Contributed by Pastor Jay McDivitt
Warm-up Question: Do you dream about getting married someday? What do you think about when you think about marriage?
In its Churchwide Assembly in August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America amended and adopted its tenth Social Statement in a close vote of the two-thirds required to pass. Social Statements are documents that guide ELCA Lutherans on responding to and discussing important social issues.
The new statement, entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” attempts to provide a distinctly Lutheran approach to a wide array of issues related to human sexuality, including marriage, family, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, sex education, promiscuity, and clergy sexual abuse.
While most of the media coverage surrounds the controversial treatment of life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships (about which the statement affirms a wide range of differences of conviction among members of the church), most of the statement addresses in bold language many issues about which Lutherans agree, including the primary role of marriage in providing the “necessary social support and social trust for relationships,” and “a context of love, trust, honesty, and commitment within which a couple can express the profound joy of relationship as well as address the troubles they encounter throughout life.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” page 9)
With this statement, the ELCA continues a long-held Lutheran tradition of holding marriage in high esteem, expressing deep sorrow at the prevalence of divorce, and the desire to urge couples “cohabitating” (living together) outside of marriage to seek the public accountability and commitment that comes with marriage. In a culture in which divorce rates hover around 50%, this statement seeks to speak a strong word against this trend and strives to reduce the number of marriages that end in divorce.
[Be attentive, sensitive, and respectful of the many family and life experiences that youth in the group may have experienced or are in the midst of working through.]
- How many of the youth in your church come from families that have experienced divorce? How many of your friends at school have dealt with divorce in their families? How do you feel about those numbers?
- Why do you think so many marriages end in divorce? What happens in families when divorce occurs?
- How can the church help reduce the number of marriages that experience divorce? If you decide to get married someday, how do you want the church to help you stay married?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 4, 2009.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
This is one of the hardest teachings of Jesus. Especially when so many of our families have experienced divorce, it is hard to hear Jesus condemning divorce and remarriage in such clear and direct terms. On the surface, it seems that Jesus is saying that divorce is never appropriate — or, at the very least, remarriage is adultery — because it pulls apart a union that God joined together. Ask any pastor, and she or he will probably tell you that this is one of the Sundays when they would prefer to be on vacation!
As always, it is important to understand the culture in which Jesus lived in order to understand what Jesus is teaching. In the laws of Jesus’ religious community, divorce was relatively easy to accomplish — if you were a man. Men could dismiss their wives for virtually any reason, including simple jealousy. In that day, adult women who were unmarried, whether by being widowed or divorced — were very vulnerable. They had limited social status and few options. Many ended up poor and destitute, relying on begging or other undesirable means to get enough food to survive.
It is in this culture that Jesus chooses to “tighten” the commandments about marriage. In a world where women could be left destitute by the whim of a male-initiated divorce, Jesus condemns divorce and commands men and women to stay married, or else fall into the sin of adultery. This is hard to hear, especially for families who have experienced divorce, but in the interest of protecting against vulnerability and poverty for a growing number of women, Jesus’ commandment can be heard as good news.
It is interesting that Mark chose to connect this teaching about divorce to the next section, where Jesus blesses the children. Children were also considered vulnerable members of society; some scholars even call them the most “unimportant” members of culture until they were old enough to ensure the future of the family name and fortune. Could it be that Mark is connecting these teachings to make a point? Jesus, in changing the rules about divorce and remarriage, is doing something similar to what he does when he blesses children: He is providing for the safety, honor, and livelihood of the most vulnerable members of society.
The ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality makes this connection as well. “Lutherans understand that intimacy, trust, and safety, particularly for the most vulnerable, are best sheltered within families” (page 12). This is why this church does not favor cohabitation outside of marriage — because without commitment, couples can create situations where people, especially children, can be left more vulnerable and unprotected outside of the public accountability that comes with marriage. Examples of public accountability could include things such as child support and visitation, fair division of property and money, access to public assistance and resources, etc. [It’s not forgotten that a marriage, wedding, or public commitment does not guarantee a perfect relationship or some sort of special insurance against abuse, injustice, conflict, or vulnerability.]
It seems that in this teaching, Jesus is affirming the commitment of the church to care for and encourage strong families and healthy relationships in order to protect the most vulnerable and to provide a place where love and trust can flourish.
Although this church understands that there are many legitimate reasons for marriages to end in divorce — precisely because some marriages are so marked with sin and abuse that people are made more vulnerable by staying in them than by getting a divorce — we stand with Jesus in affirming the gift and promise of marriage, as well as the good news that God desires to care for, bless, and support the most vulnerable among us, especially children.
- How is family a blessing to you in your life? How is being a part of a family difficult? In your own experience, how do you define or describe family? (Intergenerational, single parent, step siblings or parents, grandparents, extended family members, friends who are considered family, living under one roof, sp[reads across many miles or between several households, etc.)
- What are some reasons people give for getting a divorce? Which reasons make sense to you? Which don’t?
- If Jesus were around today, what do you think he would say about the reasons people give for getting a divorce? How would he “bless the children” in the context of a culture with such a high divorce rate?
Plan a wedding
Spend some time thinking about what you would want to do for a marriage celebration, should you choose to get married. Have fun planning a reception, a guest list, a first dance, etc., but also spend time thinking about the ceremony itself.
- When will you know it’s a good time to get married?
- What experiences or rituals do feel are important for you to have as part of the ceremony?
- What vows would you like to say to the person you are marrying?
- What readings would you pick?
- Who would you want to be involved?
If you don’t believe you are going to get married, talk about why not.
- How would you want to be a part of other people’s families?
- How could you help raise children and support the gift of family?
- How will you support and encourage the relationships of your friends?
- What other kinds of family and community will you be a part of in your adult life?
[You may want to have some wedding magazines available, although be prepared to talk about some of the more troubling commercial aspects of the wedding business. You’ll probably want to have copies of the marriage service in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 286]
Look through the Social Statement on Human Sexuality together
Also check out:
- “Free in Christ to Care for the Neighbor: Lutheran Youth Talk about Human Sexuality
- Frequently Asked Questions about the 2009 Churchwide Assembly actions regarding human sexuality
- “Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues“
This will require preparation on the part of the leaders, but could yield a very interesting conversation. Ask questions like:
- What do you see here? What don’t you see?
- What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? (FAQs on Bound Conscience)
- What is confusing?
- What are you thankful for that is being talked about in public as a church?
- Do you think it’s important for Christians to talk together about sex? Why or why not?
- What other aspects of human sexuality and relationships do we need to be talking about (in your opinion)?
Be prepared for a lively, respectful conversation, especially if you use the youth Web site resource.
Good and gracious God, thank you for the gifts of family, love, trust, and mercy. Help us to strengthen and honor the families you have given us. Forgive us and our family members when we break promises and hurt each other. Give us your grace and mercy, always. Amen.