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October 8, 2006 (Sunday 27 • Time after Pentecost)—“A Relationship of Three”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
The Sunday school class had listened intently as the pastor explained the creation story to them at some length. The children asked a number of questions and seemed content with her responses, so the pastor felt she had finally prepared her presentation sufficiently for at least this age group. That is, until she heard a little boy’s comments as he filed out of church... “Ow, I have a pain in my side. I think I’m going to have a wife!”
My grandmother had eleven siblings, and it was a family ritual when I was growing up for us to spend Sundays visiting the extended family. I wasn’t always excited about spending the afternoon in the homes of these great aunts and uncles. Some of them were a bit scary to me. There were often special German dishes served we were expected to at least try. And worst of all, we five children had to be on our best behavior!
After awhile, however, there were several relatives we stopped visiting. It seemed odd, especially when some lived right next door to each other. I eventually learned that there were at least imagined slights and miscommunications that caused some to stop speaking to each other. My family was caught in the middle, being told we couldn’t visit some if we visited others. After all, whose side were we on?
As much as I had disliked those visits early on, I later was disappointed that we had lost touch and would not have the opportunity to hear details of the family history. Now it seemed we only saw the extended family at funerals.
At one such funeral I screwed up the courage to ask a great aunt why she had stopped speaking to her brother and neighbor. She said she couldn’t remember, but she was darned if she was going to be the one to apologize. Even at his funeral, she maintained her ill will toward him.
So as brothers and sisters essentially “divorced” each other, we all lost.
Today it no longer seems newsworthy that children divorce their parents in court, that marriages last as little as hours, that people marry eight times or more in a lifetime.
And I thought the 70’s were a challenge for a new pastor: communes with free love and multiple partners, open marriages, three-year marriage contracts.
People still want to write their own vows and I’m astounded at the things they say:
“... until our love candle flickers and goes out.”
“... as long as there is romantic love between us.”
“... as long as we both can enjoy our full independence.”
“... as long as you provide me an adequate lifestyle.”
After more than 33 years of conducting pre-marital counseling, I still am thrown by some of the questions people ask. One bride, for example, who wanted a “traditional wedding” balked at most of the verbiage when I explained its meaning, then stopped me with a stare in mid-sentence as I read, “... and the two shall become one.” “Which one?” she insisted. “What do you mean, which one?” I asked. “Is he supposed to become me,” she cheerily asked, “or do I have to become him?” she grumbled with a frown. And then they insist they are prepared for marriage... As Charlie Brown says, “My stomach hurts!”
Most pastors I know are selecting another pericope on which to preach today. Our text in which Jesus addresses divorce is just too challenging, too controversial. Please don’t read into this and hear that I think it’s an easy topic or that I have the answers. I do think, however, church ought to be a place where we can wrestle together over difficult issues.
Perhaps the larger reason I chose to stay with today’s Gospel is because I think Jesus addresses more than the issue of divorce. He essentially tells the Pharisees who know the law all too well and are setting a trap for him that they are asking the wrong question. The real question is: “How do we sanctify our relationships?”
James Edwards says: “You don’t learn to fly a plane by following the instructions for a crash landing; you won’t be successful in war if you train by the rules of beating a retreat. The same is true of marriage and divorce. Exceptional measures necessary when a marriage fails are of no help in discovering the meaning and intention of marriage. Jesus endeavors to recover God’s will for marriage, not to argue about possible exceptions to it.”
Anderson and Fite in Becoming Married suggest by the very title that marriage doesn’t instantly happen with a ceremony and signing of the license. Becoming married begins long before the ceremony and continues long after. Divorce or separation doesn’t begin when a legal document is signed either.
Whether married, committed, separated, divorced, widowed, or single, we all are sinful and fall short of the glory of God. Yet we were created as people in need of relationships—relationships with other children of God and with our Creator.
Those among us who have been hurt in relationships understand all too well that it wouldn’t hurt so much if we didn’t care so much. The more we love, the more we are at risk for being hurt.
That applies to our relationship with God as well. You can’t get angry with someone you don’t care about. So those people who tell me they’ve given up on God, that they’ve felt abandoned or ignored by God, and do so with some animation and anger are really saying that the relationship is broken and it hurts. So often, as in human relationships, the brokenness comes from misunderstanding, from hard heartedness or stubbornness on our parts.
What if Jesus took the attitude most of us have when we’re betrayed by those who say they love us or those who are simply difficult to love? We take his love—his sacrificial love—for granted so frequently. We claim to love only him as our God, promise to remain faithful to only him, but regularly turn our attention and devotion to so many others.
The good news is that Jesus may have been fully human, but he is also fully divine. His divine love is not like ours. He doesn’t give up on us or on restoring our relationship no matter how long it takes. Week after week he offers us forgiveness we don’t deserve. Day after day he provides for our needs, supplies us with steadfast love, binds our wounded hearts, offers us solace and peace. He is a lover like no other, for his love comes without condition, is sacrificial, and lasts forever.
It is true most of the time that there is no room in the marriage bed or partnership for three—except when Christ is invited into the relationship as a full partner. Then each of us has a full-time advocate and confidant to assist us in nurturing our relationships with those we have chosen to be in our lives and those whom God has chosen to be our families. It’s not solely up to us to figure out how to work on the relationship, how to love the person while perhaps deploring the behavior. He gives us the courage to look at ourselves and what kind of partner we are, not expect the other to make all the changes to suit our needs.
One of the counseling strategies I have come to appreciate over the years is psychodrama, first developed by Moreno in New York. One learns the skills by being a protagonist in the drama of a real life scene as well as a director. I like that it allows me and others to step outside of ourselves and view our lives as interested observers. A question I was asked that I revisit from time to time is, “What is it like to be in relationship with Steve?” What is it like to be my parent, grandparent, sibling, niece, friend? What is it like to be one of my congregants? What is it like to be my own best friend, caretaker, and cheerleader? What is it like to be God to me?
I don’t always like what I see, but I’m reminded that I am the only one I can expect to change. I am also reminded that when I put myself in God’s hands and ask for the understanding and encouragement of the Spirit, I am better able to understand how I need to repent, get the courage to ask for forgiveness, and find the love I need to love others. I can’t give what I don’t have. I can’t give from an empty vessel.
The Law of Moses and the Commandments teach us respect for God, ourselves, and others and we would do well to obey them. But Jesus and His followers provide us a new testament of God’s love and a new commandment—to love one another as we have been loved.
And because human relationships will always be a challenge and there will be times when we should say that it is better for a couple, a friendship, or a family that there be separation and divorce, He gives us even here a message of grace, forgiveness and hope. Those who know brokenness at its very worst can hear and experience grace fully. Out of the tears and remorse can come hope. God can heal even the most wounded and bleeding heart. And He can even open the door to a new relationship of love and commitment.
The key to all of this is that we work on our relationship with God and our relationship with ourselves so that we can work on our relationship with others. Jesus encourages us to never give up easily on any relationship and promises us his help and support in that endeavor.
Perhaps we would do well to listen to and apply a vow used in marriage ceremonies to our other significant relationships. “I take you to be my spouse/partner/best friend/parent and these things I promise you:
Let us as the people of God encourage each other in that vow and in supporting each other in times of brokenness and times of joy. Let us recommit to a loving relationship with these brothers and sisters in and through the love of Christ.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org