Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Stamford
Sermon Series: Starting Again
7 October 2018
Text: Mark 10:2-16
Gender Trouble/No Separation
Our theme for this fall is “Starting Again.” Our text for today is Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Divorce is certainly a time of starting again for many people. Half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. It’s become a common experience. Something that a number of folks here have been through. It’s also common that as people go through divorce they seek out a community of support. Church can be that supportive community. So as we think about our theme of starting again in terms of reimagining who we are as a church, we can think about how we connect to people going through divorce. How do we offer healing and hope in a time that can be very painful and disorienting for so many?
My experience of divorce is as a child of divorce. No fault divorce became legal in California in the early 1970s and spread to the rest of the country so that by the time I was coming of age in the 1980s, there was a whole generation of kids growing up in blended families, splitting holiday time between mom and dad, and all of those other complicated things that families that have experienced divorce do.
My parents’ case was a little different. First of all, my parents didn’t get divorced until 1993. They had been married 25 years. I was 23-years-old and out of the house. So my parents divorce didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on my younger siblings. But it did affect me. The second thing was that my dad was gay. Dad knew that he was gay when he married mom, but he kept that important piece of information hidden from her. It was a different time and a different place. West Michigan in the late 60s/early 70s was–and still is, in fact–a very conservative place. It wasn’t OK to be gay. And it wasn’t OK to get a divorce.
So mom and dad stayed together. Even after he came out to her 10 years into their marriage, they stayed together. Even after he cheated on her again and again, they stayed together. Even after he became an alcoholic, they stayed together. Even after he exposed her to HIV, they stayed together. (Fortunately mom never contracted AIDS.) It wasn’t until she found out that he had put her name on a shell company that he was using to launder money for some of his corrupt business dealings did she decide that she had had enough. She was willing to put up with a lot. But go to jail for him? No. The risk of staying with dad finally outweighed the risk of leaving him. Which tells you that 25-years-ago in conservative West Michigan, the risks that divorce posed for a woman were very high. Or at least my mom thought so. Women at that time risked impoverishment, social stigma, and loneliness. Even decades after the counterculture, divorce was a risk, especially for women.
But it wasn’t just the financial and social risks of divorce that caused mom to stay with her marriage so long. It was to protect dad from having to come out. It was to protect us kids from the stigma of having a gay dad. And it was because her church and the wider culture taught her from the time she was a child that women should submit to men. She was taught that a man is the rightful head of the household. He is to be respected and obeyed. Her church taught used the teaching of the Apostle Paul that a woman should not teach or hold authority over a man to keep women out of leadership and in the home where it was thought they belonged. In other words, the church she grew up in supported patriarchy, the idea that men should have power over women. So they missed how Jesus is critiquing patriarchy in his teaching on divorce. And if you think we don’t teach patriarchy here, just look at the wall of senior ministers by the church offices. There you’ll find the names of 26 senior ministers. 25 men. 1 woman.
Jesus’ basic teaching on divorce is that marriage is a solemn spiritual union that cannot be dissolved without spiritual consequences. And I think that pretty much anyone who has experienced divorce would agree with that. People who study life stressors put divorce at the top of the list along with the death of a spouse. Divorce is a very difficult and painful thing. My guess is that most people don’t enter into it lightly. We don’t get married intending to divorce even if it’s out there as a possibility. Even though some people may say that marriage is just a piece of paper, my guess is most people don’t experience it that way. So when Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” he is articulating an ideal that we can aspire to.
But what we’re missing is the radical nature of what Jesus is expressing here. In order to see that, we have to understand the patriarchal context in which Jesus is speaking. In Jesus’ time women were considered the property of men. There was nothing spiritual about it. It was a legal and financial contract between families to create heirs for the families wealth. Wives were the property of their husbands. Fidelity was expected on the part of women, but not of men. Men could have as many affairs as they wanted as long as it wasn’t with another man’s wife because that would be violating his property. Husbands could divorce their wives for almost any reason. Wives, however, could not divorce their husbands. So to suggest that marriage is a spiritual matter with moral obligations on the parts of both men and women is to call the entire patriarchal system into question.
Also notice this seemingly puzzling verse. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Huh? What does remarriage have to do with adultery? What Jesus is saying to both men and women is that you can’t just set aside your spouse and marry someone else because you’ve found someone whom you like better. That’s not a reason for divorce. But notice also that it applies to both men and women. In other words, for Jesus, women are not the property of men. If fidelity is expected of women, it must be expected of men, too. If a man can get a divorce, a woman can, too, and the same rules apply to each. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but in the context of Biblical culture, the fact that Jesus is granting women any rights at all in relation to their husbands is a critique of patriarchy that we as Christians need to take seriously. In the words of one of my wife’s parishioners, “Before there was a #metoo movement, Jesus cared for women.” How did Jesus reach where he could offer a vision of healing and hope for men and women? By listening to the women. By believing the women. By recognizing how the default setting of patriarchy is to discredit and disregard women’s voices and perspectives.
On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate unity in Christ, we need to remember how Jesus sought to bring men and women together on equal ground. In order move closer toward Jesus’ vision, we need to hire women. We need to elect women. We need to support women. As men, we need to notice our own patriarchy-shaped biases. This will help us be a true place of healing for all people: married, single, widowed, divorced. This will be a step toward true communion. This will be starting again.