Rules for Love

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 — Week of Proper 14, Year One

Herman of Alaska, Missionary to the Aleut, 1837

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 978)

Psalms 97, 99, [100] (morning) 94, [95] (evening)

2 Samuel 14:1-20

Acts 21:1-14

Mark 10:1-16

Life is difficult. Life is complicated. I remember a conversation I had with a good friend the summer before we were heading away to seminary. Our anxiety was showing. We both wanted “the answer book.” Is there ONE BOOK that we could take to seminary, and it would give us the answers we would need for all of the questions we knew we would face? So we contacted some priests we respected, asking for a ONE BOOK recommendation. Only one priest took our bait. He recommended a systematic theology book — if you start here, you can’t go wrong, he said. A few weeks into seminary, I got a note from my friend. “Don’t quote that book!” he exclaimed. He had done so and harvested a crop of red marks.

How many centuries have we tried to set up a consistent, simple set of rules? Follow these and you will be okay.

Every system always seems to break down when it tries to define the mystery of love. It appears that love insists on transcending definition. It is hard to draw a box around love.

Today we’ve got some difficult and complicated conversations about love answers. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce a wife?” They site the permissive tradition from the Torah. A man may write a certificate of dismissal and be divorced. (They site no such power for the woman, though there is evidence outside of Israel that some women could sue for divorce.)

Jesus moves to the heart. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment.” Remarkable. Jesus’ words challenge the authority of the scriptural tradition, claiming that Moses got it wrong. God’s will was more gracious than reflected in the command of Torah, he claims.

To support his challenge to Torah, Jesus goes to another place in scripture. “The two shall become one flesh …Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus raises up God’s intention that married people be faithful to their covenant and to each other in a lifelong divine union. (Hasn’t every person spoken their marriage vows with a sincere, lifelong intention of faithfulness?)

Then we shift scenes. Jesus is in private with his disciples. His answer wasn’t enough for them. They want more. So they get some more. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Pretty clear, isn’t it? Bam. That’s it. Rule. Law. From Jesus’ mouth. That ought to end it right there. We’ve got the ONE BOOK answer.

That’s the way it was for Episcopalians, until recently. We did not allow remarriage of a divorced person in the church.

Then we witnessed something complicated. There were people, good people, whose marriages died. It was tragic. Sometimes they continued to live together in obedience to their vows. Occasionally their relationships found resurrection. Thanks be to God. But others just seemed to continue to coexist in a living death. Married to outward eye; alone and alienated within. They obeyed the commandment, but it was not the abundant life that they read Jesus promised.

Some other people, good people, got divorces. Some divorces were contentious. Others were very civil — each partner releasing the other from their vow in order that they both might get on with their lives more fruitfully.

Occasionally one of those, now single again, would meet someone, and the possibility of love might bloom anew. If that couple wanted to make a lifelong commitment to one another through marriage, we couldn’t marry them. The rules, you know. We sent them somewhere else, say to the Methodists. Then some of them returned to church and lived happy lives together. They lived as “one flesh.” But how can that be? It’s against the rules. It’s adultery pure and simple. Right?

So we went to other places in the scripture. We looked at the story of resurrection — life out of death. We listened to Jesus’ words about forgiveness, hope, and the recreative power of love. We saw the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these divorced and remarried Christians. We remembered Paul’s words: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and temperance. There is no law against such things.” (Gal. 5:22f) We sought the heart of the matter. Eventually, we changed our rule. Within a raised set of expectations, some divorced Episcopalians now may be remarried in the church.

Some people think maybe we shouldn’t have done that. It just opens the gates to other things. If we would only stick to the strict interpretation, we wouldn’t have so many divorces and family breakups. Or would we?

The rules are always there to protect love. The intention is to provide love a nurturing container. But sometimes the rules seem to block love, don’t they? What do we do?

It’s hard. It’s complicated. Maybe someone reading this is living in a fulfilling and abundant relationship that is not your first marriage. You are probably very thankful to have another chance at love. And we always are left in that difficult, complicated place of trying to do the best we can in a world that resists being neatly defined.

Takes some faith. And a lot of heart.

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