Below is my final sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church in McLean, Virginia. I have just started a new job at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. I have not had a chance to edit this sermon yet --- so please forgive any spelling mistakes or poor grammar. After a fantastic drive across the country with a dear friend from Seattle and a week of searching for affordable housing in a new city, I have begun my first days at Grace, a large, dynamic and beautiful Episcopal Chrstian community. Later this week I'll move into an apartment in the Mission District but have been staying at an inspiring Episcopal/Anglican Franciscan Friary called San Damiano's since I arrived October 15.
Sermon on Mark 10:2-16
Sunday, October 8, 2006
"What God has joined together let no one separate."
Whatever relationships we are part of --- whether are we are married, divorced, widowed, partnered or single Christians are called to be a people joined together, forgivers of one another --- people who know that our true identity is in God. We Christians are called to recognize that nothing separates us from the love of God. We may be parted from one another by continents and oceans, we may be parted by political differences, we may be kept apart by different emphasis, beliefs and practices, we may be parted by death, or we may even be divorced --- however ultimately nothing can separate us because we are all drawn, knitted, woven together by the same God. Last week’s moving forgiving witness of the Amish families whose daughters were horrifically slaughtered --- remind us all that our Christian call is one of radical forgiveness. The Amish embrace and forgiveness of the killers family --- remind us of the radical forgiveness we have received through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God joins us together --- sometimes most often in suffering and pain --- and we must not allow our selves to be separated --- we are all being drawn, knit, woven together.
Before I begin to focus on today’s Gospel lesson --- it is important I think for you to know that I am a child of divorced parents and I believe and have believed since that time that somehow God’s hand was in this. When my parents were going through their separation and divorce --- I remember people at our church coming up to me and expressing well-meaning sympathy but at times it felt rather condescending “you poor thing” because for me the divorce offered us all an invitation to something new and hopeful provided room perhaps someday for forgiveness and healing. Even though the marriage was formally over --- ultimately God was still knitting, weaving us all together despite and perhaps as part of the divorce. Each member of our family through the divorce was not just being tied, reconciled to each other but we were being drawn, woven together into God’s wider family.
A gay couple for a number of reasons are leaving the state of Virginia, one of the factors in their decision to leave is that their commitment to one another is given little or no protection or recognition by Virginia law or by their faith community. One of the reasons they have chosen to move is so that they may live in a state and a community where they will be able to find recognition, support, and affirmation for their commitment to one another. I heard recently how difficult this move is for their parents --- especially their mothers, yet despite her own pain and sorrow over her sons move, without the prompting of her son, one of the mothers recently sent an email to the other --- expressing her support for the couple’s commitment --- saying to the other mother “please consider yourself part of our family now.” God is still weaving.
I’m not certain that God’s good news for us today is really about divorce or marriage --- I think that this passage of scripture is about God. About God as knitter, and weaver --- God who draws, ties, knits people together in relationships of trust, fidelity, wholeness and integrity.
If we consider the context of what Jesus is saying – and look closely at what Jesus says and does not say --- we may find that we are all drawn more deeply into the holiness of God and together in reconciliation with each other.
Now, this section of Mark's gospel is part of a longer section --- where Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus is being asked a lot of questions --- he is being tested --- particularly by the Pharisees --- who seem to always be in search of a way to trap Jesus --- to control Jesus and are bound and determined to use lines from the Bible to divide and conquer. Yet as seems to be typical of Jesus --- Jesus says a strong NO when the Bible is used by people to divide or separate. Note that when the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce they do not ask if it is lawful for a woman to divorce her husband--- because according to the law it is not lawful. According to the Hebrew Bible all a husband has to do to divorce his wife is hand her a note, a slip of paper --- a receipt of sorts. Unfortunately, a woman was not given an equal escape route from an unhappy marriage. Some Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus knew this was the case --- and is one of the reasons he does not seem to support the Pharisees defense of divorce -- it is an unfair, imbalanced, unjust system. Since Jesus had women disciples and seems to have broken a number of gender taboos --- Jesus may have been attempting to protect women from exploitation and abandonment. In fact, Jesus says in our passage today that rather than men being above and superior to women --- Jesus says in this passage men and women leave their families to become one flesh. Some Christian Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus is making an argument for gender equality in a time when this was very difficult to imagine or hear. God is still weaving.
So Jesus ignores the specific question about the lawfulness of divorce --- Jesus instead pushes the Pharisees and us back further into the history of God's actions. Jesus pushes us back to the beginning --- he reminds us that God is the creator of all --- and that God is the one who joins people together. Jesus clearly does not favor divorce that leaves women vulnerable to exploitation. In today’s gospel Jesus seems to be frustrated by the desire of the Pharisees to get into a technical argument using the Bible to divide people rather Jesus instead wants to lift up the value of God’s actions in human relationships – so Jesus says strongly therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.
Now --- how were God's actions experienced in Biblical times --- well it would be very different than what we experience. In Jesus' time it was common for families to choose a persons spouse --- individuals had little say on who they married and who they would not marry. Marriage was a significant event in which not just two people are joined together but two families are joined together. As I was preparing for this sermon I was encouraged to pick up a book at the library --- it is called "marriage, a history" in this book you learn of the long history --- really the evolution of marriage throughout human history --- and Christian marriage is certainly not immune from change --- one only needs to look at the political marriages of Europe or the polygamous marriages of some Mormon sects and even Anglicans in parts of Africa today to know that what Christians claim to be true marriage has changed over time. The author of “Marriage, a history” reveals just how little over the years romantic love has had to do with marriage until our contemporary context. Yet God was still weaving.
In Jesus’ day God acted through family members to join people together -- at least that is how it was experienced. Here’s what theologian William Countryman says about marriage in Jesus’ time --- “In the ancient Mediterranean world, women were the property of their fathers. The father was the embodiment of the family; he was not functioning like a modern individual in this role. And his daughters belonged to him, as head of the family. He could given them away in marriage in exchange for desirable family connections, specific commitments, or other goods. At that point, the woman became the property of her husband as a sort of quasi-member of his family. She didn’t truly become a part of that family until her husband died and her son succeeded as head of the household. She was then part of her son’s family. But if she were divorced before that, she was sent back to her family of origin, while her children stayed with their father. They were his offspring, who existed for the benefit of his family.”
So a wedding, a marriage in Jesus’ time was not just for the couple but really more for everyone else --- the family members of the couple and perhaps in many ways today this is still the case. With the gay couple I mentioned earlier --- God is active --- drawing the two together --- and the mother’s support for their commitment and the extension of family ties “please consider yourself part of our family now” reminds us that despite our living thousands of years later, and continents apart in very different contexts--- God continues to draw people together.
In many ways --- as the statement goes God is still speaking --- I’d say that today we are reminded that God is still weaving, God is still knitting people together.
Interestingly the root of the word religion --- is related to the latin word for tie or fasten together. In our prayer book we read that the mission of the church is to reconcile, to draw people together with God and each other. So the words of Jesus “therefore what God has joined together let know one separate” focuses us on God and God’s involvement, God’s drawing together, weaving, fastening human relationships.
Which is one reason why the agony and pain that our culture is going through over gay marriage is so difficult because it is about something very deep and real --- who God joins together. Yet perhaps our focus on the individuals is misplaced --- perhaps our focus when it comes to marriage for anyone should really be on community and extended family -- on mothers who send emails, on fathers who embrace and forgive strangers. Perhaps our culture has become far too obsessed with couples and not concerned enough with community --- with life beyond the marriage of two individuals. There have been times in Christian history when theologians and ministers have warned couples not to love one another too much --- out of fear that they might make an idol out of one another. The poet Rainer Rilke says that lovers must be guardians of the solitude of their partner --- somehow there must be space between them --- space for God, space for growth --- space for change. Perhaps --- our culture may at times love marriage too much --- and in so doing --- make marriage an idol rather than a source of life, hope and community. So God knits us together --- God joins people to one another -- but leaves space --- space for our growth, space for change.
If this were any other sermon --- I might stop right there but God is still knitting and weaving. As many of you know today is my last Sunday at St. John’s Church --- I have been called to serve as Associate Pastor for Outreach, Youth and Young Adults at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. While I am sad that I will be leaving you --- leaving a profound community that knows that God is still weaving and is part of that experience --- a community that is welcoming, connecting, offering hope, community, and healing --- I know that we are drawn together, woven together and that God has joined us together tightly for these two years and is now connecting us with the wider body of Christ through this call to the other side of the continent. I carry with me joy, excitement, and inspiration from my time in this dynamic, creative and gifted sanctuary. I will never forget you --- and the lessons you have taught me. Nor is our journey together over. I know we still have much we can learn from each other, and I hope many of you will visit me in San Francisco. The doors of Grace Cathedral will always be open to you.
My prayer for you is that you will continue to be who you are --- an embassy of God’s Kingdom -- where the abundant gifts God has given you are freely and generously shared for the manifesting of true hope, community, love and peace--- the Good News that God is still weaving us all together in one great tapestry of love.