The “Brady Bunch,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Cosby Show” are just a few of the many family models depicted on American television. You may have noticed how each episode begins with a crisis or conflict, develops into a story of how the family deals with it, then somehow miraculously, life returns to “normal,” right before the final credits. Whether on the Brady Bunch, “Leave it to Beaver,” or the “The Cosby Show” the tension builds up, conflict emerges, and then everything works out. By the end of the show, everyone is happy, Dad is the best Dad, Mom is the best Mom, and the kids are perfect in every way; all of this takes place in less than 30 minutes.
We all know that sitcoms families are not real families, but for some reason, we like to think this is what family should be like. We know from our own experiences that real families do not end the day with everyone smiling, sisters and brothers holding each other in loving embraces or offering high-fives, and celebration and joy at bedtime is a dream. No, we know that sometimes in REAL families, there are many moments of elation and celebration, but these joyful times are always co-mingled with periods of differing ideas, conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.
Some folks like to use the term “church family” to describe their experience of the faith community to which they belong. Like the sitcoms of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, we use this term with preconceived notions that church should be more like the families found on the Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, or The Cosby Show. Sometimes we layer on unrealistic expectations of church that just are not reality in this life. Do you know folks who expect the church to be perfect and we should all “get along” all the time? Do you know folks that expect the clergy person to be the perfect, smiling, happy all the time, able to say the right words at the right times, and without fault or mistake? Do you know folks who expect the governing board to make all the right decisions? Of course, those decisions are always the ones that happen to benefit our own personal project. Do you know folks who expect their pew seat to always be vacant? Do you know folks who expect all the right songs to be played and sung perfectly? Do you know folks who expect the bulletin to be without error every week? Do you know folks who as the final hymn is played, and the credits start to roll, stand up and high five each other on the way out the door. If you do, you may want to inform them that a church family is not what they are seeking, they are looking for a sitcom.
The Body of Christ, the church is about being together, unified, committed, even when things become messy, even when the conflict arises, even when we fail to live up to each other’s expectations. We need to realize that we are broken folk who are in need of grace. Have you ever noticed in the story of Thomas that for him to believe, he had to see the wounds of cross in the risen Body of Christ. We, the Body of Christ are wounded, broken, scarred, and yet we are raised in Christ. Church is like REAL family with all its joys and celebrations, and co-mingled with all its disappointments and failures.
Family can describe many different scenarios of being these days. The average family unit may be two people who come together in body and mind “for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” The preamble to the Marriage Rite in the Church states that purpose of this union of people is mutual joy, help, and comfort. That certainly sounds like church. That sounds like God’s intention for creation is that we should gather in community for joy, help, and comfort. What God brings together, let no one separate and yet, we sometimes choose to break the bonds of affection.
Here is an example of disunity commonly found in American churches today. Some may experience conflict or disagreement, and rather than doing the hard work of reconciliation, they look at their sisters and brothers in Christ and say, “I no longer like this or that.” They may say, “I disagree with so and so,” or “these folks are headed in the wrong direction,” or “I don’t like the music,” and with those words, frivolously they cast away their commitment to each other. Some may say, “I’m going to old St. Swithin’s, where everything will be better.” The grass is always greener over there, “see ya.” When we consider the comparison of “church family” to “real family,” you can see how this is related. This frivolous casting away of relationships was a common reason for marital divorce depicted in first century Palestine.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks directly about divorce. Many preachers today will avoid this topic, but the reality is that some of us have had to deal with the human tragedy of divorce. Many of us have seen the threads of mutual joy, help, and comfort unraveling before our very eyes. So, if we do not address Jesus’ teaching about divorce, and if we merely avoid it, we are going to miss what Jesus was really saying about the reality of human frailty and what God’s intent is for human interactions.
The setting of the question asked of Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This scene is another example of Jesus being drawn into a conflict with the Pharisees. He accepts this challenge in the shadows of John the Baptist who lost his head because he spoke out against the divorce of Herodius, who would later marry King Herod. We need to be aware that it was not unusual in first century Palestinian and Greco Roman culture, for folks to casually end one relationship, so that they might enter into another. Some scholars claim that Jesus was speaking against this practice, because its flippant nature thwarts what God intends. God brought folks together to be in relationship with each other and with God. This is the core of the Church’s mission “to bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Unity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at the heart of our Trinitarian faith.
What we have to keep in mind here is that Jesus was not telling the abused mother with abused children to stay in an abusive marriage and avoid divorce at all costs. Jesus was not telling the husband or wife who was the victim of their partner’s unfaithfulness, and when all else failed to bring about reconciliation, to avoid divorce at all costs. Jesus was pointing out that it was against God’s intent for a person to divorce their spouse, so they could marry someone else. It was against God’s purpose to throw away our relationships and not do the hard work to reconcile them. The issue at hand is God’s intent for the union of folks who are brought together for love, joy, mutual support, and unity in permanence as a sign of God’s love.
In our culture and throughout human history we have entered committed unions (marriage, church, treaties, contracts, you name it) and we have done so without regard to what God expects of these human interactions; reconciliation and unity. Divisions are prevalent in our culture. All we have to do is watch the political rankling going on in the media. All you have to do is look at social media posts of friends, and because of politics, you will see insults being hurled at generalized categories of people, and people we might call friends, may be insulting us not knowing we are affiliated with the category being characterized. We need to be reminded that our relationships one to another are paramount. We need to be reminded that our relationships should not be “entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”
Even so, we are broken folk; our scars remain. There are times when human relations fail and even after all that can be done is done to bring about reconciliation, folks must make difficult choices and relationships may have to enter a period of separation. Of course, disunity should never be our default action, it should never be the first course of action. We should never merely cast away a commitment for another commitment, but the reality is, human frailty prevails. Families struggle, loved ones fail us, conflict happens, and promises are broken. Human relationships are fragile and messy and honestly, sometimes they require great work and commitment. Jesus is the champion of reconciliation and when the bottom falls out in our lives, when reconciliation on our part is not possible, there is no condemnation from God rather, there is an invitation to peace.
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.” It is interesting that Jesus addresses the Pharisee’s divorce question and then right after, he welcomes the little children to come near him. Jesus always seems to welcome us his children, especially in light of human tragedy, when we have seen joy, comfort, and mutual support fade from view, when the promises we make one to another are no more. i read a paraphrase of Jesus’ words the other day, and I find them comforting, “And let people come when those promises lie in shambles, when neglect or abuse have rendered vows meaningless.”1. Jesus invites us when to come when things fall apart, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Jesus is the reconciler whose love restores unity in the midst of brokenness. Yes, there are times when reconciliation will not happen in our lifetime, but we can still live in the hope that in God’s time, all will be restored. Human tragedy: divorce, people who leave church, political divisions, and all of life’s broken promises are all a part of the human condition. There are times when we must for the sake of peace, for the sake of joy, for the sake of love, choose the difficult road and accept that our circumstances must change. There are times when, because we are not yet perfect, we must face our own human brokenness and despite all that, we can still live in hope that God will restore and bring unity in God’s time.
The key to the scripture today seems to be that Jesus is making clear that God’s intent is for human unity to be a reality. The union of two people is the basic expression of that possibility and yet, we may be too quick to put up fences, to close the curtains, to put up walls, and to create divisions. In the midst of human frailty, we must not give up on hope. We must not cast away relationships frivolously. We must strive for unity now. We must work toward reconciliation NOW. The reality of church life, married life, and all of life, is there is no Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Cosby show magic formula. Honestly, peace and unity is hard work, it is messy work, it is our reality, and it is certainly the reality of the family we all know as the Body of Christ.
1 Lundblad, Barbara K. “Let Them Come To Me.” Christian Century 108.25 (1991): 804-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.
3 Collier, Gary D. “Rethinking Jesus On Divorce.” Restoration Quarterly 37.2 (1995): 80-96. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.