350) Divorce and Remarriage (part two of two)

      (continued…)   It is often said by those in Alcoholics Anonymous, “You may not be able to save the alcoholic, but you can try and save yourself.”  They say that when it comes to alcohol addiction, you cannot expect, or allow, the alcoholic to define the limits.  You must set your own limits.  And we all have limits.  We may love someone and be willing to do almost anything to help them; but sometimes for your sake, or for the sake of others that you love, or even for the alcoholic’s own sake, you simply have to set the limits.  You would do almost anything, but not quite everything, even for love.  You have your limits.
     Yet, the Bible says God is different.  There appears to be no limit to the love of God.  The entire Old Testament is the story of God trying everything– kindness, firmness, grace, judgment, blessings, and punishments– God will try everything, but he will not give up on his people.
     Then in the New Testament there is yet another attempt by God to win us over, and this is His most astonishing attempt.  God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, and then even allowed that Son to die on the cross, for us.  Jim was right to fear for the safety of his children.  That was a reasonable limit on his patience with Sue.  But Jesus put no such limits upon himself, making it clear time and again that he had no concern for his own safety.  He would do whatever was necessary to win our salvation, even going to the cross and to the grave for us.  Our behavior angers God and tries God’s patience, just like Sue’s behavior tried the patience of her husband Jim and made him angry.  But with God, as long as life endures, there is no limit to his grace.  God will not turn away anyone who turns to him.  The time for repentance is now, says the Bible, and God’s limitless offer of grace is made for us in this earthly life only.  We have no basis in God’s Word to presume upon any more.  But to all who look to God now, there is no limit on his love and forgiveness and grace.
     At the same time, the God who loves and forgives, also has commands and expectations, and Matthew 5:29-32 is one of the most harshly demanding.  In verse 32 Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”  In verses 29-30 Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. ”  These are tough verses.  What are we to make of these words?  If you divorced and remarried, or married to someone who had been married before, what do these words of Jesus say to you?  Should Jim stay with Sue until in a drunken stupor she leaves the stove on and burns the house down with her and the kids in it?  And if we were to take Jesus’ words on gouging out eyes and cutting off hands literally, would there be any Christian anywhere with their eyes and hands intact?
    Christians have always read these words in the larger context of God’s forgiveness, and the new beginnings granted with such forgiveness.  This does not bless the sin, it does not remove the challenge, and it leaves in place the high mark toward which we must always strive.  But despite even our best intentions and most diligent efforts, people get overwhelmed, people mess up, our loved ones disappoint us, we disappoint them, we have our weaknesses, we get trapped, addicted, distant, and estranged– and we sin.  We sin with our minds, with our tongues, with our eyes, with our hands, and in our relationships.  And Jesus says to us what he said to the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8.  He said to her first of all, “I do not condemn you.”  Then he said, “Go and sin no more.”  Forgiveness, and no condemnation, — but then again, the command and the challenge.
    The harsh words and commands of Jesus, and in the rest of the Bible, must be read in the context of God’s grace; but then, they must still be read and obeyed.  The law and the gospel, the grace and command, the love and the expectations, all go back and forth in our lives as long as we live.  We cannot let go of either side of the relationship.
    The words of Jesus on divorce and remarriage seem clear and final.  But the God of the Bible grants forgiveness and new beginnings even after some of the biggest sins by some of the Bible’s greatest men and women of faith.  David, for example, after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was harshly condemned by the prophet Nathan, punished severely by God, and came to a sincere repentance; but was then granted a new beginning.  No eyes were gouged out, no hands were cut off, and no one was stoned to death.  David and Bathsheba got married, and their son, Solomon was God’s choice to be the next king of Israel.  And while today’s attitudes toward God’s law regarding sex and marriage and divorce have become far too casual, we must still, always and every day, hear both parts of God’s Word.  Again, as Jesus said to the sinful woman in John chapter eight; first of all he said, “I do not condemn you;” and then he said, “Go and sin no more.”
     We must never ignore or take lightly God’s clear commands and warnings.  This is, after all, God we are talking about here, and God will not be mocked.  But at the same time we can, in faith, look to Him, and rest in his grace and forgiveness, that amazing grace which, in this life, has no limit, and is always granting us a fresh start and a new beginning.
John 8:3-11   —   Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to (Jesus) a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in  adultery, in the very act.   Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned.   But what do You say?”   This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.  But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
     So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”   And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?” 
     She said, “No one, Lord.”
     And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  
Galatians 6:6-8  —  Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 
  A PRAYER OF CONFESSION by Martin Luther:  Dear Lord God, I cannot count the sins that I have done and am still doing.  I have forgotten most of them and no longer feel any guilt.  Whatever is in me apart from your grace, is sin and condemned.  Thus, I must altogether despair of myself, my works, and my powers.  I know not what else to do but to pray for your mercy…   My joy and comfort is that you grant this poor sinner the forgiveness of all my sins out of your pure grace.   I give you thanks.   Amen.

349) Divorce and Remarriage? (part one of two)

     Part one of this two-part meditation is a story from a book by Methodist pastor William Willimon.  But anyone could probably tell similar stories about someone they have known, or perhaps even from their own life.  It is a story about family troubles, and we all know what that can be like.  This story is a little worse than most, though not as bad as some.  The details are always different in the many stories of troubled families, but the heartache is the same.
     Here is Willimon’s story:  Jim came home late that March evening.  The traffic from the city had been terrible.  As he made his way up the sidewalk from the driveway into the house, he was rather surprised to see only one light on, the light shining from the kitchen.  He opened the door and as soon as he did so, one of the children yelled, “Daddy!  Daddy’s home!”
     He hugged his two small children, and then, glancing into the kitchen, he could see bags and bottles opened, and everything in disarray.  Things were a mess.  “Where’s your mom?” he asked the kids.
     “Oh, she’s upstairs taking a nap,” little Sarah said, adding, “and we got hungry, so we decided to fix supper for ourselves.  But we couldn’t figure everything out.”
     “Taking a nap?,” he asked, filled with anxiety.
     Tommy added, “Sarah put water into the mix, when the recipe said milk.  I told her it wouldn’t work.”
     Jim said, “Here are some cookies.  Go watch some TV, and I’ll go up and check on Mom.”  They grabbed the cookies and ran for the TV; and then, with dread, Jim headed up the stairs.  He called out Sue’s name.  No answer.  He entered the bedroom, and there she was, laying on the bed, the pillow pulled up over her head.  He moved toward her, and could smell the alcohol as he bent down to her.  ‘Here we go again,’ he thought.
     “What are you doing here?” he asked.
     Looking out from under the pillow, she replied, “I was just worn out after the day that we’ve had, and I needed to take a little nap.”
    “A little nap?” Jim said, “it is seven o’clock at night and the kids are starved.  Sue, how could you do this again?”
     “You mean I’m not allowed to take a little nap when I’m sleepy?” she said groggily, pulling the pillow over her head again.  But Jim didn’t answer.  He went back downstairs, quite sure that she was out for the night.  He made some sandwiches for supper, sat down with the two kids, and asked them about their day.
    After they ate, they cleaned up the kitchen together.  Just as they were finishing with that, Sue stumbled in.  “Why didn’t you call me?,” she yelled, “Why didn’t you wake me when you got home?  I suppose now I am going to get another lecture,” she said angrily.  He told the children it was time for bed, and he walked past Sue to go upstairs with them.
    After the kids were in bed, Sue said, “I know you don’t believe me, but I haven’t been feeling very well.”  Her speech was slurred.
      Jim said firmly, “You aren’t feeling well, because you are drunk again.  Sue, how could you?  This can’t go on.”  Then she began to cry and apologize and promise that it would never happen again.  It was the same routine every time.  Jim was both angry and sad.  He knew the move to the new city for his job had not gone well for Sue.  She missed her old friends, and had not made many new ones yet.  She went into a bit of a depression, and then her drinking started.  They drank socially, and so they always had liquor in the house, but it had never been a problem.
     Jim had first become gradually aware that Sue had seemed groggy in the evenings.  Exhaustion, he thought.  But then he started to smell the alcohol on her breath.  He tried to say something a couple times, but she would get defensive and angry.  So he said nothing for a while.  Then, she stumbled and fell while carrying one of the children.  He got very angry with her, she felt terrible, and she promised it would never happen again.  But it did.  He confronted her again, and she denied it was a problem.  Whenever he suggested counseling or treatment, she would respond angrily, and the next day’s drinking would be even worse.  He tried kindness, he tried firmness, he told her family about it, he talked to a friend who was in AA, but Sue resisted everything.  He was getting used to being miserable at home, but he worried about the safety and well-being of the children.  Jim took seriously his marriage vows, but he was confused, and did not know what would be the right thing to do.  But one thing was sure– he was reaching his limit.  He knew that alcoholism was a sickness, and he pitied Sue’s situation and condition, but he had his limits.
     Pastor Willimon went on to say how when Jim came to see him, it was not to ask him what to do, but to tell him that he was leaving Sue.  He was planning to seek custody of the kids, and if Sue fought him, he would expose her alcoholism and fight her in court.  The drinking made her unfit to care for the children.  He said he had tried everything and that he had reached his limit.     (continued…)
Matthew 5:29-32  —  (Jesus said), “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.  It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” 

    Almighty God, who sets the solitary in families:  We commend to thy continual care the homes in which your people dwell.  We pray that you put far from them every root of bitterness, all desire for vainglory, and the pride of life.  Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, and godliness.  Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh.  Turn the hearts of parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another.  —Book of Common Prayer