Preacher: The Rev. Deacon Richard P. Limato, Deacon of St. Michael’s Church
“I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes
The love that’s all around me
And so the feeling grows
It’s written on the wind
It’s everywhere I go
So if you really love me
Come on and let it show.”
The opening lyrics from one of my favorite songs, a classic hit by The Troggs, parodied as “Christmas is all Around” in the British film Love Actually.
Love Actually, a romantic comedy, follows the lives of eight different couples during a frantic month before Christmas. The film offers a glimpse of how modern life bombards us with conflicting images of love.
As the film begins, we hear a voiceover from David (Hugh Grant) sharing that when he feels gloomy about the world, he thinks of the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport, the pure uncomplicated love felt as friends and families welcome their loved ones.
Yes, pure – uncomplicated love – indeed!
The most heart–wrenching of the vignettes is the one in which Karen (Emma Thompson) watches her marriage deteriorate as her husband becomes increasingly infatuated with his new secretary.
I found today’s Gospel equally heart-wrenching to wrestle with, for love, relationships and divorce are complicated.
It leads me to believe that if Jesus had a Facebook account, He just might have posted “It’s Complicated,” as His relationship status.
If you’ve known the pain of divorce, you know “it’s complicated.”
I’m divorced. And truthfully I had one of the most amicable divorces on record. Two people who knew each other as teens, who still cared deeply for one another, ending a long – term relationship, worrying about the impact on their child, and what the future would hold for each of them and their family.
Amicable, yet emotionally complicated and nonetheless, very painful.
On the surface, today’s Gospel doesn’t seem to offer much consolation to those who know the pain of divorce either through personal experience or the experiences of friends and family.
Neither the Pharisees nor Jesus seem to offer much comfort in their exchange.
The Pharisees ask a legal question; “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife.”
Jesus seemingly responds with a moral absolute, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
But there’s more to Jesus’ response than legality or moral absolute, there’s an ethic of healthy mutual relationship underpinning it.
There’s clearly more to this encounter.
The Pharisees are testing Jesus. The Gospels abound with the Jewish leaders, the guardians of tradition, trying to push back on Jesus’ teachings about sensitive issues like paying taxes to the government, or healing on the Sabbath.
In today’s passage, they are trying to back Jesus into a new conundrum by asking about divorce.
They knew that no matter how he answered, Jesus was going to make someone angry.
They knew the scriptural response to the question. Rabbis routinely addressed circumstances of divorce.
A man could divorce his wife simply because she lost favor with him, or he desired someone else.
If Karen the character in Love Actually lived in those days, her husband could discard her with very little trouble.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees responds to that reality. Divorce is not to be a cavalier decision based on the husband’s decision. Jesus begins by emphasizing the marital covenant’s importance under God’s tender care.
Yet, how does that fare with those of us with no other recourse?
What about real brokenness, where dissolution is the only possible answer?
If you are a divorced person like me, you probably want to shout out to Jesus. Wait a minute, there’s more to be considered. It’s complicated!
Jesus understands that life and relationships are complicated.
When the Pharisees questioned Him about dissolution of a marriage, Jesus knew that the time was right to teach a new ethic about relationships based on equality and mutual respect.
He asked, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisee’s replied, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
Jesus responds powerfully, “Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you.” “The two shall become one flesh.”
Take in those words:
“Allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal, to divorce her.”
“Hardness of heart.”
“Two shall become one flesh.”
These rejoinders are often overlooked when we only seem to hear “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus cared deeply about the unjust practices and assumptions that surrounded divorce. He knew that life was complicated. He knew that women were particularly oppressed by a patriarchal system.
When the Pharisees confronted him about divorce, Jesus turned the question around. He talked about the maintenance of healthy relationships, a safety net for woman, and the unfolding of the reign of God where men, woman and children are treated with respect and dignity.
In Jesus’s time, woman held very few rights. A woman “belonged” to her father and her husband. She was treated like property. There were no safety nets for woman.
A man could “write a certificate of dismissal” for trivial reasons leaving a woman without money, status and legal recourse.
This is what Jesus meant by “hardness of heart.” He advocates for “purity of heart” and the rights of women.
Jesus was not sentencing those of us in irreconcilable relationships to live unhappily ever after.
Although Jesus’s absolute statement might make us uncomfortable, we have to understand his teaching in the context of His own time and ministry.
Jesus uses the moment to teach about the unfolding of God’s Kingdom, where women, children and those on the margins are cared for with justice and mercy, “purity of heart.”
Jesus’ teachings are not abstract legal principles designed to protect tradition, patriarchal forms of marriage, male dominant family relationships.
His teachings proclaim God’s reign breaking through our “hardness of heart,” replacing oppressive social structures with opportunities for greater equality.
His teachings are a call to offer a listening ear, a compassionate shoulder, to provide strong support to those who find themselves in these circumstances.
His teachings evoke us to say, “Your clergy and your church family are here for you.” And we are. Just let us know.
Wherever a system oppressed or threatened, whenever a woman was told to be silent, whenever she was disbelieved, he persisted.
Beyond Jesus’ blessing of the sanctity of marriage, he understands that divorce in a broken relationship is sometimes necessary.
Looking beyond legality, Jesus proclaims the beauty of God’s reign and our role in building it.
God’s reign where our world is based on an ethic of divine relationship, where social structures that prevent others from living into the fullness of life are dismantled not fortified.
God’s reign where no one’s voice is silenced.
God’s reign where we bring comfort to those in pain, those who are marginalized, those whom others have abused and disbelieved.
God’s reign where we bear light into the darkness and seek truth.
Jesus’ teachings about divorce are not about “law,” absolutes, or hardness of heart. They are about a new ethic of mutual relationship based on respect.
An ethic of mutual relationship where people who are oppressed, regardless of gender, identity, age, and status are regarded with dignity and respect.
An ethic that allows all to live into the fullness of relationships.
Jesus is teaching is about creating opportunities for the reign of God to be realized here on earth.
It seems to me that we need this lesson more than ever.
It’s a quite easy lesson to remember.
It’s about “Love Actually.”