Talk is Cheap, Even for Preachers
This text has come around a dozen times in my preaching experience. After one of those times, some years ago, a no-nonsense parishioner (who had been divorced and was remarried) came to me and said, “That was all very nice, Pastor. I’m impressed with your theories. But the text is the text. Jesus says that if I get divorced and remarried, I’m guilty of adultery. Nothing you say changes that. Nothing you say makes me feel less ashamed in church. Nothing you say changes how church people have treated me over the years. So, thanks again, but not much has changed for me.”
No matter how we think about it, preaching is an exercise in pastoral care. We can embrace that reality or evade it. But it will be there. And it will be there with a vengeance as we preach on Mark 10.
There’s no arguing with that parishioner’s experience. No matter how much exegesis and analysis we do, the realities remain. How do we address this in our preaching? I’m not suggesting for a minute that somehow I’ve gotten this “right” over the years. I have not lived through a divorce, so I cannot speak from inside that experience. I do have some pretty close connections with people who have divorced and remarried, but it’s still an observational reality to me.
I think it’s critical to identify that up front. If the preacher has lived through one or more divorces, it’s important to say that. If, like me, the preacher has not, it’s important to say that as well. And for me, it’s important to repeat several times that I speak as an observer, not a participant. My thoughts should be evaluated accordingly.
It is also important, I think, to regard divorce as an experience of loss and even death and to speak about it accordingly. I think that a divorce is the public funeral for a marriage that has already died. Relationships can die in a variety of ways. Relationships can be starved to death. Relationships can be beaten to death. Relationships can be bankrupted or rejected. Some relationships just die of natural causes as well. And then there are the relationships which were never born or died stillborn in the earliest stages.
In all these cases, it is wise and caring to treat the reality behind a divorce as the death of a relationship. Therefore, one of the basic dynamics of life after a divorce is grief. Whatever the grief experience might be, I would recommend the resources of Dr. Alan Wolfelt as part of the response. Dr. Wolfelt has brought his expertise and experience to life after divorce. In particular, his book, The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way, will be helpful (See the “References and Resources for a link).
In addition, Wolfelt has resources for journaling and reflection as part of the grief journey of life after divorce. I think it doesn’t hurt to have some samples of such resources available on your shelf when you preach on this text.
Where there is grief, there will be shame. Loss always feels at some point or another like a failure. That is certainly true of the loss experienced during and after a divorce. Divorced people wonder over and over again what they could have done differently. Being human, they are equipped with the capacity to regret and ruminate endlessly. All of us have a thousand things we might have done differently on any given day. Life after divorce leads a person to reflect on the wrong turns, the missed opportunities, the hidden signals that led up to the end.
Shame is a terrific burden for any of us. As preachers, we must do all we can not to add to that burden for any of our listeners. No one needs our help to feel more ashamed. Our success-oriented, officially optimistic culture reminds us every day in minute detail of our flaws and failures. It’s not our job to increase that load. Every divorced person in the crowd will be sure that the preacher is speaking directly to them and specifically about them.
It does no good to minimize the grief, the shame, and the sense of exposure our divorced listeners will experience during our sermons. Better, I think, to frankly acknowledge those realities. I have taken the opportunity during some messages to say that for a few moments I’m going to share with the congregation what I’ve heard from divorced people. I won’t speak as an expert but rather as a witness. Afterwards, I have been thanked by divorced people for that witness. It’s something we can do to be helpful.
It’s not a waste of time to describe the differences between first-century divorce and twenty-first century divorce. It’s important to equip people and give them permission to get some distance from the text and to begin to loosen its direct application to their lives. This text fits, as we have seen, into a larger framework and context. I don’t want people to think that I’m fiddling with the text in order to address an agenda. At the same time, I want people to have a more accurate appreciation of the realities of what we are hearing and reading.
So, a brief description of the differences between then and now is often useful and helpful. The same is true of the place of power in this text and Jesus’ critique of the systems of domination in the cultures both then and now. We don’t want to repeat the tactics of the Pharisees or the errors of the disciples. When we know better, we can do better.
Before we move on to that larger framework, I think it’s important to affirm marriages that happen after a divorce. While we can point to the text’s concern about serial divorce for the sake of personal preference, that’s not an accurate description of many marriages after divorce.
Instead, I like to talk about the fact that we are Resurrection people. If divorce is the public funeral for a relationship that has died, then there is the possibility of new life after that death. I have seen Jesus bless far too many later marriages with life and love, with joy and happiness, with grace and growth, to believe that they are not of God. This does not make our words about divorce any easier. But we can acknowledge what we see and thank God for the new life.
This may also be the opportunity to affirm and acknowledge that married life is hard. Our culture still wants us to believe that there are people out there somewhere who have blissful lives together with no problems now or on the horizon. I’ve not met any such people. Being married is a demanding kind of intimacy. We can help people by admitting that out loud as the norm for our human communities. And we can think together about how our faith communities can be supportive of all sorts of intimate and committed connections.
I’m also glad to be able to say now that marriage is not only an issue for heterosexuals. People are just people, and marriage is just as hard. Marriage is also not the normative standard for relationships. Friendship is hard. Being someone’s child or parent is hard. Being a sibling is hard. The standards Jesus describes for healthy marriage apply equally, but with different dynamics, to any human relationship we can mention.
That’s important because this text, which is in the section of Mark most about inclusion, can so easily exclude. The marriage between a man and a woman, as described in Genesis, is an example of human relationship – not the goal or the ideal. I have preached sermons that focused so much on marriage that the single people in the crowd felt like they should have stayed home. That was a homiletical error that I hope I’m not repeating now.
At some point, I hope we get to the good news in the text. It’s really the same good news as we had the first time we had a “little children” story in Mark. Let’s assume that we haven’t been successful in dealing with the grief, the shame, the exclusion, the arrogance, the injustice, the anger, and the pain in this text (that’s a fair assumption). The end of it is Jesus assertively embracing and blessing children brought to him.
Remember, children are not regarded as particularly valuable in this culture. They are, if anything, liabilities. Even if I come to Jesus grieving, ashamed, rejected, wronged, enraged, and suffering, I can expect him to hold me and bless with unconditional love and acceptance. Even if I don’t believe one word of that preacher who’s trying to make it all better, that won’t change my place in the Kin(g)dom of God one whit.
If that’s true for Jesus, then it must be true for the Church. There’s the challenge, of course. Is our congregation a hospital for sinners or a museum for saints? Do we welcome the broken with blessing, or do we expect people to check their struggles at the door?
This is the real challenge of this text and this section of the Markan composition.
References and Resources
Dube, Z., 2014, ‘Welcoming outsiders: The nascent Jesus community as a locus of hospitality and equality (Mk 9:33–42; 10:2–16)’, In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 48(1), Art. #1379, 7 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i1.1379.
Lewis, Karoline (2). https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/dependence-needs.
Wolfelt, Alan. The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way. https://www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/the-wilderness-of-divorce-finding-your-way/#:~:text=Wolfelt%20describes%20ten%20Touchstones%20that,%E2%80%93%20a%20vast%2C%20mountainous%20forest.