A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost at
Christ Episcopal Church, Guilford, CT
Proper 22: Job 1.1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16
Every Saturday afternoon Garrison Keillor shares the latest “News from Lake Woebegone,” to the radio audience of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Lake Woebegone is that Minnesota town where “the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are all above average.” Sounds a lot like Guilford?! Along with reports of events at the Sidetrack Tap, the Chatterbox Café and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery are updates from Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Some years ago, Garrison reported that Father Emil had preached his annual sermon opposing birth control which he summed up by quoting one line, “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?” Apparently, Fr. Emil didn’t understand that even from Lake Woebegone, trains had more than one possible destination. I thought of Fr. Emil’s sermon as it came time to prepare Father Harrison’s triennial sermon on Marriage and Divorce.
Once every three years, our lectionary presents us with today’s text from Mark, and for 18 years, the rectors with whom I served assigned me to preach on this Sunday. Once, in jest, I asked why I – the bachelor -- got the assignment to preach on marriage and divorce, I was told it was because I was the one whose stomach wouldn’t be churning. You see the marriages of my colleagues were either in trouble, or they were separated, or newly divorced or newly re-married – one for a second time, and another for a third.
Marriages are not static; some flourish and deepen, but some do fail. Sometimes, the ground seems to shift under a marriage, and “what God has joined together,” is indeed rent asunder; we humans are very good at separating what God has put together. So, marital partners find themselves unable to adapt to changes in the other’s life course; or perhaps one or both look for fulfillment through the inappropriate use of money or sex; or perhaps deceit, fraud or abuse destroy the trust and affection the partners once had for each other; or, a tragedy occurs within the marriage, and the couple grows apart and not together.
That would seem to be what’s happening in our first reading today, as Job and his wife respond in different and separate ways to the tragedies in their lives. Job is afflicted with hideous sores from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. Will he continue to trust in God’s goodness, his wife asks Job. And then she says, Curse God and die! From her, we hear not a word of concern or sympathy, or even wanting to offer a soothing balm. And Job’s behavior is no better; even though her life is falling apart as well, he calls her a foolish woman! Not one of their better days.
This is the first of four weeks we’ll read from Job; we’ll see in the coming weeks that they are able to stick it out together. Many, however, find that their marriages fail. It will be interesting to see in the days to come if the synod meeting in the Vatican is able to come to terms with this reality. The Roman Catholic Church has boxed itself into a theological corner by stipulating the indissolubility of marriage. We will see if they can find a pastoral way out of it.
In our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus says Moses provided divorce because of hardened human hearts. Some Pharisees have asked Jesus if the Torah, the Teaching of Moses, allows for divorce. Of course they know the answer, but they may want to see if Jesus agrees with a community of Jews who lived apart from others near the Dead Sea. This ascetic movement did not approve of divorce. To the Pharisees, Jesus replies that marriage is rooted in the good order of God’s Creation; and later, to his disciples, Jesus calls remarriage after divorce, adultery. What Jesus appears to be doing is something the Pharisees would appreciate, given their devotion to the Torah: Jesus is setting up a barrier around the commandment against committing adultery. He is putting the Creation stories of Genesis in tension with the teaching of Moses in Deuteronomy, and saying what God intended in Genesis trumps what Moses provided in Deuteronomy.
Jesus quotes Genesis Chapter 1, “God created them male and female,” and then moves to Chapter 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Recalling part of the story, Jesus expects his hearers – including us -- to remember the whole of it: After forming a creature from the dust of the ground and breathing life into this ‘adam, God decides, It is not good for the earth creature, the ‘adam, to be alone. I will create for him a fit helper, a companion. After failing to find a proper companion for the ‘adam among all other creatures, whether beasts of the field, or birds of the air, God causes a sleep to overcome the earth creature, and from the one ‘adam God creates two creatures of earth. These are two equal earth creatures; not one a servant or subservient to the other, but two equal bone-of-my-bone-flesh-of-my-flesh companions. From the beginning, God’s destination in Creation is that his human creatures have equal companions.
For Episcopalians, our understanding of God’s destination -- God’s purposes -- for marriage are set out in our Book of Common Prayer. Today’s Gospel reading is one of the suggested readings for weddings – of course without the verses that relate to divorce. The exhortation at the beginning of the Celebration & Blessing of a Marriage concisely states the Episcopal Church’s teaching:
“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity, and when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”(p.423) God’s intended destinations for equal companions are threefold: #1) mutual joy – that all the intimacies and delights they find with each other will lead to profound and shared joy; #2) out of the fullness of their mutual joy, fit helpers will have the capacity to look after and care for one another “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health;” and then #3, out of their capacity to care for one another, they may also have the capacity to care for and nurture children. (Reverse order in R.C. Church)
Over 50 years ago now, The Episcopal Church learned that by God’s Grace divorced persons were finding equal companions with whom to fulfill God’s purposes for marriage; whether or not the Church approved, the Holy Spirit could be at work in these subsequent relationships. To paraphrase Karl Barth on another subject, it was as if The Episcopal Church were asked, Do you believe God’s grace can work in subsequent marriages of the previously divorced? And the Church responded, Believe it? We’ve seen it! Will the Roman Catholic Church be open to this learning as well? We’ll see.
More recently, The Episcopal Church has also been open to learning about God’s Grace at work in the lives of same-sex couples. How the Church should, could and ought to support the committed relationships of two persons of the same gender has gotten a lot of prayerful and pastoral attention in the Church. I’m embarrassed to admit that in all those sermons on marriage, I never directly addressed equal marriage. With the actions this summer by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church allowing for equal marriage, that’s about to change.
Following Jesus back to a story of Creation, can two men be equal companions for one another, can two women be fit helpers for one another? Can God’s destination, God’s purposes for marriage be fulfilled in their lives together? Will they find together mutual joy, help and comfort in adversity and prosperity, and the capacity to care for and nurture children in the knowledge and love of the Lord? The willingness of Gay couples to share their experience of God’s grace in their lives, is showing the Church they are fit helpers, equal companions, fulfilling God’s destination for marriage. Believe it? In its General Convention, the Church said, "We’ve seen it."
Recall with me the British romantic comedy, “Four Weddings & a Funeral.” It follows a group of young friends over a period of years as they find love, lose love, marry the wrong people and finally commit to their fit helper/companions. Matthew and Gareth are among the friends at the first three weddings; at the third wedding’s reception Gareth, suddenly, grandly and dramatically dies. It turns out that Matthew and Gareth were “particular friends;” theirs was the stable, mature, settled relationship within their circle. They were indeed equal companions. At Gareth’s funeral, Matthew, expresses his feelings for his beloved by reciting W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues;” it begins “Stop All the Clocks; cut off the telephone.” And later,
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
It is obvious to all the characters, and to the audience, that this relationship was the real deal. Now, I realize this is only a movie, and from the title, it is obvious that there is going to be a funeral for someone. Nonetheless, it seems telling that the only way to include a romance between two men in a movie in general release was for one of them to die. The same observation could be made of “Brokeback Mountain,” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
That was Hollywood’s issue, but there was a parallel one in the Church. As with Matthew and Gareth, until recently the only occasion to celebrate, or even acknowledge a same-gender relationship in the Church, was at a funeral for one of the companions. I have been to those funerals; I have officiated at those funerals. That landscape changed this summer, when the Episcopal Church’s General Convention removed all gender references in the Church’s marriage regulations, bringing Equal Marriage into the witness of the Episcopal Church. When the Church is asked today, “Will you… do all in your power to uphold these two persons [these two equal companions] in their marriage?” The Church can now respond, “We will!” without regard to whether they are of the same or opposite gender.
My friends Joe and Tom both work for the Washington National Cathedral; Joe is head of horticulture and Tom keeps all the Cathedral’s computers running. They met on the job, 22 years ago; five years ago, under the “pastoral discretion” then allowed, they were the first same-gendered couple to marry at the Cathedral’s high altar. It was a happy, joyful day, to be sure; but no more extraordinary than for every other couple married there before or since.
Today, in the Episcopal Church, we pray, without exception, for all married couples …
“Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair … Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their foreheads. … may they so love, honor and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.” (pp. 429-31)
We feature various authors from around our parish, commenting on topics of interest to our community. Enjoy! Comment if you are so moved!