for these new relationships, though we still may bring the pain and brokenness of the past, is not an accident, but an act of faith in the forgiving power of God’s love and the hope of renewal that comes in the wake of God’s love. While Jesus is unequivocal in his teaching concerning the breakdown of the marital relationship, he is more so in his belief that God’s most fervent desire truly is to be in relationship with us, and when we are unfaithful, God goes to great lengths to woo us back into intimate and life-giving relationship. This is what his life, death, and resurrection were ultimately about; this is what we can cling to as we seek to trust God more fully in our own lives. Amen.

Comments are closed