Sermon: “Broken Covenants”

“Broken Covenants”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 7, 2018

Malachi 2:16
For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I imagine that if I asked you to raise a hand if your life has been touched by divorce, almost everyone in this sanctuary would have a hand in the air. Whether as divorcés ourselves, children of divorce, or relatives or friends of someone whose divorce we’ve witnessed up close, the dissolution of marriage is a widespread phenomenon which affects us all.

This morning’s Gospel passage, then, leaves Jesus sounding particularly harsh as he unequivocally condemns divorce, saying it stems from a hard heart and equating remarriage after divorce with adultery. Moses, who allowed for divorce, ends up looking much more compassionate (not to mention practical). Because sometimes, despite our honest, best efforts, things don’t work out – or, more urgently, a marriage turns toxic and abusive. Ancient Judaism was ahead of its time in recognizing this and providing a legal and religious remedy for exiting a broken relationship.

So why does Jesus roll all that back?

Well, let’s take a look at what Jesus says: “Because of your hardness of heart,” Moses gave you divorce. And here’s what God, in this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading, says: “the man who hates and divorces…covers his garment with violence.” Here’s what’s being call out as wrong about divorce: hard hearts and hatred.

So often, that’s true – rather than a simple recognition that something’s broken, divorce becomes a pitched battle. We are overwhelmed by the years of stored up resentment and pain and it all comes rushing out. Or we’re wounded by something our soon-to-be ex says or does and we want to find a way to hurt them, too. Or maybe we knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to fix it, or didn’t want to, so we walked away or blew things up rather than honestly confront the fissures in our relationship.

You see, I don’t think Jesus is taking aim at divorce as a way to leave a relationship that damages the soul with physical, emotional, or psychological abuse. I think he’s taking aim at divorce as a microcosm of a wider problem: that in our discomfort and pain, we humans find it so much easier to resort to disdain, condescension, self-centeredness and even plain old indifference than to fully open our hearts to one another – to be vulnerable and self-giving and compassionate.  

It’s actually the problem at the core of the biggest relationship in the Bible, one most often described as a kind of marriage: Israel’s covenant relationship with God. Over and over and over again Israel, distracted by fear or the possibility of a better deal elsewhere, forgets God or begins to worship idols, mistakenly believing they’ll be better off without God. It is only through God’s superhuman graciousness that their covenant doesn’t end in, well, divorce. (God does sometimes threaten it, though – I suppose that centuries of infidelity might wear on even the most divine of beings.)

God’s grace is definitely something to strive to model in marriage. Last I checked, though, every last one of us married or formerly married people is merely human and we fall far short of matching God’s track record.

And that’s where Jesus calls it like he sees it. Jesus ranks divorce as a sin right up there with adultery because it is the ending of a covenant meant to be kept.

Let me back up for a moment – because many of us, when we hear the word “sin,” recoil. The word leaves a bad taste in our mouths, maybe because we grew up in a religious tradition that used sin to shame people, or maybe because focusing on sin orients our spiritual lives more around fear and guilt than around joy, delight, or love.

At its simplest, though, “sin” – hamartia in biblical Greek – is simply “missing the mark,” a term borrowed from archery to acknowledge when things have gone awry.

And divorce, even amicable divorce, is most definitely a sign that the mark has been missed – that something sacred, something we once promised to keep whole, is broken.

Given our human tendency towards sin – again, not to be inherently terrible, but simply to miss the mark, to not be perfect – I wonder how we might hear Jesus’ words as hopeful, or even just helpful. If we can’t be perfect – if our covenants will sometimes end – how do we respond to Jesus’ condemnation of our shortcomings?

Recently Chris and I have been watching the TV show “The Good Place.” The premise of the show is that after we die, only people who led exemplary lives made up of overwhelmingly good actions go to “The Good Place” – and everyone else, including all dead US presidents except Abraham Lincoln, end up in The Bad Place, marked primarily by torture and lots of screaming. Eleanor Shellstrop, the main character, is a particularly mediocre human who, by some kind of celestial bureaucratic error, has mistakenly ended up in the Good Place. She quickly realizes she needs to bone up on how to be a good person if she wants to keep her spot in this paradise.

Raised by self-involved parents who taught her, by their neglect, that relying on other people was weak, Eleanor’s behavior on earth pushed others away: she was routinely selfish, rude, and dishonest to friends and strangers alike.

So after a lifetime of shirking responsibility and dumping on others, Eleanor has a hard time shifting gears. In the first episode she lies, talks badly about her neighbors, drinks to excess, and steals jumbo cocktail shrimp from a housewarming party. But with the help of a deceased ethics professor, she begins to realize that there is another way – that acknowledging her shortcomings and her dependence on others creates in her a capacity for empathy and, eventually, she begins to consider others’ well-being as important as, or even more important than, her own.

In the second half of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus welcomes and blesses little children, telling the disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” We often talk about how innocent and pure children are, that they have to be taught to hate and exclude. But as the mother of a preschooler who has observed a lot of playdates in the last four years, I can confirm that kids start out a lot like Eleanor: they want and will grab whatever toy is most interesting, particularly if someone else has it; they don’t particularly want to share; they want to follow their own agendas and often throw fits to try to get their way; they leave messes everywhere with no thought of cleaning up after themselves; and depending on the kid, they may see it as no big deal to tell a fib to avoid consequences. Kids have to be taught to hate and exclude, yes, but in my experience, they also have to be taught to be generous, to take turns, to have self control, to compromise, to be honest, to take responsibility for their actions, and to put someone else’s needs or desires ahead of their own.

We talked a few weeks ago about how welcoming a little child in Jesus’ time meant putting those with the least power at the middle of the discussion – something we honor today with our Neighbors in Need offering. Today we get another perspective on why Jesus holds up children as the way into the kindom of heaven: like Eleanor, they are smack in the middle of learning how to be good people, and they have no illusions that they aren’t capable of changing just because they’ve always been that way. Children are inherently open to growth and new perspectives, and they shift our perspectives by questioning why things are done the way they are, They are often vulnerable, sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings, in ways we adults have long forgotten how to do.

In divorce, children are a pivot point: they can bring out our worst as we battle for control via custody rights; or they can bring out our best selves, softening our hearts to develop a respectful, working relationship with our ex for the good of our kids.

I don’t think Jesus had – or has – any illusions about how prone we humans are to missing the mark, to failing, to hurting one another. But I think he also has no illusions about our ability to become better people than we were – to face our brokenness, even our broken covenants, with the vulnerability and open-heartedness of a child; to admit when something has gone wrong; to channel our rage into change; and to proceed not with violence or hatred or hard hearts, but with courage and compassion, committed to a new and different way.