Monday, February 8, 2010

Desperate Households: Broken Promises

“When the Covenant Ends”
Matthew 19:3-10

Sometimes scripture is very difficult. Today, that is the case. And the reasons why we find this scripture so difficult is that our corporate experience in these generations has seen many marriages end in divorce; something between 40% - 50% of first marriages. That’s one of every 2 marriages. In case you think we are immune because we are people of faith; it might interest you to know that, statistically, being a person of faith has very little to do with the divorce rate. We know that anecdotally by our experience even in this faith community. So that when we hear Jesus’ words in scripture today about marriage and divorce, they are difficult for us.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that reading scripture without a context was an impossible task. We can’t just read a text without bringing something to it. We always bring ourselves, and our own personal history, among other things, to the reading of any scripture. So those of you who have experienced divorce personally or in your family heard this scripture differently than others do today, and that is just how it is. We bring ourselves to the text, even the texts that aren’t as difficult for us.

In our theological reflections, scripture is always primary. We go to the scripture, as the foundation of our faith, to discover what God has to say about things of life. For instance, as we are talking today about divorce, it is appropriate, it is essential, that we search the scriptures for what they have to say about the topic. But Wesley warned that our attempts to grasp the meaning of scripture always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like the scriptures, tradition, experience and reason can become the vehicles of the Holy Spirit to our understanding.

The traditions of the church shine light on the scriptures. They tell us how the scriptures have been interpreted over the history of the faith community. Personal and corporate experience gives life to the words on the page. Our experiences of God help us to better interpret scripture, giving life to what we read from generations ago. God gave us reason to confirm what we read and understand and experience. We check to make sure that our understandings of scripture make sense through our God-given gift of reason.

Wesley understood scripture as primary, like the top of this table. We don’t have much of a functional table without the top. Scripture is the primary source of God’s revelation in the world. Because the Holy Spirit is still at work, these are not just words on a page, but the living message of God for us.

But as Wesley understood it, scripture is not understood by itself, but in a context illumined by tradition, given life in experience and confirmed by reason. They are the legs of the table that hold up our interpretation and understanding of scripture. I brought this image today because it helps me see what Wesley talked about. The table is not strong with one or two legs, but all three. Scripture is not made less by tradition, experience and reason, but strengthened. They are the means through which God helps us understand the scriptures for our times.

Ok, so why all of that for today?

I find the words of Jesus in this text difficult. And not because I am looking for a reason to justify a pending divorce. (Michael and I are good right now.) I find them difficult because of my pastoral experience with people who are walking through relationships that are ending.
Late one night I received a phone call. There was a man on the other end; a strong man who I knew was having a difficult time in his marriage. His wife was struggling with alcohol abuse and not trying to work at their marriage at all. He knew the relationship was over, something I had heard him struggle with many times before. He wanted to do anything in his power to rescue the relationship. But by the time this late night phone call came, she was living in a different state. She had not made the agreed upon move with her husband. She was drawing a line in the sand, moving on from their marriage. It was clear for this man that his marriage was over. But what he struggled with was divine guilt. “God says that I can’t get a divorce,” were his words. He was gut-wrenched over the idea that he might have to do something that he thought God would think was unforgiveable.

What could I say to him? He knew the scriptures well enough. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” It was this very thing that had him tied up in knots. His experience didn’t match up with what he read in scripture or with the tradition of the church. When he allowed himself to use reason in this situation, he knew the relationship was over. What could I say to him?

What I said to him that night, and to others in some fairly similar circumstances, is that the covenant was already over. Like it or not, the covenant, the sacred promise of marriage, which he wanted to keep intact, was already broken. Sometimes that happens. Covenants can be broken by one party, and the other party can do nothing to restore it. Sometimes it is not very godly to try to restore the covenant. If there is abuse, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. If there is ongoing mistrust, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. As one of my clergy friends said to me, “I knew God wanted life for me, and there wasn’t any life left in my marriage.” Sometimes the covenant ends.

Jesus is right, of course. Sometimes we let go of our marriages because we are too hard-hearted. We don’t want to do the hard work of restoring a relationship that has gone through difficulties. Certainly some of the 50% of marriages that are ending in divorce are ending because someone is unwilling to do the hard work of breathing life back into a relationship. I wonder what Jesus would say about the way marriage is sometimes entered into somewhat casually in our generation? And I wonder what Jesus would say to those who are so easily divorcing when things get tough? Probably the same things he said to those trying to test him that day.

But I wonder what he would say to my late-night calling friend? Or to the woman in an abusive relationship? Or to the man whose wife continues to be consistently unfaithful? My experience tells me there is a grace of God for these times that is not in the words of these few verses of scripture. When I search the rest of the Bible, consult the tradition of the church, consider personal and corporate experience, and use my ability to reason, I know a God of grace who always sides with the vulnerable and hurting. So that a scripture that on the surface seems so plain, is really quite complex. And a God who on the pages of one short scripture seems to draw such a firm line, really is a God of love and grace and second chances. These theological tasks, these times of trying to figure out what God is saying to us in this generation, are less plain than they seem. They are certainly more complicated that a literal interpretation of the words on the page.

I pray we can know God’s grace in all our relationships. I pray that those who are experiencing the end of a covenant may know the grace of God that sustains and upholds them through it all. Because I think the disciples are wrong. I think it is very much worth it to enter the covenant of marriage and give life-long love a noble effort. But that’s a topic for next week. Amen.

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