“Perhaps for you it isn’t divorce. Perhaps for you the pain of separation comes from somewhere else: from a relationship that has ended, a community you left behind, a dream you set aside for a different calling, a loved one who has died…. Whatever history you have to bear, God will bless you in it, through it, and in spite of it – just as Jesus blessed the little children in his arms.”
Sermon Preached: Wednesday, October 10, 2018 at Berkeley Divinity School
Note: This sermon was preached in 2018 in Marquand Chapel at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, as my graduating Senior Sermon. I reflect on my experience of my parents’ divorce, a reflection that is no doubt limited by my sole perspective. Still, I offer this sermon as a resource for anyone who is grappling with the role of divorce or separation in their life.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the beginning there was my mother and my father. They met, fell in love, and were married at some point in the late ‘80s, surrounded by family and friends from the church where they met. And God saw that it was good.
Of course, these scant details are just about all I know about the beginning of my parents’ marriage. My parents divorced in 1996, after bringing three lovely daughters into the world. And God saw that it was good.
Over the next five years both of my parents remarried. In my father’s case, this involved the bonus acquisition of three stepsisters. Tall, blonde, and thin God created them, and they became a focus of constant comparison and teenage angst over the next few years. And God saw that it was good.
My parents went to court several times to contest where my sisters and I would attend school, and my teenage years were spent torn between my dad’s house, my mom’s house, and my hometown where it all began. And God saw that it was good.
A few years later, after almost surviving my teenage years in a house of five girls, divorce struck again. My dad and stepmother divorced, causing a good deal of surprise, instability, and relief. And God saw that it was good.
Ten years later, all grown up and married myself, I discovered my parents’ wedding photos in storage at my aunt’s house in New Jersey. I am now the keeper of these family photos—artifacts that I once thought were lost. And God saw that it was good.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work God had done, and rested. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. Here endeth the lesson.
This is my creation story, my origin story. When approaching this sermon, I wondered how much of this story tell. It seemed dishonest not to include it. It seemed indulgent to tell it at length. I bring it here as a kind of necessary self-disclosure: I would not be who I am today without my parents’ divorce. And I’m positive that I’m not the only person in this room for whom that is the case. Statistically speaking, roughly half the people in this room have been personally impacted by divorce. If not you, you can probably think of someone close to you.
And so it’s with this awareness that I approach our prickly passage from the Gospel of Mark. In this chapter, the Pharisees approach Jesus in order to test him, asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus’ answer, simply put, is no. Jesus quotes the creation narrative from Genesis 2, which we heard just a few minutes ago, and expounds that marriage is a kind of bond that should never be broken. Later Jesus’ disciples draw him aside and ask him about divorce again—perhaps thinking that Jesus’ hardline answer was just intended to please the Pharisees. But Jesus sticks to his initial response and even takes it a step further, saying that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and vice versa.
This is a hard teaching. This is a teaching that has led to the isolation of divorced individuals and families in the church. This is a teaching that has reinforced heteronormative understandings of marriage. This is a teaching that makes me want to kick and scream, and head to the library to research every historical-critical argument that exists to show that that was how marriage was in Jesus’ time, it doesn’t mean that’s how we do marriage now. We could spend this time looking at all those things, and in certain contexts I think we absolutely should do that. But there is no good news simply in re-contextualizing Jesus’ teaching on divorce. And frankly, I need some good news after reading this Gospel passage today.
I find a glimpse of this good news in the story of creation. Not the story that we read today in Genesis 2, but the story that comes before it, in Genesis 1. After all, if my experience with my parents’ divorce has taught me anything, it has taught me that there are usually at least two sides to a story. In Genesis 2 the creation story is all about unity, clinging, oneness. Genesis 2 is all about those words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark, “what God has joined together let no one separate.” Genesis 1, in contrast, offers a story of creation that is rooted in separation, sanctified through distinction. God separates light from darkness, God separates the waters from the sky, God separates the day from the night, and over and over again God says: it is good. In this story separation is not a sign of failure. It is a sign of creation.
Granted, this is not the creation story that Jesus looks to in his teaching on divorce in Mark 10. But I still think there’s something here—something lingering behind the text in all of our readings today that inextricably links divorce and creation. After all, the most pivotal moments of our lives are when we join with others and separate from others, when we marry and when we divorce, when we find a community that holds us and when we leave that community that holds us. It’s through these acts of joining and separating that we are created, and recreated. In spite of our plans, in spite of our best intentions, in spite of our mistakes. God works in and through our human choices. God works in and through the things that we didn’t choose, but happen to us. And God finds a way to make all things work out for good.
I am reminded of the words from our Psalm today:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8:4-5)
And yet God cares for us. God watches us grow and change and make mistakes. God delights in us always. God partners with us in our own creation stories—stories that are sometimes full of loneliness, uncertainty, and pain. Stories that are full of more grace that we can ever imagine in the moment. This is the good news I see spangled across our readings today: God created us, just like the moon and the stars in the sky, and God is creating us still.
It’s no coincidence that our Gospel passage today, Jesus’ infamous teaching on divorce, concludes with a very different image. After laying down the rules on divorce, Jesus’ disciples expect him to be similarly strict about a group of children who have come to greet him. Instead, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Now this isn’t the first time in the Gospel of Mark that we’ve seen Jesus welcome children, but for me there’s something extra important about this passage – and it has nothing to do with the historical status of children in Jesus’ time.
It has everything to do with the fact that I am a child of divorced parents, reading this text in the 21st century. And so when Jesus says “Let the little children come to me,” I see an image of myself at 6 years old, trying to understand what my parents mean when they say they are getting a divorce, and I am walking into the arms of Jesus. I see myself, at 13 years old, crying because I’m not as popular as my step sisters, running into the arms of Jesus. I see myself, at 28 years old, learning what it means to build a life so far away from home, still leaning on the arms of Jesus.
If my parents were to have followed the letter of the law as Jesus tells it in Mark 10, I probably wouldn’t be here. My life would be completely different. And yet God has made something profoundly good out of my life, out of my parents’ lives, out of my sisters’ lives. God welcomes each of us as children. And what better image could there be than children to remind us that we are still growing and changing. Our creation stories are still unfolding.
The Gospel is not a legal document, telling us what we can and cannot do. The Gospel is, first and foremost, the good news. And this good news tells us that we are beloved children of God, that we are loved and held in the midst of divorce, separation, and whatever it is that causes you to feel undone.
Perhaps for you it isn’t divorce. Perhaps for you the pain of separation comes from somewhere else: from a relationship that has ended, a community you left behind, a dream you set aside for a different calling, a loved one who has died. Perhaps your pain is something that is too difficult to put into words. Whatever history you have to bear, God will bless you in it, through it, and in spite of it – just as Jesus blessed the little children in his arms. I hope that we will all have moments in our lives when we are able to look back on things that have happened in the past, things that caused us great pain and suffering, and say with conviction those same words that God spoke in the story of creation:
It is good.