Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Bandaged Fingers and Broken Hearts: Jesus' Words on Divorce

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I already posted some reflections on this Gospel reading. However, since I attempt to get something online in a timely way so as to be in conversation with other preachers, often my thoughts crystallize between then and when I actually preach on a particular text. What you see below is closer to what the people of my congregation will hear on Sunday.  Blessings to you in your continued study and in your proclamation!

I’ve been walking around with a large bandage on the ring finger of my right hand for the last week and a half.

Here is what happened. Ten days ago I got home from a few days away at our Synod’s Professional Leaders’ Conference. I was tired and feeling a little pressed by all the work in front of me when I returned. I decided I would go easy with supper and so I drove through Panera and picked up a couple of bowls of soup. I have done this before. And so I know that normally by the time I get it home, my mother usually prefers that hers be reheated. So I popped hers into the microwave for a minute. Sixty seconds.

Evidently I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was certainly in too much of a hurry. For when the timer went off, I opened the door and picked up the bowl with my bare hands. I got halfway to the kitchen counter with it when the heat from the bowl caused my hand to shake and the soup spilled over onto my right hand. And I’ve been sporting a bandage ever since.

It is true, I tried to hide it at first and perhaps it is so that most didn’t notice it. Although I don’t know how that would have been possible for these hands very publicly rested on the heads of nine high school freshmen who were confirmed last Sunday, served a whole lot of people bread at the communion table last week and shook countless hands on that day and every day since. I don’t know how anyone could have missed it. 

And yet, once the initial pain eased, I found I also didn’t have to think about it all that much either as I had it covered most of the time. I was taking the bandage off at night to let it breathe though. On Thursday morning I found myself studying the wound underneath the bandage, examining it to be sure it was healing. Wondering if it will leave a scar. Knowing it probably will. Realizing that this angry red mark on the fourth finger of my right hand is far from God’s intent for me. I mean, God gave me a brain. I know better than to pick up scalding things without something to protect my hands. There were reasons for my thoughtlessness, yes, but I do know better. And now I will carry a reminder of my mistake on my right hand for a very long time --- if not for the rest of my life. It is, if you will, adulterated. My hand was not born this way, not meant to be this way. I bear and probably will always bear the sign of my mistake where everyone can see it.

We all have wounds. Some of those wounds are visible. Some we are able to keep covered up. Some are physical. Others take a toll on our spirits. A lot of wounds leave scars. A whole lot of them.

Now I have to say this is probably my least favorite Gospel to preach on. It always has been --- surely this was so nearly thirty years ago when I was first called upon to step into a pulpit and consider Jesus’ words on divorce. Back then I ached to do so because I knew full well who in our midst would hear these words as judgment. And yet, I don’t like it any better today when I am so deeply aware that nearly all of us in one way or another have experienced the pain of divorce --- what led up to it and what follows --- hitting very close to home. 

Oh yes, all of us have wounds. Some of them are visible. Some we are able to keep covered up. They take a toll on our spirits. A lot of them leave scars. A whole lot of them.

And yet, even though perhaps we’d rather not, we are called upon to take Jesus’ words seriously today. But let me offer a couple of thoughts even as we seek to do so.

First there is this. While we take these words to heart, we must hear them not as judgment first but as simple description. Divorce is never part of God’s intent for us. God would never want our dearest hopes dashed, our spirits so crushed. God never wants the most vulnerable among us to be put at risk. Any time and every time something runs so far afield from God’s intent, it is a form of adultery.  Simply defined it is ‘impure.’ Not as it was meant to be.

And consider this. In his last words on this, Jesus is speaking in general, in a quiet moment away with his disciples. I can’t help but wonder how his words, his tone, his message would have been different if one who had been through such pain had actually been standing before him.

And consider this, too.  Jesus didn’t bring it up first. The Pharisees did. I don’t know what point they were trying to make, how they are attempting to entrap Jesus here, but certainly they are.

And finally this. When Jesus speaks of hardness of heart he is speaking into a time and place when women had no legal standing so they could not file for divorce. And apparently there then, as there are now, those who would divorce their wives and move on to another, leaving them and perhaps their children, too, destitute with nowhere to go, no means of living, no means of protection. Jesus is speaking against a practice which treated other human beings as less than precious and beloved by God.

And another. Men and women may both be guilty of this today. Indeed, perhaps we all are every day whenever we do not cherish those we have been given to love. No, it seems to me the judgment is not really on the actual divorce. But on all of us who fail to love as we ought.

And think of this with me.  It seems to me that as Jesus sees today how historically we have pulled these words out and forced them to stand alone and used them then to wound or ostracize or exclude those among us whose pain is simply more visible? I can’t believe he is pleased. No, indeed, his heart breaks with those whose hearts are broken. Whose wounds are deepened by our actions or in-actions in the face of such suffering. His heart breaks. And so should ours. So should ours.

So, no. I don’t much like it when these words roll around for us once more.

And yet, it is important to hear these words.

  • To be reminded that God cares so very much about those things which matter to us most of all.
  • To be urged once more to be wise and kind and thoughtful about the ways in which we tend those relationships which are so dear to us. To love well those we have been given to love.
  • To remember that wherever we cause each other pain, it is always adultery: never God’s intent for us.

But it is also ours to not forget that we all fail. Some of our wounds are just more visible. Everybody knows. Some we have managed to cover up. All of us yearn for healing. All of us carry scars.

So back to my bandaged finger. Everyone who has seen it or heard how it came to be, has winced in recognition. Yes, a few have shaken their heads at me, but not in cruelty or ridicule. Everyone has been kind. Our parish nurse even went out and bought me a box of extra-large bandages on that first day as we realized this was not going to be pretty. This has been gift to me in that even in something as small as a burned finger, we recognize our common humanity. Human flesh is fragile. So are human spirits. When we are broken, we are called to love each other.  Period.

May this be so in all of our lives.  For in Christ Jesus we are bound to one another in love. We are brought even closer to him and to one another by the power of forgiveness as we recognize our common wounded-ness and seek another way. This forgiveness heals and invites us every single day to be more and more about what God would have us be about with each other and for each other. Whether our wounds are visible or not. All of us. All the time. 
  • How do you understand Jesus' words on divorce? Do you hear them as judgment? As description? As both?
  • It seems to me that historically this teaching has at times been used to further wound those who are already wounded. What is your experience with this?
  • Is it so that in some sense we are all 'guilty' of the adultery Jesus points out today? What is your thinking on this?
  • Is it so that some of our wounds are simply more visible than others? Who are we called to be for those who are wounded?

1 comment:

  1. Deeply insightful and profoundly bracing and comforting. Thank you.