Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7th, 2018
Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A couple of years ago I was over at my dad & step-mom’s house in Bothell as they were preparing to move to Post Falls, Idaho. They were down-sizing and my dad in particular had some things he thought I might want to have. Among those things was a framed picture of my mom and dad on their wedding day. While my dad has been happily married to my stepmom for thirty-eight years (they just celebrated their anniversary on Thursday) he still had this picture. I guess he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Now that he was moving, he figured he’d give it to me.
It is a beautiful picture. My twenty-year-old mother is stunning in her white lacy wedding dress. My dad looks so young and sharp in his suit. They both look so very happy, staring out from the picture frame with so much hope, so much love, so much joy.
It is a beautiful picture, but looking at it was, for me, like a punch in the gut. It hurt to look at it, literally causing a twist in my stomach. Seeing these two people whose love made me, who are the two halves of my existence, but who now have been divorced for forty years, was painful to look at. It was painful because the love that brought them together and made me no longer exists. That picture of their marriage was shattered a long time ago, and there are still some jagged edges even today.
It was hard to look at that picture. When my dad offered it to me, I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t sure wanted it. But I couldn’t just throw it away. It is part of who I am. So I kept it.
In the book of Genesis, God gives us a picture of what marriage is supposed to be. It is a beautiful picture. In this picture we see that Eve, the first woman, was created to be Adam’s closest companion. Unlike the other creatures, Eve would not be subservient. She would not be “less than.” She would be a partner. God created Eve out of Adam himself, and so Adam takes one look at her and says, “At last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam and Eve were made for each other – literally! “Therefore,” God says, “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
This is God’s picture of what marriage is supposed to be, and there are details tucked into this beautiful picture of marriage that are profoundly important.
First of all, this picture tells us that marriage involves leaving your family of origin. A man leaves his mother and father. A woman leaves her mother and father too! There is a radical reorientation that is supposed to happen in marriage wherein your spouse becomes your first priority. Friends remain, to be sure, and parents are still to be honored, but your spouse is to come first, before anyone else. Parents of married kids, please remember this, especially as negotiations begin as to who will spend which holiday where. Spouses need space to put each other first. Kids, please remember this when mom and dad are headed out for some time together without you.
Next, marriage is supposed to be a relationship of oneness. The two become one flesh. The sexual relationship between a husband and a wife is a literal embodiment of the two becoming one, but this oneness is more than just physical. It is emotional as husbands and wives turn to each other for support and affection, sharing the ups and downs of life. It is spiritual as husbands and wives stand before God together, as they pray together, as they reflect the love of God to each other and to the world through their faithfulness to one another.
And marriage is to be permanent. The two don’t remain two, living as tentative partners until circumstances change. The man and the woman are joined together as one flesh, called to live joined together as one for the rest of their lives.
This, in brief, is the beautiful picture God gives us of what marriage is supposed to be. And it is beautiful, isn’t it? We celebrate it when we see it, and rightly so. One of my favorite parts of wedding receptions is when the DJ invites all married couples onto the dance floor and then gradually dismisses couples according to how long they’ve been married until you have the longest married couple out there on the dance floor. The couple smiles and waves and the people cheer and cry. We’re celebrating the beautiful picture of what marriage is supposed to be.
But it doesn’t always turn out so beautiful, does it? In our gospel reading for today we hear how the Pharisees tested Jesus with a question about divorce. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they asked him. This wasn’t a pop quiz kind of test. They weren’t testing Jesus’ knowledge of the law. Everyone knew what the scriptures said about it, that it was allowed in the Mosaic law in some circumstances. No, this was a test to see how Jesus would respond to a controversial question. This was a test like asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. You see, the brutal governor Herod had divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law, and when John the Baptist protested the marriage outside of Herod’s palace, he ended up first in jail and then with his head on a platter. If the Pharisees were lucky, maybe they could lure Jesus into a similar fate. Even if they didn’t, they could probably get him in trouble with the crowds.
But Jesus refused to get into a legal debate. Instead, he lifted up this picture of what marriage is supposed to be. “From the beginning of creation God made them male and female,” Jesus said. And then he quoted from Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” And then Jesus added some words of his own: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
The Pharisees wanted to debate what was legal. They wanted to know what the loopholes were. Most of all they wanted to get Jesus in trouble, both with the crowds and with Herod. Jesus responded simply by lifting up this picture of what marriage is supposed to be.
Later, with the disciples, Jesus explained that divorcing a spouse in order to marry another is a form of adultery – it adulterates this picture of what marriage is supposed to be. It tarnishes it. Jesus isn’t necessarily talking about all remarriages after divorces. He’s saying abandoning one spouse in order to pursue another is adultery. Doing all the legal paperwork doesn’t make it right.
Jesus holds fast to this picture of marriage God gives us in Genesis 2:24. Later St. Paul would lift up this same picture to encourage married couples, telling them that their love and faithfulness to each other is so special that it is sacramental – it is a reflection of Christ’s love for the church.
It is a beautiful picture – but as beautiful as it is, it can hit many people like a punch to the gut. Looking at it can be painful for a number of different reasons. Perhaps you’re married but your relationship is a struggle. It doesn’t look like that beautiful picture. It doesn’t reflect the intimacy and oneness and love God intends. Perhaps your marriage ended – maybe against your will, or maybe you were deeply wronged and there was no way forward. Maybe you did the wronging. Or perhaps your parents divorced, or your son or daughter did, and this picture is a painful reminder of what could have been. Perhaps you lost a spouse and this picture reminds you how much you miss your precious companion. Perhaps you’re unhappily single and this picture just stirs up the ache of loneliness. Perhaps you’re happily single and all this marriage talk makes you feel like a second-class citizen in the church. For many people, for many different reasons, this picture can feel like a punch to the gut.
But as painful as this picture might be some people, we can’t just throw it away. It is part of God’s Word for us, spelled out for us in Genesis, lifted up by Jesus himself, and reinforced by St. Paul. As people of the Word, as people for whom scripture is authoritative and normative, as followers of Jesus, it is part of who we are. We cannot throw it away.
We can’t throw this picture away, but we can and should put it alongside a few other pictures.
We can put it alongside the picture of God’s kingdom we have in the second part of our gospel reading for today, where we see Jesus welcoming children into his arms and saying that this is the only way anyone will ever enter into God’s kingdom – not by earning your way in, not through one’s credentials or marital history or number of anniversaries, but by receiving it as the helpless little children we all are.
We can put it alongside the picture we have of Jesus showing compassion to the woman caught in adultery, seeing how he forgave her and told her to go and sin no more.
We can put it alongside the picture of the cross, where Jesus sacrificed himself for a world that tried its best to divorce itself from him, only to find him alive again on the third day.
We can put it alongside the picture we have of Jesus as the bridegroom and we the church as his bride, a bride that he will love and cherish forever and ever.
Jesus is a fierce and brave proponent of God’s picture of what marriage is supposed to be. At the same time, Jesus is himself a picture of God’s love for us all. His life, death, and resurrection is a picture of a love that never fails – even when we do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church