Sunday, October 4, 2015

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

As some of you may know, today in Rome
there begins the second phase of the Synod on the Family.
A synod is a meeting of bishops and others from around the world
to deliberate on matters of importance to the Church:
in this case, 279 bishops from 120 countries.
The Instrumentum laboris or “working paper”
that lays out an agenda for the synod
gives some idea of the topics that will be discussed:
divorce, annulments,
domestic violence, work pressures,
the plight of migrant and refugee families,
contraception, same-sex marriages, poverty,
as well as how the faith is or is not
passed on within families.

Call me pessimistic, but I suspect
that three weeks might not be enough time
to find adequate ways of addressing all of these issues.
But given the changes and challenges
to family life in the world today
it’s at least a start.

During the first phase of the synod last year,
one of the most controversial—
and still unsettled—issues
was the pastoral care of those
who are divorced and remarried,
particularly the question of participation
in the sacramental life of the Church.
And our Gospel reading this morning
puts us smack dab in the middle of that controversy.
Here we seem to find Jesus at his most uncompromising:
“what God has joined together,
no human being must separate…
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery.”
The judgment passed in these words
strike our ears harshly;
they seem lacking in mercy,
lacking is appreciation
for life’s complexity and difficulty,
particularly in the emotionally fraught area of the family.

But do we really want to accuse Jesus
of not appreciating
life’s complexity and difficulty,
he who was made perfect through suffering?
Do we really want to say that Jesus does not understand
that real-life family does not fit easily into an idealized model,
that he does not know that, to be honest,
it is not just marriages that end in divorce that are “broken,”
but that all families come with some level
of brokenness
or dysfunction
or just plain weirdness?

He knows this.
Of course he knows this.
Jesus’s own family was, shall we say, decidedly “non-traditional”;
and in not being ashamed, as our second reading says,
to be called our brother
he has proudly joined himself to our real life families
in all their brokenness
and dysfunction
and weirdness.

What then of this uncompromising teaching
on divorce and remarriage?
Let us take Jesus at his word:
let us presume he really means
that marriage creates an unbreakable bond,
such that it really is impossible
to forge a new bond to replace the old.
Let us further presume that he really thinks
that with the coming of God’s kingdom
it is now possible, through God’s grace,
for his followers to overcome the hard heartedness
that has so often torn apart
the two whom God had made one flesh.
I do not know how all of this
fits together with God’s mercy—
some things remain mysteries to us in this life—
but I do know that even if we grant all this,
we still have no reason to think
that Jesus means for his words to be used as a stick
to beat up on those who do not live up to them.
We have no reason to think
that Jesus does not continue to love
those whose families break up
or break down
or break apart.
We have no reason to think that Jesus ever abandons us,
no matter how broken
or dysfunctional
or just plain weird
our family lives might be.
The bishops must listen to the words of Jesus,
but I pray they will hear them as the words of one
who has plunged headlong
into all the complexity and ambiguities
of human love,
of human longing,
of human solace and sorrow.
It is only then that they will hear them truly.

Speaking last week in Philadelphia,
Pope Francis said,
“In families, there is always, always, the cross.
But, in families as well, after the cross,
there is the resurrection.
Because the Son of God opened for us this path.”
As followers of Jesus,
all of us are trying to walk that path,
through the cross to the resurrection.
Indeed, we are called to find the resurrection
within our broken,
weird families,
not beyond them,
because it is precisely in real families,
not ideal families,
that we learn what it means
to have faith,
to have hope,
to have love.

That’s the funny thing about families:
they don’t have to be perfect
in order for God’s grace to work through them.
We all fail to some degree
as spouses and parents,
as children and siblings.
But in the midst of our failure a miracle can occur:
With the help of God’s grace,
we can manage to love each other,
even as we struggle to show that love,
to accept that love,
to bear the burden of that love.

There are no perfect families;
but only families where love might grow
like a stubborn weed
that no amount of
human brokenness
or dysfunction
or weirdness
can uproot.
Sometimes we must carry our love
like a cross,
but in faith we carry it with Jesus
on the path of resurrection.