I decided it was time to move back into the lectionary after a summer’s vacation away from it. This past summer we studied texts that I have found especially compelling or bothersome. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to do that. It is the reason I entered ministry—not the only reason, but one of them-to really dig down and study a text. Especially the scripture reading, “The kingdom of God is within you or among you,” will continue to have great relevance for me as I move forward in my personal journey of faith.
But today we are back to the lectionary! TA DA! And sadly when I looked at today’s text, I almost decided to go back on our lectionary vacation. We are dealing with a text, that I have never preached on before. A text that makes me extremely uncomfortable. That is because the text before us is about divorce. As you know, I myself, AM divorced. I am the poster child. But I suppose it’s time, to add divorce to the topics in my preaching repertoire, so here we go. We should probably all steel ourselves, and say a prayer. I have.
I want to start off this discussion by telling you about my earliest memory of divorce. Back when I was growing up, that is the mid-fifties and sixties, divorce wasn’t as common as it is now. Good church-going people just didn’t do it. Right?
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as divorce until I was seven years old. That was when I learned that Nancy’s parents were getting one. Nancy was one of my best friends in elementary school. She also lived in my neighborhood. We went to each other’s houses for playdates, like you do, when you are little. I have a clear memory of Nancy at my house. We were sitting at the family piano—banging away at the keyboard, probably. Nancy began to cry. She said something to the effect, “My daddy plays the piano. But he doesn’t live with us anymore. I don’t think I’m every going to see him again.” Funny how our memory works, isn’t it? I don’t know what I answered back or if I even did. I don’t know if my mother heard Nancy crying, entered the room and tried to comfort her. I hope she did, but again, I just don’t remember. I will assume my mother filled me in on what divorce is, but I don’t remember that either.
I suspect I also heard gossip from neighbors, and maybe I engaged in gossip myself wiht other children on the school playground. I probably listened to whispered parent conversations. I had terrifically big ears when it came to parent conversations. The gist of what I learned at that time regarding Nancy’s parents’ divorce was that it was wrong, and people who get divorced are bad people. Very bad people.
Now I want to share another childhood memory.
Every summer my family took a two-day road trip to visit my set of grandparents who lived on the a farm in Kentucky. Sadieville, Kentucky. My immediate family and my aunt, uncle and cousins all descended on those grandparents for the same week. It should have been glorious. My cousins and my brother romped in the fields, caught frogs in the ponds, hunted for arrow heads and staged corncob battles in the hayloft. While they were occupied with all of that, the adults did their thing—from what I could tell, mainly drinking coffee at the kitchen table or drinking iced tea on the front porch—adults are pitifully thirsty, don’t you think?
But then there was me. I was allergic. Extremely allergic. One climb up that hayloft ladder would do me in. Forget about lobbing corncobs. I was too busy clawing at my itchy eyes—and trying to clear my throat of dust. So, most of the week you’d find me back at the farmhouse, bored out of my little mind.
Grandma Southy tried to entertain me. She let me help her bake biscuits—a daily chore in that household. Grandpappy Southy insisted on homemade biscuits for dinner. And she and I baked a blackberry cobbler together. She also taught me how to gather eggs from the hen house, without getting the hens too riled up. Even that, though, could set off my allergies. Yes, I was allergic to chicken feathers!
One day, though, maybe out of pity, my grandmother took me by the hand and led me into the farmhouse sanctuary---that is to say the parlor. The parlor door stayed closed the whole week we were there—for good reason--too many breakables—antique oil lamps, spindly legged side tables. You get the idea. But I rated. That day, I got to enter the parlor! I spied a curio cabinet in one corner. Grandma Southy opened it’s doors and let me pick up some of the figurines. I was especially drawn to a little salt and pepper set—it looked like it belonged in a doll’s house. As I held one of the shakers she said this: “That was a gift from my first husband.” I must have looked surprised. Or maybe I actually asked her: “What happened to HIM!” She said, “We got divorced.”
That word! I didn’t say anything. I went mute. I put down the shaker. Soon after, we left the parlor and I found a kind bed to crawl under. The undersides of beds were my safe place when I was little. Ok, I confess. They still are. Just kidding, sort of.
My little brain was trying to process this new information: “My sainted grandmother did this horrible thing?! She was very bad! I must stay away from her. I must not talk to her.” And so I didn’t, talk to her that is.
I don’t know how long my misery lasted. A couple of hours? An entire day? Of course, my grandmother knew something was amiss. She must have talked to my mother. Eventually my mother, looking very stern, asked me to come with her into the parlor. I knew I must have done something horribly wrong, but what? She opened the parlor door and we walked inside. There sat my grandmother on a velvet maroon, parlor wing chair next to-- the curio cabinet. The very place I had gone mute. Taking my hands in her hands, Grandma Southy asked me what was wrong. I burst into tears. And then it was as if I was vomiting words of anger, hate, condemnation, feelings of betrayal-- I let all my bitter words escape, between sobs, and I WAS sobbing by then—How she was divorced and that only bad people get divorced. My mother was standing behind me. She heard it all. Probably she was horrified. If she had put those ugly thoughts in my head to begin with, maybe she was embarrassed. But again, I don’t know.
Grandma Southy let me finish. After I had quieted down, she explained. She said, “We married when we were very young. He went overseas to serve in the War (that would be WWI). He brought me back the salt and pepper set. When he came back, though, we realized. We had both changed too much. We weren’t in love anymore. So, we got divorced. Then I met your Grandpappy Southy. We got married and we had two wonderful daughters, your mother and your Aunt Thelma. And now we have five wonderful grandchildren.”
She made it sound so simple and so right. Aren’t grandmothers wonderful? How could she be a bad person? And then, although once again, I really don’t remember but it makes a good ending to this saga, I imagine that she opened her arms, I stepped in and I reveled in her strong and warm embrace. All was forgiven, if in fact, there was anything TO forgive. We could wish that all relationships are so easily mended!
My relationship with my grandmother was mended, but I think now, that it was changed. As an adult looking back on that incident I would say that although Grandma Southy still had the aura of a grandparent—you know, who gives you just about anything your little heart could desire. Who listens to you as only a grandparent listens—after that, my grandmother ceased to be a saint for me. I was beginning to see her as a human being—as we all must finally see those in parental roles, as human beings—capable of great love, but still human.
So, back to our passage. Jesus does not approve of divorce. He takes that stance for good reason. In the best of all possible worlds, a couple loves each other. They decide to marry. They make a pledge to each other, before God and before their community: to support each other in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, as long as they both shall live. If they have children it is expected that they will raise those children together in a loving home environment. People who divorce break that pledge. Children suffer. However, this passage does not give us license to condemn our fellow human beings. Jesus has a lot to say about our propensity to judge others—and none of what he says is good.
In Matthew: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
…. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
In Luke: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
And maybe MOST significant for our discussion today: from the Gospel of John: A woman is caught in adultery—presumably she has committed adultery all by herself! Where was her lover? The community is about to stone her to death. Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone at her.” And so no one does anything. They simply walk away.
Wise words certainly. Amen