The Reverend Chris Harris
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
October 7, 2018
Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
So I’m noticing a little bit of a pattern here. A couple of weeks ago it was give the stewardship sermon to the new guy. This week it seems to be give the marriage sermon to the gay guy. And right on, right? Actually, it’s all luck of the draw, that’s how it goes. Actually, I did a little bit of divorce law back in my lawyer days, so I know something or two about marriage. And I have plenty of great stories. But the story that really stays with me is one that I have from the days when I was just ordained.
I had been asked to make a pastoral call on an elderly lady who was homebound. She was losing her sight from macular degeneration, and lived very much alone. Her neighbors discovered she was Episcopalian and thought maybe it would be nice if one of the local clergy paid her a visit. So I called. And after some hesitation, she agreed. And I went by, we sat down in her kitchen. I learned that she had been a devoted Episcopalian her whole life, yet had not been to church in more than 50 years.
When I asked why, she explained that she had gone through a very difficult divorce. She had put up with his unfaithfulness for years, but finally drew the line when he began to abuse her children. In my naivety, I wondered why would you avoid church at the most difficult time in your life? Isn’t that, after all, when we need our faith and need our faith family the most. And she agreed. But she told me that the church wouldn’t approve her divorce.
She told me that the priest had told her that if she went through with it, she would no longer be welcome at communion. And I was a bit speechless. I had heard that kind of thing from other churches, but this was the Episcopal Church. And I tried to imagine what it might have been like for her, what courage it must have taken? This would have been the 1950s, a time when the public safety net for single moms was pretty thin. Divorce courts were suspicious of them, as was our society at large.
It was also an era where women didn’t have the power to speak out against abuse as they do today. When she told people at church what was happening, her husband’s excuses and explanations always carried more weight. She was told to try harder, examine what her part might be in their marital problems. Yet in the face of all of that she found the courage to stand up, not only to an abusive husband, but I would argue an abusive theology.
We prayed, we read some Psalms. We said the Lord’s Prayer together, as we fought back tears. But when I offered her communion, she politely declined. Not because she was angry, but because even after all these years, she still felt unworthy. I tried to tell her how much the church had evolved, how much it had changed its teachings on marriage and divorce. She knew all that. But the shame and the wounds, not just to her faith, but to who she was as a person ran too deep.
And I don’t want to vilify that priest. I’m sure he was just trying to be faithful to what he heard to be a clear scriptural pronouncement. And I have no doubt he agonized over that decision and the implications of enforcing what he thought was probably God’s law. But I don’t come from a tradition that reads scripture as a rulebook. It’s something for me to be in relationship with, and so I don’t hear Jesus saying and laying out more rules about marriage. I hear him instead calling us to a new way of living. And to do that Jesus goes back to the very beginning. So let us do so as well.
Recall, if you will, from the first chapter of Genesis that familiar refrain from God. After each of the seven days of creation, we hear over and over, God saw it and it was good. But in the second chapter, the one we just heard from, we get a different creation story. This one centers on a garden. And in this version God creates at first just a single human. And this time when God looks at what He had made, He says it is not good. Specifically it is not good for this human to be alone.
A suitable helper would need to be found. And when we hear that word helper today, we hear words like, I don’t know, hired help, assistant, subservient in some fashion. But you should know that the word is derived from a Hebrew verb “ezer” which means to surround, to protect, to aid. Indeed, ezer is a word that is more often used to refer to God in the Hebrew scriptures – when God is surrounding and protecting His people.
The point being that without such a companion or protector for that human, creation was not yet finished, and humanity not yet complete. And it took some trial and error. God in this version of the story is something of a mad scientist, working in the laboratory of the garden, tweaking creation here and there, trying to get it just right. God even lets the human decide for himself what a suitable helper might be.
And so one by one the animals are presented to the human, he names them, they’re not quite what he is after. And only then does God create from the first human a second one. And upon laying eyes on her, he erupts into song. He has found his companion. And presumably, the feeling was mutual. And so despite how this passage has been so often used, I really don’t read Genesis as God dictating the rules of marriage. And I certainly don’t read it as creating a subservient role for women.
I read the second creation story as telling us a deep truth about the human condition. That we share not just God’s image, but a common spiritual ancestry. And we share a deep longing for companionship, for community. It’s in our DNA. And what’s more, I see God as giving us agency to find in this life suitable companions of our choosing. Helpers who would surround and protect us, those that we are not complete until we have found.
While not everyone is called to be married, certainly God puts forth before us and invites us into plenty of other opportunities for committed relationships. Places where we can flourish and grow into the person God made us to be, with and through others. Close families, a small group of our best friends, your old college fraternity buddies that you still stay close with.
Relationships where that commitment is strong enough, where you feel safe enough to put down the fig leaves of our guardedness. And no longer fear the nakedness of our true selves. And despite the story I opened with, I believe the church, when it puts grace above law, can also be a place of such beloved community.
One of my favorite illustrations of this is a story of a young Black women in the 1940s. She invited her boyfriend to join her one Sunday at her Episcopal Church. And he was hesitant, not because he was raised Baptist and didn’t know anything about the Episcopal tradition, but because he was also Black, and her church was very White. It was a time when institutionalized racism permeated even the churches. But the young man took a chance, and the congregation seemed friendly enough.
So much so that when it came time for Holy Communion, he nervously followed her to the rail where the most unexpected thing happened. After being offered the bread, the priest lowered the chalice to her lips and then to his. And he was stunned. Stunned that he had been offered the same chalice as everyone else. You see this too, was a different era. It was a time when it would have been illegal to drink from the same water fountain as White people.
Yet, this church put grace above the law. And in so doing the young man experienced through that simple act a moment of such unimagined healing and community that it changed him forever. He converted to the Episcopal Church, where they were later married, and they had a son who grew up to be the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church.
When we come to that altar, in all of our differences, all of our diversity, and kneel shoulder to shoulder, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, Black and White, married, divorced, Republican, Democrat, cisgendered, transgendered, all of it. And we gather around one table bound by common prayer, we not only symbolically model for ourselves and the world what a restored creation might look like, we start to restore our own humanity.
And that I believe is what Jesus is saying this morning. In response to another “gotcha question” about divorce, Jesus uses the opportunity to offer a bigger message about the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t interested in what’s permissible because He’s trying to cast a vision for what’s possible. What’s possible when we let go of hardened hearts, when we empty our adult minds of jaded cynicism, and come like children back into the garden of God’s love.
Jesus uses the Genesis story, not to offer up more rules about divorce or marriage, but to remind us that God’s creational desire for us all is to live as if you’re committed companions of all people. Married or divorced, singled or partnered Jesus is reminding us that we already belong to one another and always have. We are called to committed relationships of all kinds for that reason. Because there are laboratories where we can experiment more freely and more readily, test out what it means to really belong to one another.
So, yes, when we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, when we put up barriers that leave people out, when we draw up rules that put people down, we are in a sense committing adultery. Because we’re cheating on the beloved community we are called to build. And I get it, commitment and community can be scary. Going deep, being vulnerable isn’t easy. I’m the first that gets uncomfortable at those dreaded share-out questions we do around here so often. And I was both joyful and pretty darn scared the day I was married to my suitable companion.
But it is in the give and take of these committed relationships where we are forced to let go of some of ourselves. So that we may truly be made whole. Which brings me back to where I started. It took almost a year, but she eventually did say yes to communion. But more importantly, yes to God’s healing grace. Yes to forgiveness. Yes to reclaiming her place in the faith community that had been so diminished without her. And without her, missed out on her profound courage.
Invitations to deeper, committed relationships abound if we just have the courage to say yes. Do we take our family and our friends too much for granted? Do we spread ourselves too thin? Do we try to keep too many loose connections with so many at the expense of going deep with a few? That’s the trend today, isn’t it? The social media, the hundreds of likes and comments that we get from our latest post.
They can make us feel good for a moment, but never confuse hundreds of little sips of community from one deep drink of a close friend or a suitable companion. At the end of this month we will have such an opportunity to say yes to community right here. On October 28th when we invite everyone at Christchurch Cranbrook to not only receive communion that day, but to bring your whole self to God’s altar. And the outward invisible sign of that is a pledge.
And if that sounds crass to you, that sounds just a little opportunistic by Chris, don’t let that cynicism get in the way. Come to God’s altar running, like joyful children, and don’t let anything hold you back. Put down your fears, put down your doubts long enough, and let your pledge be an outward invisible sign of saying yes. Yes, to the beloved community that we are called to build right here, right now.