|| "Who do you say
that I am?" Jesus asked. Simon Peter answered, "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus
answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are
Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra)
I will build my church..." Jesus then began to speak of
the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get
behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
"A Testimony to Faithfulness"
Message preached February
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 5:21-37
Order of Worship
listen to this message (mp3)
How well I remember my trip to Nigeria back in 2009. What I recall just now, though, is not what I have shared with you previously of my visit with our Brethren there, the wonder and joy of experiencing a different culture, of taking in the landscape of a sub-Saharan country. No, that’s not what I am remembering this morning. It’s hard to believe that, as of next month, five years will have passed since my sojourn there.
What I remember most vividly, if one can “vividly” recall being in a fog, is the “other” journey I had just begun – the journey toward divorce. I did not head down that road willingly, but received word as the Christmas tree was being un-decorated that year. One of the ornaments to be packed away, if you will, was a marriage of almost 30 years. In truth, the dismantling of this union did not start on a cold January day in 2009. It took years to get to this point, with both husband and wife contributing to its failure. But that trip to Nigeria was a watershed moment for me, a beginning point for a testimony I need to share.
A few weeks back I spoke about how we tend to place “testimony” on too high a pedestal, reserving the telling of our faith story until it has reached a point of resolution. We want to share about having entered the promised land, skipping over the 40 years it took to get there. To be honest, however, it is that time in the wilderness that is most important when it comes to faith, and speaking about it should not wait until it has passed. Witness that the majority of the Hebrew portion of our Bible is attributed to such times, whether we’re thinking of the Torah (the first five books that take place, for the most part, in the wilderness) or much of the rest of the Old Testament (which was written in exile).
Waiting until there is a conclusion before speaking out is not what testimony is all about. We need to hear faith spoken even when it feels like despair. An addict needs to stand and give testimony even when all he or she is giving testimony to is one day of sobriety. Those going through the journey of grief need to speak of mercy even in the middle of shock or any of the other stages of dealing with loss. Testimony is not a conclusion, it is an along-the-way sharing that encourages the rest of us to keep on keeping on. It does not belong way up high. It is for walking through the valley of the shadow.
Now, I confess that, like everyone else, it has taken me five years to get to a point of being able to speak my testimony concerning divorce. Jesus bringing it up in this morning’s gospel reading gives me opportunity to travel down this path with you, something I avoided three years ago when this same scripture came up in the lectionary cycle. I would ask forgiveness, but I think you’ve already given that. So, let me return to March of 2009 and take you across the ocean with me to a foreign land.
I “vividly” remember my inner fog in that place where the sun is very bright. My mind constantly shifted back and forth between the wonder of Nigeria and the pain of separation and pending divorce. “Was my life over?” I asked myself repeatedly. For me was the added dimension of ministry. If I were to be a pastor there in the Nigerian church, just like the church in the Dominican Republic, this moment would mark the end for such involvement in God’s mission. I would be a pastor no more. Period!
Our church here in the states was in the same place thirty or so years ago. When I was in seminary things were starting to change - whether for the better or the worse depended upon your point of view. I do recall sitting in the seminary coffee room with my friend, Jess, being blown away by news of the divorce of a couple who had together lifted up marriage and family on the denominational level, someone who (by the way) had been pastor here forty years ago.
Back in Nigeria, I walked through the inner fog, enjoying the trip but also wandering through a wilderness. On many occasions, sister Belita Mitchell would ask, “where are you, Pete?” aware of what was going on within. If anything, this would have been my testimony at that point in time: I did not travel alone. In my inner fog, I was surrounded by a very real cloud of witnesses. Among them were my Nigerian travel companions. When I returned home to the states there were many of you. Some knew the details, many did not but still upheld me. Thank you. You are part of my testimony of God’s faithfulness. You were the arms, hands, and heart of Jesus to me.
Even so, it was rough. I came home from a life changing trip to a life that was being completely changed. It was a Saturday when I stepped across the threshold of my own home to an empty house. Everyone was gone that weekend. I had a big story to tell of this trip and no one to tell it to. Sometimes that is how testimony goes, my friends. In a way, that’s the story of divorce. It’s a death without a funeral. Missing is a place and a time to tell the story of a life, and to mark its end.
To be honest, what Jesus said about divorce in this morning’s gospel lesson has at times made me very angry, especially over how his words have been used by some to beat people over the head. It’s quite interesting that in Matthew’s gospel these words on divorce are preceded by some thoughts on anger, and then adultery. Now, everyone assumes that adultery lies at the heart of divorce, and that may be the case for many, but I’m here to tell you that such is not always how it is. There are many ways in which a marriage dies.
Let me spend a few moments commenting on what Jesus said about divorce. Here we find two simple verses, in which he connects briefly with the Torah, the Law of Moses, and with what eventually became the Misnah, a rabbinic commentary on the Torah. According to this tradition, there was an exit strategy for marriage. God provided the way of divorce out for when reconciliation wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, all the cards for this process were in the husband’s hands back then. If you think it is easier to get a divorce today than in Bible times, think again. I won’t go through my legal journey, but let me assure you that it was no simple process. It took time and money to do it right, in a way that was just and fair for all concerned. It is easier, my friends, to get married today, than it is to exit marriage legally … as it should be!
In Bible times, all it took was a certificate of divorce, which was fairly easy for a husband to make out in the presence of witnesses. And then, since property and money were secured in the husband’s name, a wife could be tossed out on the street, penniless. Is that really what God intended? If you say “Yes,” then you and I need to have a sit-down talk. Of course, I’m sure that it was much more complicated in actuality, since family and neighbors had a voice. It was not a just a personal affair, as we make it today. It involved the surrounding community, who could apply pressure to make things right. That is a point we tend to miss today. All of our relationships are interconnected.
“You have heard it said” that this is an exit strategy for marriage, “but I say to you,” Jesus continued, “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of adultery, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” … Ouch! … Since I take Jesus seriously, I have really struggled with these words. My struggling is part of my testimony. These words are radical, that is, they get to the radis, the root of the Law, which is about – as Jesus said, loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and your neighbor as yourself. These relationships matter deeply. Divorce involves the breaking of community. It is not just a personal affair.
You have had to struggle with a broken sense of community. I ask your forgiveness for that. When divorce takes place we find ourselves in the awkward position of trying to figure out how and if we will remain connected to both parties. Usually, either the husband or the wife exits the community, which is sad. You have had to grieve a loss for which there was no funeral, or perhaps even any recognition of your loss. Again, I ask your forgiveness. I ask not because I need your affirmation, but because your loss needs to be recognized. At one point you were in relationship with my ex-wife, and then your weren’t. You may reply, “that’s life,” but my response is that “this is not what God intends.” By the way, I believe that divorce has had more of an impact upon the “institution” of marriage than homosexuality ever could.
Let me share a few things I have learned about divorce along the way. First, when a marriage fails, usually one partner arrives at that realization before the other. That was true in my case, though all the signs were there. Efforts were made to reconcile, but at a certain point it was obvious that one mind was made up. That is pretty much how it happens for most, I have discovered. I also learned that families can come through divorce in healthy ways. In fact, in about half of all divorces children come through okay. This needs to be said, because we, especially in the church, tend to look at divorce as if it is a disease, a pathology. “Those poor children,” we often lament, seeing only the worst, instead of seeking what can be done to make it better.
A helpful resource for me was Constance Ahrons’ book, The Good Divorce, subtitled “keeping your family together when your marriage comes apart.” In it, the author tells how she followed 98 families through the process of divorce and beyond. In a second book, she returned ten years later to the offspring and wrote We’re still family: “what grown children have to say about their parents’ divorce.” An important point to make is that we often only look at the families that come through divorce broken and damaged, when perhaps we should be looking at the families that come through intact and healthy to see what they have done to make this outcome happen. I took to heart many of the things the author pointed out, and strove to make them part of our divorce, which impacted more than me and Karen.
The most important point, when children are involved, is to make them the priority. This was not hard for us, for we were a child-centered family. If anything, we faltered in maintaining the husband and wife connection, as we raised our children. We did not survive the emptying nest. The success of our marriage, and this is what I want to claim as part of my testimony, is that God helped us to raise and launch four successful, well-adjusted, and generally happy children, even through our divorce. They are not broken and damaged.
Brothers and sisters, I confess that if I lack patience with others, and grow judgmental, it is for those parents going through divorce who put their children in the middle of their conflict. This is unconscionable! Some persons use their children as weapons against the partner they are divorcing. I wish Jesus had said something about this when getting to the heart of divorce. Perhaps he was doing so by touching on adultery, which tends to be a very selfish move, putting “my” needs above the needs of others. There is a balancing of needs that has to happen in any marriage, a balance which shifts back and forth as life goes on. Maybe what Jesus said about dealing with anger and telling the truth also applies. Certainly what comes after this morning’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount is also appropriate – about breaking the cycle of retaliation by turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. Yes, it is hard to do, but God helps us every step of the way, even or especially when we are at our worst, and we become enemies to each other. You know what Jesus said about enemies? Love them! … “If I intend this,” God says to us, “I will provide what you need to live it out.”
My testimony is that God is faithful. It hasn’t been easy, but the Lord has helped us to come through this experience stronger. Karen and I are no longer wife and husband, but we are friends. Our children are growing into fine women and men. I am so blessed, and I just needed to tell you that.
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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