February 13, 2011
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. (Be seated.)
Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book, Eat Pray Love,
“I don't want to be married anymore.
“In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We'd only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn't I wanted this nice house? Hadn't I loved it?... I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life – so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and – somewhere in my stolen moments – a writer...?
“I don't want to be married anymore.
“...Let it be sufficient to say that, on this night, he was still my lighthouse and my albatross in equal measure. The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn't want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.”
These words from Elizabeth Gilbert show the complexity of marriage today. She writes from her heart, sharing her expectations of marriage, how she had hoped for so much more than her life turned out to be. She married her husband when she saw him full of potential. Yet she loved him for what he could be, not for what he was. I think to some degree we each can understand what she was going through. Many of you are divorced, probably many more than I know. But even for those of us who haven't personally divorced a spouse, we still have experienced it. My parents divorced when I was four years old. I never really experienced one happy family, but I had two wonderful families. It is with this divorced family on my heart that I turn to today's lessons.
Sometimes, the lectionary confounds me. On the day before Valentine's day, why do we have to hear about anger, adultery, and divorce? Doesn't this seem like the exact opposite of what we should be hearing from the Bible? Why can't we hear something else, anything else?
When we are surrounded by pink hearts and candy cupids, we hear such hard words from Jesus. Maybe the lectionary isn't so off the mark, though. Yes, Valentine's Day is all about love, but it is about romantic love. When some are celebrating this love, others are reminded of the fact that they don't have that someone special. Or in my case, Valentine's Day reminds me that my love is half a continent away from me. While thinking about Valentine's Day may make you more grateful for the person sitting next to you today, it also may remind you of who isn't sitting next to you. Either by death, divorce, or other break-up, we all are missing somebody today.
And so with heavy hearts we all turn to today's Gospel lesson. Jesus' words don't seem to have much grace. Where is the forgiveness and the love that we know God is full of? With each sentence, Jesus takes a Jewish law or commandment and intensifies it. Not only are we not to physically murder or commit adultery, but we shouldn't do any of this from our hearts either. Not murdering isn't good enough. We shouldn't be angry either. Not committing adultery isn't good enough. We shouldn't think lustfully either. Moses allowed divorce, but that doesn't fit into God's plan. Not only should we not lie, but we shouldn't swear by anybody's name, either. Most of us can accept that we shouldn't murder, be angry, commit adultery, think lustfully, or lie, but divorce is a sensitive issue. The problem of divorce often hits a lot closer to home than these other rules do. As Chris Haslam writes, “Jesus' intention was not to cause pain but to set out a clear and high ideal of human relations.”
Before human laws were made, God created humans to be together. God created man and woman to love each other. Moses allowed divorce, but this was not God's will for humanity. God commanded unity of the flesh which is a glimpse of the wholeness found in God. God wishes us to be whole, no matter how broken the world is. Yet despite God's best wishes, we are a broken, sinful people. We cannot keep all of God's laws no matter how hard we try. Even when marriage is taken most seriously, some problems cannot be overcome. Some sins cannot be overcome.
Let us now go back to Elizabeth Gilbert's story. While she was traveling the world trying to understand and accept her divorce from her husband David, she had a conversation with a man named Richard that she met in India.
Elizabeth confided in him, “Please don't laugh at me now, but I think the reason it's so hard for me to get over this guy is because I seriously believed David was my soul mate.”
Richard responded, “He probably was. Your problem is you don't understand what that word means. People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that's what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that's holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you'll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it. Your problem is, you just can't let this one go. It's over, [Liz]. David's purpose was to shake you up, drive you out of that marriage that you needed to leave, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart that you had to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master and beat it. That was his job, and he did great, but now it's over. Problem is, you can't accept that this relationship had a real short shelf life. You're like a dog at the dump, baby – you're just lickin' at an empty tin can, trying to get more nutrition out of it. And if you're not careful, that can's gonna get stuck on your snout forever and make your life miserable. So drop it.”
“...You're just afraid to let go of the last bits of David because then you'll really be alone, and [Elizabeth] Gilbert is scared to death of what will happen if she's really alone. But here's what you gotta understand, [Liz]. If you clear out all that space in your mind that you're using right now to obsess about this guy, you'll have a vacuum there, an open slot – a doorway. And guess what the universe will do with that doorway? It will rush in – God will rush in – and fill you with more love than you ever dreamed. So stop using David to block that door. Let it go.”
I love this idea of a soul mate. Maybe soul mates are meant to come into our lives for a short time, reveal who we can become, and then leave as we become deeper, better people. But a soul mate does not need to be a married partner. God upholds the sacredness of life, the wholeness of marriage. No matter how soul mates enter our lives, divorce may not be the best way to let them leave.
Because Jesus knew what hardships were involved in divorce, he did not accept divorce. In first century Palestine, divorce caused even more separation and suffering, especially for the women and children. Sometimes, divorce was also used as an excuse for legalized adultery – a man could divorce his wife only in order to have sexual relations with another woman. These are two reason why he did not accept Moses' allowance of divorce but upheld God's first law – that man and woman should become one flesh. That wholeness is found in marriage.
Even though Christ came and died on the cross, we are still trapped as sinful people, broken people in a broken world. We cannot live by all of the ethical standards that Jesus gave us, including the standard to marry once and only once. Divorce is a reality of human sinfulness, a reality that we cannot escape. So no matter how we try, we cannot rid ourselves of divorce in this world. Sometimes marriages are not recoverable, and divorce is necessary. No matter the circumstances, divorce is a sign of human brokenness.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus calls us to live better lives and to follow God's laws more closely. Going through the motions of not murdering is not enough – we need not to anger our neighbors. We need to come clean with our enemies before we can come before God. Through all of these laws, God is calling us to lead lives of integrity and compassion. God is calling us to show the world and ourselves how we are God's beloved children. God calls us to right relationship with Him and with everyone else. Loving God is a whole body and soul experience.
Now we can hear a few last words from Liz Gilbert when she was in Indonesia:
“On my ninth day of silence, I went into meditation one evening on the beach... I said to my mind, “This is your chance. Show me everything that is causing you sorrow. Let me see all of it. Don't hold anything back...
“Then I said to my mind, “Show me your anger now...
“Then came the most difficult part. “Show me your shame...
“When all of this was finished, I was empty. Nothing was fighting in my mind anymore. I looked into my heart, at my own goodness, and I saw its capacity. I saw that my heart was not even nearly full, not even after having taken in and tended to all those calamitous urchins of sorrow and anger and shame; my heart could easily have received and forgiven even more. Its love was infinite.
“I knew then that this is how God loves us all and receives us all... Because if even one broken and limited human being could experience even one such episode of absolute forgiveness and acceptance of her own self, then imagine – just imagine! - what God, in all His eternal compassion, can forgive and accept.
“I also knew somehow that this respite of peace would be temporary. I knew that I was not yet finished for good, that my anger, my sadness and my shame would all creep back eventually, escaping my heart, and occupying my head once more. I knew that I would have to keep dealing with these thoughts again and again until I slowly and determinedly changed my whole life. And that this would be difficult and exhausting to do. But my heart said to my mind in the dark silence of that beach: “I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you.” ...
“I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you.”
Just as Liz found peace with her brokenness, I hope that we each can as well. No matter what happens, though, remember this: God loves you. God will never leave you. God will always take care of you. Amen.