A Call to a Higher Standard

Have you ever questioned how a preacher selects the Scripture for a given Sunday on which to base the sermon?  One way is to follow what is called a lectionary.  Though the lectionary may vary some between denominations, several follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  But whatever form is followed, the lectionary is a powerful discipline for one to follow in preaching.  For those not familiar with the lectionary, it is a scheduling of Scripture lessons for each Sunday of the year, moving in most churches on a three-year rotation.  Why do I say it is a powerful discipline for those who will preach and those who will listen?  It means that most pulpits in a given community are dealing with the same passage of Scripture on a given Sunday.  It means an effort such as Day One, which represents the traditions of several denominations, can start each Sunday from a common base.

Another reason to follow the lectionary is it helps keep the lessons for each Sunday in tune with the calendar of the year.  For example, during Holy Week the lessons deal with the Cross, the Last Supper, betrayal and other events that lead to Good Friday.  Then on Easter comes the emphasis on the Resurrection, the early growth of the church and the exploding of the Holy Spirit onto the world.  Why on this Sunday that for most churches is World Communion Sunday do we take up the teachings of Jesus on divorce?  You might ask, "Why talk about what divides when we are celebrating a Sunday that reaches beyond division?"

This very dilemma is one reason how being committed to following the lectionary leads the preacher to not restrict his or her preaching to a few favorite places and passages in the Scriptures.  This week, the one preparing to preach is forced to look at the fundamental human issue of what happens when we can and do separate what God has united.  For this first Sunday in October, we are faced with a portion of the Gospel wherein Jesus has a very hard teaching on divorce.  If I am honest, this is one from which I would not choose to preach, particularly on World Communion Sunday.  But here we are at the beginning of the tenth chapter of Mark's Gospel and what do we find there in God's Word?

One of the joys of being a pastor of a church is being involved in conducting the wedding service for a man and a woman who, at the time of the service, are very much in love.  It is almost a fairytale moment with beautiful dresses, tuxedos, flowers, candles, and parties.  Family and friends gather and all seem right with the world.  I am firmly convinced that of the hundreds of couples whose wedding service I have been a part of, none of them approached the altar thinking that this will never last.  I think at that moment they are all convinced that for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, that only death will be able to separate them from each other.  But we know that for many there will be the pain and struggle that will lead to divorce.

This first part of the tenth chapter of Mark is a challenge to preach when almost everyone listening has been through a divorce or had a loved one that has been through that painful experience.  It is so easy to hear them as words of judgment and condemnation.  But let us hear them as a call to a higher standard, the goal which we all have for marriage.  We may not all reach that goal, but that is our aim.  As a pastor, I know there are times when divorce is the only route left to be taken and at times, it is in the name of tough love that we tear apart what God has joined together.  Let these words of Jesus be a call to us all to do all we can to weather the storm.

If you or one you love is on the brink of a divorce, let me urge the couple to seek counseling.  Many churches offer pastoral counseling to help the couple deal with the issues with which they are struggling.  If you do not know a counselor, you should go to your pastor; he or she will be able to recommend someone for you.  There are times when a third party can help you hear what the other is trying to say, to clarify what the issues are, and to lead to a search for a road back to where the relationship started.

What Jesus is doing is recognizing a terrible fact; we humans can and do separate what God has united.  We humans can and do fracture God's handiwork.  Given all the pressures on family and marriage, Jesus was attempting to build a rampart around the home.  The Good News is that God is with us; God's mercy provides the basis of marriage and living.  Our marriages and lives are not ours alone, they are gifts from God.

Too many times, we who have not been through the pain and struggle of divorce are more like the Pharisees in our Gospel reading.  They were not really interested in hearing what Jesus had to say, rather they were interested in trying to trip him up.  When we are rigid and judgmental about divorce, it is because we have not had to face the issue in our own lives.  Have you ever noticed how rigid we are on issues in which we are not involved, as opposed to those that we need to face up to in our own lives?  Remember how Jesus cautioned us about not judging others?  Those who are dealing with divorce in their lives are dealing with a great deal of pain.  We must avoid adding to that pain.  Rather than judging, let us reach out in compassion and support.

It is important for all in society to help strengthen the institution of marriage.  It is important to issue a call to higher ground, to build a wall around marriage in order to help defend it against the problems of the moment.  In order to strengthen marriage to face the pressures of living, the couple that has been joined together at the altar will need help to maintain that unity.

When does God join two people together?  The service is a part of that process; the engagement that let up to the service is as well; but is it final when the minister says so or when the ink dries on the license?  No, there is a lot of hard effort ahead as with anything of value.  Sometimes we never give God a chance.  Marriage is what we make of it, when we allow God to be a part of it, and we have done our best.

In our Gospel from Mark 10, the disciples were like many of us; we want to make sure that we heard what Jesus said.  These are tough words, but they reflect the seriousness with which Jesus takes marriage and how we must all do what we can to strengthen it in our lives and in our world.

Let me suggest several ways that any marriage can be strengthened.  One is for the couple to have a common church home where they are active.  The name of the church is not important, but studies show that the chances of a marriage surviving go up appreciably when the couple is active together in a church.  I feel it is a safe environment where they can make friends as a couple.  It encourages common values on issues the couple will face, and it provides a support system when the couple face the crises that will come to all lives.  Of course, church involvement is not a guarantee, but a shared faith can make a real difference.

Another is to appreciate the value of families from which they came and to realize there will always be a difference in how families function. You could have grown up next door to each other and your two families will handle communications and celebrations, disputes and dialogue in their own unique way.  The couple must relate to each of their extended families in a way appropriate to each and create their new home in a very unique way.   You might think of the extended family of each married partner as baggage they bring to the marriage.  Do not waste your time trying to change the baggage of the other person; just accept them for who they are.

Still another key is how the couple deals with their finances.  I think it is vital that without regard to who earns what of the family income, how to budget and spend the money is a mutual decision.  A marriage is a government of two, so it is important to reach consensus on such matters as finances.  There needs to be common access and knowledge of the financial resources of the couple.  One should not be in total control.  Over the years I have developed what I call the "Stephens' Law of Economics." It is, without regard to how much you make, you will always want about thirty percent more.  There is always something newer, bigger, seemingly better out there.  But what is truly needed in a marriage of love and happiness is not for sale.  Don't get caught in the consumer trap.

You might have noticed that all these ways I have mentioned so far--faith, family, and finances--all start with the letter "f."  And at this point I must leave my alliteration.  The fourth area is just good basic communication.  A relationship such as marriage, in fact, any relationship is a living thing, and without good communication that relationship will probably wither.  It is important to listen to each other, really listen.  It is also important to be open and honest with each other.  Good communication in a marriage is sharing both your good feelings and your angry feelings.  Don't be like the older couple that were married and the wife complained to her husband that he hadn't said that he loved her in a long time.  He replied, "I told you once and if I change my mind I will tell you."  Don't suppress your hurt feelings from each other either.  Deal with your hurt and anger in an open way.  Many times if one party to the marriage will say what they thought they heard, the other can correct what was meant and the problem is on its way at being solved.

In most marriage services, the first vows in the service are called the vows of intention.  And the answer given is "I will."  If asked, many people will reply the answer is "I do." There is a huge difference between the answers of "I do" and "I will."  "I do" is a done deed while "I will" is a future commitment.  The call to a higher standard in marriage is not a one-time deal; it is a commitment to work on the relationship for better or worse, rich or poor, in sickness and health going forward.

Many years ago, a distinguished anthropologist went to live in a Bantu village in Southern Africa.  The village was very isolated and primitive.  The people were very superstitious.  He had feared going there, but he found them a very warm and welcoming people.  When he returned home to the United States, he wanted to send them a gift of appreciation.  In his time with them, he had noticed they had no means of telling time so he decided to send them a sundial.  When he returned later, he found they had built a thatched hut to protect their gift from the rain and the sun.  It was thus rendered useless.

So with our faith, the real test is not when everything is going our way, but during the worst of times when God's light of grace seems to be absent in our lives.  We must trust and hope in the dark moments that the power of God's light will shine again in our lives.  For indeed it has not left; we have only lost our ability to perceive it.  We have simply allowed our lives to be shielded from the light of God's love.  We must not let our anger, our frustrations, our hurts, or our pains block us from the brightness of His love.

The Gospel for today is a tough lesson for us in the twenty-first century.  At least in the American culture, more marriages end in divorce than in death.  Let the words of Jesus be a call to the church to strengthen and support marriage that it might grow stronger.  Let the words of Jesus be a call to each of us, whether we are married or not, we might do all that we can to support and strengthen the institution of marriage in our land.  Let these words not be words of judgment, but a call to a higher standard.

Let us pray.  Gracious God, let us not be those that would judge others, but let us be those that would support each other as we find ways to strengthen the family and marriage and make it stronger in our land.  Amen.