That Ugly Word

In the midst of deliberations in Rome at the Synod on the Family right now, I am reminded of my own homily on Mark 10:2-16, preached quite a few moons ago in a far away pulpit. For what it’s worth, I am sharing it here below:

It was not easy to prepare this sermon. I attended two Bible studies and read a number of commentaries on today’s readings. The Gospel in particular provoked quite a gamut of responses and opinions, such as:
“It is important to speak strongly of the Church’s teaching on divorce.”
“How can we uphold Church teaching when divorce is so prevalent around us?”
“Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”
“These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.”
These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, we take time to hear Good News in these words of Jesus.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain — if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up.

Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Sometimes unhealthy behaviours of abuse, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Sometimes a growing apart creeps in over time, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is far to be found. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery, far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation, rejection, alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. It is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, more than the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, asking a question to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, like keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system. Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right,
nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life — and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws — and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain — and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness — and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification — we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that contradicts the spirit of community — we collude with the sin of not supporting one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart — wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are equally free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, nor for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another. Far beyond quarreling over the permission to divorce, we are called to change our behaviour — to show more compassion than criticism, to listen more than we talk, to relate to one another as equals before God. Jesus condemns all separation and brokenness as sin. On this level playing field, we all stand wanting.

Before God, we are reminded of the purpose and goodness of creation. Before God, we are all called to become “one flesh” — in the community of marriage, in our parish community, in the world. In the daily routine of living, it is not good to be alone. As followers of Jesus, it is not good for any of us to be alone.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child onto his lap.

In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care.
No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another.Despite the sinfulness of separation, as God’s children we may experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. Held by Jesus, not stopped by anyone, we come to see all our relationships as holy places where God’s own presence and power is at work. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, I too will end with a story featuring children: a girl in elementary school had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe, carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play. About this time, her little sister Sally came in and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister came back in.
When she saw what had happened, she screamed at the little girl: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, the little girl was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears. But when her sister realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… — says the Lord our God… AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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