the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16th, 2020
Today’s readings are:
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Click here to access these readings.
The passage from our gospel reading this morning often makes people a little uncomfortable. In it, we hear about some things that we Episcopalians often don’t want to talk about: general things like sin and Hell, and more specific and human things like divorce. Now, I have some thoughts here on these topics and on this reading, but I feel that it would be improper of me to talk about these readings without talking about divorce. It’s a very touchy subject, and the Christian discussion on divorce is pretty complicated. And so, instead of just breezing by it and talking about what Jesus is getting at here (which is pretty amazing, to tell you the truth), I want to sit for a little and teach a bit about the Episcopal Church.
Many churches – or, at least many that I’ve come into contact with – begin talking about divorce with a prohibition: you can’t get divorced unless this or this occurs. The Episcopal Church begins with a question: “how have you been hurt in the breaking of this marriage?” as well as an offer: “how can we help?” These questions are based on a view that marriage is a sacrament and a sacramental bond, something many folks talk about as a covenant. Marriages are bonds that reach to the same level of a person as confirmation, our adult profession of faith, and holy orders, when some of us give ourselves over to service of God and his Church. They’re not broken lightly. But when marriage is broken, by unchastity and unfaithfulness, it often leaves broken people behind. And the Episcopal Church, and other churches as well, say that such broken people don’t need a prohibition, they need healing. And that is exactly why Jesus Christ was born into this world: to heal and to lift up to God.
Now, of course, this is an Episcopalian talking about all this. I might be missing the nuances of other churches, but I think this turn, from prohibition to healing, is something the Episcopal Church does particularly well, and it’s an important turn to note. For, while Jesus here certainly gives a prohibition, the whole passage is less about making up new laws or furthering old ones; instead Jesus here asks us what is at the foundation of these laws to begin with. Nor is this just an argument between following the letter of the law (what the law actually says) or the spirit of the law (what it means). Jesus is asking what is at the heart of the law. What is at its foundation? What sort of life, what sorts of relationships, is our religion asking us to live?
You see, in Jesus’ time, there were a great many discussions about the Law. And when I say “Law”, I don’t mean the law like you or I would understand it; you know, laws like stop for foot traffic in cross walks, or pay your taxes, or make sure to bring your library books back on time or else. For Jesus’ time, the law was The Law, the Law of Moses, set down and followed, for some in a lax way, for some in a pretty strict way. And, just like today, there were all sorts of people who had lots of opinions about just how we ought to follow the Law. Nor did they think that these opinions on the Law were just for themselves, but they demanded that others live according to their version of the law as well. And they fought about it, they yelled about it, and, as we see in the Book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul, they could even kill about it.
And so Jesus comes and says you’re missing the point. You’re talking about the “what” instead of the “how”, the action instead of the being, the law instead of Life. For Jesus says, yeah, sure there’s this prohibition against murder, but what is this prohibition really about? It’s about living in a very particular way with your neighbor; and not just a kind of “you do your thing and I’ll do mine and we can live nice, happy, separate lives.” No, Jesus says that we have a responsibility to our neighbors, to those around us, be they our brothers and sisters or the guy down the street who we really don’t like and talk about behind his back. For when we curse people, when we cheat people, when we slander people, they’re not just words. We break something with them. We break something precious and dear that, often, can’t be just repaired with an apology. And that thing we break can be a relationship, but it can also be a society, and it is often another person. And if there is any prohibition in the Bible, it is this: that we should not break other people.
Marriage is a sacramental bond. It is an important and it is a holy bond. But, like most things in this sinful world, it can be broken. Nor is divorce the actual breaking point. More often it is the result and, sometimes, the necessary result, when one person betrays that sacramental bond, be that betrayal sexual, emotional, physically abusive, or even spiritual betrayal. Divorce, for some, is actually the time when healing can really begin, when the broken pieces can, at last, begin to be put together. And so, the Episcopal Church teaches that, on one hand, a marriage is a sacrament, a bond that goes to the heart of us, that ought never be broken; but also that, if it ever is, it is much more important to heal than to condemn.
And this may seem, at first, a sort of paradox, or a cheat, that we want things both ways, that we claim marriage to be an indelible bond but that we’re not going to hold people to that standard. I think, however, that our church’s position gets to the heart of what Jesus is saying: when you put people together, you actually put them together, and that’s for marriage as much as it is for living in the same town, or state, or country, or world. We are no collection of individuals all living near one another but never touching; we are one people, and our lives are intertwined and connected. We are bound to one another in the deepest regions of our humanity. And woe be to you if you dishonor that, and not because it’s just bad to do but because when a bond like that breaks, the hurt is real. And that hurt needs the loving hand of Jesus and His Church. That hurt needs love.
And so I want to end this sermon in a different way than usual, and that’s with a specific invitation. It’s my personal feeling that gospel passages like this are better read around a table, with some tea and perhaps a box of tissues, and held in discussion, not a sermon but I didn’t write the lectionary. Jesus often challenges us, and, if I may speak for our Lord for a moment (forgive me, Lord, if I speak incorrectly), I believe that the last thing that Jesus wants to do by challenging us is to make us feel alone. These readings, and my interpretation of them here, may have opened up some hurt from your own marriage or your own divorce. Or, on the other hand, you may disagree with me and think that the Episcopal Church just plain silly on this one. Whatever the case, talk to me. Sit down with me over tea, come by my office, or throw me an email. This isn’t one of those issues that you just hear, go ‘oh yeah, cool’, and forget. Nothing Jesus says ever is. So just know that the invitation is open; I am hear to listen.